My Perfect Adventure: Reed Timmer

The storm-chasing star on his yearning to get to the legendary tornadoes of Bangladesh, why Banff is the best place he’s been, and how he’d be willing give up everything to keep being an extreme meteorologist

    Photo: Courtesy of Reed Timmer

"The beauty is that not only do I do what I love for a living, but our work also saves lives."

When most people are evacuating, Reed Timmer is heading in. After a four-year run as the star of Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers, he now produces his own Web series, Tornado Chasers, at TVNweather.com. In it, he continues to lead his team into North America’s most severe weather events. His book, Into the Storm: Violent Tornadoes, Killer Hurricanes, and Death-Defying Adventures in Extreme Weather, chronicles Timmer’s dramatic career, over the course of which he’s gone after and into more than 400 tornadoes, hurricanes, and blizzards. When he was young, though, he chased bugs instead of storms—if it hadn’t been for a significant find, he may have ended up an entomologist. At age 13, the first storm he captured on tape broke the camera and got him in trouble, but left him completely hooked. So obsessed with storm-chasing is he that he admits to having no social life and an inability to hold down any sort of 9-to-5. Instead, he opts for a life in which he travels all over the world, wherever natural disaster strikes. Here, he tells us more about his travels and his life.

Describe your perfect day, from dawn 'til dusk. Where would you be, who would you meet, and what would you do?
My ideal day would be to wake up early in the morning north of Calcutta, India, analyze the limited forecast models they have there, find a monster supercell, and track the massive tornadoes it produces as it passes across India just north of Dhaka. We’d stream live video to our website, TVNweather.com, and show the world the powerful and destructive tornadoes that are rumored to exist there, but that no storm-chaser has dared to intercept.

If you could travel someplace you've never been, where would you go and why?
The place I’ve always wanted to chase tornadoes is in Bangladesh. Just south of the Himalayan Plateau, not far from Everest, there are rumors that the world’s largest, strongest tornadoes develop in extreme eastern India and track across the small country of Bangladesh, killing thousands every year. These devastating tornado outbreaks have never been caught on tape, so I want to chase down one of these two-mile-wide monsters and show the world how much loss of life and property they cause in that poverty-stricken country.

I’ve also always wanted to intercept the eye of a super-typhoon on Okinawa. The eye would have completely blue sky above, surrounded by an “eye wall” in which the winds can gust well over 200 miles per hour, like a 20-mile-wide tornado. When you’re in an eye like that, it looks like you’re in the world’s largest stadium—you see the laminar wall of storms rotating rapidly around you. I have never seen this documented on video. So I want to visit Okinawa before the approach of a super-typhoon, explore the island’s natural beauty, and observe how its people prepare for such powerful natural disasters—they somehow recover remarkably quickly compared to the total devastation in the United States caused by less powerful storms.

What’s the best place you've ever visited?
Banff, Alberta, and its surrounding natural wonders. I first visited this past summer. In the morning, we explored the glaciers and bright blue lakes surrounded by the most jaw-dropping mountainous terrain I have ever seen. We saw a massive elk feeding from about 10 feet away, not scared at all that humans were close. Then, just off to the east on the adjacent high plains, we watched supercell thunderstorms explode just off the Rockies’ foothills. Being the obsessive storm-chaser that I am, we surged east; within 20 minutes, we were underneath the rotating mesocyclone of one of the most beautiful storms I have ever seen. The rotating updraft of this storm looked like an alien mothership—it was organized like a living, breathing organism. A perk of storm-chasing in the Canadian prairies, given their northern latitude, is that it stays light until 11 p.m., giving us more hours to document as many supercells, tornadoes, and hurricanes as possible.

If you could have lunch with any adventurer or athlete, who would it be and why?
Garrett McNamara. He was the first person to surf a 90-foot wave, and is always breaking new ground in his sport. Others are so inspired they are trying to follow in his footsteps. From what I’ve read, he lives his life the way he wants to, paves his own path rather than trying to blend in with the rest of the surfer community. He has devoted his life to his passion, and I think he is someone who would understand how I have devoted my entire life to chasing storms and the meteorological mysteries that remain.

What’s something you can’t travel without?
Aside from the essentials for survival and logistics, some sort of camera. Documenting incredible natural phenomena, cultures, and anything unique about an exotic place you visit helps to preserve that memory for the rest of your life, and also allows you to share those experiences with others who may not have the opportunity to have the same experience.

When you arrive at a new destination, what’s usually first on your agenda?
I rarely travel anywhere unless it involves some type of extreme storm, so the first thing I do is make sure I secure shelter, gather the essentials for survival in case we are trapped for weeks, and continually monitor the weather forecast so I can adjust our position accordingly to experience and study the worst the storm has to offer.

What motivates you to keep chasing storms?
I have been obsessed with extreme weather for as long as I can remember, but actually was scared to death of thunder and lightning when I was really little. That led me to face that fear and always strive to understand it. In that process, I realized how little we know about powerful storms. The many mysteries of tornado science and other parts of meteorology draw me in on a scientific-curiosity level, but at the same time, the feeling of adrenaline and awe when you’re standing 100 yards from the planet’s most powerful natural force can’t be put into words.

