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Tornados: Storm chasers, flirting with disaster

A tornado is the stuff of nightmares. Amid heavy rain and hail, huge thunderclouds roll in and the skies turn greenish-black. And then a rope-like funnel cloud punches down, smashing everything in its path. Tornadoes can be the most violent storms on earth, and Canada averages 80 of them each year. From scientists and storm chasers obsessed with their destructive power to the victims left in a twister's wake, we look at Canada's deadliest tornadoes of the past century.

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When Dennis Dudley sees a storm brewing, he heads straight for it. He's a meteorologist and a member of the Fighting Prairie Weather Dogs, a group of Canadian storm chasers who track down Western Canada's most terrifying big-weather phenomena. In this interview for CBC Radio's Morningside, host Peter Gzowski cuts right to the chase (so to speak): "Wouldn't a smart person be going the other way?" 
. According to their website, the Fighting Prairie Weather Dogs chase severe weather in order to learn more about extreme weather and "to complement their fascination with weather phenomena." They also provide reports to local weather centres and to CANWARN, an organization of volunteer ham radio operators who report severe weather to Environment Canada and confirm images seen on radar and satellite (called "ground-truthing").

. In this clip Dennis Dudley recommends hiding under the girders of highway overpasses as one way to shelter from a tornado. Both Environment Canada and the U.S. National Weather Service dispute this idea, which gained popularity after a television crew shot incredible tornado footage while below a Kansas overpass in 1991. Overpasses can actually concentrate and direct tornado winds, putting people beneath them in even greater jeopardy.

. On May 3, 1999, three people were killed trying to hide under separate overpasses during a U.S. tornado outbreak.
. In this interview, Dennis Dudley praises the 1996 movie Twister, which was playing in theatres at the time. The movie, written by Michael Crichton and Anne-Marie Martin, starred Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton as storm chasers seeking to insert tracking devices in the heart of a massive Oklahoma tornado.

. There is an urban legend that claims that patrons of a Canadian drive-in movie screening of Twister experienced a real tornado while enjoying the film's special effects. According to Snopes.com, the story is inaccurate. A tornado did sweep through Thorold, Ont., on May 20, 1996; a day that Twister was playing at the local drive-in. But that tornado happened in the afternoon, when the facility was empty.

. The first storm chasers were American meteorologists using airplanes in 1948. Pursuing tornadoes by vehicle gained popularity in the 1950s as the number of paved roads expanded. In Canada, the activity began in the late 1970s with the Alberta Hail Project's storm-chase program.

. You can listen to a 1957 report on chasing U.S. tornadoes in our additional clips.
. Storm chasing is now (perhaps ill-advisedly) popular among amateurs hoping to sell video footage to television networks. There is even a growing "guided" storm-chasing tourism industry.

. According to veteran storm chaser Charles A. Doswell III, here some ground rules for storm chasing (if you feel compelled to do so):
- Never chase alone.
- watch out for standing water on roads.
- Avoid chasing in cities.
- Try to avoid speeding, and be careful when pulling over.
- Stick to paved roads; wet dirt roads are too treacherous.
- To avoid the risk of lightning, stay inside the car.
Medium: Radio
Program: Morningside
Broadcast Date: May 13, 1996
Guest(s): Dennis Dudley
Host: Peter Gzowski
Duration: 14:17
Photo credit: George Kourounis Twister: Warner Brothers, Universal Pictures, Amblin Entertainment, Constant c Productions

Last updated: August 21, 2012

Page consulted on September 10, 2014

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