"You really want us to look for a tornado?" yelled Will Gray, a journalist for London's The Independent newspaper, over the pounding din of golfball-sized hailstones pummeling our Hummer H3T storm chase truck. Riding in the back seat, Gray strained to see the ominous shape of a twister lit only by lightning flashes in the darkness of a raging Nebraska supercell storm.

You see, a tornado was reported on the ground earlier in the evening in Paxton. Of course, nobody told us this directly -- it was sent to the broadband laptop mounted on the Hummer's dashboard, a direct link to the National Weather Service that serves as a lifeline for those who chase storms in America's "tornado alley," the unofficial nickname for the area between the Rocky and Appalachian Mountains.

What To Do If You Find Yourself In A Car Near A Tornado

First and foremost: there is no guaranteed safety inside or near a tornado. Don't deliberately follow or look for a tornado unless you're a part of an expedition like the one described in this story.
1. Vehicles are very dangerous places to be when a tornado comes through.
2. If a tornado is visible, you might be able to drive out of its path by moving at right angles to the tornado. Otherwise, park the car quickly and safely, out of the lanes of traffic.
3. Get out of the car and seek shelter in a sturdy building.
4. If on open land without shelter available, run to low ground and away from any cars or machinery (which may roll over on you). Also avoid seeking shelter under bridges, which tend to be locations where traffic accidents occur with low visibility.
5. Lie flat and lay face down, protecting the back of your head and neck with your arms.

Recommended safety tips provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Storm Prediction Center (NOAA)

Passing a mile from the core of a tornadic storm guarantees one unfortunate (and expensive) reality: severe hail damage. Storm chasers avoid this by following precise directions from a mobile Doppler radar truck and by chasing only during daylight. These large radar trucks drive within ten miles of a tornadic storm, and their radar images of precipitation density are accurate enough to tell the difference between a bug and a raindrop.

Out there in the middle of nowhere, we'd hear from these radio operators, letting us know how much time we would have to drop specially designed pods. Pods are sensors for wind speed, direction, precipitation, temperature and humidity, mounted to heavy steel plates and designed to withstand a direct hit from a tornado's fierce winds—and then rush away.

Right now you'd probably guess you're reading an article by a mad man. That might be true, but we were taking calculated risks in the name of science: AOL Autos took part in VORTEX2, a project supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and operated by 100 scientists, grad students, and expert chasers. It is the largest field study of its kind and we had been asked to volunteer a durable Hummer for the cause.

The most dangerous time to drive in a storm is when the radar trucks have left, which is exactly the condition in which we found ourselves in Nebraska that night. Large hailstones can rain down ten miles from where the tornado originates, smashing windshields and spraying glass shards inside a vehicle. Although our Hummer truck withstood the hail barrage because of its tiny glass windows and upright windshield, the noise shattered our nerves. This storm system, which originated in Chugwater, Wyoming, dropped an "EF2" tornado right in front of the VORTEX2 teams at about 5 p.m.

"It was the first time we were actually deployed," recalled TIV2 armored chase vehicle driver Ronan Nagle. "It was one of the top three moments of my life until I have a baby, then it will be one of the top four." The TIV2 (Tornado Intercept Vehicle #2) instruments measured 125 mph winds as the EF2 tornado hit the vehicle. "It wasn't as dark as ones in the past," and it didn't take the TIV2 team by surprise, added Nagle. "I could see through it, I could see power lines snapping down in front of us. The wind was going northeast, ripping around us."

TIV2 truck
The TIV2 truck in action (Photo by Phil Berg)

On the ground for 25 minutes, the tornado eventually dissipated, yet the supercell that spawned it lost none of its fierce energy and moved east into Nebraska. For four hours the storm pummeled Interstate 80 with large hail into the night, forcing the westbound lanes to close. During this time we locked the center differential of the four-wheel-drive Hummer to prevent the deeply grooved front tires from hydroplaning on the flooding eastbound highway, and our specially designed Grote LED lights penetrated the thick rain so we could maintain our speed. Finally, very late that night, the storm dropped 2.5 inches of rain on Omaha, perhaps 400 miles east from where the storm systems originally began.

Tornados come in half a dozen formal sizes, measured by the damage they do, sometimes calculated along with wind speeds, from EF0 to EF5 (the well-known Enhanced Fujita scale, of course). An EF5 tornado with near 300-mph winds will pick up a 50,000-pound John Deere combine harvester and toss it a hundred yards into a field. Smaller EF2 tornados have directly hit the 13,000-pound TIV (created to film IMAX movies and television shows) and the only damage has been missing instruments and peppered paint from flying debris.

Lesson Learned: Unless you have an armor-plated vehicle, a connection to a mobile radar truck, and one thick heaping of moxy, we don't recommend storm chasing. If you find yourself near a tornado and you're in your vehicle, abandon your ride and seek shelter.

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