Every time I see a tornado at close range, I’m completely mesmerized. The thought that this thing could kill me never crosses my mind. The beauty is that not only do I do what I love for a living, but our work also saves lives through helping in the warning process and trying to better understand these beautiful but deadly forces of nature.

As a child, what was your dream job? If you gave up that dream, why did your plans change, and do you have any regrets?
My dream has been to be a storm chaser as long as I can remember. However, I was a major science nerd and my free time was spent collecting insects and participating in science competitions. I cared more about Science Olympiad than school, actually, but that wasn’t a bad thing because it encouraged independent learning. My insect collection was one of my most prized possessions. When, at age 15, I captured an Eastern Hercules Beetle, North America’s largest beetle, which has a massive horn on its head and is a very rare find, that was, in my mind, the pinnacle of entomology. I realized it was time to retire and focus 100 percent on my true passion: chasing storms.

When and how did you first venture into meteorology?
My first storm-chasing experience was at age 13, when a severe thunderstorm warning was issued for my home town of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Instinct kicked in, and I ran and grabbed the family video camera and positioned on foot to the front yard to meet the storm head on. Next thing I knew, I was getting pelted by golf-ball-sized hail and the camera was destroyed. Let’s just say my mom wasn’t too happy about that one.

What advice would you give to a young storm chaser?
Never give up on your passion. Don’t let other people tell you what to do with your life. Make your own path and never stop learning and being curious. Watch as many tornado videos as possible. Look up science information on the Internet. Enroll in internships and SKYWARN training courses at your local National Weather Service office to learn the basics. Always go with experienced chasers rather than venture out like I did back as a freshman in meteorology at the University of Oklahoma. I didn’t know what I was doing, and an F5 almost killed me as I abandoned my vehicle and clung onto the underside of an overpass while being sprayed by mud. I almost died, but, to be honest, it made me even more hooked on storm chasing.

Who have been your most influential role models?
First, Jeff Piotrowski, the pioneer of extreme storm chasing and documenting powerful tornadoes from extreme close range. He was the nicest person I’ve ever met, and would always take time to talk storms and point me in the right direction. Another idol of mine is the Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore. I can relate to his continued passion when covering all forms of extreme weather for his job. He is unparalleled in the coverage of severe weather for television. His passion for the weather is genuine when covering storms, and that’s what makes him so popular—people are inspired by his passion in fields even outside of meteorology.

Do you have a life philosophy?
I live in the moment, but am also a very big-picture thinker. When I’m not storm chasing and during the off-season, when I have to handle day-to-day obligations like paying bills and buying groceries, I feel lost and out of place. It’s probably because I’m very scatterbrained on the short-term, and have trouble thriving in a “normal” life. I have no routine and basically no social or personal life since I devote every ounce of energy to my passion of storm chasing.

I also lose things like no tomorrow, like credit cards, clothes, my glasses, you name it. I think I lost my driver’s license a dozen times the first year after I got it at 16. However, the big-picture and long-term goals and plans always seem so clear. My life’s work, TVNweather.com, will one day be the go-to source for extreme weather coverage and forecast information—just watch it happen. It might just take awhile because time is also something I have trouble with. My friends and family are always so frustrated because for some reason I can never be on time for anything. I wish the Earth rotated on its axis just a little bit more slowly.

Have you ever experienced a near accident in your travels that made you think twice about going out again?
I’ve made the mistake of under-preparing before chasing Hurricane Dean in Jamaica, and it led to some big problems and nearly the worst-case scenario. Another time I was under-prepared, my Honda Accord was swept away by the 20-foot storm of Hurricane Katrina, forcing us to evacuate the flood zone by fishing boat. I found out my mom filed a missing-person report with CNN, and felt terrible. At the very least, we should have had a satellite phone.

I’ve made lots of mistakes, but quitting storm-chasing has never crossed my mind. Even if TVNweather.com fails and my storm-chasing businesses are run into the ground, I’ll just simplify and go back to chasing in my 1985 Plymouth Reliant like I used to. Hell, I’ll even storm chase on a bike if I have to. I’ll always do whatever it takes to pursue my passion for the rest of my life.

If you had to choose a different career, what would it be and why?
Maybe a professional poker player, since I have difficulty with routine, and would be fired instantly in a 9-to-5 job setting for not showing up on time. I think jobs should always be results-oriented and not hours-based. I’ll never understand the whole 9-to-5 concept. I work best in the middle of the night, so forcing work hours on a person like me destroys my productivity. But I also have a passion for math and statistics, as well as excitement, so being a poker player wouldn’t be too bad. But I’d get bored of the monotony very quickly.

Name three things you still want to cross off your bucket list.
One: Measure a 600mph wind inside a tornado suction vortex with our Dominators and mobile radar units. Two: Chase a water spout by jet ski. Three: Find a girlfriend or life partner that understands and supports my passion. Let’s just say that my previous relationships have always blown up at least partly because I’m rarely in one spot for any length of time. Honestly, things can get pretty lonely during the off-season with no storms to chase.

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