In many ways, we’ve all become storm-battered this past year. While we may have stood watching the gathering clouds and darkening skies with awe in the beginning, we’ve since hunkered down and waited for the medical and political storms of 2020 to lift and reveal brighter days ahead. The last thing we want to do is chase more storms…unless they’re of the meteorological variety.
The 2021 storm chasing group left on May 19 this year and documented their two-week adventure on Twitter @BSUchaseclass. Their group reported amazing tornado sightings and storm patterns across the plains region, including this Tornado in Kansas. Their successes were also documented by several local and regional news outlets.
Storm Chasing Field Experiences Resume after Covid Hiatus
Since 2007, Department of Geography and Meteorology Professor Dave Call and his team of students have been chasing storms every summer in the six-credit METC 490/590: Field Observation of Severe Local Storms. They’ve collectively traveled over 110,000 miles across the Midwest, north to Great Falls, Montana, and south as far as the Rio Grande River. Their route and schedule for each of their 16 trips has followed the whims of Mother Nature, zigzagging across eleven states on average.
COVID-19 cancelled the 2020 trip, but, in April, Dr. Call felt optimistic that the 2021 tour would happen as planned. “This may be the only field experience happening this summer,” says Call, “and we’ll take all the necessary precautions. But, learning in the field is so important. It’s a growth opportunity where students really connect to the discipline and gain confidence and experience that just cannot be replicated in the classroom alone.”
The students who participate in the storm chasing field experience typically pursue careers in television, the National Weather Service, or emergency management—all of which rely upon recognizing and responding to data in making predictions and anticipating how to respond to disasters. That’s exactly what Drs. Dave Call and Reuben Allen know this field experience will build as they practice forecasting supercell storms and tornadoes.
Many students participate in this trip after their second year at Ball State, and Dr. Call notes how formative it can be in their personal development, beyond even learning the meteorological instruments. He explains:
“For some students, this trip is their first chance to manage their food, sleep, independence, and book hotel rooms on their own. After eating fast food for a week and a half, they start to understand why I order salads,” he laughs. “They’ve never been to the places we go, even if they’re well-traveled, so they’re navigating and learning to function in new environments and be flexible.”
Ben Waggoner, a current Ball State senior who participated in the 2019 field experience notes:
“The storm chasing class was a life changing experience. Getting to be able to track and experience severe storms as a group of students. I have learned so much more about severe weather than what I would in a classroom setting. The experience is more than just severe weather, I enjoyed nearly every second of the two-week trip—severe weather or not—getting to see new places that I would not get to see otherwise. If I could, I would take the class again!”
Dr. Call notes that there are misconceptions about storm chasing, and that it’s not as easy as it appears in the movies or on television. Instead of chasing tornadoes, the group is seeking out decent storm structure, and tornadoes are just a bonus. “Tornadoes are so random, and you have to be in the exact right spot at the right time. Obstacles are often in the way, or you just miss them by a tick,” he says.
Sneaking into the Tourney and Winning the Championship
Dr. Call recalls the field experience of June 2015 as his most memorable storm chase to-date. On a Wednesday, the group was chasing in Wyoming and had had little good luck so far on the trip. When darkness fell, the team stopped for dinner at Arby’s and ran into a professor from another university who chatted about heading to Nebraska, where they all anticipated seeing the next big action. But, when the Ball State team tried to find rooms, everything was booked in Nebraska. So, they headed to Denver, Colorado instead. “There’s a quirk called the Denver Cyclone,” says Call, “where storms come through the Palmer Divide and Denver cyclone, and we just, by luck, happened to be there—so many tornadoes we lost count. Nebraska looked ideal, but because of not finding hotel rooms, we had a glorious day. Like just barely sneaking into the tourney and then winning the championship!”
He notes that the Denver experience was unusual: “I have plenty of stories of failure too. I could do a tale of woe. And we’ve had some moments that were bad—cracked a windshield or two.”
“For me, a successful trip is where I just become the driver,” says Call. “The students take over and direct me to drive the van where they want to go. It happens in about the first two weeks. They learn to read the radar, reading maps, the nuts and bolts of chase decisions. It’s highly gratifying to get to the point where they don’t need me, like a parent seeing their kid grow.”