Monday, March 11, 2013

Tornado Chasers



Welcome back to another Kickstarter Conversation!  Today I am pleased to be joined by the one and only Reed Timmer whom our readers might know from Discovery Channel’s  Storm Chasers series.  Reed has stopped by to talk about his passion and his Kickstarter project to fund the 2013 season of his Web TV Show Tornado Chasers.  Thank you for joining us today Reed.  

Thanks James. Great to be here.

Tornado Chasers seems like a pretty self-explanatory name, so how different is the series from your previous work on Storm Chasers?  With one season in the can what brings you to Kickstarter to film the second season?

Storm Chasers was a great experience and I think it made a lot of people aware of what we do as chasers and the dangers of extreme weather. With our new series, Tornado Chasers, we want to give viewers the real experience of chasing. It’s more intimate. We want you to feel like you’re in the Dominator intercepting tornadoes with us. We want you to be part of our team. Because we’re independently produced, we can show you an entire tornado sequence in real time without cutting to commercials. It’s less a reality show and more a true documentary show.

That’s where Kickstarter comes in. At the end of the first season we realized that our viewers loved our approach and preferred it to Storm Chasers in many ways. We have our Emmy-nominated executive producer, Chris Whiteneck, but the show is still truly a grass roots operation. For 2013 our production team wants to take it to the next level, update our equipment, implement new techniques and enhance the production quality even more. We also thought it would be a great way to offer a “season pass” and extra goodies to our incredible fans.


You are described as an “extreme meteorologist” what exactly does that mean?  

Basically I love experiencing mother nature at her most extreme. I love studying extreme weather phenomena up close. But it’s extreme weather that has the greatest impact on people’s lives. The more we can learn about it, the more we can protect people in the path of those storms.

Based on all the episodes of Storm Chasers and now Tornado Chasers I’ve seen I think it’s pretty safe to say you have a very... energetic personality.  Do you think it’s that explosive energy that drove you to storm chasing in the first place?  

Definitely! But I’ve always been intense about science. In high school I was the National Tree Identification Champion in 1996. I also collected bugs until I caught the rare Eastern Hercules Beetle and retired.

Being from Southern California I’m more accustomed to the idea of just random acts of nature with earthquakes, so the concept of tornadoes are totally foreign to me since you can predict where they might show up and can see them coming.  What kind of person can look at nature’s fury like that and go toward it let alone seek it out year after year?

I’m definitely more scared of earthquakes than tornadoes! Supercells, the type of storms that produce tornadoes, have a very defined structure. Tornadoes occur in a very specific part of the supercell, so we know exactly where to look. We also know how fast the tornado will move and what direction it will move. So if you’re an experienced storm chaser, the tornado is the least of your worries. I’m more worried about softball-sized hail dropping out of the sky or hydroplaning underneath the storm. I think what draws us back time after time is that each tornado is different, and there’s a scientific mystery that we still need to solve.



I’ve read that one reason Discovery Channel cancelled Storm Chasers could have been the cost.  Yet here you are with one season already complete coming to Kickstarter for a second season and only asking for $75,000.  Where is all that money going to go?

Discovery’s Storm Chasers was definitely an expensive show to produce. One reason we can produce Tornado Chasers for such an economical budget is the quality of our production team. Chris Whiteneck, our executive producer and cinematographer, was director of photography on Discovery’s Storm Chasers. Ken Cole, our editor and producer, was director of the PBS documentary Tornado Glory and Heaven’s Rage. These guys are the most experienced storm chasing filmmakers on the planet and know how to do this efficiently. The money we hope to raise with Kickstarter will go to upgraded audio/video equipment, full-time shooters, media managers, music and post-production staff.

Storm chasing can’t be cheap what with the cost of gas and everything, how have you been paying for it for all these years?  Let alone constructing not one, but three Dominator intercept vehicles!

Discovery’s show gave us the opportunity to partner with sponsors such as Bosch and Line-X, partnerships that continue today. When we build a new Dominator, it’s a great showcase for our sponsors’ products, so funding from their sponsorships have really helped us out with covering construction and chasing costs in recent years.

Another aspect of your storm chasing that some have questioned was your desire to try new ways to gather data on tornados.  From Upward facing radar, to airgun launched parachute systems, and even model rockets and quadrocopters?  What else are you planning to use and what kind of data have you brought back from all these endeavours?  

