by Aimee Levitt
Yes, it's the end of September and summer vacation season is officially deader than the Cardinals' playoff hopes. But it's never too early to start planning for next year. A couple of University of Missouri professors report that Missourians who are sick of float trips and paranoid about the e coli in Lake of the Ozarks have found another form of adventure travel: Tornado chasing!
It turns out there are people who, when they spot a twister up in the sky, think it would be fun to go chasing after it instead of hiding in a basement. For a mere $3,000-$5,000, these intrepid souls can spend a couple of weeks roaming the Great Plains in search of the elusive funnel cloud.
It's true you could do this on your own with a little help from the Weather Channel, but the tornado tourism groups are led by experienced meteorologists and storm chasers who use their advanced scientific knowledge and equipment to predict where a tornado is likely to hit. Plus, they do the driving, in air-conditioned vans where everybody gets a window seat.
"With the help of movies like Twister, storm-chasing has become an international phenomenon," said Carla Barbieri, an assistant professor in Mizzou's School of Natural Resources. "While more than half of the surveyed travelers lived in North America, 11 percent came from Australia and nearly a third traveled from Europe to get a close encounter with a tornado."
Barbieri puts storm-chasing in the same category as skydiving or white-water rafting, a demographic she describes as "middle-aged, single, highly educated and wealthy." (What does that mean? Are single, educated and rich white people more suicidal than the rest of us?)
Most of the tornado tourists Barbieri and her colleague Sonja Wilhelm Stanis surveyed believed they got their money's worth. While none managed to get carried off to Oz, almost all (95 percent) saw a "significant atmospheric event", half saw funnel clouds and a third saw an actual twister.
While this is not an entire new phenomenon -- some of the twister tourism groups, like Silver Lining Tours, have been in business since the late 1990s -- it's nice to know it's now been certified by Official Research. Several groups, including Silver Lining, Tempest Tours and Extreme Tornado Tours, report that some of their 2011 tours are already starting to sell out.