Most people will do whatever it takes to avoid severe weather, but not these women. They’re storm chasers, driven by a passion to witness the beauty and power of nature firsthand
Growing up on the East Coast, Jennifer Walton was terrified of the storms that would often roll through during the night. At the first clap of thunder, she would drag her sleeping bag into her parents’ bedroom. She doesn’t remember the moment that her terror transitioned to fascination, but by age 10, she’d started moving closer to the window during thunderstorms instead of running away and developed a habit of watching the Weather Channel nonstop.
As an adult, Walton’s obsession with severe weather only grew stronger. During her 17 years working as an environmental communications strategist, she learned how to read radar and geeked out watching it during storms. Tracking a storm was exciting, sure, but what she really wanted to do was get out there and actually observe one up close. But how?
Then in 2018, Walton discovered a company that allows weather enthusiasts to travel with seasoned storm watchers in order to see amazing weather events like tornadoes. Known as a “storm chase tour,” excursions like these can run between 5 and 14 days. Walton figured that taking a trip with experienced chasers would be a slightly less insane way to explore her interest in severe weather, so she booked herself a ticket. Unfortunately, she didn’t see much during her tour, due to it being a quiet season that year, but she saw enough that she knew she wanted more. She taught herself how to forecast and got her hands on any resource she could find, studying a few hours every weekend.
Then one day, while working from home, Walton watched a patch of severe weather come out of the foothills near her home in Denver. She had just learned about recognizing rotating storms, and thought, “This thing is going to do it.” So, she ran out to her car, so excited to follow the storm that she forgot she was still in her pajamas. During that first solo trip, Walton made rookie mistakes, getting stuck in the city and finding herself on the wrong side of the storm. But finally, she crested a hill to find her first tornado spinning right in front of her.
Walton says a monster was born that day, and she has since observed many other extreme weather events. “Being in the presence of significant storms brings me into the hyper-present, into the flow, and it feels like an enormous privilege to get to witness something so few see in person during their lifetimes,” she explains. “No other activity makes me feel the way these moments do.”
The achievement of forecasting a storm and understanding enough about severe weather to follow it and see it up close was incredibly empowering, and in 2020, Walton picked up a camera for the first time and began to photograph what she refers to as the “grace in fury.” She fell in love with capturing the juxtaposition of everyday sights and beauty with powerful, destructive storms. For her, the experience is a reminder of how small yet powerful we can be in our lives.
JOINING THE CHASE
Before Walton came across that storm chase tour company, she had long thought, “I can’t do that,” because she had never seen women storm chasing. The chasers featured on television were men, and if there were women, they were sitting in the passenger seat. It became a subconscious message: “I don’t belong here.”
“People always point out Jo Harding, the main female character in the movie Twister,” says Walton. “And my response is that the movie is now 26 years old. And Jo isn’t real. So, if that’s the one person we’re putting forward as a role model for women in storm chasing, you’ve got to be kidding me.” Even as Walton ventured further into the chase community, she found it difficult to find female chasers.
Jessica Moore is a meteorologist, chaser, and photographer who had an experience very similar to that of Walton. As a kid, Moore was obsessed with the tornado scene in The Wizard of Oz. Later, she began photographing storms from her balcony and bought every meteorology book out there, before venturing out on chases. Moore has now been following storms for 12 years and launched her own storm chase tour business in early 2023, but she says it has taken her this long to feel a part of the chase community. In her early days of chasing, she felt like she was the only woman out there. And she wasn’t being taken seriously. During her time as a field correspondent for a major network, Moore noticed her male colleagues were the ones sent out to cover severe weather events. “I got so tired of it that I would just go chase anyway,” she says. “Then I would show the network the content I captured, and oftentimes they would end up using it. I did that over and over until they finally got the hint that they were not going to tell me to sit at home.”
“Ignored” is a word Walton frequently hears from women chasers when talking about their experiences in the field—ignored by the media and online audiences and passed over for business opportunities. “Because I’m a communicator, to me the solution was that if the media wouldn’t cover women in storm chasing, then screw them,” Walton says. “We’ll create our own platform.” In July 2021, she launched an Instagram page called Girls Who Chase (GWC) to showcase the talent of female chasers. It immediately garnered a huge following, with women from all over the globe submitting content. Realizing she was onto something, in January 2022 Walton morphed GWC into a larger media program with a website, promotional video featuring women storm chasers, and a podcast. Last fall, the initiative added an education component, including an online Spring Training event last March, inspired by Walton’s own difficulties in finding resources when she was first learning how to chase. By providing access to these resources to anyone, anywhere, GWC is making a statement: Weather is for everybody.
The phrase “weather is for everybody” is exactly how Raychel Sanner, a GWC Spring Training instructor, closes out each of her videos for Tornado Titans, a weather platform providing forecasts, live chase videos, and education materials that she cofounded in 2009.
But it was something Sanner had to remind herself of a few years ago, when she came out as a trans woman. Despite having racked up 15 years of experience chasing storms—a stint that included an Emmy for breaking news coverage of a tornado in Katie, OK—she questioned whether she could still storm chase as a trans person.
“It was the dumbest thing ever, but very real,” Sanner says. “I was going through a second puberty, working on developing an identity. Who am I? What took me about a year to resolve was that I am storms, and storms are me. I like to describe weather as something inside of me from the very beginning—kind of like being trans.”
