HEADER PHOTO CREDIT: PAIGE VINCENT
In the 1996 blockbuster Twister, actress Helen Hunt appeared on the silver screen as Dr. Jo Harding in one of the first media depictions of a female storm chaser.
Alongside male storm chasers, Harding tracked down massive, record-breaking tornadoes with a combination of grit and scientific intelligence, shattering expectations about what a storm chaser could be.
Since the release of Twister, the visibility of female storm chasers has decreased aka waned.
According to Gallup, 1 in 3 people in the U.S. say they have been affected personally by an extreme weather event in the past two years, as concerns about climate change grow.
“We’re stuck in a cycle where the media will go to the male chasers for content, to cover them chasing, and women kind of fall by the wayside in that regard. Then the culture, because they watch that media, assume that a storm chaser is a dude.”Jen Walton, Colorado-based storm chaser
The lack of female representation is one of a number of barriers women face when they cover memorable severe weather moments.
“I think the combination of thing it was too dangerous and you need to be an expert and not seeing people like me led me to believe that chasing wasn’t for me, wasn’t something that I can do.”Jen Walton, Colorado-based storm chaser
Back in 2018, an opportunity to change that perspective arose when Walton started chasing. However, she eventually found herself frustrated by the inequities she faced on the road, including male chasers’ getting more engagement online and more financial compensation for their work.
“I had to work twice as hard to get the same recognition. It just finally reached a breaking point.”Jen Walton, Colorado-based storm chaser
To fill the space, Walton and Melanie Metz (experienced storm chaser) launched Girls Who Chase in 2021 as an Instagram account for women to share their excellent work.
“If we’re not getting the media coverage that’s deserved or appropriate for what female chasers are doing, we’ll create our own until we do.”Jen Walton, Colorado-based storm chaser
Walton said she has heard from storm chasers around the world eager for women to take centre stage. A science teacher reached out to Walton to say she shared the Instagram page with her students.
“Each time I get something like that, it would kind of blow me away. I would think to myself this is much bigger than me or even storm chasing.”Jen Walton, Colorado-based storm chaser
In response to the interest, Girls Who Chase started a Twitter account and set up a Patreon subscription service which offers educational opportunities. The group also started a podcast featuring interviews with women in storm chasing and meteorology.
Starting in 2020, Walton said she has seen an influx of female storm chasers. Among them is Holly LaMontagne, whose lifelong interest in the atmosphere started with a tornado warning she experienced as a child.
“As we rounded the corner to go down the basement, I could see out the side door window, and the air was green – not the sky, but the air. That was the moment where I was like: ‘What is that? I need to know more.”Holly LaMontagne
LaMontagne’s journey was derailed when she failed to see herself represented in a community she believed was filled with only serious scientists or adrenaline junkies.
“My concern was I would not be taken seriously or I would be looked down upon, especially because I present very feminine and I am not a very serious research scientist”Holly LaMontagne
The global COVID-19 pandemic gave LaMontagne more time to learn about spotting storms. Coupled with support from other female storm chasers, it created a perfect storm that propelled her to Ohio, where she caught her first tornado o camera.
“It just made everything click for me to see it right there in front of me.”Holly LaMontagne
Raychel Sanner, a co-founder of Tornado Titans, says conditions are ripe to increase public interest in storm chasing. Tornado Titans is a collective of storm chasers that publish educational materials about the subject.
“People are interested in weather more so because of climate change. Because they see this is impacting my life more than it usually does.”Raychel Sanner, Tornado Titans co-founder
Metz has seen the rise in female storm chasers firsthand. She starred in the 2007 TV show Twister Sisters, for those that don’t know.
“I think one of the first steps is happening now, where we are connecting more with each other as women and connecting with those who are experienced, like myself, who can help share some tips and tricks to help people feel a little more confident and sure of themselves to get out there.”Melanie Metz, Girls Who Chase co-founder, storm chaser
Nazli Zeynep, a storm chaser from New Jersey, said that she felt pressure in her Turkish community to pursue a more normal career in a field like business but that seeing the work and careers of storm chasers like Metz gave her the strength to pursue her passion.
“It’s helping us come together and be like: ‘Hey, you know what, I don’t have to be embarrassed, I don’t have to be shamed by this. I can do this!”Nazli Zeynep, New Jersey-based storm chaser
Jennifer Brindley Ubl has been chasing since 2006. Brindley Ubl is a Wisconsin photographer who captured the latest and largest tornadoes on record. She likened the shift in perception of female storm chasers and the increasings media attention to the sun breaking through a cloud, shining a light on diversity that has always been there.
“Women, chasers of colour, trans and queer chasers, we all exist, and we have existed in this community for a long time.”Jennifer Brindley Ubl, Wisconsin-based photographer
Sanner said the spotlight is shifting to highlight more LGBTQ chasers and chasers of colour. For those that don’t know, Sanner is an Emmy award-winning transgender storm chaser for nearly 20 years.
Brindley Ubl said nothing qualifies someone to be a storm chaser apart from a “totally uncontrollable obsession with wet weather and witnessing the power and fury of Mother Nature.”
For a handful of people, the obsession is all about the adrenaline rush as danger rises with the speedometer. Those who have meteorological or scientific backgrounds are trying to learn more about weather phenomena. Others want to help the National Weather Service spot storms so it can warn affected communities more quickly and efficiently.
Then there are those who make up the majority of storm chasers, Brindley Ubl stated, people somewhere in the middle who have a passion for chasing safely and experiencing the magnificence of a tornado.
“Once your standing in front to it, you feel that raw power. There’s absolutely nothing like it. It fills your tank all the way back up to the top, and you say: ‘OK, this is why we do this. This is what that sacrifice is for. Let’s do it again!”Jennifer Brindley Ubl, Wisconsin-based photographer
Already joining the profession are girls like 10-year-old Kylie Cox, who chases storms with her dad, Gabe Cox, a storm chaser based in Texas who takes extra safety precautions on their trips. The father and daughter duo travelled to central Texas last year in a spin on Take Your child to Work Day, spotting a funnel cloud up close.
“When you actually go out storm chasing, you realise that a lot more people than you think are interested in storm chasing, and it’s just super fun.”Kylie Cox
Whilst she wants to become a fashion designer in Paris, Kylie said she would love to carry on storm chasing as a hobby. Chasing a hurricane is on her bucket list, however, her dad suggested that she would have to wait a little for that.
Jessica Moore, a Colorado meteorologist is driving for more on-screen female meteorologists’ delivering live reports in the field. Moore took her 11-year-old daughter, Lilly, storm chasing in their home state last year and go the memory of a lifetime watching a tornado touch down.
“It’s just such an amazing bounding moment, because it’s showing her that this is the path that I created. It’s a unique path that wasn’t there before! If you’re passionate about something, you can do it too.”Jessica Moore, Colorado-based meteorologist
“For the record, I absolutely love working with female storm chasers – interviewing, writing about their content etc. Every bit of footage I’ve seen produced by a female storm chaser is exceptional. I will always support the female storm chasing community.”Jamie Simms, Discover Tornadoes website lead
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