On the Record

On the record ... with Walker Ashley

Walker Ashley
Walker Ashley

DeKALB – Walker Ashley estimates that he drives between 10 and 15,000 miles each summer chasing tornadoes and other severe weather systems through the Midwest and Great Plains states.

" I think I started chasing storms virtually from the couch watching the Weather Channel early on,” Ashley said of his childhood in Georgia. “It was when I went to graduate school in Nebraska that I really blossomed as a storm chaser.”

Ashley got his master’s degree in geosciences with a meteorology/climatology specialization at the University of Nebraska. He later got a Ph.D. in geography from the University of Georgia. He is an associate professor in the meteorology program at Northern Illinois University.

Ashley shares much of his research and photography on his website at chubasco.niu.edu.

Ashley took a break from his research last week to speak with MidWeek reporter Curtis Clegg about tornadoes, severe weather and even sociology.

MidWeek: What is your job at NIU?
Walker Ashley: I teach in the meteorology program but I also teach hazards courses in geography as well.

MW: What are you doing here in your office during spring break?
WA: Research. I’m always working on that. This is a good time to do it, when I don’t have to concentrate on classes.

MW: What can you tell me about your research?
WA: Most of my research now is about how populations have changed over time, and are leading to greater chances of disaster in the future. …What I like to do is to try to quantify people and their structures – essentially the built environment. You look at Chicago and the tremendous amount of growth we have seen over the last half-century. Mostly in the 80s and 90s, we had a rapid expansion of growth spreading out. My question is, “How has that spreading of the growth population led to the increased probability of disasters in the future?” In looking at Hurricane Sandy – would Hurricane Sandy have been as disastrous an event if it had occurred in the 50s or 60s? Probably not. It would have been bad, but we have had a lot more people and a lot more things built up along the coastlines since then. …A lot of cities have increased what I call their “bull's-eye effect” – that is, the bull's-eye seems to be getting bigger, at least for damage potential and casualty potential.

MW: Was the damage from the 1990 Plainfield tornado the result of the growing bull's-eye around Chicago?
WA: That’s a great example. …The Plainfield event, for the most part, went over an undeveloped area. It was only when it went through the very small developed part of Plainfield where we had the disaster. We looked at the 1990 versus the 2000 census data and found substantial growth in the potential targets at that time. Even since that time, Plainfield has seen substantial growth. That region is now suburbia. If you take that Plainfield event that occurred 20-odd years ago and put it over the same area, you can see the potential for disaster.

MW: What classes do you teach on the subject of severe weather?
WA: I teach a 300-level course in severe and hazardous weather, and then I also teach a 400-level course in mesoscale meteorology, meaning storm scale from hurricanes down to thunderstorms.

MW: How did you first get interested in meteorology?
WA: It was always something I had an interest in. I grew up watching the Weather Channel.

MW: Is meteorology as much a hobby as it is a profession?
WA: Oh certainly, but that’s the fun thing about it. There’s always something new in meteorology and there are a lot of questions that we don’t have answers for.

MW: What are the most dangerous months for severe weather in northern Illinois?
WA: The whole nation tends to collectively ramp up in March and April. The biggest months in terms of storm frequency are probably April and May, and going into June. The earlier months of spring tend to be when we have an outbreak of storms in the southeast, the Ohio Valley, and the southern Great Plains, areas where we tend to see a few more fatalities than in the Midwest.

MW: What preparations do you take before leaving to chase a storm?
WA: It has changed quite a bit. It used to be you’d have a weather radio and a couple of quarters in case you needed to make a phone call to a friend back home to get an assessment. In the late '90s and early 2000s I would visit libraries that would have Internet access. Then we got cell phones that would let you get really slow connections, but if you could get one radar image every 30 minutes that would be great. Now, I bring a laptop, my cell phone with wireless capabilities, and I have radar software on my laptop that allows me to put in my GPS position in relation to the storm cells. …It has actually gotten fairly easy to navigate around storms if you know what you’re doing.

MW: It has also made it easier for amateur storm-chasers. Do you feel like they are putting themselves and others in danger?
WA: It’s one of those things where I don’t ever want to ever prevent people from learning about the atmosphere, but if you are interested in chasing, there are avenues where you can learn. You probably need to spend a lot of time investigating storms. Not that you need a degree in meteorology, but you need to learn about it before you go. We are finding a lot of issues where people that are inexperienced who just go out and clog the roads and create a dangerous situation. Not in Illinois so much, but in the plains where chasing seems to be more common, and if you put hundreds of cars on the rural two-lane roads and even if there’s just one erratic driver, it becomes a dangerous situation very quickly. I think only a matter of time before there are serious injuries or death because of chasing, unfortunately.

