What It’s Really Like to be a Storm Chaser

In our 9–5 series, we ask boss babes what a day in their work lives entails. This week, on-air Weather Network meteorologist and professional storm chaser Jaclyn Whittal gives us a glimpse into her daily grind

Ishani Nath

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Age: 38

Education: Bachelors of fine arts in musical theatre from the University of Windsor; graduated from Mississippi State University’s Operational Meteorology program.

Length of time at current gig: 4 years

What does being a storm chaser entail? Twister did a really good job of depicting this job. There’s usually about 10 of us that chase together, including my storm chase partner Mark Robinson. I’ll be on the road for about a month, staying in really dingy hotels—there’s nothing fancy or glamorous about it. I wake up every day around 6:30 a.m., because usually we have to go a long ways to get into position to chase the storms. First thing you see when you go down for breakfast is multiple laptops on the tables, everyone is getting a glimpse of the model data and seeing where the storms are likely going to be heading for the day. We consult and come up with a storm chasing “target,”an area we want to be in. Then we drive out there and the whole day is waiting for the storms to fire up. Hopefully we end up nabbing a storm and getting some really cool photos, live television hits, Periscope footage and tweets.

What types of extreme weather do you cover? Everything from severe thunderstorms to tornadoes, hurricanes, blizzards, lake-effect snow, wildfires and natural disasters.

How did you get into storm chasing? I’ve always had a passion for weather and a colleague encouraged me to go down to tornado alley. My first year, I was exposed to one of the most devastating tornadoes in history and from that point on I was passionate about severe weather. I wanted to learn more about it, and how it operates, so I could give better warning time to people. I’ve chased ever since.

Most people want to be indoors during a storm, what makes you want to be out and part of it? It’s the power that these storms have. I’ve been in blizzards where I literally couldn’t see my chase partner who was 10 feet in front of me. One time we lost a windshield due to baseball-sized hail. When I look at model data and forecasts, I report things like 120km/h winds. It’s one thing to say it, but another thing to feel it.

Are there a lot of women in this industry? Back in the days of Twister, there were only a few female storm chasers. There’s a lot more women involved in it now as photographers, out there shooting great stuff on their cameras, or meteorologists that are going out and covering active weather.

What do you wear to storm chase? I usually wear outdoorsy kind of clothes, like yoga pants, because I need to be comfortable. I’ve been completely bundled in the warmest winter gear on the East Coast chasing a blizzard, and in boots and rain gear during flooding in South Carolina, watching out for snakes and alligators.

What it's really like to be a storm chaser

A circa 2013 storm shot (that’s Jaclyn next to the truck)

How do you get in the zone before going out to chase a big storm? I’m a runner. If I miss my runs, especially in tornado alley, I’m not the same Jaclyn as normal. Running really sets me straight, it’s my zen.

How do you stay safe? There are two things we rely on the most: Radar in the car that allows us to track things like the motion of the storm, its strength, and whether there’s rotation. Beyond that, it comes down to your visual, what you’re actually seeing.

Have you ever had any close calls? One that stands out was the 2013 El Reno tornado in Oklahoma, just northwest of Oklahoma City. It was our final chase day. We waited and waited, but nothing was starting. Then all of a sudden, close to 5 p.m., a storm went up. It happened probably in less than half an hour and that particular storm cell produced the largest tornado in history. We were on the road and this massive tornado, that was more than 4 km wide, was moving at some of the fastest speeds that we’ve ever seen. We were backed up in traffic and the tornado was about to cross the highway that we were on. We had to out-drive this tornado, which is about the scariest thing because it can literally swallow you up. Two storm chasers got caught on that highway and died that day.

What’s something people might not know about major storms? When a really strong tornado moves in, it will take down tons of trees. The winds are so strong that it will also remove the bark off the ones that manage to stay standing, so there are all these light-coloured trees standing in an area of complete devastation. There’s the scent of lumber in the air. I always remember that smell and it doesn’t sit well with me.

What do you find challenging about your job? For a TV station, active weather provides good visuals, but you never want damage and destruction. I always tell myself that I’m out there for the rush, but also to be able to learn more, and if I can be able to communicate something quicker to someone on air, then that’s a bonus.

What it's really like to be a stormchaser

Taking a photo of a South Carolina flash flood last fall

What’s the most memorable storm you’ve covered? It was my first time chasing and we ended up in Joplin, Missouri, which just got hit with an EF5 tornado, the highest measurement on the scale we use. I had never seen devastation like that. It looked like the town had just been put in a blender and everything was just piles of rubble, trees, cars, bits of houses and drywall. Nothing made sense. I was pretty new, so I thought I better ask around and get a story. I went up to this man who was wandering around the debris, figuring that he was probably looking for belongings, family photo albums or something like that. He was actually looking for his sister-in-law. That broke my heart. I apologized and walked away and thought, “Here’s me, looking for a story and this guy is looking for a family member.” I’ll never forget that.

What attributes do you need to work in this field? You need to know our meteorology. You’re better off in the field if you know how and why storms work the way they do. I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t know how to interpret radar because you can put your life in danger. You also need to be used to long hours, and able to work with people in very high stress environments.

Who is someone in this field that you admire? Ginger Zee. She’s a meteorologist for Good Morning America, but she started in a small market and worked her way up so she’s really paid her dues. She was also a female storm chaser. I don’t know if she still chases, but she did for years and was the real deal.

After a wild day storm chasing, how do you unwind? If you see a tornado, the tradition among storm chasers is you get to have a steak dinner that night.

More Real Women 9-5:
What It’s Really Like to be a Hit Songwriter
What It’s Really Like to Be a Firefighter in Fort McMurray
What It’s Really Like to be a Fertility Matchmaker
What It’s Really Like to be a Tattoo Artist
What It’s Really Like to be an Octopus Wrangler

 

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