One reason John Wetter like living in Maple Grove is that it's conveniently located near I-94, Route 12, and Highways 7 and 5, the roads he takes to commute to work--in a way.
Those four roads are what Wetter calls good "tornado roads"--routes he can take to get to the scene of a storm quickly. Wetter is a storm chaser, and his professional and leisure lives dovetail in the art of chasing. In the spring and summer he loads his arsenal of cameras and computers into his car and heads for the anticipated site of a severe storm or tornado. If he's lucky, he'll see a twister touch down, get plenty of photos and video footage, and upload the results to his website, wxchaser.com.
By day Wetter is an IT manager for Hopkins Public Schools. But he also coordinates operations for the Twin Cities-based Upper Midwest office of Skywarn (skywarn.org), a volunteer weather-tracking organization formalized by the National Weather Service in the 1970s. Wetter earned his meteorology degree from St. Cloud State in 2002, and weather has been a lifelong fascination for him.
"It's one of the newest sciences," Wetter says. "Meteorology has only been formally studied for about 100 years now, which [compared to] the base sciences, is yesterday. The United States didn't even have a weather service until we got into the world wars, when the Navy started losing ships to weather."
Wetter sells some of his storm photos and footage to KSTP Channel 5. He also contributes footage to a video series, The Storms of..., whose proceeds go to Red Cross disaster relief. When severe weather occurs in south-central Minnesota, Wetter is either out chasing it or at the Twin Cities' Weather Forecast Office in Chanhassen, which monitors weather throughout a 51-county radius. There he helps Skywarn evaluate the need for storm watches and warnings. For the past three springs, Wetter has also organized a conference where he and his wife, Jamie (also a storm chaser), lead training workshops for Skywarn volunteers.
Because chasing is a traveling hobby, it takes the Wetters all over Minnesota and parts of Wisconsin. Last year, the pair drove 6,000 miles during 26 days of chasing, and logged nine "successful" days when they spotted storms.
Having lived in and around Maple Grove all his life, Wetter likes the area because it's close enough to Minneapolis to take advantage of that city's urban amenities, but he can avoid traffic and get to rural areas quickly during a chase. Maple Grove is also home to National Camera, where Wetter buys most of his equipment. (He also upgrades to a new laptop every other year.)
Minnesota is an excellent place for storm chasers; the topography is ideal for especially strong tornadoes. And Wetter's alma mater, St. Cloud State, is a fantastic school for aspiring meteorologists, thanks in part to the efforts of senior Michael Stanga, a former Maple Grove resident who founded a campus club for chasing.
Stanga represents the next generation of chasers, savvy with new technologies like on-board GPS and mobile internet that enable them to track storms from the car. But both he and Wetter emphasize that technology can't completely replace the eyes and discernment of an experienced storm chaser. Tornadoes remain relatively undetected by radar and Doppler technology. We still rely on eyewitness accounts to verify the early presence of a twister.
"We still don't know what makes a tornado," Wetter said. "We know the general ingredients, but it's pretty amazing, the power of nature and our inability to figure out what it's doing."
Wetter also worries about the sensationalistic misconceptions of storm chasing that seem increasingly abundant lately: There's the 1996 film Twister, Which both he and Stanga find hilariously inaccurate, and television programs that push the "extreme" element of chasing. (Wetter recently turned down and offer to consult on Tornado Road, NBC's new reality show about storm chasing.)
For both men, chasing is more than thrill-seeking, and they are mindful of its practical purpose--to prevent the loss of life and property--and have seen up close the havoc storms can wreak. Stanga describes the aftermath of a tornado he witnessed in 2006: "It was a very sobering moment. It had hit a hog farm. People were sitting outside their house, pigs were wandering on the road, and it looked like a bomb had gon off. Here's somebody's life's work, just gone."
Wetter is still haunted by the death of a young girl in the tornado that struck Rogers, Minn., on September 16, 2006. The NWS tornado warning was late due to a lack of data from storm spotters; DFL Senator Mark Dayton was eager to find the NWS culpable and fire those responsible. As a volunteer for Skywarn, a branch of the NWS, Wetter was interviewed for investigations by both NWS and the Department of Commerce to determine if NWS or Skywarn were negligent on the day of the Rogers tornado.
"That demoralized everybody," Wetters remembers. "I thought, 'This is my thanks for volunteering with Skywarn?'" Wetter and his colleagues were ultimately exonerated, but he almost quit Skywarn over the matter.
Minnesota is fortunate that he didn't, because both he and Stanga are a tremendous asset to the state: smart young storm chasers driven by their passion, poised to observe storms across the Midwest.