Storm-Chasing Vacation: Meet the Tornado-Addicted Tourists

Every year, groups of tourists travel to central U.S. states like Oklahoma, Texas and Nebraska for their summer vacation. But these people aren't looking for sunshine or sightseeing—they're going to chase storms.

What was once an activity reserved for scientists and adrenaline junkies, storm chasing has become an increasingly popular pastime for people from all over the world. Storm chasing involves going to "high risk areas" where the combination of season and location mean there is a higher chance of severe weather occurring. Then, storm chasers analyze weather reports and maps to locate an incoming storm before driving what is often hundreds of miles toward it in an attempt to witness a tornado in action.

The people who go on these tours vary from intrigued first-time chasers looking for something a bit different, to self-professed storm chasing "addicts" like Nicholas Lee.

"It's not most people's idea of a relaxing holiday," said Lee. "In fact, I come back at the end of the three weeks and think, 'I need a holiday,' because it isn't relaxing. It is quite exhausting, but it's very rewarding when you see what's on offer out there."

Lee, a weather forecaster from the U.K., went on his first storm-chasing tour in 2015 and now saves up his vacation days, and his money, to go storm chasing for three weeks every summer in Tornado Alley—an area in the center of the U.S. that includes Oklahoma and Texas, well known for producing massive storms.

"I know people go on holiday to get a tan, do a bit of sun bathing, sit around the pool, but I can't be doing with that," said Lee. "I'd much rather see some interesting weather. I keep saying next year I'll have a year off but I never have a year off, and I can't see that happening any time soon."

Storm Chasing
A group of storm chasers photograph a tornado in the distance. Reuters by Accu Weather

Patience is key on these vacations, as a few minutes of action is paired with long hours and even days spent driving to where a storm might hit or waiting for a big storm to arrive.

Storm chasing was first popularized by the 1996 film Twister, and Brandon Ivey, who started storm chasing when he was a teenager and now runs his own storm-chasing tour company, said the activity has continued to grow in popularity.

"I think that now it's becoming more widely known that these types of vacations are available, and obviously it's not for everybody but people are interested in it and more and more people are coming out doing the storm-chasing tours," Ivey said.

Nicholas Lee, Storm Chasing
Nicholas Lee

Lee said his "addiction" to storm chasing isn't unique, and he isn't the only one who goes back for more every year.

"Once people see that kind of thing they think, 'I want more of that' and 10 days doesn't end up being enough," he said.

Ivey confirmed that a lot of his tours are filled with people who have been before.

"I have several guests who come back every year; a lot of it is repeat business," he said. "We do get new guests every year that come out, but I'd say about 60 to 70 percent of it is just repeat customers because they come out and they have such a good time."

So how did potentially deadly weather become a popular tourist attraction?

"In an ideal world you try and separate the fun and the danger," said Lee. "As storm chasers, we don't get any pleasure from seeing a tornado go through a town, and thankfully where these tornadoes hit most of it is just farmland and field. You want to see it just from a distance, not harming anyone."

Nicholas Lee, Storm Chasing Car
Nicholas Lee

The real dangers of storm chasing, however, often don't come from being swept up by a tornado. A phenomenon known as "chaser convergence" can occur when there is just one large tornado predicted for the day and a number of storm chasers travel to that one high risk area. The roads in rural areas are often small and not designed for the hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of people who often converge. This can cause traffic jams which make it harder to access the perfect spot to witness a tornado, or at worst, make escape routes too congested.

Despite the increasing interest in storm chasing, Lee said it is still a very niche hobby.

"When you say to the locals that you're a storm chaser, they look at you as if you've got two heads on you."