Weather outside frightful? Scary Looking Cloud Club could be on its way

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Anna Marie Lux
Wednesday, August 28, 2013
“We're not daredevils. At the end of the day, we have families to come home to.”

—Tom Purdy, Scary Looking Cloud Club member

Tom Purdy and Jason Schwartzlow don't pay dues or go through initiation rites to be members of their club.

Instead, they watch for angry clouds.

Then, they snap photos and email them to the National Weather Service in Sullivan.

Tom of Janesville and Jason of Edgerton are full-fledged members of the Scary Looking Cloud Club.

They became members by submitting photos to meteorologist Rusty Kapela, who came up with the idea for the club in 2009.

Kapela posts the photos online, where anyone can learn from them.

“My purpose is to reduce the number of false tornado reports to 911 dispatchers and the National Weather Service,” Kapela said. “People can look at a variety of scary looking clouds, which they might mistake for tornadoes or funnel clouds.”

Kapela does not keep track of the numbers, but he said dispatchers have gotten fewer false tornado and false funnel cloud calls since the club began.

As of last week, the online site had more than 250 photos posted from people not only in Wisconsin but also in Europe, Africa and Canada.

The Internet is filled with photos and video of spinning tornadoes and funnel clouds. But curious folks would be hard pressed to find images of the dark and scary-looking wannabes with their unusual shapes and colors.

“I like sharing my photos,” Jason said. “I love letting people see what I see. There are so many clouds out there that could be mistaken for tornadoes.”

Most false tornado and false funnel cloud reports are associated with shelf clouds. They are the huge, low horizontal clouds that often look like giant waves or tsunamis in the sky.

If the scary looking cloud you are looking at is not persistently rotating on a vertical axis, it's not a funnel cloud or a tornado, even if it looks like it's touching the ground or almost touching the ground, Kapela explained.

A tornado is a violently rotating column of air, extending from clouds to the ground. A funnel cloud rotates but does not touch the ground.

Kapela is retiring Sept. 3, but he will continue the Scary Looking Cloud Club on his own web page.

Tom and Jason are regular contributors to the site. They also have their own Facebook page, where they share oodles of weather photos and have a faithful following.

“We're probably a little obsessed,” Tom said.

He did not always enjoy storm clouds. As a boy growing up in Janesville, he was petrified of turbulent weather.

“We lived in a mobile home for a while,” Tom explained. “I was always afraid. Once I started looking at weather maps and reading stories about the weather, my fear slowly turned around.”

Today, he describes himself as respectful of storms.

Jason has watched the sky since he was a child.

“I've loved weather my whole life,” he said. “I'm always looking up at the sky.”

Jason is working on a master's degree in business administration. Tom works in recycling at Waste Management of Janesville.

The two men also are trained weather spotters, who provide severe-weather reports to the National Weather Service. Tom and Jason are in their 30s, have families and met on Facebook.

“Tom is the first friend I've had who is a weather enthusiast like me,” Jason said. “It is so cool to have someone who shares the passion.”

Sometimes, they go looking for storms.

Hoping to see a tornado, Tom and Jason drove 600 miles round trip in one day last year to east central Illinois. More recently, they made a quick road trip to east of Chippewa Falls to capture images of an angry sky, including pictures of a huge shelf cloud.

“It all starts with us looking at the weather models,” Jason said. “I just love analyzing everything. We have GPS, and we always position ourselves around the storm. We don't put ourselves in harm's way.”

“We're not daredevils,” Tom added. “At the end of the day, we have families to come home to.”

They travel with a laptop computer, cameras, tripods, a weather radio and portable Internet, which allows the men to post live video.

Both agree that nothing beats sky gazing, especially during storms.

“We don't want to see anyone's home destroyed,” Tom said. “But the storm will be there whether I'm there or not.”

Their interest in clouds is no passing whim.

“I'll be snapping photos until the day I die,” Jason said.

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at (608) 755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.

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