Storm chasers: do they get paid?

If you have been a follower of the Discovery Channel network, and have been so for many years, you likely know about that series where folks travel the US plains in search of violent tornados – storm chasers.

Indeed, I’m talking about the Storm Chasers series – which was aired in the early 2010s.

Many people loved watching their adventures, and some even started storm chasing themselves because of it. Doing so could put their regular jobs on the line, especially if they have to be away for weeks. That raises an interesting question, which we’re going to answer in this article: do storm chasers get paid for storm chasing?

The answer is: it depends. Some don’t get paid, others get paid a little, and only a few get paid enough to be capable of full time storm chasing. In this article, we’ll dive into this question in more detail. Firstly, we’ll take a look at the nature of storm chasing work. We’re going to cover an ordinary day as a storm chaser and what they do to earn money. Subsequently, we’ll try and aggregate some statistics about whether storm chasers get paid and if so, how much.

Ready? Let’s take a look 😎

The nature of chasing storms: what storm chasers do

Let’s first take a look at the day of a storm chaser who chases full time. For this description, I’ve put inspiration from my own experiences as a storm chaser in Europe (which we cannot do fulltime, unfortunately), as well as the storm chasing process of late Tim Samaras as described in the book The Man Who Caught the Storm: The Life of Legendary Tornado Chaser Tim Samaras (Amazon affiliate link) written by Brantley Hargrove.

Waking up

For fulltime storm chasers, an ordinary day during storm season starts as follows. They wake up – often quite early – in a relatively cheap motel room, as they only have to stay there for one night. Many times, the first things that chasers do are check the weather models for that particular day.

Likely, the days before, they have found that a particular weather event is likely in the region they have woken up to. Or, at least, it’s going to happen within driving range from their sleeping location. When they wake up, they want to check the final model output: what’s the situation like? What does the atmosphere look like right now, and what can we expect in the hours to come? Given this information, what is the agreement between weather models?

And finally, the primary question: are we in the right spot? If so, they’ll often search a hangout position to stay for the next couple of hours. If not, and the book (Amazon affiliate link) gave a few good examples of this, chasers will likely drive miles and miles to get into a fortunate position.

Driving miles and miles

Driving many miles is not uncommon for storm chasers. The Hargrove book suggests that Tim Samaras, who chased fulltime during the storm season, often drove thousands of miles – and that for years in a row, until his unexpected death in the 2013 El Reno tornado.

It’s important to realize that the majority of time spent by storm chasers is on the road… and literally so. It’s nothing else but driving from location to location, where the odds of severe weather are highest. While doing so, and while the day starts and advances in time, chasers continuously keep their eyes on radar, new weather models, measurements, and the sky. They’re very eager for storm formation to begin.

Storm formation

Generally, on days with severe weather such as thunderstorms that produce large hail and tornados, the atmosphere can be seen at a boiling pot of water, while the pot is closed off.

When water starts cooking, it turns from liquid form into gas. If the space is closed, you’ll notice that pressure starts building up. While pressure increases, the water vapor will attempt to escape from the pot. Eventually, when pressure is extremely high, it will find a way out – whether by blowing the lid off the pot, or through another way.

As mentioned, the atmosphere behaves in a similar way. When thunderstorms form, air has to be forced to rise until it reaches a level from which it can rise freely. On days with extreme weather, it’s common that the force necessary in order to get air at this Level of Free Convection (LFC) is big, and that it can’t be generated throughout most of the afternoon.

However, especially during late afternoon, storms seem to be forming. The lid has been blown off the boiling pot. Since it’s boiling, a lot of energy is available within the atmosphere and air is extremely buoyant, or eager to rise. When this happens, the forming storms will blast into severe thunderstorms in no time. At this point, chasers become very excited. Their efforts in predicting where storms will form have paid off. It’s time for action!

The chase is on

During the chase, the eyes of storm chasers turn towards the road, the maps, the sky and to the radar. Here’s why there is a clear division of labor during a storm chase. A driver will likely be focused on the road, in order to ensure that the storm chasing team remains safe at all times.

