The art of the chase

  • Reed Timmer with his chase vehicle, the Dominator.

  • Timmer in front of his All-State cabin.

  • Left: Timmer films a tornado. Right: Timmer's chase vehicle, the Dominator, drives through a storm.

Most people run for cover at the first sign of a tornado.

Reed Timmer (AS 94-97) isn’t most people: Instead of running for cover, he heads straight for the storm’s eye. As an Accuweather meteorologist and star of the former Discovery Channel series Storm Chasers, Timmer spends his days on the frontlines of severe weather, studying storms and saving lives. During the summer, the peak season for severe storms, Timmer’s reports will help hundreds escape from danger.

But before Timmer spent his summers studying storms, he studied the oboe at Interlochen Arts Camp’s All-State program.

Timmer became interested in weather during his childhood in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “Originally, I was scared to death of thunder and lighting,” he said. “Eventually, that fear started to turn into curiosity. From age 4 or 5 on, I’d get excited every time there was a thunderstorm warning. When I got my driver’s license, I realized that I didn’t have to wait for the storm to come to me: I could hop in my car and drive to the storm and experience it.”

As Timmer progressed through elementary and middle school, he developed a growing interest in the sciences, both physical and biological. It was around this time that Timmer also picked up the oboe, which quickly became his second love.

Timmer excelled at the instrument, and soon joined the Grand Rapids Youth Symphony. His oboe teacher, recognizing Timmer’s keen interest in the instrument, suggested a summer at Interlochen Arts Camp. Timmer chose to apply to All-State, a four-week camp program hosted at Interlochen for talented Michiganders, which has since become the MPulse program at the University of Michigan. Timmer was accepted, and attended the camp for the next four years.

“It was one of the best musical experiences I’ve ever had,” Timmer said. “It was a place where I got to learn and interact with peers, and it prepared me for college as well. It was awesome working hard with the other orchestra members to create an amazing concert.”

Despite his enjoyment of music, Timmer’s primary passion has always been chasing storms. “I always knew I was going to be a storm chaser, but I wanted to play oboe for as long as possible,” he said. His talent earned him a music scholarship to the University of Oklahoma, where he majored in meteorology and minored in music.

Studying at the University of Oklahoma was the fulfillment of a dream for Timmer. The strength of its meteorology program, combined with its location in the heart of Tornado Alley, made the school a perfect fit. In his freshman year, Timmer fulfilled another dream: chasing a tornado. “I always wanted to chase a tornado, but I couldn’t find any in Michigan,” Timmer said. “I didn’t have a car at college, so I convinced a friend to drive me to see a tornado. It was my first severe storm, a supercell storm, with golf-to-baseball-sized hail and wind gusts up to 80 miles per hour. I thought to myself, ‘this is what a severe thunderstorm is like.’”

Timmer was hooked. He continued chasing tornadoes throughout his undergraduate, master’s and doctorate studies at the University of Oklahoma. In 2008, Timmer and his team joined the second season of the Discovery Channel series Storm Chasers.

“Being on Storm Chasers was different at first,” Timmer said. “When I started chasing, I was on the other side of the camera shooting footage of the tornado. Watching footage of myself was unusual; it was like when you record your voice for the first time and it sounds different than it does in your head.”

Seeing himself on camera wasn’t the only adjustment. Timmer also had to get used to working with a professional film crew—and one that was naive to Midwestern weather. “The follow team and producers, many of whom were from the East and West Coasts, hadn’t seen weather like that before,” he said. Adjusting to the presence of cameras was easier. “Our camera operator became one of our best friends,” he said. “We went from shooting a TV show to chasing with our friend.”

A starring role on Storm Chasers was more than a brush with fame for Timmer; it was an opportunity to advance scientific research into extreme storms. “The Discovery Channel made it possible for us to fund our field science, to buy equipment like armored vehicles, air canons and GPS trackers,” Timmer said. “One of the biggest mysteries about tornadoes is how the vortex interacts with the ground. Tornadoes are relatively straightforward in the air, but at the ground, they can split into multiple tornadoes or suction vortices. When you’re up close, you can see a lot of that structure visually. We also don’t know how strong those wind speeds can get. Our goal was to better understand wind speeds near the ground, the ones that directly impact people’s lives and property.”

While Timmer is always excited to see a storm as a scientist and a chaser, he recognizes the danger severe weather poses to communities. “Chasers are often the first people to arrive on the scene after a tornado,” he said. “When we come across damage, we always stop chasing and try to help out with relief and rescue efforts until emergency personnel arrive. It’s vital to be trained in first aid, because people are looking to you for help.”

Timmer and his chasing colleagues may not be able to prevent tornadoes, but their knowledge and keen eyes can help save lives. “The greatest thing about the increasing popularity of storm chasing is that more chasers means more eyes on the storm,” Timmer said. “Now, it’s almost impossible for a tornado to go unseen. Our storm-chasing community tries to prevent loss of life by reporting storms into the National Weather Service, posting alerts on social media and delivering life-saving information.”

In his current role as an Accuweather meteorologist, Timmer has more opportunities to serve the public by providing up-to-date storm warnings. “It’s been a great experience,” he said. “Before, I was doing reality television. Now, I’m doing breaking news coverage, and it feels more fulfilling because I know how much people depend on severe weather forecasts. I’ve also had the opportunity to expand my coverage to flash floods, blizzards and hurricanes, working with Accuweather to share my reports.”

Ten years after his first appearance on Storm Chasers, Timmer shows no signs of slowing down. He’ll once again spend this season chasing storms, documenting his adventures on Facebook, Twitter and Accuweather. As storms develop in your backyard this summer, remember those affected by severe storms, and those like Timmer who risk their lives to understand them and serve the public. “I love my job, and it’s that much more fulfilling that I can help save lives,” he said.