Storm Chaser: The Thrill of the Chase
By Elizabeth Harris
Storm chasers have a reputation as being reckless daredevils, searching for the next storm. In reality, many storm chasers are just really big nerds keen on observing weather systems and show a very healthy appreciation for the forces of meteorology. In a typically male-dominated community, women are making their own stake in the storm chasing and weather communities. Women like Chelsea Burnett.
Chelsea Burnett is a storm chaser and weather safety educator. She knows first-hand the awe and the impact extreme weather events can have. It was instilled in her from a young age.
Growing up in Oklahoma, an area with such frequent tornadoes and storms it’s known as Tornado Alley. Big weather events were a part of regular life for Chelsea. Unlike other kids, Chelsea wasn’t scared but fascinated by these monstrous storms.
“I would wake up in the middle of the night and hear the storms. I would get up out of bed and peek out the blinds and try to stay up and watch it. I just had this pre-built-in passion for weather.
I remember one summer in middle school, I was given an alarm clock that had a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather radar. It had a button that you could press on the radio and it would play the forecast. I was obsessed!
One summer I documented the weather at the time and my observations. I kept a diary over a summer of what the weather conditions were. I still have that diary too,” she recalls.
With encouragement from her family, Chelsea’s passion for weather grew, but it didn’t start to directly influence her life’s direction until May 3rd, 1999, the Bridge Creek–Moore tornado. A total of 74 tornadoes touched down across Oklahoma and Kansas in one day. The aftermath was a total loss of 40 lives, almost 700 injured, and extensive damage to homes and infrastructure totaling over $1.2 Billion and even impacted Chelsea's family. It inspired her to turn her passion into a lifelong career: “I had one plan: to get a degree in meteorology from the University of Oklahoma which is one of the top schools for meteorology.”
Chelsea was admitted to her dream school and her dream program at the best college for meteorology in the US. But, life had other plans. Chelsea was one of the 75% of her meteorology class that did not go on to graduate. Resilient, she moved down to Dallas-Fort Worth to start a new path.
In Texas, Chelsea was first introduced to a community of storm chasers. “2010 is when I went to my first weather conference. I didn’t know it was a thing [Neither did Toastee!]. I met David Rightmer, owner of Texas Stormchasers. We hit it off, and he asked me to go storm chasing with him.” Chelsea dabbled in Storm Chasing before a different front hit her - Life. Chelsea got married, bought a house, started a family, and storm chasing and weather took a back seat in her life.
In 2015 Chelsea saw her very first tornado up, close, and center, “After that, I just hit it in high gear. I was newly divorced, and I decided then that a big change was happening in my life so I should change everything else in my life that I was unhappy with. I got a new job, and I was able to spend more time with my son, who was 18 months at the time. All these things led up to where I am now,” she tells me.
Where is she now? Chelsea is now a solid member of the weather community and a 5-year member of Texas Storm Chasers. On top of that, she uses her passion for weather to help with national data gathering and is actively changing our perceptions of storm chasers.
“There are many storm chasers like me who really enjoy being out there. In turn, we’re able to take what we see, what’s happening, and we can relay that information back to the National Weather Service all with a few taps on an app called RadarScope. I document what we see and what's happening which the National Weather Service can't see. Their meteorologists are in the office looking at the radar, they can only see what's happening on the radar and guess what's going on. They use us as storm chasers to confirm there’s about to be a tornado and issue a tornado warning. That’s the majority of storm chasers.
We don’t earn money from this. This is not a steady salary job or hourly job by any means for anyone. We are family people, we have jobs, and we have commitments outside of storm chasing,” she shares.
Chelsea is using her platform with Texas Storm Chasers and her experiences to educate the community on weather safety, particularly in her own area of Dallas-Fort Worth, which is flourishing with a new influx of migration. It's the city with the highest annual population growth in the United States. “A lot of these people are coming in from California, from the East Coast, from up North. They have no clue what our weather is like here until they spend Spring with us. The overall mission of Texas Storm Chasers is to provide content and information for people. We are an additional source where they can find non-hyped, straightforward information," Chelsea explains.
Through her weather safety presentations, Chelsea educates kids in Scouts BSA and schools, promotes awareness in corporate seminars and members of Homeowner Associations. With the pandemic pushing everything in life to the internet, she can now reach even more people who would have not been otherwise able to afford one of her presentations.
For Chelsea, the best part of becoming a storm chaser is joining a community of fellow weather self-described nerds, and using her storm chasing for the greater good. Not content with just volunteering time to collect data for the National Weather Service, Chelsea helps those affected by extreme weather and tornadoes like the one that ignited her lifelong interest.
“So many storm chasers are truly compassionate for others. One night there was a tornado event that my spouse and several other chasers were following. They stopped at a house that had just been hit and pulled an elderly gentleman out of a basement. People like us will stop the chase in a heartbeat to help out where we’re needed. We’re the first people on the scene and we can make a difference," Chelsea explains.
It’s more than just the thrill of the chase for Chelsea, the center of her work remains her childhood passion and respect for weather. As Chelsea says, “There are more opportunities than spotting tornadoes the entire time.”
You can learn more about Chelsea’s work in storm chasing and weather safety at texasstormchasers.com. You can also follow them @texasstormchasers on Instagram and Facebook and @txstormchasers on Twitter.