Q&A with Josh Wurman (Scientist)
YOU INVENTED THE DOPPLER ON WHEELS RADAR TRUCKS THAT ARE FEATURED IN TORNADO ALLEY. WHAT INSPIRED THAT INVENTION? WAS THERE A EUREKA MOMENT?
Back in the early nineties, I was reading about how tornado research was being done, and it seemed very unambitious to me. I thought the way they were getting up close to the tornadoes was a great idea, but the instruments they were using seemed primitive. It was like right idea, wrong toys. My idea was to take what I’ll call a real radar and get it up onto a truck. And it was tough going for a while, because there was great skepticism about whether this could be done. Everyone tried to convince me that it wouldn’t work.
BUT YOU WENT AHEAD, ANYWAY?
I was young and uninformed, so I didn’t listen to those ideas that much. We had a borrowed truck. Somebody had a box van. And I was working at the National Center for Atmospheric Research at the time, so I gathered up a U-Haul full of junk that they were willing to let me have, because it was just being thrown away. They had a big field they called the boneyard. And this stuff was just rusting out in the field. I bought a World War II surplus antenna pedestal. On the other hand, I also had some computer components that were really state of the art. They were very new and we custom-built those. I’m a meteorologist, by the way, not an engineer.
THERE MUST’VE BEEN A PRETTY STEEP LEARNING CURVE?
Well, the real achievement, I think, was that we put this together in a workable way so quickly. There was a big tornado project going on at the time called VORTEX, and it was scheduled to end in 1995. And so I rushed. I started the thing in the fall of 1994, and we had it out six months later, which is not nearly enough time to build a radar. It usually takes a year or so to build a radar. A year or two. We had six months. And, literally, it was midnight work. My wife and I—I had just gotten married—so my wife and I were in the shop in the middle of the night, duct-taping and bolting the thing together. It’s not like she’s a trained engineer, either, so we were basically amateurs. But we were trying to do things reasonably. That was the achievement, in my mind. We cut the corners where we could, and didn’t where it was critical. And we made the right choices, because it worked.
HOW DID IT HOLD UP SO CLOSE TO THOSE HIGH WINDS?
Really well. There were some issues, you know. The truck was too heavy for its suspension and for the engine, stuff like that. And, actually, after a year, we burnt out the engine. There were also some arguments and fights with some of the senior people who thought we were being reckless and crazy. I remember somebody saying the truck’s going to tip over, you can’t put a big antenna like that on the back. That’s going to tip over the first time you go over a highway ramp. The first time you’re in a wind it’s going to tip over. And I said, well, you know, I just don’t think so. We were working with a government lab, and they were trying to order me to do wind-testing and computer simulations, all this stuff that would’ve delayed us years. And I kept saying, we’re not designing the Space Shuttle here. We’re designing a small instrument.
THE DOW TRUCKS IN TORNADO ALLEY ARE VERY IMPRESSIVE-LOOKING.
Well, they’re the third generation. The first one was not impressive-looking. Really. The first one had wire and duct tape and Velcro. That was the big running joke among my friends, that I loved Velcro and duct tape too much.
YET IT DID THE JOB, IN SPITE OF BEING SAFETY-PINNED TOGETHER?
You just sort of build it and it kind of works, right? I mean, if you think about the TIV, it was done in a lot of the same spirit. You just make some smart judgments. Put things on the car in a reasonable way. Armor it reasonably. And it’ll be reasonably aerodynamic and sensible. And after the DOW was test run, it worked pretty much out of the box. The first time we pointed it at tornadoes we saw just spectacularly new things. And then, all of a sudden, the opinion of the community changed a hundred percent. Wow. It didn’t break. They didn’t die. And the data we got was just groundbreaking. It was very exciting to see that stuff in science.
BECAUSE YOU’RE INSIDE THE DOW DURING DEPLOYMENTS, YOU RARELY GET TO ACTUALLY SEE THE TORNADOES WITH YOUR OWN EYES.
It’s true. I’ve collected data on about a hundred and seventy tornadoes now with the DOW. How many have I seen, personally, with my own eyes? I don’t know. Ten or twenty of them. The problem is that the very moment that would be most interesting to look out the window is the busiest time inside the truck. Because we’re getting the data. We’re trying to make sure we’re getting it right.
DO YOU EVER FEEL IN DANGER DOING YOUR JOB?