Sanner says that if something like GWC had existed when she came out, things might have been easier. But now, she hopes she can be that model for others through her work writing articles and producing videos for Tornado Titans.
“I don’t make videos about what it’s like to be a trans storm chaser,” says Sanner. “I just talk about what it’s like to be a storm chaser. I think that’s one way for people to see each other as equals because storm chasing is truly something anyone can do, no matter who you are.”
WHEN THE STORM CHASES BACK
Sanner likes to joke that if you really think about it, storm chasing is just driving hours in the hope that water vapor does something interesting. And while that doesn’t sound super exciting, sometimes it can be scarier than a chaser bargains for.
In 2013, Jennifer Brindley Ubl, a storm chaser and portrait photographer in Milwaukee who has been featured on a GWC podcast, found herself in the path of the El Reno, OK, tornado. At 2.6 miles wide, the rain-wrapped, multiple-vortex tornado is in the books as the widest ever recorded. At 6:03 p.m. on May 31, Ubl and her chase team were six miles southeast of the storm and looking at what Ubl describes as a big blue and green mothership. There was little contrast in the giant, rainy supercell, which made it difficult to see any tornado. Which is why, at 6:13 p.m. when she looked to the west and saw walls of rain blasting from left to right at tornadic speeds, Ubl panicked.
“We got tunnel vision,” Ubl says. “We were peering into this murky mess looking for a lightning flash to backlight a tornado. But what we missed was that the entire area of interest was an actual tornado. And the storm had gotten so close, we were looking up at the outer edge of it.”
When the team enacted their escape route, the tornado was just under a mile away and gaining on them. They reached safety, but another group of storm chasers wasn’t so lucky. El Reno was the first known storm to kill chasers, taking the lives of four, including three members of a respected tornado research team. Later, Ubl and her partner calculated they missed the tornado’s impact by just 90 seconds.
“The El Reno tornado was different from any storm I had ever chased,” Ubl says. “And the feelings I had during the chase were very different; I had never actually felt afraid before, never had the feeling, ‘We have to go now, we have to run away.’”
For a couple of years following that storm, Ubl had anxiety attacks during chases, but has since rediscovered the joy she experienced before El Reno. That process has been an exercise in controlling her fear. Ubl makes sure she is prepared for a chase and has as much information as possible, then she reassures herself that she knows her escape routes and can visually confirm the direction of the tornado and how close she is to it.
“Storm chasers get a [bad] rap for being adrenalin junkies or yahoos just running out there,” Ubl says. “While people who fall under those categories do exist, personally, I have to fight my fear of storms to get the shot. There are plenty of us who have a healthy respect for the tornado and what it’s capable of, and we work around that to have these experiences safely.”
Storm chasing is more than just an awe-inducing hobby for the weather-obsessed—it can also be a valuable resource for protecting those in harm’s way. Last year, the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recorded 25 deaths and 315 injuries that resulted from tornadoes and $700 million in property and crop damage.
“The thing about the National Weather Service [NWS] is that they are in an office looking at radar,” says Walton. “And what they see on radar may not reflect what’s actually happening.” That’s because radar beams slope upwards the farther they travel from the radar site. Factor in the curvature of the Earth, and it’s possible the beam is actually sampling the atmosphere above the storm. By calling in storm reports, chasers can help the NWS provide faster, more accurate warnings to the public.
Chasers also contribute to the science behind storms. Since 2016, Ubl has served as a documentary photographer for a small research team working to analyze winds near the Earth’s surface, where tornadoes register their most catastrophic impacts, but which radar can’t measure. The three-vehicle team surrounds a strong tornado and captures footage with video cameras that’s then analyzed to determine the forward motion of objects and debris. Research like Ubl’s is important. Studying the low-altitude data that radar misses might help scientists unlock the mysteries behind tornado formation.
But you don’t have to be a researcher or scientist to help. Ubl says anyone can submit their storm videos for analysis by her team. This crowd-sourcing concept was inspired by the 2013 El Reno Survey, which collected over 100 storm chaser videos into a database to help researchers understand the behavior of violent storms.
INSPIRING THE FUTURE
In an Instagram post a couple of years ago, Moore captioned a photo, “Storms are not simply witnessed; they are experienced within the soul.” While the reporting and citizen science aspects of storm chasing are important, many of these women chase because of the feeling it gives them. For Ubl, driving in wide open spaces and being in nature recharges her, and the beauty of the colors, shapes, and striations in each storm keeps her out in the field. Sanner is captivated by seeing the science behind storms play out in real time and humbled by the strength of what she’s watching. But she also derives joy from teaching about weather through her articles and videos, knowing she’s opening a door for someone to one of the coolest things the planet has to offer.
Moore loves the entire experience, from the anticipation of a chase, to the peace and quiet before a storm, to the adrenaline that comes from being so close to something so powerful. She has started sharing these joys with her daughter, taking her along on occasional chase trips. Her daughter was able to witness her first tornado two years ago and later talked about the experience with her class during their meteorology unit.
For Walton, who recently added volcanoes to her portfolio when she covered Hawaii’s Mauna Loa eruption last December, there’s an empowerment that comes from using her talents to identify a storm and get herself close enough to it to witness something very few people ever will. “The foundation for GWC is storm chasing, but it’s not really just about that,” Walton says. “More broadly, it’s about engaging women in STEM fields. And it’s about empowerment. It’s getting that self-limiting story out of the way so you can go do what you’re meant to do.”