Surviving Tornado Alley | At the Smithsonian | Smithsonian

Surviving Tornado Alley

The Natural History Museum's Samuel C. Johnson IMAX presents Tornado Alley, a documentary that seeks to discover the heart of a tornado

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The Natural History Museum’s IMAX film Tornado Alley chronicles the life of a scientist initiative and a film crew on a journey to see the birth of a tornado. Photo courtesy of Sean Casey.

Any other day I would have been thrilled to take time off to go see a movie for work, but the Natural History Museum’IMAX film Tornado Alley had me a little hesitant. I live in the area of northern Georgia that was hit hard by tornadoes in April. Seeing the destruction so close to my hometown was devastating. Driving through the ruins of Ringgold, GA, the town that once held my pre-school, nearly brought me to tears and I did not know how seeing more devastation would affect me.

Luckily for the other viewers in the theater I felt little anxiety, but Tornado Alley did give me goosebumps from start to finish.

Narrated by Bill Paxton, star of the 1996 film Twister, the new IMAX film Tornado Alley chronicles the lives of those who chase storms for either scientific data or cinematic gold. The destination for these storm chasers is Tornado Alley, a group of Midwestern states that stretches from South Dakota down to Texas, where 80 percent of the world’s most violent tornadoes are born.

The first of the storm chasers, Sean Casey, has had a mission for the past eight years: to get inside a tornado and film the perfect shot. This crazy idea banded together with an even crazier vehicle—the TIV-2—couples with the more studious antics of the scientific program called VORTEX 2, the mission for these scientific storm chasers is to make visible the unseen architecture of a tornado. Their goal: to determine which storms produce tornadoes and which do not, so that an earlier and more accurate warning can be provided to those in harm’s way.

I spoke with Casey shortly after watching the film and achieved a better understanding of his motivations for filming Tornado Alley. Casey says he discovered his interest in storm chasing oddly enough, while filming the mating season of migrating red crabs on Christmas Island. He told me in an attempt to avoid island fever, he checked out a book on storm chasing from the local public library and found his passion.

“The first chase I went on I fell instantly head over heels in love with the whole environment, the whole activity of chasing these storms and being very active and always trying to stay with these things, waiting for that magical moment when they would produce these tornadoes,” said Casey. “Every year I got more comfortable with chasing tornadoes and every year I had the desire to get closer so I came up with the idea of building a vehicle that we could actually drive into a tornado. With the TIV we could film action up close in the relative safety of an armored car.”

As the name TIV-2 implies there was once a TIV-1. Made on the frame of an Ford F-450 pickup truck, TIV-1 weighed 15,000 pounds, had a 60-gallon gas tank, bullet proof windows and a top speed of 80 miles-per-hour. But 80 mph was just not fast enough to outrun a tornado. TIV-2 first made its appearance in 2008 weighing in a tiny bit less at 14,000 pounds, with a 92-gallon gas tank, a roof mounted, bullet-proof-glass turret and this vehicle topped out at more than 100 miles-per-hour.  The only thing missing were cup holders and Casey says it was a deliberate act. As the storm chaser explains on the official Tornado Alley Website, less comforts mean that the team is more willing to brave the dangers of driving into a supercell storm to get the perfect shot of a tornado’s beauty and its destructive power.

With the addition of TIV-2 to the team, Casey and crew were ready to set out in search of the one-in-a-million shot of tornado genesis.

“This has been my life for the last eight years. I don’t want to spend time in the field and bring back an ordinary image,” said Casey during the film.

VORTEX 2, on the other hand, is not a one vehicle team. It is the largest tornado research project in history. Deploying more than 40 cars and trucks, V2 sends out mobile weather detecting vehicles, Dopplers on Wheels, storm pods, ariel crafts and more, into the path of oncoming tornadoes hoping to surround the supercell storms in order to document the formation of a tornado.

As a fully nomadic program, V2 has no home base but instead travels from state to state within Tornado Alley following severe weather outbreaks. With a staff of more than 100 researchers and scientists, V2 almost doubled the size of some small towns along their journey. During the filming period V2 witnessed 25 tornadoes and obtained 30 terabytes—or one trillion bytes—of data which is now being processed.

In the film, Don Burgess, chief scientist on one of V2’s mobile radars, is seen climbing into a weather detecting vehicle. “I relish the excitement,” he says with a boyish grin, “and the chance to do this one more time.”

The film has plenty of footage of people waiting. Casey and team wait for the perfect storm to emerge. V2 waits for a blown-out tire to be changed. When the drama finally unfolds as a tornado takes shape, both teams hit the ground sprinting as they venture into the heart of the supercell. The tornado touches down sending 55-gallon oil barrels flying like leaves on a windy day, only to be gone the next minute. The V2 researchers surround the massive supercell hoping to collect the severe weather data that will make this mission a success. Casey and TIV-2 drive into the tornado staring in awe as the massive supercell engulfs the TIV and viewers stare in wonderment into the heart of a tornado. It is amazing, breathtaking and horrific.

“It’s really scary; it’s terrifying you really never know whats going to happen,” Casey told me. “It’s those moments when you lose control and you have a tornado catching you, those are the most terrifying moments. When you decide that you can’t out run it anymore, and you stop and you see trees snapping behind you—those are really the only times in my life when I’ve felt that sensation of death perched on back. That dark pressure just at the base of spine.”

The screen goes dark as the audience is left wondering what happened? The film skips to the aftermath. Homes were ripped apart, trees down all around, families looking devastated at the wreckages that were once their neighborhoods. Children darting through a maze of tree branches. A heart-breaking sight.

“These families were saved because they had enough time to get to safety,” Paxton narrates.

I was shocked. The excitement of the hunt was so quickly destroyed by the severity of the aftermath. Then it all made sense and the entire film was put into perspective. I thought the storm-chasers were crazy, that no sane person would risk his life for the glory of capturing a tornado on film or to collect data instrumental to understanding the power of tornadoes. But these storm-chasers spend years trying to collect data that will take even more time to analyze. V2’s work is pushing meteorological boundaries in hopes of saving lives and Casey is bringing attention to one of the world’s deadliest natural disasters.

“It is a life changing experience,” said Casey. “It’s life in Tornado Alley and its got me.”

Tornado Alley plays at 2:20, 4:15 and 6:10 PM. Admission prices for Members is $6.00, $9.00 for Adults, $8.00 for Seniors and $7.50 for Children.

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