Storm chasers do important work

Posted May 26, 2010 11:07 p.m. EDT
Updated May 26, 2010 11:15 p.m. EDT

— The study of tornadoes has fascinated scientists and thrill seekers alike. Understanding their power and how they move can help improve warning times and that can save lives.

WRAL news photographer Greg Hutchinson rode along with storm chasers earlier this month in the heart of Tornado Alley. He was there when 28 tornadoes touched down in southern Kansas and northern Oklahoma on May 10.

With hearts pounding and eyes to the sky, Jay Burnette and Joshua Lockett told Hutchinson about their fascination with tornadoes.

“Being a meteorologist, I’m constantly in awe of mother nature. The power of mother nature,” Burnette said.

Burnette, a professor at the University of Arkansas, puts his life in danger to help others avoid nature's fury.

“To try and provide additional warning services to the National Weather Service, to the TV networks as well, so they can get the warning out for the people that are in the path of these storms,” Burnette said.

While the excitement and adrenaline are part of every chase, not every chase is successful.

“We were trying to chase one that went up into Kansas, and it was running away from us at about 50 mph,” Burnette said.

Burnette said chasing tornadoes isn't just his profession, it's his passion.

“I also grew up in the state of Kansas and I’ve lived with these things all my life,” he explained.

Joshua Lockett is a different kind of storm chaser. He actually gets paid to study tornadoes.

“I got into it, basically just to film tornadoes, and kind of do the whole yahoo thing. To be a cowboy,” he said.

Lockett runs Mobile Severe Storms Laboratory in Derby, Kan., from the front seat of a SUV.

“I’m in it now for more of the research side and the science, and I’m in it more to save lives,” he said.

The 1996 film "Twister" glamorized storm chasers like Lockett and Burnette, but many aspects of the movie are true.

Exploring the unknown can be exciting, dangerous and even deadly. But storm chasers say the benefits from the research far outweigh the risks.