According to a study recently conducted at the University of Missouri, more and more people are paying for the chance to see tornadoes up close and personal. Mostly within the months of April through June, up to 1,200 tornadoes occur in the U.S. every year. A large percentage of those storms occur in an area known as Tornado Alley, which is centered around the states of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas – although it does extend east as far as Ohio, and north as far as North Dakota. Storm chasing tour outfits, many of which are run by or employ experienced meteorologists, will drive groups of paying “tornado tourists” across this region, in the hopes of witnessing severe weather firsthand.

“This is not like a beach vacation where you are going to see the same thing over and over each day,” Todd Thorn of Storm Chasing Adventure Tours told us. “With storm chasing you never know what you will see during the day. You don't pre-map where you are going. It's all up to the storm where we go and where we end up each night. You never know, you might just hit the jackpot and see 22 tornadoes in one day like we did a few years ago.”

Companies such as Thorn’s make use of weather forecasts, consultants, and their own meteorological equipment to predict where and when tornadoes will strike on any given day. Clients then pile into the tour vehicles, and can expect to travel up to 500 miles (805 km) a day to reach their target location. Once there, they could get to within a few hundred yards of a tornado... or they might not see one at all.

“There is no guarantee to see a tornado,” said Thorn. “If you come just to see a tornado, then this storm chasing tour is not for you. The odds of seeing tornado are about 25 percent... come on this tour to see the other parts of storm chasing like the the storm clouds, the lightning and the countryside, as we are driving all day.”

Of the tornado tourists surveyed in the U Missouri study, over half came from North America, with 11 percent traveling from Australia and almost a third coming from Europe. Most of them were happy with their experience. A third of the tourists witnessed tornadoes, with 50 percent seeing funnel clouds and over 95 percent seeing “a significant atmospheric event.” Prices charged by various companies ranged from US$3,000 to $5,000 for a one to two-week tour, not including food and hotels.

While the study labels storm chasing as “risk recreation,” putting it in the same class as activities such as skydiving and whitewater rafting, Thorn tries to keep the risk factor in perspective. “No one has ever been hurt,” he told us. “You are better off with us in a storm than your own home. We have computers that show where we are at all the time with the weather radar overlay on the GPS map. We know what the storm is doing minute by minute and if a tornado is starting to form.”

If you’re interested in chasing tornadoes, however, you should check into it sooner rather than later. "Although tornado tourism is a small niche market, the market continues to grow with help from television shows and movies," said U Missouri’s Sonja Wilhelm Stanis. "Storm-chasing tours continue to develop as a part of the Midwest's tourism scene, with tours filling up as much as a year in advance."

All photos courtesy Todd Thorn/Storm Chasing Adventure Tours