Fear and Awe of Storms at Earth Day Texas

Fear and Awe of Storms at Earth Day Texas

Nearly everyone that we talked with about tornadoes at the Earth Day Texas event had actually seen a tornado. Some people had seen many. And a few unfortunate folks found themselves far too close. People mentioned the names of local towns where a tornado plowed through and the infamous date.

This, in our experience, is not typical. When we help people learn about extreme weather, it’s rare that so many people have experienced the weather firsthand. The Earth Day Texas event, located in Dallas, the southern part of Tornado Alley, was an exception.

We created a severe storms learning zone at Earth Day Texas, featuring the Doppler on Wheels (or DOW), a massive storm chasing vehicle run by Josh Wurman, Karen Kosiba, and Alycia Gilliland from the Center for Severe Weather Research that is designed to collect data in the heart of storms without getting blown away. In a tent next to the DOW, people made tornadoes in bottles, explored models of giant hailstones, and got dizzy on rotating disks that let you spin like a tornado. Staff from the UCAR Center for Science Education, including Eileen Carpenter, Tim Barnes, Becca Hatheway, and me, were there to help people learn about these extraordinary storms.  

Our severe weather learning zone at Earth Day Texas 2017, including the Doppler on Wheels, before people arrived.
Credit: LS Gardiner/UCAR

Experiential education is invaluable, yet, I really hope a tornado never strikes in your town. Tornadoes are one of many amazing things our planet can do that are best appreciated at a distance.

During this event, we found that it is a different experience to help people learn the science of storms that have been threatening their homes, towns, and lives than helping people learn the science when they don’t have any firsthand experience with the storms.

Some people were awed and amazed by tornadoes, while others were terrified.

“I moved from Oklahoma to Texas to get away from tornadoes and then one touches down a block away from my house,” one man told me while watching a model tornado in a bottle.

“Maybe you didn’t move far enough to escape tornadoes,” I suggested, thinking of all the areas outside Tornado Alley where tornadoes rarely or never happen.

“Move any more south and you get hurricanes instead,” he shrugged, unwilling to consider moving east or west.

I asked him if he met Josh and Karen and their storm-chasing vehicle. “Those people are crazy,” he said shaking his head and looking over at the crowd gathered around Josh in awe of his tornado stories. “Gotta love ‘em though.”

While some people we met were traumatized by severe storms and tornadoes, other people couldn’t get enough of them.

An older gentleman came over to show Becca and me the tornado photos on his phone. There was damage, he said, but no one was hurt. His wife chuckled, amused that he found people who would appreciate his photos. He had come to the right place.

One man told me that he had never been interested in weather until he moved from New Hampshire to Texas and learned how dramatic a storm could be as it rolled across the flat land. Now he goes out chasing tornadoes. He stays far away from them to be safe, he added. “It makes her scared,” he explained with a nod to one of his daughters.

A group playing the "storms that spin" trivia game with Eileen Carpenter. 
Credit: LS Gardiner/UCAR

This event was on Earth Day, a time to appreciate the planet. And some of the people we met had clearly been traumatized by tornadoes. I wondered – is it hard to appreciate the planet if you find yourself cowering in a closet as the tornado sirens wail?

I decided to take an unofficial poll to find out whether people’s terrifying experiences with tornadoes made it difficult to appreciate what our planet could do.

“Do you think that severe storms are scary or exciting?” I asked a woman who had just described a time when her family piled into a dark closet with a TV to watch the tornado’s path as it headed towards their condo.

“Exciting,” she replied without hesitation. “I mean, you take the precautions you need to take and then you watch and it’s just… wow.”

I asked my poll question about 15 times, which, I know, is not very scientific, but people’s answers often sounded similar: tornadoes and other severe storms are both scary and exciting. 

My colleagues took note of people’s attitudes too. Becca talked with a mom who said her son had been scared of storms ever since their house was hit by a storm strong enough to break windows. This fear had turned into an interest in learning more, and he explored the activities we brought to the event and was excited to get into the Doppler on Wheels. He was curious about how storms work and how people learn about them.

One of the activities that we brought for kids involved making a tornado in a bottle by swirling water into a vortex. Ask a kid who has had some scary experiences with tornadoes if they want to make a tornado and you might see some apprehension in their face, so Eileen modified her pitch.

“Would you like to make a safe tornado?” Eileen asked a group of kids.

“A safe tornado?” replied one of the adults in their group. “That’s the kind I want in my backyard!”

Kids at Earth Day Texas 2017 made safe tornadoes in bottles. There's no need to take cover when these model tornadoes are heading your way. 
Credit: LS Gardiner/UCAR


Researcher Karen Kosiba and DOW operator Alycia Gilliland from the Center for Severe Weather Research help a group launch a weather balloon. 
Credit: LS Gardiner/UCAR