GIVE 'EM HAIL, HURRY!

FOR THE ARIZONA THUNDERSTORM CHASERS, THE SKY'S THE LIMIT. AND THEREIN LIES THE RUB.

It starts with the big floating chickens rolling in from Tucson, legions of fat, fluffy formations that have the weather wonks salivating over their radars.

Weather soldiers from around the Valley call the storm hot line for instructions: Be here at four, it says; there is activity to the south. And the very fact that these chickens are marching toward the Valley is enough to set the afternoon adrenaline afire. People drop whatever they're doing--cleaning apartments, booking flights to Reno, raising children--and hotfoot it over to the climatology lab at Arizona State University. A chase is on.

No one remembers that the weather gods have a nasty sense of humor and have been laughing at ASU geography professor Randy Cerveny's expense for three years. They have taken Arizona's premier weather event--the monsoon--and stripped it of its oomph. They have confounded the siren-sounders at the National Weather Service and flummoxed the folks from the National Severe Storms Lab in Norman, Oklahoma, flinging their fascination back in their faces. They have made it clear just whose party this is.

Cerveny, though, is no fair-weather fan. As leader of the Arizona Thunderstorm Chasers (AZTC) project at ASU, he is not about to call anything off. So here he is at the climate lab with the department van, ready to go. Because you never know: This could be the year things go back to the way they were, when storms were splashing down all over the place. The pattern says otherwise, but, let's face it, in the world of meteorology, the Arizona monsoon is one of the last unexplored frontiers, and the storms it produces are a weather nut's dream. Or used to be.

The storm chasers are students and former students and just plain weather fanatics, people who glean as much excitement out of a dust wall as others do from the final seconds of an NBA playoff game. They call up Cerveny's storm line every day. Today, they arrive at the lab one by one in their signature shirts. The light blue shirts show a van emerging from what appears to be a small nuclear explosion--an anvil-topped thunderstorm.

Cerveny himself looks robust and chipper. His hands are on his hips. His gaze is cast toward the southeast through the glass doors of the lobby. He is compact and athletic, decked out in shorts and hiking boots. His light blue shirt is like the others, except it reads: Director. This is the day he has been waiting for. When the local dew point hits at least 55 three days in a row, it signals the official start of the Arizona monsoon season. Today, July 12, is that third day.

He goes off to help gather the stuff they'll need on their mission--anemometers, barometers, a mobile weather station designed and built by former chasers. Others assemble downstairs, including resident weather aficionado and software engineer John Moore, who is one of these guys who actually travels to the Plains in the spring to hunt tornadoes.

The chances of rain are up to 40 percent. The chasers fit the van with weather-reading instruments--a propellered missile gadget on one front corner, something that looks like a beehive on the other--that measure wind speed and direction and relative humidity. A graduate student hands out AZTC ID cards in case authorities wonder what these nuts are doing running around in the rain with their oddball doodads--which has happened before, since one device looks like a gun.

Organized storm chasing has been going on in the U.S. since the late 1940s, when postwar military pilots had the time to spare. By the next decade, tornado-chasing pioneers were zigzagging the Plains from South Dakota to Oklahoma. But it wasn't until the National Severe Storms Lab (NSSL) created the Tornado Intercept Project in 1972 that the first organized ground-based chasing began. Now, maverick chasers (Spielberg is making a movie about them) risk their personal livelihoods every spring along Tornado Alley, which cuts through north Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and southern Iowa. Tornado Alley is not a good place to own a mobile home.

But storm chasing in Arizona? Isn't that a little odd?
Actually, no. Storm chasing is odd. Storm chasing in Arizona is only logical.
Today, nearly a dozen chasers show up at ASU, enough to send out two units, so Cerveny's car is fitted with a radio and a huge magnetic AZTC label. Some of them are assigned to "Stormbase," a position at the National Weather Service office (located inside the Salt River Project complex in east Phoenix), from where they can monitor radar and direct Units 1 and 2 toward likely storm locations.

"There was some action last night," Cerveny tells his chasers. "The East Valley got hit pretty hard."
Don't they know it. Their voices are tinged with envy as they provide commentary: "There were trees down in Mesa." "I heard a couple of planes got flipped over out in Chandler." "They had gusts up to 64 out there."

But if they're going to catch any action of their own, they'd better move on out. The idea is not to go where the storms are, because individual storms die out within 30 minutes. But the updrafts produced by dying storms can help fired-up storm systems generate new storms--propagate--as they move, so the plan is to head them off at the pass. The ideal situation is to pick out the spot where two separate systems meet, because convergence can birth the mightiest storms of all, and the radar is showing a second system moving in from Globe. If the two collide, it will happen somewhere to the southeast.

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