The biggest mystery behind tornadoes are the strength of the wind speeds right near the ground, since the vortex dynamics become very complex when the parent tornado interacts with the friction of the earth.  Above the ground, the theory is quite simple, with a tornado vortex being a balance between outward directed centrifugal force and inward directed pressure gradient force toward the center of the tornado.  It's like if you were riding a merry-go-round, and some force was present that pulled you in toward the center, you would be able to stand and ride without using your hands and still wouldn't fly off if the centrifugal force and inward directed force were in balance.  We call this cyclostrophic balance.  Mobile radar teams have measured the winds of tornadoes for years well above the ground where friction is not a factor, but this does not unravel the mystery of the complex winds of a tornado at the earth's surface when the science really gets complex.

The interaction of a tornado with the friction of the Earth is why they can split into "multi-vortex tornadoes", or tornadoes with 2-4 smaller suction vortices or mini-tornadoes that rotate around within the main circulation.  These suction vortices can pack EXTREMELY intense wind speeds, theoretically, and are why we so often see one house completely destroyed with the house next door untouched in tornado damage paths.  Some researchers have simulated these suction vortices (i.e., Dr. Brian Fiedler, 2008) with computer models and found that the wind speeds could attain even up to 500-600 mph on the short time-scales.  I've been up-close and personal with these suction vortices and can attest this is feasible, as I've seen them develop out of thin air even beneath a seemingly weak tornado, rip a whole tree out of the ground in a second before vanishing in the blink of an eye.

The only way to measure the wind speeds in these suction vortices, or even to see them visually as they're rotating so fast within the strongest tornadoes, is to be extremely close - which is our specialty.  The measurement of tornado wind speeds right near the ground (not only the horizontal but also the updrafts/downdrafts inside tornadoes), is why we built our armored vehicles, the Dominators, in the first place.  We were the first to deploy a mobile doppler radar inside a tornado in 2009, which is used to measure the updrafts in tornadoes, and recorded an upward velocity of 170 mph inside an EF4 tornado in Minnesota on June 17, 2010; just after our roof mounted anemometer which measures the horizontal wind inside tornadoes was ripped off by a piece of debris from a barn that exploded 50 feet to our left.  I've attached the radar data from that deployment here (second attachment).  Below is the video from that tornado intercept on Youtube.  This is the first known direct measurement of the updraft inside a tornado via mobile radar that I know of in history, and the vertical winds can be just as destructive as the horizontal winds in my opinion, and need to be better understood.  These real measurements are the first steps in gaining that understanding.   

June 17, 2010 Almora-Bluffton, MN EF4 tornado intercept




In terms of suction vortices, we were able to measure a 138.8 mph wind gust inside the suction vortex of a weak tornado overall, with only 70-90 mph wind speeds.  The suction vortex developed on the backside of the tornado while we were deployed inside, and slammed the left side of the Dominator with winds increasing from 8 mph to 138.8 mph in less than a second (see attached data plot).  This real data is consistent with Dr. Fielder's work that indicated the wind speeds inside suction vortices could attain 2 to 4 times that of the parent tornado wind.  Imagine what the wind speeds would hit inside an EF5 tornado with winds of 200+ mph in the main vortex.  The video from that intercept is also provided below through Youtube.  



June 17, 2009 Dominator 1 tornado intercept with parachute probe animation at the end via google earth


In order to gain a comprehensive understanding of tornadoes, we don't only want to measure the wind speed, but also need other data inside the funnel at the same time such as temperature, moisture, and pressure.  That is why we designed our air cannon system to launch scientific probes attached to parachutes into tornadoes such that they are carried around within the circulation.  These probes are capable of measuring this data at a rate of 5 times a second, and can be tracked through GPS data related through the cellular data network.  

We developed the "swarm" of quadcopters that carry this same instrumentation and tracking, along with small HD cameras, to fly suicide missions into the tornadoes to better collect this data.  Not to mention the video of a remote controlled helicopter flying into a tornado would be amazing, which is one of our goals during the 2013 storm season.. and if our Kickstarter campaign for our independent production of Tornado Chasers reaches its goal, we will show that science in the series and share the struggle to achieve our extreme tornado research goals with our viewers.  

As always the upper level rewards are quite interesting to see and I notice you’ve really upped the ante with the top level reward.  Are folks really going to be able to go storm chasing with you in the Dominator 1?  Will they just be “along for the ride” or will they be helping gather data as well?  

