RoadTrip America

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Big Weather: Chasing Tornadoes in the Heart of America, by Mark Svenvold

Big Weather
In May, 2004, author Mark Svenvold left the relative safe and sane world of New York City and went in pursuit of life-threatening tornadoes in the five-state area known as the "Big Weather Country:" South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. His new book, Big Weather: Chasing Tornadoes in the Heart of America, is the story of that month-long adventure. Along for the ride, readers are treated to heart-stopping tales of devastation wrought by some of the largest weather patterns to be found anywhere in the world, along with meteorologically inspired essays about global warming, the politics of weather forecasting, the evolving storm-chaser sub-culture, and the gadgets and techno-wizardry that have arisen from many folks' (including me) near insatiability for obtaining current weather information and vivid storm photography.

The author is a gifted writer with a deft turn of phrase, but sometimes he seems to take right-angle turns away from the flow of the book -- almost like the behavior of the tornadoes he and his companions are chasing. Eventually, the author always brings the focus back to the topic for which the reader is patiently waiting -- Big Weather. While most of the detours are certainly interesting, I found myself wondering if the side trips were really necessary when there are tornadoes to talk about.

Overall, for a weather wonk like me, this was a very, very cool book. Svenvold captured the peculiar fascination with big weather that causes otherwise perfectly sane and balanced individuals to race towards life-threatening situations when most other people are running for their lives. It's a fascination not unlike the phenomenon in native American culture that causes people to drop what they're doing, call in sick to work, hit the road, and drive for several thousand miles en route to a rendezvous or a gathering in a distant state. This infatuation with severe weather has spawned an entire industry of weather tourists and professional weather watchers and forecasters who, each spring and summer, arrive by the thousands seeking notoriously bad weather and thunderstorms.
These "accidental roadtrippers" consume kilos of fast food, rent hundreds of motel rooms and generally enrich the local economies through which they travel each season. Many of them also serve as trained spotters for the National Weather Service and aid in the search and rescue efforts of those towns and communities unlucky enough to be struck by the nasty weather.

Gadgets and gizmos have always fascinated me, and the author does a good job of describing the remarkable ingenuity employed by weather chasers. On some of the pursuits he writes about, he accompanied some of the true super-stars of the weather world. The unique contraptions they have built are worth ogling at -- here is a link to a photo of the IMAX Tornado Intercept vehicle built by Sean Casey and a couple more of the remarkable weather-chasing vehicles that are on the road during peak bad weather periods.

Another vital component of the art of storm chasing is a keen appreciation for what the author terms "EXTREME WAITING". Nice weather is a "bad thing." Svenvold shares many anecdotes about what happens when weather techno-wizards have to endure pleasant conditions and the things they do to keep themselves primed and ready for "the big one."

The book also does a pretty good job of teaching weather basics and some tips that might make the difference between getting close enough for a good shot and risking serious injury or death in your next storm encounter. Some of the crazy things that storm chasers have done will probably make you cringe when you read this book, but you will probably find it difficult to put it down once you start reading. I was also fascinated by how weather has become such a big business. The author does a great job of detailing the growth of the Weather Channel from an insignificant time-filler on a small cable TV station to a media empire worth generating millions of dollars in ad revenue each year.

This is a book that inspires and entertains, and I recommend reading it before you see a big wedge-shaped cloud heading your way. You never know what could happen, and it's useful to have at least a vicarious understanding of a tornado's power.

Mark Sedenquist

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