MAY 27

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by Hummer Storm Chaser

The Top Chaser

Josh Wurman expressive on camera

Ten years ago, professor Howie Bluestein from the University of Oklahoma’s renowned School of Meteorology was Tornado Alley’s top chaser. However, the state of the art of chasing is changing rapidly. “Howie was the first,” says Dr. Josh Wurman, one of the VORTEX2’s principal investigators, whose Center for Severe Weather Research organization has spent the past 15 years developing mobile radars and other techniques to research storms.

“I’m probably the top scientist chaser, but there’s no way to know,” says Wurman, whose terse voice directs most of the VORTEX2 vehicles on missions during storm chase days. On non-chase days, he’s as likely to help diagnose a generator problem or truck air conditioner malady over the radio. “Some chasers might count all the tornados they’ve seen, but there’s no official scoring system. I’ve measured a lot because I’ve had the radar. Maybe I’ve seen more because I’ve been so persistent, because I’ve been pushing, pushing, pushing. The last three years I’ve chased 80 times, so naturally I’ve seen more. I like chasing aggressively.”

Wurman says other scientists are tops in the tornado field: “David Dowell [from the National Center for Atmospheric Research] gives a better weather briefing than I do. People have a lot of respect for Paul Markowski [from Pennsylvania State University], he’s young and he’s doing a lot of work. I’ve been obsessive with getting out the DOWs and doing all this work. The fame is kind of fun, but I wouldn’t say I live for it. It’s probably a negative in getting grants.”

This year is different in the tornado chase business. “Every scientist, mainstream well-published scientist, is on VORTEX 2. Pretty much everybody is here. This is the only legitimate science going on this year,” says Wurman. “This project is unprecedented and won’t happen again in our careers.”

Wurman says some of his crew are at the burn-out level, with endless work to do keeping all of the hardware functioning to get reliable data. “It’s grinding work and anxiety every day.” About ten days into the project, Doppler On Wheels (DOW) number 6 had a failed radar diode, and had to be driven all the way from Nebraska to Fort Worth, Texas, by 8 am the next morning. Then when it got there, there was no promise the radar company could fix it. After a 24-hour test in Texas, the team’s drivers shuddered at the thought that the VORTEX2 project was still chasing in South Dakota, 17 hours away.

Wurman was a weather geek when he was a kid, and had amateur weather stations. “I liked math and physics, and meteorology. I saved up money from summer jobs for weather stations,” he recalls. “I went into school thinking I would go into physics, but you had to be smart for that.” Wurman’s first job in meteorology came after he dropped out of school for a few years and worked at an Air Force geophysics lab as a scientific programmer.

He went to school for meteorology, earning his doctorate from MIT. But he also has a knack for electrical engineering, evidenced by his hands-on approach to building the vehicles for CSWR to chase weather. Sometimes he uses the mobile radar vehicles for other projects, for example a security job in Alaska, or for weather projects overseas.

Wurman’s first tornado chase was in 1992: “I was just working in Boulder as a post doc and I went on a few chases, I wasn’t doing it seriously. Today, my formal training is in meteorology, not electronics, but I’ve invented all these radar systems,” says the father of four, all less than 11 years old. He’s committed to the two-year VORTEX2 project, but he says, “I think I might happily take 2011 off.”

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