Relishing in blissful freedom from papers, projects, and exams, most students will be sleeping in on the first morning of summer break in May. Meanwhile, sophomore Jacob Asherman and two experienced atmospheric scientists will be scanning the day’s weather data as the sun peeks up over the horizon.
With their camera equipment and laptops in tow, the three-man team will hit the pavement, traveling in the direction of the day’s most promising storm.
For the atmospheric science major, the semester’s closing marks not only the end of the school year but, the beginning of his second chasing season. Asherman, a part of the storm chasing group Extreme Inflow Media and a San Diego native, will take advantage of the season’s three remaining weeks to pursue a group of large thunderstorms, known as, mesoscale convective weather systems, which develop across the plains.
Asherman has not always shared the admiration for the storms he so frequently chases today. In fact, the enthusiasm he exhibits presently actually began as a childhood fear.
“Originally, I was terrified of tornadoes," Asherman said. "It's scary, the sirens go off and they're destructive. I think my terror eventually just turned into fascination and from there I became obsessed."
He has had aspirations of becoming a storm chaser since elementary school, but Asherman’s first foray into the world of storm chasing began during his senior year in high school.
“I started going out locally and looking at storms and kind of trying to see what I was reading about in textbooks and online,” he said.
Asherman’s aspirations were realized during his first year at the University when he was introduced to Taylor Wright, a mechanical engineering major and senior at the time with years of chasing experience. The two connected through the school’s chapter of the American Meteorological Society, after which Wright took Asherman under his wing and the two began chasing together.
“[Jacob is] passionate, laid back and intelligent," Wright said. "He once made a last minute navigating decision that allowed us to barely avoid getting hit by a possible tornado, and instead, we got to watch it a couple hundred yards away in the field next to us."
Following his partner’s graduation and departure, Asherman began chasing alongside retired combat veteran James Wilson, and Kansas City Star freelance photographer and videographer Brian Davidson, whose streams, which Asherman has occasionally appeared in, have been broadcasted live on the Weather Channel.
Tapped to be the team’s wheelman for the day, Asherman saw his first tornado on a chase in Eva, Oklahoma, in April of last year. Their chase was pulled short, however, after a sudden mishap, which caused him to lose control of their van.
“Shortly after that I put us in a ditch,” he said. “We were stuck and AAA wouldn't get us for a long time so we were sitting there and night came, and storms started to rotate around us, so we were fiercely looking around trying to see if there was a tornado developing right next to us.”
Fortunately for the crew, no such tornadoes developed and they were rescued shortly after. An inoperable chase vehicle, however, is just one example of the many dangers that Asherman and crew must account for during a chase.
Other less-innocuous threats include lightning, hail, flooding and the storm itself. However, the deadliest threat, Asherman said, is driving.
He referenced three chasers that suffered fatal injuries in an auto accident while chasing on March 28.
“When you drive that much, you put stress on your car [and] you get tired, so you are increasing your risk factors for an accident,” Asherman said.
Yet another hazardous element for chasers are nighttime tornadoes. Spawning from strong winds low in the atmosphere, these storms are particularly dangerous as there is no light to illuminate them as they move. This forces chasers to rely on lightning and power flashes to reveal a storm’s location. Asherman and his crew experienced the threat firsthand during a nighttime chase in Eureka.
“We'd heard a report of a tornado but we couldn't see anything,” Asherman said. “We started to drive into town and we noticed the wind shift, which is never a good sign. Ten seconds later the sirens go off, we look behind us and there are power flashes about 200 to 300 yards away, so we got out of town.”
Aside from capturing storms on film, chasers often pick up where radars leave off, helping to track a storm’s movement and warn communities in its path. In this particular instance, Asherman recalled that the town’s sirens had not been sounded until the tornado had already begun doing damage. Unfortunately for the town of Eureka, the lack of light prevented Asherman and his team from being able to track the storm’s location and warn the community.
“When we see severe weather we feel obligated to report it," Asherman said. "So, if we see a tornado on the ground, we'll call the National Weather Service’s office and let them know, and give them some ground truth as to what's going on."
Though alerting communities of an approaching storm is a role he feels obligated to fill, it is not the sole factor driving Jacob’s desire to chase.
“Storm chasing to me is all about getting out there,” Asherman said. “It's such a humbling experience, just witnessing the power of nature in all of its glory.”
While chasing may occupy much of his time, mind and effort during the spring and summer, Jacob is still a student and must balance his hunt for storms with his quest for meteorology degree. In order to succeed in his increasingly difficult courses, he has had to find ways to maintain the balance.
“I've met a lot of people I never would have without it,” he said. “I think chasing has given me a lot more appreciation for the power of meteorology and because meteorology is a hard science and seeing all of this cool weather has been like ‘OK, these classes might be hard but this is what I'm working towards, to better understand this.’ So, I would say it certainly helps my resolve.”
The unique experience of storm chasing has provided Asherman with has not only made him a better student and individual but will undoubtedly aid him in his quest to become a meteorologist.
“There's no better way to learn ... than getting to experience the storms firsthand,” Wright said. “I hope I helped spark a passion that Jacob will enjoy for the rest of his life.”
“Chasing has done a lot for me as a person," Asherman said. "It's introduced me to so many great new friends, taken me places I'd never thought I'd have seen, and it's a great way to get away from daily life. When you're standing there watching a massive supercell develop in front of you, there's no feeling quite like it.”
— Edited by Casey Brown