June 20, 2011, Bradshaw, Nebraska Tornado
Mike Hollingshead sits in his car, ominous gray cloud looming overhead, while a tornado tears towards the highway. Small trees are being sucked up into the vortex of the funnel like they’re no more than matchsticks. Winds are whipping up at a startling rate, and the tornado seems to be moving fast in this direction – appearing even closer than it actually is. This situation would be enough to strike fear into the hearts of most, yet for storm chasers it’s all in a day’s work – and just some of what they go through on a regular basis. We spoke to Mike Hollingshead, who has his own fantastic website, about what life chasing tornadoes is like.
Most of the images shown here of a tornado forming were taken on June 20, 2011, in Bradshaw, Nebraska. We asked Mike Hollingshead if he knew in advance that this location would give such great shots of the twister and how he came across it.
“Actually at the time I did not expect there to even be a tornado before it crossed the highway and my location,” he reveals. “Then it formed fairly unexpectedly and I really never had much time to figure anything.”
“I guess pretty much that if you are close, almost any tornado can give amazing results,” Hollingshead goes on to say. “It’s pretty crazy when you see a video shot from afar of a small tornado you saw closer, and just how much crazier the tornado looked from your closer perspective.”
“And the other way around when someone else was closer,” Hollingshead explains. “If this tornado was in the form it was in 10 minutes after it crossed the highway when it crossed the highway, it would have been beyond amazing and made what I got of it look lame.”
A wonder to think that this tornado looked any more dramatic than it does in these images.
“Because really, there wasn’t much to that tornado as it crossed near me,” adds Hollingshead, to our surprise – underlining the different perceptions a storm chaser and your average Joe would have of the violent, rotating column of air. “I think any time you are pretty close they will look kind of amazing.”
Well, maybe our perceptions aren’t so different after all.
We wanted an insight into the way a storm chaser goes about his work and wondered how Hollingshead came to chase this particular storm. Patience seems to be the watchword.
“This area was the last area to fire, and the stuff already in progress was too far away,” he tells us. “A dryline [the boundary separating a mass of hot, dry air from warm, moist air] will often have a bulge to it somewhere. The tip of that arcing dryline bulge will usually fire off storms. I kept waiting on those to happen, while reachable but further-away tornadic storms (1-2 hours away) were ongoing.”
“Not because I thought mine would be better, if it ever even fired/formed,” Hollingshead hastens to add. “But I would have had to count on the idea that the 1-2 hour-away ones would stay good. If I drove for those I’d risk them becoming less favorable storms by the time I reached them, and then my original area possibly firing off good storms now that I was1-2 hours from that area.”
“So I decided to chase this one mostly on those reasons,” Hollingshead surmises, giving the impression that chasing storm is like a game of chance where you’re constantly weighing up the odds.
“Also there were a group of storms that fired in the general area I was waiting on. I picked the easternmost one in a mostly east to west arc of them, because the ones to its west would be ingesting its rain-cooled air and more or less dying eventually. Meanwhile, the easternmost one there would have clean, unstable inflow air.”
Though storm chasers might try to tell you different – downplaying the courage they show in the field – you clearly need nerves of steel to do what they do. Yet even the best have their moments of panic, and danger is never fully out the picture. We asked Hollingshead about the element of risk he experienced.
“When you have clear visibility it’s never really dangerous or nerve-racking,” he reveals. “The things that make it so are either times you can’t see a tornado in the rain or else simply chaser numbers on the road – as well as storm speeds. This day the storms were moving fast and that was nerve-racking. Also muddy-type roads can make it annoying.”
“At first on this group of storms it was nerve-racking because of the rain falling ahead of the storm base itself,” continues Hollingshead on the subject of this tornado’s fear factor. “You were always sitting in rain waiting for a better view. But then the base that produced this tornado just quickly made a tornado with a highly clear view of everything.”
“Not long after the tornado formed you could see it was intense even if it was small,” Hollingshead goes on – and the picture he then paints is stirring testament to the raw power of twisters:
“You could make out some trees being jetted up into the air at high speeds. The cone aloft is much bigger than the ground contact and sometimes the ground contact area trails it a bit when a storm is moving fast. So it seemed like that tornado was even closer the whole time it moved north towards me.”
“For the first part of sitting there you aren’t sure it won’t move right through your location,” continues Hollingshead on what sounds to us more and more like the proverbial game of cat-and-mouse. “That can be exciting – not knowing – plus not knowing how quickly it will widen too. It sort of lost its condensation all the way to the ground as it was crossing the highway though.”
We were keen to know what kind of emotions were going through this storm chaser’s mind – but his answer? That of a veteran – and a multitasking one at that:
“I don’t know, there really aren’t that many [emotions] to even explain after you’ve done it a while,” he says. “Just simply cool, amazing sights sometimes. I’m not sure how to explain any emotions when it’s just simply something amazing to watch happen. Trying to shoot video, shoot stills, navigate and drive all by yourself keeps you really busy too. It’s probably more of documenting the experience than even experiencing the experience itself.”
When you observe how close storm chasers get to tornadoes it seems incredible – to the casual observer, at least – that they stay safe. We asked Hollingshead about how they manage to do so.
