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The science
Tornado chasing an increasingly popular leisure activity

They're out there again, hundreds and hundreds of them. It's a passion, they'll tell you. A rush of adrenaline. The thrill of the hunt.

This tantalizing and captivating pastime has become increasingly popular for adventuresome folks with leisure time, and full gas tanks, in the spring and summer.

It's storm chasing. In particular, tornado chasing.

And let's face it: Who among us is not intrigued by this magnetic, massive, mischievous and malevolent piece of Mother Nature?

This year, and every year, there will be more storm chasers cruising the back roads of Mid-America than actual tornadoes tearing up the countryside. Storm Track, an Internet site, lists 149 professed storm chasers for the Great Plains alone. And this number does not include the thousands of casual observers in Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas who hop in their vehicles any time a low-hanging cumulus cloud rolls over the horizon.

Of the 149 listed, only four reside in Nebraska. One of them, Corey Mead of the National Weather Service in Valley, once saw 10 tornadoes in one day when he was working at the NWS office in Midland, Texas. Last year, in only five "chases" in eastern Nebraska and southwest Iowa, he saw two twisters.

"Quite honestly, Nebraska is about as good a place as any to chase tornadoes," said Mead, a native South Dakotan who's also worked at the NWS office in Jackson, Miss. "Down in Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle, you can get traffic jams of chasers."

For interested weather watchers, there is a Nebraska Storm Chaser Page on the Internet. It includes lots of information, including the short-term severe weather outlook, and lots of other storm chaser links. It also has a feature where you can seek out storm chasers living close to you -- titled "Chase Partner Search."

People of various professions all over the Midwest, not just meteorologists, are forming weather-watching groups and clubs -- there's the Michigan Storm Intercept Team, the Northeast Ohio Storm Chasers, the Panhandle (Texas) Storm Chasers Association, the Young and Future Storm Chasers Club and -- in a title longer than a funnel -- the Doppler Laser Fast Action First Alert Storm Tracker Severe Weather Team.

Jason Persoff, M.D., of Virginia has a Web site, "How to Become a Storm Chaser." It includes chapters titled "How to Get Started" and "The Exhilaration of the Chase.

There are even some professional storm chasers who are now offering guided "adventure" tours -- much like safaris in Africa -- for those wanting to see a tornado. These are appropriately named Whirlwind Tours, Silver Lining Tours and Cloud 9 Tours. Of course, there are no guarantees.

A couple years back, a Japanese man fulfilled his lifelong dream in the United States -- not standing atop the Empire State Building, not taking a helicopter down into the Grand Canyon and not snorkeling with sharks off the California coast -- but seeing a real-life tornado.

Mead and fellow storm watcher Jeff Jensen, a meteorologist for WOWT-Channel 6 in Omaha, agreed that the movie "Twister" ignited the most recent surge in storm chasers.

"The advent of the video camera really got people going," Jensen said. "Most of the video you see on TV is from amateurs."

Jensen and Mead are testimonials to storm chasing odds. Jensen has never seen a "live" tornado and Mead has seen "15 or 20," even though they've both put in hundreds of hours on the road.

Jensen will spend a week of vacation in late May or early June seeking tornadoes in western and Central Nebraska. He said it could be an active severe weather year, partly because La Niña is nearing an end. Last year, there were 102 confirmed tornadoes in Nebraska, the most in recorded weather history.

Another year like that and Nebraska will be crawling with chasers.

Pete Letheby is associate editor for The Independent. He can be reached by e-mail at pete.letheby@theindependent.com