MW: When you get back from chasing a storm system, what do you do with the data you gathered?
WA: When I go out there, a lot of what I do is photography and videography. I’m not gathering any observational data. I do a lot of time-lapse work too. …I will take those images or that video and embed that in my lectures because when you start to speed them up, you can really see rotation and the formation of specific features. I bring that experience back to the classroom and back to the research. It’s not like I can take them (the students) outside and see a tornado on a Tuesday afternoon.

MW: How much of weather and climate study is still a mystery to meteorologists?
WA: Let’s just say within the last 20 years or so we have gained an amazing amount of knowledge regarding severe storm meteorology, particularly thunderstorms, tornado formation and damaging wind formation, thanks largely to public investment in research.

MW: How close do you think you can get to eliminating all uncertainty in meteorology?
WA: There will always be uncertainty in meteorology. Meteorologists are always the butt of jokes when people say, “I wish I could get paid to be wrong 50 percent of the time,” but those people don’t understand physics and chaos and the lack of observations we have to deal with. I will say, “How are the economists doing these days? How are their predictions?” There is an element of human nature that the economists can’t predict, and in meteorology one of the things we don’t have is observations everywhere. When you don’t have observations you have to interpolate, and interpolation leads to errors. …In science and meteorology uncertainty is one of the things we know, but the problem is how to communicate that uncertainty to the public.

MW: How many miles do you think you put on your car each year chasing storms?
WA: It varies in any given year. Sometimes I’ll take my car but sometimes I’ll go with a colleague or my brother, or I’ll go with College of DuPage and we’ll take a van. Collectively, I probably drive on the order of 10 to 15,000 miles a year, in May and June in particular.

MW: What is the potential for long-range forecasting? How close could we get to making forecasts with virtual certainty?
WA: There are so many places on this planet that aren’t observed. The first thing (we would need) to improve our forecasting ability is more observations. If you’re talking about forecasting super storms, then we need more observations small-scale. If you’re talking about long-range predictions and climate changes, look at the globe. It’s mostly water, and we do have buoys in specific parts of the ocean, but for the most part they are unobserved. And it’s not just the surface; where we have the greatest efficiency in observations is in the atmosphere. In the United States, we send up weather balloons twice a day. We used to send them up four times a day.

MW: If you had the chance, would you go up in a plane to fly through the eye of a hurricane?
WA: I’m not a hurricane chaser, mainly because I equate it with being in a washing machine. But if I had the opportunity to do that, I don’t think I could pass it up.

MW: I am guessing you have been in some pretty scary situations.
WA: I am more of a conservative chaser. I think what you see on TV with people driving into them is silly. I am more of an observationalist. I am a structure freak – I like to see the structure of the entire storm. There are cases where I like to get closer but that’s usually only when you have extreme confidence that you know what that tornado or thunderstorm is going to do. …It seems to be that this “let’s drive through a tornado” adrenaline-type thing is not the most common type of chaser. It’s a dangerous behavior and I do think one of these days that someone who does that is going to get hurt.

MW: What misconceptions or myths about severe weather do you have to dispel?
WA: People like to know how far somebody has been thrown in a tornado and survived, or what was the widest tornado of all time. I hear misconceptions like “mobile homes attract tornadoes.” Mobile homes don’t attract tornadoes – they are just more vulnerable. “Will a river or a rock or the Willis Tower protect Chicago? Will the Mississippi River stop a tornado?” These sorts of myths are not based in fact. They are incorrect. I try to lay those things to pasture and also tell people how they can be prepared. …One of my biggest concerns is nighttime tornadoes. How are you going to wake up in the middle of the night if there is a Joplin-style tornado coming through? Having a weather radio is a necessity.

MW: I have heard that it’s critical for people not to ignore a tornado siren when it goes off.
WA: That’s what happened in Joplin. Joplin’s siren went off very early, and then it was silenced (after a few minutes). They only sounded it again once there was confirmation of the tornado coming to the west side of the city. It was a rain-wrapped tornado – a wide, massive tornado. Many people had heard the siren and completely discounted it. We’re starting to bring in social scientists on this. We have to have social scientists – psychologists, sociologists, geographers – to understand what’s going on in the mindset of people when they hear a warning. What do they do? What is their action? Of course there is a whole range of actions, but what we have found is that people almost ubiquitously want a second set of information. They want confirmation, whether it be friends or relatives, or if they turn on the TV, whatever. Or, they want visual confirmation. It’s natural to want visual conformation. The problem with Joplin, or even Plainfield, is those tornadoes weren’t visible to the naked eye. They were rain-wrapped.

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