OKLAHOMA CITY – A new brand of extreme tourism has taken hold in the American Midwest.
Fans of “twister tourism” can thank Japanese meteorologist Yoshikazu Sasaki for helping to spark the craze.
Sasaki, 83, is credited with improving the accuracy of storm forecasting.
As a result, thrill-seeking tourists from around the world are rushing to the Midwest in hopes of getting reasonably close to a gusting tornado.
“It’s a great year with a lot of beautiful tornados,” says Charles Edwards, 45, who runs Cloud 9 Tours, a storm-chasing tour company in Shawnee, Oklahoma.
From spring to summer each year, he packs his customers into vans laden with observation equipment and heads off to areas where twisters are likely to occur.
“The first year I just had two customers and was wondering if my business would last, but it went much better than I anticipated,” says Edwards, a 15-year veteran in this field. “One of the reasons is the popularity among international visitors.”
He says overseas customers from Britain, Italy, Australia and elsewhere are outnumbering U.S. customers this year.
“I don’t know a lot about Japan, but I bet if Japanese see the tornados here, they would love it,” Edwards said.
Most companies offer tours of four days or longer because there is no guarantee of encountering a tornado over a one- or two-day period.
Tour operators avoid the direct path of the tornado and take up vantage points several kilometers away. Extreme tornados, the ones that can obliterate a house, are out. The only people who can get close to these storms are meteorologists in observation vehicles rigged out like a tank.
The tours cost about $200 (18,000 yen) a day, including accident insurance and accommodation.
In addition to tornados, there are other storm experiences on offer, such as lightning bolts, giant hailstones and dust devils.
Around 1,200 tornados occur each year in the United States. The vast majority occur in the so-called Tornado Alley region of the United States, in the plains between the Appalachian and Rocky mountains, especially Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska.
At one time, tornados killed hundreds of people each year. But advances in forecasting and warning technology have pared the annual death toll to as few as 20.
In Japan, there were about 13 confirmed sighting of tornados a year over 16 years through 2006, according to the Japan Meteorological Agency.
Louis Wicker, 47, a research scientist at the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma, said there is always a danger of being killed or injured by a tornado but with the right precautions, there is nothing to worry about with the help of an expert.
Tornados, unlike typhoons, are brief and cover only a small area before they dissipate.
“If you have somebody who understands meteorology and teaches it to you, and if you have a good mind, you will be able to predict how the tornado moves,” said Wicker. “(Lightning) scares me a lot more than tornados.”
He said he has been interested in watching tornados since his teens.
Popular movies and TV programs depicting tornado researchers have contributed to growing interest in extreme weather patterns.
Tornado watching has become so popular that when a weather service issues a tornado warning, roads often fill with cars full of young people heading to the forecasted area.
In the meteorological world, the person credited with helping to build the foundation of tornado forecasting is Sasaki, professor emeritus at Oklahoma University.
Sasaki, from Akita, was thrust into the limelight in 1954, when as a student at the University of Tokyo, he correctly calculated the path of Typhoon Toyamaru (Marie), which claimed more than 1,700 lives.
In 1956, Sasaki went to the United States to continue his research into tornados and storms.
“Americans didn’t have a concept of forecasting tornados scientifically,” Sasaki said. “People were surprised when I correctly predicted the occurrence of a tornado using the numerical forecasting that I had honed making typhoon forecasts or when I created a mini tornado in the laboratory.”
Oklahoma University is the leading center for meteorological studies in the United States, and many of Sasaki’s former students are on the staffs of meteorological observatories and weather services across the country.
On the advice of Sasaki and other weather experts, the U.S. government deployed about 170 Doppler radar sites around the country in the 1990s. A radar site is capable of tracking the movements of wind and clouds.
As a result, the forecasting system improved remarkably. Forecasters can now predict an approximate time and location of a tornado up to two days ahead of time, making twister tourism possible.
“I only planned to come to the United States for a short time, but I was given quite a substantial budget for my research because the United States was suffering a lot of damage from tornados,” Sasaki recalled. “The research environment was great, and I ended up staying here.”