STORMCHASERS: A Day in the Life

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Four-year-old Howie Bluestein's first encounter with a tornado was memorable. On June 9, 1953, a twister ripped a path of destruction through Worcester, Massachusetts, 40 miles away from his family's home in Boston. The following year, Hurricane Carol blew the shingles off the roof as the Bluesteins huddled inside the house. And later, when a young Bluestein moved to Miami Beach, Florida, storm cloud watching at the shore became a favorite pastime.

University of Oklahoma meteorology professor Howard Bluestein turned a boyhood fascination with severe weather into a career chasing tornadoes, working to shed scientific light on one of nature's most violent and unpredictable phenomenons.

Bluestein and his team of graduate student "chasers" are featured in the IMAX®/IMAXDome film Stormchasers, produced by MacGillivray Freeman Films. Stormchasers is a production of Museum Film Network and NOVA/WGBH Boston. The 38-minute film is a tale of discovery and natural wonders that will take audiences around the planet to encounter the origins of the planet's most extreme weather.

"To me, the tornado is one of meteorology's last frontiers," Bluestein said. "Tornadoes are very difficult to study because it's so hard to make measurements -- they don't last long, they encompass a small area, and they're difficult to predict."

As a professor of meteorology at University of Oklahoma in Norman, Bluestein is still gazing at the skies, but now searches for rotating wall clouds that may signal a tornado's presence. He estimates he's documented more than 100 twisters since he became a stormchaser in 1976 -- an amazing record, considering these elusive storms put on short, albeit flashy, performances. Perhaps Bluestein's most exciting encounter came on April 26, 1991, when he found himself only one mile from the path of a twister. "This huge tornado blew a house right off its foundation," Bluestein recalled. "The tornado leaped across the road right in front of us. You could see its furious spin. It was very, very clear."

Later, Bluestein discovered he had documented 280 mph winds, making it the first officially-recorded F5 tornado -- the most powerful twister on the Fujita scale (the scale used to gauge a tornado's severity). Until this actual data was obtained, only indirect evidence suggested that tornado winds could whirl that rapidly.

Between 1981 and 1983, Bluestein and his team of graduate students would race ahead of a tornado and place a 400-pound package of instruments in its path, hoping they could outpace danger and measure the storm's inner workings with this Totable Tornado Observatory (or TOTO, after Dorothy's dog in The Wizard of Oz). This method of stormchasing nearly cost Bluestein and his team their lives.

"In 1982, we were behind a fast-moving storm and trying to get ahead of it," Bluestein recalls. "Then we realized if we kept going, we could get hit." As they prepared to turn back, the twister tore across the countryside perilously close to their van. "It destroyed telephone poles and took down trees and a mobile home -- pretty much everything in its path -- except thankfully, us." The following year, Bluestein and other meteorologists shelved TOTO, judging that being in front of tornadoes was much too difficult. Meteorologists now rely heavily on Doppler radar readings, which help pinpoint the tornado's location within the storm system.

"It would be fascinating to actually get inside the tornado and take a look around," said Bluestein. "Since we can't, we try to get close enough to aim our portable radar unit and measure the wind field in and around the tornado. That information helps us to learn more about how twisters form."

Since most tornadoes move with their parent storms, avoiding their paths isn't difficult for Bluestein and his team. Lightning is another matter. One incident in 1991 occurred as Bluestein and his team stood east of a tornado. Just as they were about to set up instruments, several lightning bolts struck the earth out of clear air.

"They were close enough to terrify me," he said. "We were back in the car in a flash."

Bluestein normally chases storms between April and early June, racking up between 5,000 and 10,000 miles each season. His quarry is elusive; he catches up to a tornado on an average of once in nine trips. That often means long days, starting with his 9 a.m. arrival at the University of Oklahoma to analyze weather maps and satellite shots, that conclude when he returns from chasing early the next morning. Even longer hours are called for when he pursues tornadoes in the Texas Panhandle, New Mexico and Kansas, which can take the team nearly 400 miles from home.

As a graduate student at MIT, Bluestein once told a professor that Norman, Oklahoma was the last place on earth he was interested in going. "My vision of Oklahoma was a vast dust bowl," said the city-bred Bluestein. "The truth is that it's somewhere between that and paradise. After 17 years, I'm still here, chasing tornadoes."

(back to Stormchasers Home)

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