NORMAN — Reed Timmer has a big office with amazing views.
He's a modern day adventurer, a scientist with a love for severe weather and a deep hunger to discover what causes weather systems to churn out tornadoes.
He has turned his love of it into a career, spinning the scientific study into a series, “Storm Chasers” on the Discovery Channel from 2007-2012, a chance to go storm chasing with him through “Extreme Tornado Tours,” and now a Web series of his escapades, “Tornado Chasers,” on his site www.tvnweather.com.
“I'm on the road 90 percent of the time,” Timmer said in a phone interview from his Norman home. “I drive from the Mexican border to Canada. I spent Christmas chasing storms in Mississippi and Alabama.”
His mother, in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich., has gotten used to her son missing holiday gatherings.
Timmer moved to Oklahoma in 1998 to study meteorology at the University of Oklahoma. Fifteen years later, he's putting the finishing touches on his dissertation for his doctorate. It's taken him so long because he has made chasing storms his livelihood.
His research is about seasonal climate predictions, using the temperatures and sea levels of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans to give a more accurate forecasts.
Timmer cheerfully admits he was a science geek from childhood, especially what was going on outside and why. He gives his mother credit for his love of science. She teaches that subject to seventh- and eighth-graders in a Grand Rapids area middle school.
He did well in Grand Rapids, becoming an Eagle Scout while there.
For a few years after he started at OU, he returned home in the summers and mowed grass to make money. That lasted until people started buying his film of tornadoes. He turned that into his multifaceted company of today.
“I like all forms of weather, especially tornadoes and hurricanes,” he said. “My mom got me started.”
He arrived in Oklahoma when he was 18 and learned about tornado chasing the wrong way on Oct. 4, 1998.
He was among five meteorology students who went out to chase their first storm. It wasn't until they saw a radio tower fly through the air that they realized they had no escape route.
“I didn't feel like it could kill me, but I was mesmerized,” he recalled. “The first time I saw the damage a tornado could do, I became motivated to study what goes on inside a tornado.”
That thirst for knowledge has resulted in the creation of “The Dominator,” his storm research vehicle. It's basically an armored car full of scientific gear, equipped with spikes that drive down into the ground to keep it earthbound in a close call with a twister.
There are two research vehicles now, with a third in production.
Timmer can rattle off the dates of the storms he has documented. He got caught by the May 3, 1999, tornado. His team got caught too close to the storm and wound up taking shelter in a highway underpass.
“This was before we knew how dangerous underpasses were,” he said. “That was one of the things we learned from the 1999 tornado.”
He lost a car while chasing Hurricane Katrina.
“We were chasing it in a Honda Accord and it got swept away. We took shelter on the second floor of a building and finally hitched a ride on a fishing boat who took us to an elevated railroad line. We walked out of there and finally got a ride to Hammond, Louisiana.
“That town was cut off too, but we got a ride to Jackson, Mississippi, rented a car there and drove back to Norman,” he said. “I couldn't call anyone until we got to Jackson, and my mother had filed a missing persons report.”
The scientist also has an interest in the speed of the wind on the ground during tornadoes. There are ways to measure the wind inside a tornado, but it's harder to get an accurate read on what is happening on the ground when a tornado hits. It's one use for his Dominators with their spikes. He hopes to be able to measure just how high the wind speed is while it causes so much destruction.
Timmer and his team regularly stop during the aftermath of a storm to help with search and rescue and offer first aid.
In the 2010 Yazoo City, Miss., tornado, Timmer and his team found an injured man, Lee Woods.
“Amid all the destruction, we found a man who was badly hurt. We managed to get him out and took him to a place where he could be airlifted to a hospital. He had a broken back.”
Timmer kept track of Woods and arranged for the man's trailer park to get its own storm shelter.
“The last time they had a tornado warning, there were 16 people inside the shelter,” Timmer said. “They call me to find out what's happening outside.”
‘All I know is weather'
During his offseason he does some public speaking and works on his doctoral degree and this year he had an unexpected adventure during Superstorm Sandy.
“Superstorm Sandy had the weirdest weather,” he said. “A mid-latitude trough slammed into the storm surge of cold air.”
He and his team were in the Appalachians. What followed sounds like something out of a disaster movie.
“It was snowing heavily and there was continuous lightning and thunder. It felt like a hurricane with the heaviest snow you've ever seen. We were driving up in the mountains and we knew one false move and we would go over the side.
“We thought we were going to have to stop. I thought I was going to have to make snow caves for everyone. It was that bad.”
They managed to get out of the “snowicane” unharmed.
Timmer credits social media to the drop in storm-related injuries and deaths, and uses it himself to keep his fans informed about the weather around the country — except maybe in Oklahoma. Here, the local television stations have some of the best meteorologists in the world and people who live in the area are familiar with what to do in most weather conditions.
“One of the coolest things I've seen is here in Oklahoma. It's amazing to see three helicopters surrounding a tornado, knowing they are providing a live feed to the people in the area,” he said.
Timmer hopes to finish his studies soon and become Dr. Timmer.
The single man lives with his Yorkshire terrier Gizmo.
“All I know is weather,” he said. “Right now my goal is to finish this degree and get accurate readings of a tornado's wind speed on the ground. My ultimate goal is to get a three-dimensional X-ray of the inside of a tornado.”