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MailTribune.com
  • Ashland professional storm-chaser prepares for biggest assignment yet

    Justin Walker plans to sail — and maybe dive — into a hurricane
  • The next time a hurricane makes landfall in the United States, Justin Walker will drop what he's doing and get on a plane to catch it.
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  • The next time a hurricane makes landfall in the United States, Justin Walker will drop what he's doing and get on a plane to catch it.
    He'll then climb into an armored jet boat and hit the ocean where the storm is forming, attempting for the first time ever to film a storm surge making landfall from the water.
    If something goes wrong in the boat, he'll be forced to abandon it and scuba dive into the ocean to wait out the storm.
    "It's a dangerous game we're playing," said Walker, 34, an Oklahoma native and professional storm-chaser who has lived in Ashland for the last two years.
    A graduate of the meteorology program at University of Oklahoma (name corrected from earlier version), Walker said he grew up in "severe-weather central" and was chasing storms as a hobby by the time he was in high school.
    He later secured a job at the Center for Severe Weather Research in Boulder, Colo., tracking storms across the country and gathering data for seven years.
    His team spent five seasons featured on Discovery Channel's "Storm Chasers," four of which you can spot Walker in. Together the team chased hundreds of storms.
    "I stopped counting at 100 tornadoes," said Walker, who's also been in the eye of four hurricanes.
    "They were windy, wet and cold," said Walker, adding that 50 degree weather seems much colder when coupled with 100 mph hurricane winds. "You're constantly wet. Water always seems to get into the vehicle."
    Since leaving the center in 2012 and stumbling into Ashland, Walker took a job as a barista at the Rogue Valley Roasting Co. and began to pursue a new extreme hobby — ultra-marathon running.
    He began running ultra-marathons — those longer than the traditional 26.2 miles — and so far he's completed five 50-mile runs, including the Siskiyou Outback Trailrun from the top of Mount Ashland, and made attempts on two 100-mile runs.
    While he plans to continue training for marathons, Walker is also about to be sucked back into the life of storm chasing, as part of a new project he's pursuing with National Geographic.
    He leaves Ashland next week to head for the Great Plains, where he'll spend two months chasing tornadoes in a modified vehicle designed to put Walker in the heart of each storm.
    The armored, 16,000-pound tornado intercept vehicle is 6 feet long by 6 feet wide, with big spikes that can anchor into the ground if the vehicle is at risk of being carried into a tornado.
    Walker will be filmed as part of a 3D IMAX film National Geographic is planning.
    In the fall, he'll be on call with filmmakers and report to work if a hurricane is headed for landfall in the United States.
    If it does, he'll jump into the armored jet boat to help capture IMAX footage from the water.
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