Tornado Chasers

Contributor: Lindsey Congalosi. Lesson ID: 13300

Does extreme weather excite you? Is "Twister" your favorite movie? Would you enjoy studying tornadoes? Get the details on storm chasing here, and start planning your career!


Earth Science, Finding a Career

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Lion, Otter
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8), High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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There are a lot of reasons to avoid a tornado.

First, they suck. Literally, they will suck up anything near them and "throw" it great distances.

Second, tornadoes cause more than 80 deaths and over 1,500 injuries per year. These deaths are caused by lightning, gigantic hail, flying debris, or even the tornado itself.

  • So why would anyone ever purposefully go after a tornado?

storm chaser

Believe it or not, some people work as professional storm chasers for scientific organizations. However, many other storm chasers are amateurs with little or no technical training.

  • Does this sound like an interesting job prospect?

Read on to find out more!

The most famous movie about storm chasing is Twister, released in 1996. In fact, many storm chasers credit the movie with inspiring them to get into storm chasing.

See how excited the storm chasers are to set off in search of a tornado in the movie scene below:

Twister: The Human Barometer posted by Lizzie Devlon:

Image - Video

What do tornado chasers do, other than chase tornadoes?

Tornado chasers can have several different goals. Some do it for the adrenaline rush, while others have the goal of catching a tornado on film. The rest are professional scientists who chase tornadoes to study them and learn how they form and behave. These are the tornado chasers featured in the film Twister.

In the movie, you can see how scientists use tools to study tornadoes. Twister has been praised for its scientific accuracy and for including real scientific tools, including the satellite featured in the movie.


What instruments are used by tornado chasers?

Tornado chasers use many instruments, and several are shown in the movie. Below are a few of the instruments featured in Twister.

(For more science weather instruments, take a look at the Additional Resources found in the right-hand sidebar.) 

GOES-8 Satellite

The official name of the GOES-8 is the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite. You can probably see why they shortened the name.

Here is an artist's depiction of GOES-8:

GOES-8 satellite

Image by NOAA NASA and SS Loral, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Like other satellites, the GOES-8 was launched into Earth's atmosphere (not outer space). It weighed 4,641 pounds and was located roughly 36,000 km from Earth's surface.

It was used to monitor weather conditions from high above Earth's surface until it was retired in 2003 and replaced with the GOES-12.

This is the first image ever returned by GOES-8 on May 9, 1994:

first visible GOES-8 image

Image by NASA-Goddard Space Flight Center, data from NOAA GOES, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Doppler Radar

Doppler radar, or simply Doppler, is a method of observing the weather that is happening in our atmosphere. You can see the current Doppler Radar National Mosaic for the continental United States courtesy of the National Weather Service.

Doppler radar is named after the Doppler effect, which describes how things look and sound differently based on how they are moving.

Doppler effect graphic

Basically, a radio wave is sent out. When it hits something, like storms or rain clouds, it bounces back. Scientists can tell how the storm is moving based on how the radar is received when it returns.

Watch How does Doppler radar work from Hassan Shabbir:

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Dorothy is the name of the pod-like structure used throughout the Twister film. See it explained in this Dorothy clip:

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Although Dorothy never actually existed, it was modeled after a real project called TOTO, or the TOtable TOrnado Observatory, that ran from 1981-1984.

TOTO was essentially the same as Dorothy - a large barrel filled with weather tools to record data inside the tornado. Unlike Dorothy, these tools were not meant to fly into the sky but to stay in the barrel.

Several groups attempted to place TOTO in the line of a tornado, switch on the scientific instruments, and quickly leave. Unfortunately, the plan never worked. The closest it got was in 1984 when TOTO was sideswiped by a tornado and knocked to the ground. It was retired shortly after.

Move on to the Got It? section to play some tornado-related games. Don't worry, it's not Twister!

friends playing Twister

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