While it’s also necessary to take time to appreciate the skies, storm chasing drivers will only do this when they’re at temporary holding points. The entire team trusts the driver in order to get them from A to B safely, and the role is therefore very important during a chase.

Another person, the navigator, will ensure to look at the map and – often – at the weather radar as well, if they’ve got meteorology expertise themselves. If the team is small, they will often also look at the skies, while another person could also be employed to be doing both radar and sky checking. The navigator ensures that the driver will know where to drive to, meaning a safe location for the team to watch the thunderstorm and possibly the tornado.

For this, they’ll require information about the weather as well as the roads. The first often comes through weather radar – which signal hook echos illustrating supercells that could become tornadic – as well as looking at the skies, for clear signs of e.g. a mesocyclone or even tornadogenesis.

Working together closely, the team follows the storm, stops every once in a while, and keeps positioning itself so that it is safe yet can appreciate Mother Nature’s force. While doing so, they shoot footage – both videos and photos – and also perform measurements in some cases.

When the chase ends

However, every thunderstorm comes to an end. When this happens, a storm chasing team – which by then already knows about likely areas for storm formation in the days to come – strategically positions itself by booking another motel room in an area where future storms can form.

Arriving at the motel, chasers will likely get some dinner, catch a drink or two, study the weather models, and get to sleep. What’s more, they could also distribute the videography and photography to media partners with which they work. That brings me to the part of the article that actually attempts to answer the question. While we now understand what a general storm chasing day looks like, it’s now time to look at whether storm chasers get paid.

Storm chasers: do they get paid?

At Quora, the answer by Michael Bueti is clearest when answering this question: some do, most don’t.

If you are a storm chaser, you can come from a variety of angles:

  • You’re a weather enthusiast and love the thrill of weather.
  • You’re a trained meteorologist, or becoming one. This includes people working for private firms and for more public ones such as the national weather agencies.
  • You’re an academic with an interest in weather.
  • You’re an engineer who wants to solve technical problems related to weather (late Tim Samaras belonged to this extraordinary category of storm chasers).

(Source: The Man Who Caught the Storm: The Life of Legendary Tornado Chaser Tim Samaras; Amazon affiliate link)

For most of these angles, it’s really difficult to earn money through storm chasing.

Earning money with storm chasing – as a weather enthusiast

People who chase storms because they are interested in weather from a hobby perspective often don’t earn money, and have to take leave of absence (paid and sometimes even unpaid!) from their regular job in order to chase storm. Unless viewed as a vacation, it’s uncommon that these people take many weeks off every year in order to do storm chasing. However, it’s not impossible for them to earn money.

Storm chasers like Reed Timmer have been known to sell their tornado imagery to US news channels, earning a few bucks ($500 for storm footage) on the road. The last few years, this has become much more difficult given the rise of smartphones with high-quality cameras, and the subsequent influx of imagery driving down prices.

Earning money with storm chasing – as a trained meteorologist

Timmer, however, is a trained meteorologist. With a PhD degree in meteorology from the University of Oklahoma, he is more than the average backyard chaser – and it’s therefore unsurprising that he has been in the field more than average.

Fortunately, this has allowed Timmer to chase storms professionally – and hence, paid. In the early 2010s, the Timmer team was paid by Discovery Channel, which also funded two other teams – being the Casey/Wurman team and the Samaras team – and could follow those teams for their series.

(Source: The Man Who Caught the Storm: The Life of Legendary Tornado Chaser Tim Samaras; Amazon affiliate link)

However, Storm Chasers came to an end – and Timmer found his way as a storm chaser for AccuWeather, hence being paid to chase storms. This is a common way to earn money for other professional storm chasers as well. For example, The Weather Channel also hires professional storm chasers to shoot footage and answer questions about tornados live, in the field.

Earning money with storm chasing – as an academic

Some branches of academia are also interested in weather – for the simple fact that they study the atmosphere in general and supercells/tornados in particular.

For example, in the Storm Chasers series, there was the team of dr. Josh Wurman who attempted to study tornados in the field through Doppler on Wheels trucks, shooting radar imagery which could be used for analyses afterwards. All in all, this allows people to understand severe weather in more detail.

