Home Celebrity 6 Female Storm Chasers Reflect on the Climate Crisis

6 Female Storm Chasers Reflect on the Climate Crisis

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Tornadoes with 200-mph winds that pulverize everything in their path. Towering monsoon storms that hurl biblical hail. On some level, this generation of storm hunters—raised on the movie Twister— knew exactly what they were getting into. But the larger existential threat of climate change? That was new.

Undaunted by that and by a field long dominated by men, a cadre of women photographers are emerging as vital witnesses to suddenly frightening uncertainties. Some are artists, their portfolios a visual knowledge bank of nature’s immense power. Others take 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 teammates oversee ground logistics, shooting storms from tactical angles. Then Seimon converts the footage into usable data on surface-level wind fields, where tornadoes register their most catastrophic impacts. “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.”

female storm chasers

Bravery, scrappiness, and stamina are just some of the critical 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. The latter is something all the storm chasers Cosmo interviewed agree is a mounting 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. One thing is clear: When the winds change, these women will know.

woman storm watching in field

Tescott, Kansas, May 2018: Moore shoots a powerful storm.

David Hegner

jessica moore

“Storm photography is my full-time job. Every day, I’m looking at data patterns. I go where the storms are.

The most massive supercell [a violent thunderstorm with a rotating air mass inside it] I ever saw was in 2019 near Imperial, Nebraska. I positioned myself in a location known as the notch, where air is sucked into the updraft of the storm. It’s the most dangerous place you can stand. The wind was howling; I stayed as long as I could before having to move to safety. I never knew that kind of storm was possible in the northern High Plains.

Some data suggests that as the climate warms, the intensity of storms increases. And I’ve personally witnessed what appears to be an eastward shift in devastating storms, from Tornado Alley [in the middle of the country] toward densely populated Southeast and Gulf Coast states as well as toward the northern High Plains and upper Midwest.

An important aspect of what I do is reporting to the National Weather Service and local EMS agencies. I call in things like hailstone sizes, strong winds. The quicker agencies have that ground truth from storm spotters, the faster they can issue their warnings. Helping to inform and warn the public has become a far more critical component of how I pursue and document storms.”

lightning strikes field

Kansas-Nebraska border, June 2012: Ubl captured the “stacked plates” of a supercell storm.

Jennifer Brindley

jennifer brindley

“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 tornado that killed storm chasers. We lost friends and heroes that day.

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 it seems we have more questions than answers. What drives and maintains tornadoes, especially violent ones? How fast can the wind get? And ultimately, can we predict tornadoes with better accuracy?

Our three-vehicle team works by surrounding a strong tornado, then capturing footage with 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.”

lightning strikes on each side of a rainbow in a field

Arivaca, Arizona, August 2018: Bailey’s image depicts “crawler” lightning over a rainbow.

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.

Monsoons might not produce tornadoes, but they can be just as fierce. One big danger is flash flooding. And recent forest fires in the Southwest may be producing even larger flooding threats due to the burn scars they leave behind. When the rains come, huge swaths of black charcoal come up from the ground. [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 learn to appreciate the coyotes, the rattlesnakes, the spiders. You learn to appreciate how precious life is.”

woman watches storm from a distance

Rapid City, South Dakota, June 2020: Elizalde in front of a storm spewing 2.5-inch hailstones.

Mark Cedar

lexi elizalde

“I’ll never forget the supercell I witnessed on July 6, 2021, a few miles north of New Underwood, South Dakota. This region was located outside the zone expected to get severe weather that day; the storm formed out of what we call impossible conditions. It was gorgeous, lasting for about three hours and moving ever so slowly over farmland. But at the same time, I was like, What if this had happened over a different area? How do you prepare people?

In South Dakota, there are nine Native American reservations. When disasters hit, recovery times tend to be slowest for marginalized communities and can be even more so for reservations due to many people not having insurance to cover damages. Fixing the system will take time—time many vulnerable areas don’t have.

My job has allowed me to become more connected to the communities 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.”

storm in new mexico

Needmore, Texas, May 2019: Sanner documented a diminishing supercell storm.

Raychel Sanner

raychel sanner

“During my biggest chase, in May 2011, all the conditions were maxed out: instability, wind shear, moisture—the perfect setup for storms. Two friends and I ended up tracking three huge, violent tornadoes through Oklahoma, all of which had winds in the neighborhood of 200 mph. We may be among the only people on earth to see three storms that size in one day, which was surreal. Like, Is this actually 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. Only a monster would root for a tornado.

If the studies are borne out and tornadoes are increasing in frequency in more population-dense areas, it means more people are going to get hit. It means we need to rethink building codes and storm shelters. We need to be getting ready.”

woman shooting lightning hitting a mountain from a distance

Willcox, Arizona, July 2021: Vincent readies her camera during a nighttime chase.

Mike Mezeul

paige vincent

“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 started out by riding shotgun to learn how it all works. Now I’m part of a whole community.

For the first three years I chased, I noticed a pretty consistent number of tornadoes during the months there should be tornadoes—between late April and July. But this past year, there was an outbreak way later in the season, in December. A lot of planning goes into a chase, like checking road networks to make sure the area is drivable. If you have no idea when storms are going to happen, trying to plan around that is hectic.

It sounds like it’s gearing more toward storms being every month of the year, which is nerve-racking. At a storm-chasing convention, we were talking about how weird that was. Anytime there’s strange weather, you should pay attention.”

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