GIVE 'EM HAIL, HURRY!

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

Cerveny lays out the plan: Five chasers in Unit 1 will head east in the van toward Apache Junction, then possibly to the south. He and three others in Unit 2 will go south, figuring to cut east near Coolidge.

"We now have an official monsoon season," Cerveny says. The chasers scramble into the vehicles; the official time is logged as 16:37. The floating fowl are within striking range.

The monsoon is a shift in winds (it comes from the Arabic word mausim, meaning "season," or "wind shift"), although many people think of it in terms of heavy rain. This is probably because the most notorious wind shift of all, the Asian-Indian monsoon, is responsible for the most spectacular and prolonged rains in the world.

Though not nearly as dramatic, the same phenomenon occurs in northwest Mexico and then, to a lesser degree, in Arizona. Some in the weather community argue that the event should be renamed the Mexican monsoon. As the summer months near, primary wind flows shift from west to south, which alters the moisture conditions. Meteorologists distinguish between a dry and wet season since the storms associated with the monsoon usually don't let loose until early July.

Valley thunderstorms typically pop up in the mountains--the Mogollon Rim, Mexico's Sierra Madre--and then zero in on Phoenix, which means you can basically wait for them to come to you. Most erupt here between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. The ferocity of summer monsoon storms produces the intense downdrafts known as microbursts that, because of the dust in the area, make them more visible here than anywhere else in the country.

For weather wonks, beauty lies in such predictability and clarity. So in 1989, Cerveny and ASU's geography and climatology departments, along with the Phoenix office of the National Weather Service, launched the storm chasers project. But Arizona's model storms also hold mystery, and that is the allure that draws the storm groupies from around the country. It is why the wizards of storm chasing, Oklahoma's National Severe Storms Lab, came to the Valley in 1990 to participate in SWAMP, the Southwest Area Monsoon Project, and why the NSSL has stationed someone out here every summer since, despite the growing laughter of the weather gods.

How Arizona's monsoon storms happen is no riddle. Watching them happen is cool. The systems that produce them have a tendency to cluster, as if organizing for optimum survival. They can go all night. Once in a while, they'll even move against the dominant wind flow. But being able to forecast when they'll happen and where their upper-level moisture, the moisture that sets the stage for summer storms, comes from--well, that's the real trick. The bull's-eye pattern of the storms makes the Valley an ideal lab for study.

And so, they chase. Their mission is fourfold: One, they deliver on-the-spot observations that verify what the Weather Service guys think they're seeing on radar. For instance, a mean-looking storm cell thought to be approaching, say, Apache Junction might actually be practically on top of it, and the chasers can relay that information in time for a warning. Second, chasers' observations before, during and after a big storm are pondered by the Weather Service and often passed on to news outlets.

Data also are compiled to create a bank of information, a sort of library, for detecting patterns. And the project also is designed to give the meteorology students a chance to rub shoulders with agencies they might actually work for someday.

But beyond all that, there is the thrill of the chase, of facing the elements. "It can get exciting when you get caught in the downpours," says project assistant director John Shaffer.

And so the storm chasers are out there on the front lines, volunteers caught up in the battles that the Weather Service sees in shades of red and green on Doppler radar. They are the kids who would stay outside marveling at storms when everyone else had run for shelter.

Cerveny, a tornado-seasoned native of Nebraska, is 36 and single, which gives him the freedom not only to do a little science-fiction writing, but also to funnel $2,000 to $3,000 of his own into the project. With no state or federal money to play with, all of AZTC's doodads are donations, from the media or from Salt River Project, which is always interested in knowing about storms that could cause power outages. The first summer out, the chasers were armed only with a handheld anemometer, a $150 gadget the size of a transistor radio that measures wind speed.

Engineering was the way to go when Cerveny first went to the University of Nebraska. That's where the money was and where his friends were heading. But then, while doing an internship involving MX missiles, Cerveny caught a glimpse of all the Maalox and Rolaids stashed in the desks of his co-workers, and that was about all he needed to know about circuit diagrams.

He opted for his real interest--geography, specifically, meteorology and climatology. Weather changes; it operates in traceable patterns, but every once in a while throws you something off the grid. It unleashes natural forces that can be visually remarkable or terribly catastrophic and sometimes both. Those forces are constants in recorded history, and despite everything we know about them, we're still pretty much at their mercy. Severe storms run a global tab of about $20 billion in economic losses annually, claiming an average of 400 lives.

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