Portentious clouds gather over McKinley Marina. Photo by Jennifer Brindley Ubl.
Before a bad back forced him out of the game, storm chaser Kinney Adams lived through 17 years of close encounters with weather’s wrath. He estimates he’s followed hundreds of supercells and just about everything else beastly that Mother Nature can throw at the midsection of America, including softball-sized hail and a squall that produced 600 lightning strikes in the space of three-and-a-half minutes. After spending every spring since 1995 chasing storms throughout the Great Plains, he knew what he was getting into as he powered up his “Geek Mobile” on Aug. 18, 2005, and set out to chase a ferocious line of Wisconsin thunderheads.
Adams steered his Honda CRV equipped with Doppler radar and what he calls “tactical navigation software” west from his Riverwest home and out to Sauk County, where he drove around until data sent him to Columbia County, to film a twister northwest of Lodi. The funnel cloud came right at him, but he knew that its strength was dissipating and stood fast as the “sinuous rope” tornado passed safely overhead.
A record 27 twisters touched down across the state that day, what should have been a bonanza for Adams, but “I couldn’t get on the safe side of the storm,” he says. Instead, he pointed his car to WTMJ-TV’s studios and delivered what he had – some of the first images captured of the wanton destruction stretching across most of central Wisconsin.
Adams is just one node in a network of some 1,500 storm spotters that make up the Milwaukee Area Skywarn Association (MASA), an all-volunteer group that reports on dangerous weather in southern Wisconsin. MASA works with a more familiar acronym, NWS (National Weather Service), to track how storms progress and wreak havoc. Each spring, MASA president and Milwaukeean Skip Voros trains first responders and weather geeks on how to file reports with the NWS, which is grateful for the added data.
NWS meteorologist Sarah Marquardt says forecasters in Sullivan rely on radar readings but “really like to hear from the public. If they tell us what they’re seeing, we can adjust our thought process and warnings accordingly.”
Wisconsin has seen relatively few tornados since recording 46 in 2010, though the numbers swing wildly. On low years, chasers like Adams and storm photographer Jennifer Brindley Ubl often head out of town, and she has logged more than 25,000 miles chasing. “It’s the most expensive hobby on earth,” she says, “but I like to think of it as an investment into one of the most incredible experiences a person could ever have on this planet.” ■
Adams shares some of his storm-chasing footage below:
Milwaukee Magazine‘s Tim McCormick will be on WUWM’s Lake Effect with Mitch Teich to discuss this story on Wednesday, July 16, at 10 a.m.
This article appears in the July 2014 issue of