University News

Tom Williams: Professor, Storm Chaser

September 21, 2009

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MACOMB, IL -- While most people are hunkered down in a basement when the tornado sirens are wailing, Western Illinois University Geography Professor Tom Williams heads right into the storm.

Williams, who teaches geography and meteorology classes and serves as adviser for Western's Severe Weather Club, has chased storms through Tempest Tours, located in Arlington, TX, during the summers of 2004, 2007 and 2008. These "guided tours" included storm chasing through Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Texas, North Dakota, South Dakota, Colorado and parts of Canada. The tours leave from Dallas, Oklahoma City and Denver and go through the various states.

"I always had an interest in participating in the storm chases, and after learning that a famous researcher would be involved and that I could take students along it piqued my interest to go for the first time in 2004," Williams said. "The group provides the transportation with vans that have radars and everything you'll need, plus the expertise."

In Summer 2008 – a prime year for storm chasing – Williams participated in a storm chasing "photo tour." It was reported that there were 25 tornadoes in the areas where he was traveling.

"I'm interested in all things weather," he said. "I thought to myself, 'I've never seen a tornado,' so the opportunity came along and I did it."

Williams added that he has a unique mix of feelings when going into the storm: adrenaline, fear and excitement.

"It gets the heart racing. On my first day (in 2004) and in the first hour, we tracked a tornado, and it looked like we were driving straight into the pit of hell," Williams said. "There was darkness surrounding us everywhere."

During the 2004 tour, Williams witnessed three tornadoes touching ground at one time. He also has witnessed a tornado cloud that stretched two-and-a-half miles. This kind of activity certainly can be dangerous, but the guides are as cautious as possible when observing a storm, Williams noted.

"The tour guides know what they're doing, but we're still talking about an unpredictable force of nature," Williams said. "Once in Kansas there was a tornado running parallel with our van about one-quarter mile away. One mile is a safe distance and we had to veer off to avoid the tail end of the tornado, which was moving towards us."

Williams uses his storm chasing experiences in the classroom from showing pictures from his trips to a lab exercise involving tornadoes. He has also done presentations about a storm chaser's perspective at conferences.

"When I talk about severe weather in class, I can incorporate my experiences into the class," Williams said. "I still show pictures from my 2004 trip."

Locally, when the skies turn ominous, Williams tracks the potential severe weather online using a radar from the National Weather Service, which just so happens to be his homepage when he logs into the internet. Williams checks storm and wind velocity and has saved radar images from previous storms on his computer.

While 2009 wasn't a "banner" year for tornado chasing, Williams kept busy by traveling, doing yard work and volunteering at a camp for disabilities. He visited the National Weather Service in La Crosse, WI, and visited family throughout parts of Williams' home state of Wisconsin. For the third consecutive year he helped at The Assembly of God Church in Carlinville (IL) as a caregiver to guests with disabilities.

For more information on Williams' storm escapades or to get involved with Western's Severe Weather Club, contact Williams at or visit

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