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EarthSky // Science Wire Release Date: Apr 05, 2012

The thunder games: Texas Aggie storm chasers ready for severe weather

COLLEGE STATION — Members of the Texas Aggie Storm Chasers, a group of about 60 Texas A&M University students, are prepped and ready to jump in their cars and spot some severe storms — and with recent record-high temperatures as the trigger, they may get their wish.

Members of the group, known as TASC for short, are believed to be the only student-run storm chasing team in Texas, and they are always on call to hop into their own vehicles and go on a 600-mile round trip to see severe weather that most people would like to stay far from.

Recent warm record breaking temperatures have created severe storms much earlier this year. During March, record temperatures hit as high as 35 degrees above normal and averaged about 18 degrees warmer than usual. The United States broke or tied at least 7,730 daily high temperature records in March, which is far more than the number of records broken in last summer’s heat wave.

So far this year, there have been more than 330 tornadoes in the U.S., a high number considering that about 1,000 tornadoes occur during an average year.

Accordingly, the group’s No. 1 goal is always to see a tornado, but usually that doesn’t happen, says Matt Raper, a graduate student from Houston who heads the group this year. The chances of seeing a tornado are only about 1 in 10, hardly slam-dunk odds, but that doesn’t mean TASC members can’t have an educational experience when they go out.

“This year, we have an all-in-one weather system we are using for the first time,” he reports. “It gives us information about wind speed and direction, air pressure, temperatures, humidity, etc., and it helps us determine the situation while we are in the field or while we are driving to storm site.”

He adds that the team likes to make its own forecasts, and when the lead forecasters determine that severe weather is likely to occur within a few days, the team makes preparations. The final decision to go out is usually made about 24 hours in advance.

“Our forecasts are pretty good because we often see storm chasers from the Discovery Channel or other networks, and those guys are real pros,” Raper says.

If severe weather is spotted, the team often relays information to National Weather Service offices in Fort Worth or Houston. Each outing is videotaped and photographed, and Raper says documentation of every event is critical.

Adds Lacey Pakebusch, a junior from Cuero, “Collection of data has always been one of our chief goals. Many of us have never seen a tornado, but we still learn something every time we go out.

“We often see severe storms form, so we can see how a storm system is structured. Every trip we make is a learning experience, and it’s also a fun experience, and we all take pride that we are keeping the public informed.”

For more about the storm chasers, go to their website at http://atmo.tamu.edu/tamscams/.