Tornadoes with winds of 200 mph that pulverize everything they come across. Monsoon storms with towering winds that can hurl biblical hail. On some level, this generation of storm hunters—raised on the movie Twister— knew exactly what they were getting into. But what about the greater existential threat of climate changes? This was a new concept.
That won’t stop you from doing your best A field that has been dominated by men for many years, a group of women photographers is emerging as crucial witnesses to suddenly terrifying uncertainties. Some are artists, their portfolios a visual knowledge bank of nature’s immense power. Others adopt a more scientific approach. “On my team, we all bring different skills to the table,” says biologist and storm chaser Tracie Seimon, PhD, who’s been working with several photographers, including Jennifer Brindley Ubl (featured below), to unlock some stubborn mysteries of violent tornadoes. Her colleagues oversee ground logistics and shoot storms from tactical angles. Seimon converts the footage onto usable data for surface-level wind farms, where tornadoes can have the most devastating effects. “It’s a dynamic and creative approach to research,” she says.
There’s even an official group now: Girls who chase, founded by storm photographer Jennifer Walton, who’s working to bring visibility and opportunities to women in the field. “Female storm chasers have had to work three times as hard as male chasers for the same accomplishments,” she says. “There are more of us than you realize, and we’re very good at what we do.”
These are some of the most important job skills. A keen sense of shift helps too—small shifts like when the air turns pre-lightning electric; large shifts like when weather starts to behave differently altogether. This is what all storm chasers need to know. CosmoInterviewees agree that this is a growing concern.
Decades of storm data now support what experienced chasers have been seeing: Tornadoes—historically a threat to Texas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas, and South Dakota—are occurring more often outside the central plains. And severe weather events may be growing more frequent beyond the warmer months of “storm season”—two factors that could dramatically drive up disaster risk.
The shocking December tornado outbreak that took the lives of more than 90 people across 5 states last year may have been a tragic anomaly—or it may be a flashing warning light about our increasing climate crisis. These women will know when the winds change.
“Storm photography is my full-time job. Every day, I’m looking at data patterns. I go where the storms are.
The largest supercell [a violent thunderstorm with a rotating air mass inside it]The closest I saw this was in 2019, near Imperial, Nebraska. I was in the notch, which is where air is sucked up by the storm’s current. It’s the most dangerous place you can stand. The wind howled; I stayed there as long as I could, before I had to leave to get to safety. I didn’t know that such a storm could be possible on the northern High Plains.
Some data suggests that storm intensity increases with warmer climates. And I’ve personally witnessed what appears to be an eastward shift in devastating storms, from Tornado Alley [in the middle of the country]To the densely populated Southeast Coast and Gulf Coast states, as well as towards the northern High Plains or upper Midwest.
Reporting to the National Weather Service or local EMS agencies is an important part of what I do. I call in things like hailstone size and strong winds. The quicker agencies get ground truth from storm spotters, they can issue warnings faster. Helping to inform and warn the public has become a far more critical component of how I pursue and document storms.”
“The El Reno, Oklahoma, tornado on May 31, 2013, was 2.6 miles wide. My team and I were there, and still it’s hard to wrap your brain around a tornado that big—the biggest on record. It was also the first storm chaser fatality. That day, we lost many friends and heroes.
In the past 10 years, we’ve had the fastest tornado on record too: Pilger, Nebraska, on June 16, 2014, with a peak forward motion of 94.6 mph. We’re not sure yet if that’s a representation of climate change.
Sometimes, we seem to have more questions than we have answers. What is it that drives and sustains tornadoes, especially those of a violent nature? How fast can the wind blow? Can we predict tornadoes more accurately?
The three-vehicle team surrounds the tornado and captures footage using high-resolution video cameras. That’s then analyzed to determine details like the forward motion of objects and debris. We’ve been able to learn more this way and about hail characteristics and lightning. We’re also crowdsourcing footage from storm chasers around the world. You don’t have to be a scientist to contribute meaningfully to the research. That’s pretty cool.”
Lori Grace Bailey
“Southern Arizona is known for its monsoon storms, which can spawn some of the most prolific lightning in the U.S. There’s nothing like being out there by yourself taking in the monstrosity of a storm. To feel its energy raging toward you; to be standing in 110-degree heat when the storm’s outward wind flow drops the temperature to 75 degrees in mere minutes.
Although monsoons don’t produce tornadoes like the ones that do, they can be just about as destructive. Flash flooding is one of the biggest threats. Recent forest fires in Southwest may have created even greater flooding risks due to the burn scars that they left behind. Massive amounts of black charcoal rise to the surface when it rains. [Charred surfaces keep rain from absorbing and are unstable, raising landslide risk.]
I’m doing everything I can to understand weather’s dynamics in our changing climate. I’ve always been a creature of the desert. You are able to appreciate the coyotes and rattlesnakes as well as the spiders. You learn to appreciate how precious life is.”
“I’ll never forget the supercell I witnessed on July 6, 2021, a few miles north of New Underwood, South Dakota. This area was not in the zone that would be subject to severe weather on that day. The storm formed from what we call impossible circumstances. It was beautiful, lasting about three hours, and moving slowly over the farmland. However, I was also like, What if it had been in a different place? How can you prepare people for this?
There are nine Native American reservations in South Dakota. Recovery times for disasters are slower for marginalized communities, and can be even slower for reservations because many people don’t have insurance to cover the damages. Fixing the system will take time—time many vulnerable areas don’t have.
My job has allowed for me to be more connected to the people around me. There aren’t a lot of Latina storm chasers like me, at least that I know of. I would love to see more women of color come into this field.”
“During my biggest chase, in May 2011, all the conditions were maxed out: instability, wind shear, moisture—the perfect setup for storms. Two of my friends and I tracked three powerful tornadoes through Oklahoma. All of them had winds in excess of 200 mph. Surreal, we may have been the only ones to see three such large storms in one day. Like, Is this really happening?
It’s an interesting dichotomy, playing that game with Mother Nature. If you’re there and a tornado is out in the middle of a field doing no damage, you’re happy for a forecast well done. But at the same time, it’s a constant realization that these things are deadly. They impact people’s lives in ways we can’t fathom. A tornado would be a nightmare for anyone.
If the studies prove that tornadoes are more common in areas with higher population density, it means that more people are likely to be affected. It is time to rethink storm shelters and building codes. We need to be getting ready.”
“Because I grew up in Tornado Alley, storms always interested me. When friends invited me to go chase a tornado for the first time, I said, ‘Yeah, why not?’ I took some photos with my phone; it was fun. And since I’m kind of an adrenaline junkie, I kept going back. I learned how it all worked by riding shotgun. Now I’m part of a whole community.
I noticed a steady number of tornadoes over the three years I chased. should be tornadoes—between late April and July. However, the outbreak occurred in December this year. Planning goes into a chase. This includes checking the roads to make sure that the area can be driven. It is difficult to plan around storms if you don’t know when they will occur.
It sounds like it’s gearing more toward storms being every month of the year, which is nerve-racking. We were discussing how strange that was at a storm-chasing convention. Anytime there’s strange weather, you should pay attention.”
Yessenia Fuses is an environmental journalist covering the intersection of race and gender.