Cumberland Times-News

October 19, 2009

Professor chases storms for over 20 years

Summer class sells out each year, but experience not like on TV

Kristin Harty Barkley

FROSTBURG — Dave Arnold started chasing storms 2 1/2 decades ago, when it was something of a novelty.

These days, seems like everybody’s doing it — from the guy next door with a handheld camcorder to the Discovery Channel’s “Storm Chasers,” who drive armored vehicles into the midst of tornados for an international audience.

“I think it’s popular for the same reason reality television has become so popular,” said Arnold, a Frostburg State University geography professor who saw his first tornado in 1992 near Ellettsville, Ind., and hasn’t stopped pursuing them.

“I guess it’s because it’s real. It’s exciting. I think it’s something a lot of people fantasize about being involved with, but would never have the courage to do. It allows them to live that fantasy out.”

Arnold, who teaches a storm-chasing class every summer at FSU, will share some of his experiences with the community Saturday during a presentation at Frostburg United Methodist Church’s Fellowship Hall. Some of his photographs are stunning.

“Probably the most memorable thing last summer was a big tornado we saw in Goshen County, Wyoming,” said Arnold, who captured a black-and-white image of its slender, angling funnel cloud. “...We came up over the top of a hill, and there it was in all its glory.”

The American Association of University Women, which is hosting Saturday’s presentation, is trying to grow the organization by offering almost monthly speakers, said Yvonne Beal, president. Last month, a health care worker supervisor from Western Memorial Health System spoke about stroke; next month, an FSU librarian will discuss banned books.

“We try to get something that will be of value and be interesting,” Beal said. AAUW’s Frostburg chapter at one time had about 90 members, she said, but now has fewer than 30. Nationally, AAUW has more than 100,000 members.

Arnold, a native of California, first taught his storm-chasing class in 1994 at Ball State University and introduced it to FSU when he came here in 2006. Typically, he takes about eight students in a van on a 31-day trip across the Great Plains to track and study storms. The class never has any vacancies.

“We’re trying to learn how the storms develop,” Arnold said. “How communities mitigate those storms, how the public reacts to those storms.”

Though television depictions often include footage of vehicles racing toward a tornado, a really good storm chaser doesn’t actually do much chasing, Arnold said.

“If you’re in the right place at the right time, a storm develops right on top of you,” he said, adding that forecasting where a storm will form is more than half the battle. “You keep watching maps, satellite images, trying to pinpoint an area that’s really about the size of two counties.”

Students who take Arnold’s class must sign a waiver. Safety is primary, he said.

“Some of the stuff on the reality shows you see, they’re trying to top each other,” Arnold said, adding that getting in front of a storm isn’t a prudent thing to do. “They’re in it for the fame of getting the best tornado shot ever. “

Arnold always approaches a tornado from behind, he said. At least when he’s teaching.

“No. 1, the way I chase by myself and the way I chase with students, there’s a big difference between the two,” he said.

Still, even caution can’t always provide protection from nature. A couple of years ago, Arnold and his students stopped at a restaurant at the end of their day, turning all their radar equipment off.

“A tornado went right by the restaurant and blew all the windows out of the van,” Arnold said. “We weren’t even chasing. It was crazy. Whamo. We got nailed.”

Contact Kristin Harty at kharty@times-news.com.