Volume 13, Issue 13 ~ March 31 - April 6, 2005
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Are natural-phenomenon chasers crazy, or do they know something we’re missing?
by Debra George Siedt

We all have hobbies. Some of us like cooking, baking, knitting or scrapbooking. Perhaps you can’t wait to tackle another crossword or piece together a puzzle. Maybe you love the outdoors and prefer hunting, fishing, gardening, boating or sunbathing. Or maybe you love to fly into hurricanes, chase storms or travel around the world looking for a total solar eclipse.

Yes, we all have our hobbies, pastimes that for some grow from occasional indulgences to full-fledged addictions.

Natural phenomenon chasers — those who pursue hurricanes, tornadoes and eclipses — may be crazy. But in an age where televisions, computers, MP3 players and video games are the entertainment of choice, it’s reality that is difficult to find. For natural phenomenon chasers, no virtual reality can take the place of actually seeing an eclipse, feeling the wind from an F5 tornado or collecting data from 40,000 feet above a hurricane’s eye.

Mr. Eclipse, Frank Espenak, above, spent hours setting up two refracting telescopes, three video cameras and nine 35mm cameras to capture the total solar eclipse of 2001 from Chisamba, Zambia.
Mr. Eclipse
Since an eclipse can be predicted hundreds or thousands of years in the past or in the future, the adrenalin rush is not so much in the predicting as in the viewing. If an eclipse chaser is not in the right spot at precisely the right time, he will miss the brilliance of a total solar eclipse. No one knows the precision needed to chase an eclipse as well as Dunkirk resident Fred Espenak, also known as Mr. Eclipse.

In 1970, 16-year-old Espenak had just received a coveted piece of paper: his driver’s license. He begged his parents for the car so he could take a 600-mile road trip — not to see a favorite band or the beach, but to see a total eclipse. Espenak’s parents agreed, and he made the journey to see a sight he had read about and dreamed about since he got his first telescope when he was eight years old.

“I had to do all the driving,” Espenak said. “I had prepared myself by reading everything about eclipses and here was my chance to see a total eclipse.”

A solar eclipse occurs when the moon blocks a portion of the sun’s rays from shining on earth. Very few people see a total solar eclipse, an event Espenak describes as “the most dramatic, spectacular thing that anyone could see without going into orbit.”

An astrophysicist for NASA by day and eclipse chaser by night, Espenak has been traveling to see eclipses for 35 years. At NASA, he is responsible for eclipse predictions, calculating them hundreds or thousands of years in the past or future. Espenak has traveled to many exotic locations in his free time to view eclipses; his journeys have taken him to Antarctica, Indonesia, Mongolia, Kenya, Africa, Turkey, Bolivia and all over North America.

He travels to Spain in October to view a partial four-minute eclipse, and next March he will be in Libya and Turkey to see a total solar eclipse.

“I have been to every single continent,” Espenak said. “I do it for work and in my spare time. It’s an all-consuming pastime.”

Espenak even met his soul mate, now his fiancé, while on an eclipse expedition in India 10 years ago.

“She goes to all the eclipse chases with me,” he said. “It will be a marriage made in heaven.”

Espenak has chased 18 total eclipses, though he has only seen 14, not because of human error but because of uncooperative weather. He’s a pro at his job, though he admits to being off by a half-second on one prediction. An eclipse can last from 30 seconds to six minutes, but the big payoff is totality: when the moon completely covers the sun’s disc.

“Those very short, few minutes are what everyone’s going for,” said Espenak. “It’s difficult to explain how dramatic it is.”

Spears Travel, an Oklahoma-based company, promotes astronomy tours with Espenak through its website, www.spearstravel.com. The tours, which start at $1,500 per person without flight, include accommodations, a lecture from Espenak and, of course, the prized view of the eclipse.

Espenak has published a series of hardback books about eclipses, and he keeps eclipse information up to date on NASA’s website. His own website, mreclipse.com, features photographs and information about chasing eclipses for children and adults. Educating children about science is important to Espenak, especially since he’s seen a decline in interest throughout the years.

“People don’t want to make an effort to be entertained,” he said. “They want to sit in front of a video game. Who’s going to be the next generation of scientists?”

© 2000, F. Espenak, www.MrEclipse.com
A composite of nine images reveals the sequence of the total lunar eclipse on July 16, 2000, from Lahaina on the Hawaiian island of Maui.
Not Alone Under the Sun
Espenak isn’t alone in his quest for the perfect total eclipse. Friends from all over the world travel to see eclipses; a few weeks from now, they’ll reunite in the Galapagos Islands. Their payoff will be a 32-second eclipse that they’ll watch from a boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Among those international eclipse addicts will be Dr. Eli Maor, a self-described eclipse chaser who recently spoke about his pastime at St. Mary’s College.

Espenak “is a very good friend,” said Maor. “He’s known in this country as Mr. Eclipse.”

Maor, who has traveled to India and Mongolia with Espenak, knew that he lived in Dunkirk. On his way to the airport from St. Mary’s, he passed a sign for the town but he’d not left time for a visit.

Unlike Espenak, Maor, a professor of mathematics at Loyola College in Chicago, only chases eclipses for fun. “It involves all the elements that make math exciting,” said Maor. “If you’re even one mile out, you only see a partial eclipse, not a total one, and all these elements make it exciting to me.”

From his hobby, Maor has had a lot of fun. Since 1979, he has seen five solar eclipses.

“I should warn you that if you go to one, you will be hooked,” he said. “It really is an experience that has to be seen to be believed.”

The big payoff to him is those precious few minutes of totality, when you can see white stars in the middle of the day and the faint halo of the sun. Maor ranks as his most spectacular eclipse one he saw in 1994 in Bolivia, traveling by private train to the site.

“People ask, You’ve seen one. Why see another,” he said. His reply? “You’ve seen a football game. Why go to another one?”

Maor won’t be traveling to Spain to see the annular eclipse later this year, but he hopes to see the next eclipse in the United States on August 24, 2017.

“At some point your bank account becomes depleted,” Maor said. “And the eclipses are usually out of sync with the academic cycle.”

Maor follows lunar eclipses, too. He saw his first one, with his grandfather, at five years old.

In addition to eclipse chasing, Maor also witnessed and wrote about one of the rarest events in astronomy, a once-in-a-lifetime event he’d been anticipating for 40 years: the transit of Venus: the passage of our sister planet between the earth and sun. The event, which has only happened five times before, was visible from Maryland on June 8, 2004. Maor wrote a book about the heavenly marvel, Venus in Transit.

John Guyton “got bit by the bug” and now works five weeks a summer as a tour guide chasing storms and tornadoes in the Midwest.
Seeking the Perfect Storm
Chasing eclipses may seem like a fairly safe adrenaline rush. If you’re looking for something a bit more dangerous, storm chasing may be right up your alley. For several weeks in the spring, an area known as Tornado Alley in the Midwest becomes crowded with storm chasers, people packed into vans, looking for a perfect storm, preferably one with a tornado.

Anne Arundel County librarian Patricia Guyton surprised her husband on his 50th birthday with a two-week storm-chasing trip in the Midwest. John, a retired Prince George’s County firefighter, had no idea the trip would be the beginning of an addiction.

“I got hooked immediately,” Guyton said. “I got bit by the bug.”

Starting from Norman, Oklahoma, for 14 days, Guyton traveled in a van chasing storms in the hopes of seeing the big payoff, a tornado. He was guaranteed a hotel room each night, but Guyton spent his days, from 9am until 11pm or midnight in a van with other observers from all over the world. In addition to seeing some fabulous tornadoes, Guyton saw hail, lightning, torrential rains, flying debris and some wonderful sunsets.

“A good lightning show is always great,” said Guyton, who sometimes waited all day to see a good storm. “Chasing [a storm] is much like the military,” he said. “You hurry up and wait.”

After repeating the trip two more times, Guyton was hired by Cloud 9 Tours as a driver of one of the vans. He couldn’t believe his good fortune; now he was getting paid for doing what he loved. The company operates for six weeks in the summer, logging close to 14,000 miles in search of the perfect storm. Guyton is along for the ride five of those six weeks. Last year, he saw 23 tornadoes.

A typical day in the life of a storm chaser begins around nine in the mornning, since many good storms do not form until the afternoon. The chasers pour over data on laptops linked up to National Weather Service satelites to find low, medium and high risk areas for storm. The chase then begins.

Guyton caught up with his biggest storm in Turkey, Texas; it was the size of Delmarva, he estimates. Not every storm produces a tornado. When one comes, the chasers call it “steak for dinner.”

Guyton has been as close as 100 yards from a tornado. “The most exciting part is the way the storm looks, and getting close,” he said.

Still, safety is always a top priority for the group. “You never know when something’s going to happen,” Guyton said. They keep in touch via two-way radios and use GPS, global position satellite, to navigate.

The prospect of seeing a tornado firsthand and chasing storms brings hundreds of chasers each year to the Midwest, including scientists and students. Early spring, the best time for storm chasing, has drawn chasers from Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Switzerland and Canada.

Guyton’s group does not gather scientific evidence, but they do send observations to research facilities. The groups also try to return to the area where a tornado has touched down to see the devastation so they won’t forget there’s a human element to the natural disasters.

The classification of a tornado, from F1 to F5 depends on the amount of destruction. Guyton, who has seen an F5, has never been hit by debris.

“The storms are beautiful, but there is a human price,” said Guyton. “Going back to see the damage helps keep things in perspective.”

photo courtesy of NASA
Hurricane Isabel, photographed 1.2 kilometers above the storm, sweeps up the Mid-Atlantic.
Hunting Hurricanes
While eclipse and storm chasers are usually looking for the perfect view of their catch, some chasers are looking for better ways to predict the phenomenon, thereby minimizing destruction. That’s the case with hurricane hunters, who literally fly into hurricanes to gather data.

Jeff Halverson, a professor with the University of Maryland Baltimore County and a researcher with NASA, is one of that band.

“We have very special research aircraft that allow us to fly in the high upper levels of storms,” said Halverson of a university program he says is “designed to better understand all aspects of a hurricane.”

Most hurricane hunters who gather information about hurricanes are limited to flying below 25,000 feet. NASA, however, can study hurricanes from as high as 75,000 feet, bringing scientists to much higher altitudes for their information. Halverson, who has been hunting since 1992, has flown into hurricanes near Australia, in the Atlantic Ocean and in the Caribbean. This July, he will be flying near Costa Rica to gather data about how hurricanes are born.

“We will follow the waves and see how they develop and interact,” Halverson said.

He and a team of up to 30 scientists conduct their research in a flying laboratory. The DC-8 aircraft spends as long as six hours inside a hurricane. Halverson’s job is to drop instruments called dropsonde into the hurricane to collect data from inside.

The job is “inherently dangerous,” Halverson allows, but the safety of the crew is not threatened, since most of the energy in a hurricane is confined to the lowest level of the storm.

“Yes, we do have a vortex to fly through,” he said. “But the winds weaken rapidly with height, and we’re at 40,000 feet.”

Halverson began hunting hurricanes as a research scientist, a job beyond the average weather forecaster. In addition to having advanced degrees, a research scientist has to publish research. Halverson also helped develop several of the instruments dropped into hurricanes.

While he would not describe hurricane hunting as an addiction, Halverson admits that the adrenaline rush of “pure scientific curiosity” is what drives him.

“Ultimately, I know this knowledge will be used by forecasters to predict hurricanes,” said Halverson. “We look forward to our science making useful gains.”
A computer model of a hurricane forming, above, displays on the NASA website.

One of those gains came in 2001, when Halverson joined a group of hunters studying the temperature inside the eye of a hurricane. The group flew inside Hurricane Erin on September 10, dropping instruments and recording very detailed accounts inside the core of the hurricane’s eye. The next day, September 11, their flight was grounded because of the terrorist attacks.

“We didn’t get to fly, but the day before,” Halverson said, “we got an unprecedented view of the storm.”

In the future, Halverson believes hurricane hunting will continue with pilotless aircraft. Without a
At NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Dr. Jeffrey Halverson, researches hurricanes and tropical cyclones around the globe.
pilot, an aircraft could spend 36 to 48 hours inside the hurricane.

“They’re more cost-effective, and it will be possible to put them into areas that are more dangerous,” said Halverson. “There’s always going to be a need to take some type of instrumental aircraft into storms.”

Born to Chase Weather
Many chasers say that their desire to study natural-phenomenon began at an early age, as if they were hard-wired to obsess over eclipses, tornadoes and hurricanes. Whether the chase is to see the perfect F5 and softball-sized hail, to marvel at darkness in the middle of the day or to collect the perfect data set from 40,000 feet above a hurricane, the chasers agree their payoff beats a video game any day.

Halverson began hunting hurricanes as a research scientist, a job beyond the average weather forecaster. In addition to having advanced degrees, a research scientist has to publish research. Halverson also helped develop several of the instruments dropped into hurricanes.

While he would not describe hurricane hunting as an addiction, Halverson admits that the adrenaline rush of “pure scientific curiosity” is what drives him.

“Ultimately, I know this knowledge will be used by forecasters to predict hurricanes,” said
My Life with a Stormchaser

I guess my first clue should have been the fact that he had the schedule for the Weather Channel memorized. He even knew how long each forecaster worked there and that they were “real meteorologists” — not “just broadcast majors.”

Every morning he’d wake up not craving coffee but searching for the remote control to tune in to the Weather Channel. His addiction went beyond finding out what the daily weather was; he wanted to compare his forecast to theirs — and gloat when his predictions were right.

For the first two years, my boyfriend’s obsession was cute, the way parents think it’s cute when their toddlers take a shine to a particular blanket or stuffed animal. Oh, I thought, the Weather Channel is his woobie!

I thought it was a phase, a crush he would grow out of and give up. Just because he was a meteorology major, he didn’t have to live, breathe and eat weather, right? I pictured life down the road: not being able to pass a cloud without his describing what kind it was, not being able to drive through a storm because he wanted to stop and take pictures. Yep, I thought, this may be worse than a two-year-old’s tantrum over a missing stuffed puppy.

Then, my worst fears were realized. He decided to go storm chasing in the Midwest for two weeks.

What about us, I thought? What am I going to do for two whole weeks besides worrying whether my boyfriend was getting sucked up by a tornado. Didn’t he see Twister, I asked?

Of course he did. But, he said, the movie grossly exaggerated tornados and was full of incorrect scientific assumptions.

“Come on,” he said. “Everyone knows that if the cow really was picked up by the tornado, chances are, it wouldn’t have any skin left!”

Well, excuse me for believing the cow would just fly in the sky.

I went to see him the day before he left, bearing a backpack filled with film, snacks, his favorite gum and some nonweather-related reading. I promised to meet him the day he came back; he promised to call every night.

For the next 14 days, as promised, he called each day. He was in a different city every night, usually in a different state. The storm chasers covered on average 600 miles per day in a van equipped with storm-tracking radar and navigational software. He raved with excitement on his calls as he relayed stories about 200-mile-per-hour winds, downed telephone lines, softball-sized hail and, of course, destructive tornadoes. I couldn’t wait for him to come home; he couldn’t wait to chase more storms.

When he did come home, he talked non-stop for months about his trip. As I saw the pictures for the 14th time, I realized this was an addiction that he would never break.

The following year, he went storm chasing again. This time, I was more relaxed. I’ve learned to accept his insatiable need for everything to do with weather, and I try to act interested even when I don’t understand a word he’s saying.

My now-husband doesn’t chase storms anymore, at least not physically. He doesn’t even work in the field he loves, meteorology, though that doesn’t stop his addiction. He still checks the radar daily, dreams about owning his own storm-chasing company and watches the Weather Channel. After four years of marriage, I’ve learned the most important lesson of all: how to give up the remote anytime a storm is approaching.

—Debra George Siedt

About the Author
Debra George Siedt, a Pennsylvania native, graduated from St. Vincent College and earned her master’s degree in journalism from The University of Maryland College Park. Before freelancing, Debra covered the Maryland General Assembly and healthcare for a daily paper and a wire service. Debra, her husband Dave and her son Colden live in Shady Side. Her last feature for Bay Weekly was “Policies and Politics: The 90-Day Romp” on March 3.

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