He’ll tell you he’s an adrenaline junkie, looking for a rush. He has jumped out of “perfectly good airplanes” a couple dozen times, skydiving to feel more alive. He loves rollercoasters, thriving on the anticipation, the fear. Most people would agree with him up to this point, but he’s left mostly alone with his true love. His real passion is storm chasing.
Sure, Mike Pike, 48, of Blanco, has a more secure life, full-time job, time for fishing and hunting and for his wife, Tracey. But when it’s storm season, which is May through July, he’s all about the storm.
“I’m living the movie Twister out for real,” Pike said.
His taste for the chase began when he was five. His family was living in southern Minnesota, when a string of major storms, F3 or F4, was approaching their area on May 6, 1965. One storm hit in the town of Chanhassen, and his family took action.
“My parents put us down in the basement under washtubs, which was standard severe weather precautions,” Pike said. “For me that was the beginning. I became a science nerd. I took first place in a science fair with weather stuff.”
When he got his driver’s license, he began to do some chasing, but says he was inexperienced. In his 20s he became a more serious chaser.
“I was self-taught,” Pike said. “I did a lot of research on severe weather. I made contact with the National Weather Service, (NWS) people, who taught me a lot.”
After he made contact with the NWS, they began to use his photography and videos. His first published storm photo was of a water spout that arose on a lake. He has seen 92 tornadoes in his career, photographed hail the size of a softball. He’s traveled many miles to boot.
“I’ve chased in Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, every state in the central U.S. many times,” Pike said. “I’ve put a million chase miles on my truck.”
You can’t miss the truck. White with storm chaser and various symbols all over it, antenna and equipment, it is very noticeable. In fact, Pike says people stop him in random places to interview him or just ask curious questions just because they’ve seen the truck.
One time he was chasing in Iowa and went into a station briefly. When he came out, there was a news truck there, pulling out a camera.
“’What are you doing here?’ they asked me. ‘We know you’re not here to watch the corn grow. Where are tornadoes going to be?’ So I told them right around there,” Pike said.
Pike and his wife moved to Blanco in January from Minnesota, after he tried out Austin, Texas for a couple years, then went back to Minnesota. He said he’s really anticipating chasing from Burnet north to Oklahoma.
“We (in Blanco) are in the very southern edge of tornado country,” Pike said. “Central Texas north to Iowa is tornado central. And the Panhandle is a really fun place, with monster tornadoes”
He said our area is prime for heavy rain, large hail and damaging winds, but not normally tornadoes because of our topography. The hills that surround us tend to shelter us from the storm, literally breaking it up, blocking the storm’s relative inflow. He added that although tornadoes aren’t as prevalent here as other places, when there’s a watch or warning, people should take precautions.
“Every household needs a weather radio with an alert system,” Pike said. “because it really does help save lives. If you’re driving when you see a tornado or hear a warning, don’t stay in the car or try to drive away. GET OUT OF THE CAR, get into a ditch or culvert with no water, and never a bridge underpass. If you’re in your house, get into the basement or root cellar or the most interior part of your house, cover yourself with pillows and mattresses.”
Taking precautions saves lives, even when buildings or property may be lost. The biggest risks in our area, he said, however are not tornadoes, but lightning strikes and flash floods. He has had some experience with lightning while chasing.
“A bolt of lightning hit my hood and put out my headlights,” Pike said. “So I drove with no headlights in severe weather. Lightning is the most dangerous risk out there because you can’t see it.”
For most of his career, Pike embraced the risks and chased nearly every storm he heard about. His job was flexible, so every other day or whenever there were storms he would be there. Storm chasing has taken on a different meaning for him recently. Instead of lots of chasing with limited results, he now waits and watches for a better chance to chase and photograph a stronger, huge storm.
And sometimes it pays off. The National Weather Service has used his still pictures and videos on their websites as well as on television. You can look up storm predictions for yourself at http://www.noaa.gov, or visit http://www.spc.noaa.gov/ for storm prediction and information on tornado watches.
Predictions for the Texas panhandle for Monday read like this: Thunderstorms should nocturnally increase in coverage later tonight across the Texas Panhandle, North Texas and Western/Southern Oklahoma within elevated bar clinic zone amidst modest low level jet/warm advection regime. The strongest storms will be capable of severe hail, supported by steep mid-level lapse rates, ample instability per 0OZ Raobs from MAF/DFW/OUN/MAF, along with sufficient shear through the cloud bearing layer on the southern periphery of stronger westerlies aloft. Although you’d have to a weather expert to decipher all of that, you can certainly understand the warning of thunderstorms, large hail, and strong winds.