In the beginning, things were very unstable, because we started with that zero-budget truck I mentioned. The trucks you’re looking at in the movie, those are not zero-budget. They’re expensive and the cabins are professionally built. We’re a much more semi-professional operation now than we were. Every once in a while, something happens. The power goes out, say, and it’s nighttime, so we can’t see where the tornado is. We’re prepared for those moments, though. One of the characteristics of the experienced members on our team is that we don’t panic. We know what we’ve got to do to get ourselves booted up. That’s our first priority, to get ourselves back up and make sure we’re safe, get our radar safe, and communicate to other teams that they’re not getting the guidance they’re used to.
YOUR TEAM HAS PIONEERED NIGHT CHASING, IS THAT RIGHT?
Yes, we have. Regular storm chasers don’t go out at night much, for two good reasons. One, there are real safety issues, because you can’t see the tornado. The second is, since you can’t see the tornado, why go out? We’ve tried to get Sean to come out with us a few times, because we want to get some measurements with his anemometer, but he’s not real gung-ho to go out at night, mainly because he can’t get IMAX film. So what’s the point, you know? It’s difficult. It’s scary. For us, though, there’s a big point, because we can see everything with the radar. And the instruments we deploy, those tornado pods, work just as well at night. But that’s unusual. Other kinds of chasers? That’s not the case. And it’s also a challenge for us, because we’re depending a hundred percent on the radar at night. We’re a hundred percent blind without it.
THE STORM CHASING SEASONS LASTS TWO TO THREE MONTHS. IS IT HARD TO BE AWAY FROM YOUR FAMILY FOR THAT LONG?
I have four kids, so the whole time I’ve been chasing I’ve had a family. And being away from them is certainly one of the worst, most negative aspects of doing it. There’s a lot about these missions that isn’t fun. Being away from home, being nomadic the way we are. Being in a different hotel every night is miserable. We really are living out of a suitcase. One thing that I’ve made a big effort to do—because there are always several down times during the season, or a week where there aren’t going to be tornadoes—I’ve become really adept at bugging out, getting back home for a few days and touching base with family. Every two or three weeks I’ll go home, just so the kids know who I am.
THEY PROBABLY BRAG TO THEIR FRIENDS THAT THEIR DAD IS A STORM CHASER?
I don’t know if they brag about that, or if they’re horrified. I don’t know if having a dad as a tornado chaser wins points with the teenage-girl mall crowd. Who knows?
YOU HAVE SAID BEFORE THAT “SUICIDE BY TORNADO WOULD BE VERY INEFFECTIVE.”
I do say that sometimes. Well, it’s true. Tornadoes are actually a very small risk to people. My point is that it’s really hard to get hit by a tornado, even if you’re trying.
AND THIS MAKES YOUR JOB EVEN MORE CHALLENGING?
One of the things that our team and Sean’s team share is perseverance. We do this every single year, typically for about two months. And we do it every year because it’s hard to intercept a tornado. And we’ll keep on doing it until we get enough data, enough of the right kind of data. It’s not like we’re brilliantly skilled at getting in front of the tornadoes. I mean, we’re pretty good. But it’s just going at it, being willing to go at it every single year.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE BEING TRAILED BY THE TORNADO ALLEY FILM CREW?
Well, Karen and I, in particular, have a lot of experience with this. Since about 2004, we’ve usually had some kind of documentary or reality-show team embedded with us. What we actually did, because we worked with Discovery for a few years, we put a little jump seat in the truck for the cameraperson. Before that, they had to sit on a cooler. It’s just really crowded in there. The IMAX team was not really that intrusive, though. Sometimes it was a pain on off days, when we’d just want to get some rest, and they’d want to get an aerial shot, or a shot of the truck driving under a bridge. For the most part, though, they didn’t get in our way. The ground rules are all pretty set. We just go about our business.
THE BENEFITS PROBABLY OUTWEIGH THE HASSLES?
Oh look, it’s good for us. Publicizing our science is a positive thing. And underlying that is my personal feeling—and it’s not a belief shared by VORTEX2, necessarily—but my personal feeling is that nearly everything we do is funded by tax dollars. And so when documentary companies like this, or even just a local reporter from Podunk, Kansas, want to interview us, their tax dollars are paying for those trucks. So I think, in some sense, we owe it to them to explain what we’re doing. We’re operating in the middle of their town. I think they have a right to know what we’re doing. And the same applies when someone comes up to us at the gas station and says, Hey, what’re you doing? We’re human. Sometimes if we’re busy or tired we’re sort of annoyed by someone coming up to us and asking us all these questions. Again, though, it’s his community. They’re his tax dollars. He should know what’s going on. Obviously, if we’re busy we can’t talk to him. But most of the time we’re not busy. Most of the time we’re just waiting for the next storm.