“It seems the smaller they are the less likely you are to be hit while trying not to be hit,” he explains, offering a fascinating insight into the way twisters move: “They can veer some but often that’s predictable because most of the time tornadoes will take a track that turns to their left later in their life. Otherwise they go highly straight, especially with storms that are moving quickly.”
“Sometimes slow-moving storms can “fling” a tornado in its later stages as cold outflow air shoves it this way or that way,” Hollingshead says, further enlightening us on the movement patterns of these volatile storms:
“Even that can usually be assumed though – the direction in which it will happen. The other thing tornadoes will do is make short left loops. Sometimes you can see a tornado going left to right as it moves towards you, and you look at the storm and know it’s just “centering itself” under the bigger area of rotation aloft. It will then hold up that motion and go straight again.”
“The times that suck is when you let yourself get fairly close, then all at once rain wraps around the storm and obscures the tornado completely from you,” says Hollingshead. “You know it is in the rain still and was close last time you saw it, but now you can’t even see it. I’ve had that happen before, then at the same moment started to hear the tornado. Those are highly unenjoyable moments.”
Unenjoyable? Words like “frightening” don’t seem to be part of this man’s vocabulary.
“Most will say don’t even put yourself in the tornado’s path to begin with,” Hollingshead says of the risks involved. “The problem is that the location to [be at when chasing] a storm is where the storm structure and tornado visibility will be the best, nine times out of 10.”
To our surprise, we learn that most tornadoes in the Great Plains don’t cause as many casualties as we might have suspected.
“There were a lot of tornadoes this day, an outbreak day actually,” explains Hollingshead. “Forty-six tornado reports, but many are duplicate reports of the same tornadoes. I don’t believe there were any injuries. That is the norm in the plains.”
Hollingshead has been chasing storms for well over a decade, and yet on only one occasion has he witnessed a tornado that caused fatalities.
“I’ve chased since 1999 and only once, in 2009, did I see a tornado that took the lives of anyone,” he tells us. “With this tornado [the one pictured so far in this article] it at least damaged a silo, as you could see it get flung across the highway down there, then go back the other way across the highway, pulled in behind the tornado. I don’t know about much else in terms of damage that day. It also derailed some train cars before it got to my location.”
May 24, 2004, Kansas Tornado
We had to ask the man why he does what he does, as it seems such an unusual – not to mention potentially hazardous – calling. “I hate this question,” he answers, laughing. “Why do people watch fireworks? Just because you like to watch them; they are amazing at times.”
Perhaps surprisingly, we learned that the storm itself is not the biggest danger to a storm chaser. What is then? Hollingshead is in no doubt:
“Driving. The most danger stems from driving to and from chase targets. Storms just aren’t that dangerous. Hail and lightning can be avoided by staying in the car, unless that lightning really, really wants you. Sure, hail can break through windshields but it’s doubtful that it will then kill you in there.”
June 21, 2009, Central Iowa Funnel
“Wind is really not an issue if one doesn’t park near big trees,” continues Hollingshead on the topic of danger. “What’s more, tornadoes are hard to even find – and it’s even harder to drive into them, even for those out there trying to do just that. Some driver plowing into you on your way there or home is easily the biggest threat.”
How terrified would most of us be if we were ever caught within reach of a tornado or in the clutches of a massive storm? Well, once again the difference between storm chasers and the rest of us was highlighted when we asked Hollingshead about his scariest moments. Notably, his first had nothing to do with tornadoes.
January 28, 2009, After Northwest Arkansas Ice Storm
“I was driving down to the ice storm area in northwest Arkansas the day after [an ice storm] and span off the road at 75mph,” recalls Hollingshead of his most frightening experience. “It was blue skies, the day after the storm, and the road was dry the whole way down, till – bam! – unbeknownst to me, it had invisible ice on it.
“No one on the planet would knowingly do even 40mph on that icy surface, let alone 5mph over the 70mph speed limit. I’d just passed a lady doing 70, got around her, and then the back end of the vehicle came around like I was on butter. It was such a shock to the brain because I had zero clue that the road still had ice on it. Then you slide sideways down the road that fast and enter the grass sideways and for sure you are going to start flipping bad. The whole stretch just past there ended up having tons of cars off the road, and some flipped.”
May 13, 2009, Kirksville, Missouri Tornado
Yet, the black ice scare notwithstanding, Hollingshead’s second most frightening moment was most definitely tornado-related.
“That [the tornado pictured here] would probably be the second [scariest experience],” he reveals. “A large tornado neared Kirksville, MO, and vanished in the rain pretty close to me. I then had a city of stoplights and evening traffic to not be able to escape through. The edge of the tornado hit the buildings across the street from the building I’d been parked at. I left as soon as I lost it in the rain and was sure at the time it was going to follow me into the city and stoplights.”
Sometimes, it seems, even the chaser gets chased.
May 24, 2004, Kansas Tornado
We’d like to express our sincerest thanks to Mike Hollingshead for sharing his incredible experiences and images with us. There is so much more at his website, though, and the photography of all kinds of extreme whether phenomena there is out of this world. Check it out here. He also has a video of 2011 chase highlights which you can purchase.