It’s not very easy to be paid for storm chasing being an academic. Often, this requires the formation of larger storm chasing teams, such as Wurman’s VORTEX and VORTEX2 teams. Those are funded through grants which in their case come from the US government. With these grants, the team can deploy. However, they are very uncertain, and not many people get them.

(Source: The Man Who Caught the Storm: The Life of Legendary Tornado Chaser Tim Samaras; Amazon affiliate link)

That’s also why many academics perform storm chasing besides their regular jobs as academics (source: Quora).

Earning money with storm chasing – as an engineer

Finally, from the Samaras book, there is also one extraordinary category of storm chasers – being the engineers, who lack formal training in meteorology yet also have not started chasing because an intrinsic interest in weather.

Rather, their interest has been triggered by applying technology to severe weather. For example, Tim Samaras himself was one such engineer; while being interested in weather, what he loved more was measuring within a tornado. By developing probes himself, he was able to shoot footage from within a tornado – a feat not accomplished by others before, and by only few afterwards.

Similar to the life of academics, it’s hard for engineers to get their storm chasing activities funded. The book about Tim Samaras suggested that he took leave of absence during storm season, often paid, possibly even unpaid.

His storm chasing team, the TWISTEX team, could be deployed through funding from Discovery Channel for its Storm Chasers series, and had significant difficulty getting funded in the years after the series ended – little money flowed in, usually from grants for deploying the probes and testing whether they worked. That’s why most engineers turned storm chasers also chase next to their regular jobs.

Summary

Altogether, we see that the answer to the question whether storm chasers get paid is as follows: it depends. More precisely, it depends on what you do. If you have found a niche that allows you to chase storms in a paid way, as some engineers, meteorologists, academics or even hobbyists have, then it’s possible to chase storms while getting paid.

However, it’s a hard way of earning money and the road ahead is rocky. Funding is far from certain and the landscape has become more difficult. That’s why most storm chasers take leaves of absence, and chase storms in their free time.

I hope you’ve learnt something from my article today. If you did, I’d love to hear from you about what was interesting. Therefore, please feel free to leave a message in the comments box below! 💬 Please do the same if you have any questions or other remarks. I’ll happily answer and correct my article if necessary.

Thank you for reading MisterWeather today and see you next time! ⚡

References

Olya, G. (2019, May 29). How much storm chasers really make. Yahoo Finance – Stock Market Live, Quotes, Business & Finance News. https://finance.yahoo.com/news/much-storm-chasers-really-090000031.html

Do storm chasers earn a salary? (n.d.). Quora – A place to share knowledge and better understand the world. https://www.quora.com/Do-storm-chasers-earn-a-salary

Are there any storm chasers outside of the United States? (2020, September 13). MisterWeather. https://mister-weather.com/2020/09/12/are-there-any-storm-chasers-outside-of-the-united-states/

What are the updraft and downdraft of a thunderstorm? (2020, September 7). Mr. Weather. https://mister-weather.com/2020/09/07/what-are-the-updraft-and-downdraft-of-a-thunderstorm/

How does a thunderstorm form? (2020, August 19). Mr. Weather. https://mister-weather.com/2020/08/19/how-does-a-thunderstorm-form/

What are the differences between single cell, multicell and supercell storms? (2020, August 24). Mr. Weather. https://mister-weather.com/2020/08/24/what-are-the-differences-between-single-cell-multicell-and-supercell-storms/

How to know it’s going to rain by looking at the sky. (2020, September 3). MisterWeather. https://mister-weather.com/2020/09/03/how-to-know-its-going-to-rain-by-looking-at-the-sky/

Reed Timmer (@ReedTimmerAccu) on Twitter. (n.d.). Welcome to Twitter. https://twitter.com/ReedTimmerAccu

(n.d.). LinkedIn. https://www.linkedin.com/in/reed-timmer-12417087/

Michael Bueti’s answer to do storm chasers earn a salary? (n.d.). Quora – A place to share knowledge and better understand the world. https://www.quora.com/Do-storm-chasers-earn-a-salary/answer/Michael-Bueti

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *