By Amy Silverman
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By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
As a contributor to magazines like Weatherwise, Cerveny balances published research on scientific buzz like the greenhouse effect with bubblegum meteorology articles on weather's role throughout the ages. He has written, for example, that Columbus was pretty darn lucky to miss a hurricane while looking for the Indies and that Homer was either clairvoyant or describing real events in Odyssey, in which the narrator appears caught in one hell of a huge microburst.
Adjusting to the elements has come a long way since Galileo designed the first thermometer around 1600. The first barometer came 40 years later, and, by the mid-1800s, the United States had created a weather bureau to warn against severe storms. The first weather balloons were launched just before the turn of the century.
Then, in the early 1970s, Oklahoma's NSSL came up with Doppler radar, the latest major innovation in storm tracking. Doppler allows forecasters to monitor winds within storm cells, a pretty handy device when trying to anticipate tornadoes, whose compact rotation can be lost in the enormousness of a raging supercell thunderstorm. Phoenix was the first city west of Kansas to get the system, which looks like a gigantic teed-up golf ball and is positioned at Williams Gateway Airport.
"Doppler is great--for some stuff," Cerveny says in his office at ASU, where he arrives between 5:30 and 6 every morning to check out the latest radar images on the Internet as well as updates from Stormtrack, the Koran of storm chasing. "But it tends to show you too much information." He calls up the screen and points at some blue splotches to the west. "That right there--that's probably just chaff from the gunnery range," he says.
You don't just go right out and chase with Cerveny--no, first one has to be trained. The process begins in May when Cerveny does the storm-chase song-and-dance for a mixed batch of old and new weather soldiers. He suggest items to have ready for chases, which can be called at the last minute--things like a hat, a change of clothing, a good pair of shoes, a functioning watch, a water bottle. Practice runs are conducted in the following weeks, and chasers learn the roles of leader, driver, communicator and Stormbase navigator.
By the beginning of July, they are a synchronized, nearly militaristic unit. Pursuits can cover up to 250 miles in one night. Little chasing is done after dark: "Storm chasing's a dangerous activity," Cerveny says. "The one thing I don't want to see in the paper is the headline, 'Storm Chaser Killed by Lightning.'" Just in case, though, everyone signs a liability waiver.
The storm Cerveny remembers best took place in July 1990. It was the summer the National Severe Storms Lab came down with an Orion P-3 plane used for flying through hurricanes.
The day started with a 10 a.m. briefing by the NSSL guys. "Learning to forecast at the National Weather Service--there's an art to it, recognizing patterns," Cerveny says. "The NSSL people had these preconceived notions about what makes our storms work. They thought it was going to be a down day. We were skeptical, though, so we stayed on alert.
"Then, about four o'clock, a huge wall of thunderstorms developed north of Deer Valley, around Black Canyon City. It was a really intense line of storms. We sent one team north to Cave Creek and the second, mine, went west. So we got to Indian School and the Black Canyon Freeway, and we got out and saw this huge dust wall coming our way. We were trying to figure out whether to head north or wait for it. It was a really dark mass--it filled the north horizon. We decided to wait. The other unit could see a huge storm moving south, so they headed west and came in behind it, where the rain hit them.
"All we had was our handheld anemometer. One chaser went out there, and he was yelling out numbers. Then he said, 'You gotta help me hold this.' So I went out there, and there we were, the two of us, with our backs to the dust, trying to keep the anemometer above us so we wouldn't interfere with the readings, and we're shouting out the numbers: '55, 56, 57 [miles per hour]'--and the last number we read was 59, when it just blew us over. It was like a big hand. The other guy's hat blew about two blocks down the road. A little after that, the cell was right above us, and we could see rotation. That's the closest to Midwestern weather that I've ever seen in the Valley."
Yes, the Arizona monsoon once lived up to its name. But lately, it's been a lame shadow of one, threatening to topple August from its first-place rating as Phoenix's rainiest month. July 1994 gave storm chasers nothing to chase at all; June and July of 1995 would go down as the driest ever. NSSL's Phoenix-based staffer, Chuck Dempsey, wonders half-jokingly whether the amazing Arizona monsoon is just one of those Western tall tales. For three years running, the weather gods have given everyone what Cerveny and Valley forecasters refer to as the dreaded nonsoon.