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Meteorologist alumna back in the van for 2023 trip

A storm chaser as an undergrad, Catherine Maxwell is a media member looking for storms

Catherine Maxwell at WDBJ7

Catherine Maxwell on set at WDBJ7
Catherine Maxwell is a meteorologist for WDBJ7 and a 2019 graduate of the Virginia Tech Department of Geography.

When the Hokie Storm Chasers trek across the Great Plains in search of the country’s most turbulent summer weather, Catherine Maxwell will be part of the trip.

This will be her second trip chasing supercells on the prairies. Maxwell is a 2019 Hokie alumna who double-majored in meteorology and multimedia journalism, earning a minor in geography. In 2018 she was an undergraduate storm chaser making her first trip to the Midwest. 

This time, she’s a professional meteorologist working for WDBJ Channel 7 in Roanoke, a media personality who has tens of thousands of people making decisions based on her forecasting abilities. When WDBJ needed a meteorologist in March 2022, they saw the benefit of hiring a young woman who graduated from the top-rated meteorology program in the southeastern U.S., who just happens to be a native of Christiansburg and who lived her entire life within the station’s footprint. 

In her role as a member of the media Maxwell will report about the trip.

“We are still figuring out how they want me incorporated. It’s still up in the air,” Maxwell said of her role, with a clever bit of wordplay. 


Maxwell in 2018 chase

Depending on circumstance, she could be giving live reports of breaking news, blogging about the day’s activities, or giving a single report about the two-week trip once the chasers return in early July. The success of the chase will be the determining factor. There's no point telling people in the Roanoke television market that the Plains are enjoying clear, sunbaked days.

June in the nation’s midsection might have a few days of calm weather but it’s known to get bumpy. The trick for the storm chasers is finding the places where that atmospheric turbulence turns violent. 

“People ask me where we’re going,” Maxwell said. “We don’t know. We can’t predict very far in advance. The first day is the travel day when we’ll get to the Midwest and see where the best place is to set up. We’ll get a game plan in place.”

The first day of the trip in 2018, Maxwell said the fleet of vans adorned with Virginia Tech magnets traveled west for 911 miles, from Blacksburg to Kansas. Then they looked at the forecast and predicted the most likely place to see a big storm.

“We bounced between a couple of states. Then we had to decide, are we going back to Kansas, staying in Nebraska, going up to South Dakota?” she said. 

It’s not a case of “Go west until you see a dark cloud, then turn to get in front of it.” Once in the Midwest, Maxwell said the team will consult models and look for atmospheric activity, then choose whether to go north into the Upper Midwest, south into the Southern Plains or stay in the central part of the country.

Maxwell had never been to the Midwest prior to being a Hokie Storm Chaser in 2018. 

“I didn’t realize how flat it really is out there,” she said. 


Storms get big on the plains
Catherine Maxwell had never seen land so flat prior to her 2018 trip as a Hokie Storm Chaser.

The Storm Chaser trip is being led by Dave Carroll, a Virginia Tech instructor in the Department of Geography who has guided students on storm chasing trips for 20 years. He decided a few years ago that the best and safest tactic for the chasers was to wait until late June to conduct the trip. 

As storm chasing becomes popular and chasers populate social media with posts, the areas around storms are now crowded to the point of danger caused by traffic as violent weather passes over people who are unable to escape from the threats. 

“It’s called ‘chaser convergence,’” Maxwell said. “It’s not the safest when there are too many chasers and you realize you should back away from the storm.”

Maxwell understands the appeal of posting content on social media or broadcast news, but she said the purpose of her accompaniment of the chasers this year is to learn and renew her understanding of the supercell storms prevalent in Tornado Alley, but very possible in southwestern Virginia. 

“The perception of storm chasing is skewed based on what you’re seeing on people post on YouTube,” she said. “It should be done for research purposes, not just likes and shares.”

Five years after her trip for undergraduate credit, Maxwell said she is taking the trip again to renew her knowledge of turbulent weather. 

“Those storms are so much different than here in the mountains. It’s very interesting to me so I wanted to go back again to refresh myself,” Maxwell said. “I want to learn something from a future meteorologist. I’m young so now’s the time to go out there see the stuff, to learn something new.”

Understanding storms up close and in the moment helps, too.

“Physically forecasting during an active part of the storm, you can see what all the variables are in a way that’s not the same as looking at it on a computer inside a building,” she said.

“Chasing” implies catching a storm from behind as it moves east, but Maxwell said the strategy is the opposite.

“We’re trying to be in front of it to see how it’s developing, trying to track where it’s going to go,” she said. “We’re trying to get in front of the storm and forecast correctly. If you truly want to see the storm you have to know where to set up.” 

In 2018, the Hokie Storm Chasers saw several supercells, one of which had a rain-wrapped tornado in it. No one saw it at the time, but a picture shot by one student had a piece of the funnel visible.

“A guy was editing his pictures and saw the tiniest but of a funnel. He really didn’t see it until the next morning,” Maxwell said.

Another storm they tracked throughout a day developed into a hailstorm. 

“We were trying to make our way out of that one because we didn’t want the vans getting damaged by hail. It had a tornado in it,” she said.

After returning from the 2018 trip, Maxwell landed a job as a television meteorologist at WVVA in Bluefield while still a Tech student. She stayed with the station after graduation. 

Maxwell said her goal was always to work for WDBJ, so when that opportunity came along in March 2022, she jumped at it. Now she’s working in the market of her hometown and alma mater, as well as giving back by serving as a role model to young women interested in STEM fields, and mentoring the current crop of budding meteorologists.

The route of the trip will be a full circle for Maxwell.


The 2018 group of Hokie Storm Chasers
The 2018 group of Hokie Storm Chasers