Prairie Storm Chasers
Nebraskans know a thing or two about bad weather, but for a few brave souls, darkening skies are a siren call. We followed these fearless 'tornado hunters' on Mother Nature's own high-speed chase.
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(This story originally appeared in the July/August 2014 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)
THE STORM SWIRLS across the horizon, a mile-wide painting upon Mother Nature’s canvas, filled with darkening shades of gray. Suddenly, a freight train seems to rumble through the clouds and another tornado plows through the prairie. Nebraska’s horn section blares out as sirens warn all near the storm’s deadly path to take shelter or flee for safer ground.
There are some who race toward the belly of the beast and follow the twister’s every turn. They are the storm chasers of Nebraska.
Storm season has bloomed in southwest Nebraska and Dean Cosgrove’s heart is racing with excitement. It means months of pursuing his life’s passion as he rolls about Tornado Alley in search of monster storms from Texas to South Dakota. This self-proclaimed “hard core” chaser was for many years a lone wolf hunting wild weather. His videos appeared on CNN and the Weather and Discovery channels, including his footage from southcentral Nebraska on May 24, 2004, where he filmed 15 tornadoes during an epic supercell encounter. Now, select clients join him on these adventures through his business, Windswept Chase Tours, which include his short-notice storm hunts arranged for Nebraskans who get a sudden urge to chase Mother Nature.
The chase begins from Cosgrove’s hometown of Curtis. With one of the guests driving a rented van, they go where the wind blows with Cosgrove in the navigator’s seat. He’s armed with his laptop, some high-tech radar equipment and an almost mystical instinct that began in childhood.
His mother would tell him stories about how as soon as he could talk Dean would be running around their yard in Creighton, pointing up at the sky and asking what those clouds were going to do. Sometimes, a dust devil would stir and his mother laughed back at how her son would race to it with hopes of lifting off.
“My first memories of storms were of staying up late and standing in the window and watching the lightning. I would stand there until that first bolt would hit so close that I would jump back,” he said.
Cosgrove has made this boy’s wonder a full-time man’s job, selling his videos and photographs of storms. His bread and butter is the tours, where he also showcases to guests his thunderstorm trophies, including a piece of a twisted tree scorched by a lightning bolt at 55,000 degrees. Yet Cosgrove also treasures his rare solo hunts.
“I feel very fortunate to still have a few storms all to myself,” Cosgrove said. “There’s nothing like standing on top of a hill in the Sandhills as the setting sun paints its colors on the magnificent anvil of a supercell. There are no man-made sounds, no other signs of human existence within sight. It’s just me seeing, feeling, smelling and almost touching the storm. I feel like I am even becoming part of the storm.”
CREIGHTON ALSO WAS the launch site for another weather explorer, but instead of Knox County, it was the Omaha campus of Creighton University. Scott Nicholson began chasing his degree in atmospheric sciences here in 1998 when he worked as an intern at the National Weather Service’s office in Valley. In 2000, fellow classmate and future weather forecaster Josh Boustead led Nicholson on his first storm. The adventure turned a childhood fascination with storms into an obsession. Over the next decade Nicholson witnessed 70 tornadoes in a dozen states. Those experiences inspired him to start his Omaha-based Spring Weather Productions.
A sunny smile shines out from Nicholson when he sees clouds moving his way. “Bad weather is good weather for me,” Nicholson said. “I root for bad weather every day.”
Like Cosgrove’s tours, Spring Weather’s storm riders try to keep a safe distance from the danger zone and use their smart phones and laptops to map out quick exit strategies when the sky suddenly chases the chasers. Guests can sign up for a weeklong journey or just a day of traveling hundreds of miles across the Great Plains with
Nicholson at the wheel in a high-tech-filled Toyota Sienna van. Riding shotgun is his wife, Jennifer. Nicholson has been left breathless, literally and figuratively, during many of these weather obstacle courses.
“As each second passes, the excitement builds, the adrenaline rushes, and the admiration and awe pull us in,” said Nicholson of entering the tornado’s path. “Yet, when the time comes to respect the power of nature, it’s a mad dash to the van and a heavy foot on the accelerator to again put us at a safe distance.”
In 2004, two days after a record-setting 2.5-mile-wide tornado struck Hallam on May 22, he tracked 16 twisters south of Hastings. Then in 2009 he came within two blocks of a quarter-mile-wide tornado near Aurora.
“I sat on the shoulder of Highway 34 less than a mile east of where the funnel made contact with the ground. I remained still as the slow-moving tornado carved a path around my position, munching on open land,” Nicholson said. “The tornado turned black as night as it ingested the tilled farmland, growing with every swallow. I jumped into my vehicle and slowly pushed east, sneaking up on the monster from behind. As I passed a row of trees lining the highway, the tornado jumped out from behind the trees, and I found myself within an eighth of a mile from its rotating base. The tornado had turned back to the northeast and decided to cross the highway directly in front of me.”
Yet the most spectacular storm for Scott and Jennifer didn’t even form a funnel cloud. It came on June 14, 2013, when they were filling up with gas west of West Point and suddenly thunder clouds began spinning overhead.
“I had the most awe-inspiring moment of my chase career observing that supercell,” Nicholson said. “It was sitting in one spot and wasn’t moving very fast, maybe 10 miles per hour. It was the most beautifully structured supercell I’ve ever seen in my life.”