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Blowin’ in the Wind

Chasing storms along lake Michigan

Author Mike Guy Illustration Graham Roumieu

CHICAGO

ONE SPRING MORNING on Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive, a long line forms under an unseasonably warm sun. The Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) has just opened a new exhibit, “Science Storms,” and it’s been drawing such crowds daily, rain or shine. At 9:30 a.m. on the nose, a guard unlocks the doors, and the group—a mixture of kids on field trips and hard-core weather aficionados (they like to call themselves “weather weenies”)—files into the 26,000-square-foot exhibit.

Patrons gather at an angled 20-foot disk covered in snowlike granules and are invited to trigger an avalanche. A little farther along, visitors stand before a 30-foot wave tank and watch as a computerized control mechanism whips up a custom tsunami.

Another line snakes to the entrance of a wind tunnel that generates an 80-mph breeze. “It’s basically simulating the sustained strength of a Category One hurricane,” explains senior project manager Chris Wilson. “Of course, we create a safe environment in which to experience it. There are no objects in the wind that are going to hit you.”

The exhibit’s main draw is a 40-foot-tall “tornado,” a vortex of swirling vapors that rise out of the floor and spin with the velocity of an actual twister. The tornado is powered by four fans capable of moving over 100,000 cubic feet of air per minute—which is a lot—and visitors can manipulate the vortex from a console. Dorothy Gale would be impressed.

“I’m not sure if it’s the largest manmade tornado,” says Dave Mosena, the president of MSI. “But it’s certainly the largest interactive one. We want people’s jaws to drop to the floor, sure, but I think with tornadoes, which can be very dangerous and destructive, the more people know, the safer they’ll be.”

A group of seventh graders from nearby Lincoln Park are gathered around the tornado.

“This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen,” says one boy.

“What’s that show where the people drive around like crazy?” a friend asks.

Storm Chasers.”

“Oh yeah. It’s just like that.”

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