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Preparing for nature's wildest chase: How extreme meteorologists gear up for a tornado outbreak

Over the course of his career, AccuWeather Extreme Meteorologist and Storm Chaser Reed Timmer has witnessed up close some of the most chaotic and extreme severe weather events in history. Yet every time he embarks on another quest, he finds himself experiencing the unexpected.

In the past year, he's been front and center for some of the most notable storms including the historic South Carolina flooding during October 2015, the blizzard that forced travel shutdowns in the nation's capital in January 2016 and the Wray, Colorado, tornado earlier this month.

However, the spring season is typically the busiest time of year for storm chasers across the country, with many spending countless hours navigating Tornado Alley and coming perilously close to one of Mother Nature's most potent forces. Knowing the potential dangers that lie ahead, preparation before any chase is key, and finding the right balance of equipment can differ for every chaser.

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Timmer, 36, prioritizes mobility and efficiency before beginning his chase. He said he can fit his camera and live streaming equipment into one backpack along with a change of clothes and that's all he will need. For major hurricanes and blizzards, or any long-duration storm where he spends a lot of time on foot, Timmer will always bring survival gear.

Compared to other chasers, Timmer said he considers himself a minimalist in terms of equipment and access to weather data.

"I feel like a storm chaser can get bogged down with the mobile data availability and new technologies out there and forget that 99 percent of chasing is simply watching the sky," he said. "As long as my vehicle can roll down the road, I'm good to go out there."

Timmer said in past years, including 2003, 2004, 2007 and 2011, he would chase seven days a week if necessary. Nowadays, finding time to rest and exercise between systems takes precedent so he can be refreshed and ready to get back on the road.

"It is very important to stay healthy in between storm systems, because the chasing diet features gas station burritos and 44-ounce Cokes and a lot of driving," he said.

Early in the season, Timmer said he will launch trial chases so whenever he's in the middle of a real event, he doesn't have to do much thinking and can execute his strategy instinctively.

For AccuWeather Meteorologist and Lead Modeling Analyst Brandon Sullivan, 24, it's quite common to be chasing four days in a row, traveling from state to state and staying in different hotels.

"[Storm chasing has] definitely put on a lot of miles and you can stay really busy and be gone from home for quite awhile," he said.

On May 31, 2013, Sullivan and a couple colleagues had a close call after their vehicle was caught in the outer circulation of the notorious El Reno, Oklahoma, tornado. The twister tossed debris from a nearby barn at the car, damaging the vehicle, but they were able to escape.

Sullivan, who began chasing back in 2007, called it the craziest chase he ever experienced. Whenever he goes out into the field now, Sullivan makes sure his burly Toyota 4Runner has the proper maintenance so it doesn't break down in a dire situation.

Besides cameras and GPS navigation, inside his vehicle is a mounted laptop with high-resolution radar data so he can pinpoint precisely where to find a developing storm.

While Timmer has come extraordinarily close to tornadoes on some occasions, he said there was never a time when he felt like he was in immediate danger with no escape route. However, there was one challenging intercept from June 17, 2009, that he recalled.

While riding in his Dominator I vehicle, an initially weak and slow-moving tornado intensified while he and fellow chasers were inside and anchored to the ground. Their automatic window armor system had not yet been installed when a suction vortex ripped around the backside of the intensifying tornado west of Aurora, Nebraska.

The driver's side window was blown out, but the crew escaped further danger. They also managed to record a valuable scientific data set including vertical wind data measured by mobile radar and horizontal winds at the surface through an on-board anemometer.

"Chasing tornadoes from close range is certainly a science that has to be learned over years and years of experience, and certainly should not be attempted by anyone since they can be deadly with even one small miscalculation," Timmer said.

Sullivan learned a lot about storm structure when he made his first trip to the Plains during a significant outbreak in May 2008. However, he never got close enough to get a good angle or footage as he only saw tornadoes from a distance. That's changed with years of forecasting training and chasing now under his belt.

For people who are curious about going on a storm chase, he said they should ride with an experienced veteran or sign up for a professional tour.

"I definitely think it's good to go out there with somebody that's experienced," Sullivan said. "It's just increasingly dangerous, there's so many hazards to look out for."

While tracking monster supercell formations and other extreme weather phenomena never ceases to amaze Timmer, the number one priority remains protecting the public that sits in harm's way.

"The damage and loss of life and property that these storms leave behind continues to be the dark side of storm chasing, and also what we are trying to mitigate by reporting live from these storms and increasing severe weather awareness," Timmer said.


Have questions, comments, or a story to share? Email Kevin Byrne at Kevin.Byrne@accuweather.com, follow him on Twitter at @Accu_Kevin. Follow us @breakingweather, or on Facebook