With 10,000 miles tacked onto the odometer each month of severe weather season, Brandon Sullivan, a 23-year-old storm chaser, drives his car across the central United States in search of terrifying weather phenomena.
Yet, it's not so terrifying for him or Reed Timmer anymore. Timmer, a seasoned extreme meteorologist based out of Norman, Oklahoma, grew up with a fear of storms. Sullivan did too, nervously waiting for the end of severe storms and occasional tornadoes in his home state of Illinois.
That once-fear has turned into a career of studying and barreling directly into the heart of a storm.
More than just an adrenaline rush, the storm chasing has true scientific and educational value.
"I think tornadoes are the most beautiful things I've ever seen," Timmer said. "The damage they leave behind is the dark side, but storm chasers try to prevent that."
Through a network of chasers scattered around the areas where severe weather is set to strike, they send out live reports, video and images to the National Weather Service, weather enterprises and on social media.
When streaming live video, both Timmer and Sullivan see their job as a form of entertainment but also a warning system for people in the area. With active social media accounts, a few keystrokes and an image, they can show live updates of a storm and tell nearby residents to seek shelter. Still, Timmer doesn't want people to fear storms irrationally or look at them as something meteorologists don't understand.
Timmer hopes people see storms as a force of nature, not a monster that attacks at night.
"A little respect for these storms goes a long way," he said.
When speaking of past chases, Timmer's tone is intense but contains a hint of childlike awe.
Growing up in Michigan, he used to sneak out of his parent's house in Grand Rapids to chase snow squalls. Once he got his license, he realized he didn't have to wait for the storms to come to him. He'd keep buying cheap cars until he ran them into the ground, exuding their last breaths after pounding away at back roads and whipping across highways to get to a storm.
Now storm chasing is his career, his passion and his way of life.
"I love every second," he said.
A chase starts by painstakingly monitoring potential storms and their paths. Once the chaser has a solid forecast in place, the hunt begins.
Timmer assembles his team, which ranges in size depending on the chase, and prepares the "Dominator," his armored chasing vehicle loaded with technology and filming equipment.
Sullivan often chases solo but will occasionally bring a friend along.
"When the chase is on, we're trying to get in the path of a tornado," Timmer said.
To get there, the chasers typically battle baseball- to softball-sized hail, fierce winds and uneven terrain. The work to find that spot is Sullivan's favorite part of the journey.
"No matter how many times you bust, the anticipation, feeling that you're going to see something amazing, is the best part," he said.
With the storm in their sight, they work to stay safe while working with advanced technology, shooting video and distributing information on social media.
There have been some close-calls along the way. In 2013, Sullivan was in dangerously close proximity to a tornado. A nearby barn started to shred and chunks of wood impaled his car. Two chasers behind him died in their pursuit.
That didn't detract him from continuing to hunt down severe weather, though. In fact, they often find themselves to be the first on the scene after severe storms tear through communities.
"We're usually the first people on the scene," Timmer said. "We'll pull people out of rubble and be applying emergency first-aid. It's another direct benefit."
Though severe season may yield the most high-profile results, both Timmer and Sullivan will chase snowstorms, hurricanes and other weather phenomena. To this day, Timmer has yet to take a vacation not attached to a natural disaster.
Hooked on the rush and expanding knowledge about severe storms, Timmer will certainly never stop chasing.
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