Studying the science of storms
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says that storm chasers have given valuable research to the government.
And many storm chasers say there's serious science behind their efforts.
Probes and sensors placed directly in a tornado's path, they say, detect things research can't reveal from afar.
"It's very hard to understand what's really going on in that small area near the ground of a tornado," Eilts says.
But observing details like wind, temperature, pressure and humidity in that area, he says, help scientists understand how and why tornadoes form, and developing warning systems that are more accurate and give people more time to take cover.
"You can't measure it with radar. You can see things aloft. You can't measure what's on the ground. And so (these are) very dedicated people that have risked their lives to do that," he said. "There's value created by that. We understand. We'll be able to model tornadoes better."
When storm research started out, forecasters had no lead time to warn people that tornadoes were approaching. Now, the average lead time is 14 minutes, Eilts says. Someday, with the help of scientific research from storm chasers and others, he says, warnings might be more precise and people could have up to an hour to take cover.
When Lisius was a kid, he won a prize for a science fair project on thunderstorms and snapped photos of lightning from the kitchen window of his family's north Texas home. Now he runs Tempest Tours, a company that offers storm-chasing expeditions for tourists -- and a chance to photograph storms from a much closer vantage point.
"It's like a cruise, you know," he says. "We have a schedule. We have a departure and return. We have a port city, which we call our base city."
These port cities don't have ocean views. Arlington, Texas; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Denver, Colorado; and Phoenix, Arizona are among the spots where Tempest Tours take off.
"There's a fishing season and a hunting season. And the best time to see tornadoes for us is in the spring," he says. "And the best places to see them are those places."
Some chasers in the niche tourism industry that has sprung up around storms take risks. But not Tempest Tours, Lisius says.
"It's all about education and teaching them about the atmosphere," he says. "It's not a thrill seeking tour. That's not us."
When the storm struck El Reno, Okla., last Friday, Lisius said he was leading a tour about a mile away, observing from the field with more than a dozen people.
The storm formed rapidly, and turned quickly toward the southeast -- both unusual signs, he says, that showed it was time to take cover.
"We left. It was not a close call because we took quick action to avoid a close call," he says. "It's what we do on a regular basis."
But for a tour group watching from afar, he says, it's easier to change course than it is for researchers who are up close, measuring details about tornadoes.
"Our mission is to teach people about severe weather, and we can get close enough to a tornado to see it and take good pictures of it, but certainly we don't have to get in the path," he says.
From science to 'soul searching'
Nobody knows exactly how storm chasers Tim Samaras, his son Paul Samaras and Carl Young died in a storm that struck the Oklahoma City area on Friday. Friends and family describe them as dedicated scientific researchers known for putting safety first.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says it appears to be the first time researchers intercepting a storm's path have been killed.
Lisius and many other longtime storm chasers say they're devastated and shaken by the deaths of colleagues with such extensive experience and training.
"This is the fist time this has happened," said Tyler Constantini, who has been chasing storms since 1998, "and I'm sure we'll learn a lot from it and, hopefully, do a little soul searching, try to figure out what we need to do to try to stay safer out there."