We’ve received a lot of requests to chase in the Dominator over the years, so we thought it might be fun to offer that as a top pledge level. Our chaser guests will ride in the original Dominator 1 as part of our chasing convoy. I’ll be in Dominator 2 or the new Dominator 3 a few cars ahead of Dom 1. For liability reasons I can’t take anyone into tornadoes with me! Anyone joining us in this special tour will learn the basics of storm chasing, forecasting, navigating and live streaming. They will also get a front-row seat to some of the most extreme weather on the planet.

How well has the public accepted what you do?  Do people still “not get it” or do folks understand that you’re trying to conduct serious research as well as warn people of potential danger?  

I think almost everyone understands and appreciates what storm chasers do and how they help with warnings and advancing the science. We tend to get the most pushback from certain groups of chasers, who don’t share our approach of getting close to tornadoes. But we’re really all on the same mission and I’ve had nothing but great experiences talking with weather enthusiasts and chasers over the years.

As a member of the space industry I’ve noticed how much we “don’t know” in the universe, yet it still amazes me to see something as common and predictable as tornadoes still being full of unknowns!  Is it this search for the unknown that not only keeps you chasing but leads you to try new things?

Meteorology is one of the few sciences where the phenomena are predicted and observed on a regular and immediate size and time scale, as opposed to astronomy, geology, and even biology. We know right away whether our forecasts were accurate or if our dynamic theories need tweaking. We’re always reminded of our limitations.


Not the least of those reminders being rolling up on a town right after it was hit?

Exactly. That kind of immediate and tragic feedback is very unique in science. I think the field of meteorology is a good reminder to other scientific disciplines of how much we still need to learn about the universe, if we still have so much to learn about what’s happening right in front of us in real time.

How hard is it storm chasing while working on your PhD dissertation?  That seems like tossing insane work hours on top of insane work hours!

Storm chasing has definitely set me back on my dissertation. I’m 32 years old and still in school so I need to finish. I’m close, but storm season is looming on the horizon!

Do you still run into some of the other teams we saw on Storm Chasers like TWISTEX and the TIV?  

It’s amazing how often we still cross paths throughout the plains. We’re always on the run, but we see them out there for sure.


How did you discover Kickstarter?

We’ve known about Kickstarter for a while and have seen a lot of creative projects get funded. Recently we realized that Kickstarter would be the perfect way to team up with storm chasing enthusiasts to take our series to the next level. Plus it was fun thinking of all the rewards we could offer.

A key part of successful Kickstarters is backer participation and how to convert a potential backer into a full backer.   How are you engaging your backers?  What kinds of things do you have planned for updates to give notice to those who just hit the “remind me” button and surf on?  Interviews?  Videos?  Stories from the project?

This is our first time with crowdfunding so it’s been fun learning about how this works! So far we’ve been spreading awareness through our social networks on Facebook and Twitter, as well as our TVNweather.com subscriber list. We’re also reaching out to blogs and the press. I try to always respond to every comment and message on Kickstarter. We’ve got some fun things planned for updates, including a video we’re shooting tomorrow.

What kind of media attention have you received with your project?  How are you spreading the word?  Facebook?  Twitter?  Google+? Youtube?  Advertising?  Are you using Kicktraq to track your progress?  

We’re starting to get interview requests. I did an on-air interview for WGN a few days ago and I have some TV interviews coming up. We’re mainly using Facebook, Twitter, Google + and Youtube right now. We’re considering some Facebooks ads, but I didn’t know about Kicktraq until you mentioned it so I’ll have to check it out!

Do you have any tips/advice would you give to anyone looking to start a Kickstarter?

I think you have to be ready to work. You have to create a plan, and consider your rewards carefully. And as we’re learning now, it can quickly turn into a full-time team effort. If you can build a strong social network or email list ahead of time, that will help when you launch.


Thank you for spending your time with us!  Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?

Looking at all of the unique and creative projects on Kickstarter is very inspiring. It’s been a great experience so far and I would recommend it to anyone with the motivation to put a project together. Thank you to everyone who is supporting us on Kickstarter, and if you haven’t seen us check out our project page!

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/tornadochasers/tornado-chasers

Thanks again and I hope to hear good things from your Kickstarter!

Thank you! Never stop chasing.