Is that an Art Car? My stormy day with Sean Casey, tornado chaser

No, it wasn’t an art car that was parked outside the Houston Museum of Natural Science this week. It was a TIV, or “Tornado Intercept Vehicle,” for those not in the know.

Nancy_TIV_March 2012

I arrived early Monday morning to prep for a special day at the Museum with filmmaker and storm chaser Sean Casey (who you might recognize from the Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers series).

I knew the TIV was going to be pretty sweet, but I had no idea how impressive it was going to be in person. Once upon a time, Casey’s TIV was just a Dodge 3500, but there are only a few indicators that it was ever a mere pickup truck.

Designed and welded by Casey, the TIV looks like something right out of the sci-fi post-apocalyptic film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. The TIV’s cab is covered in armor 2 inches thick, complete with aluminum panels powered by hydraulic pistons that can be lowered almost to the ground to prevent wind from going underneath the vehicle. One of my favorite features is the 40-inch spikes on the sides of the TIV that can be activated to anchor the vehicle to the ground.  These features and more make the TIV ready and able to capture amazing tornado footage (along with look pretty spiffy in our makeshift Museum driveway).

By 9:30 AM, Casey had arrived and opened the bullet-resistant front windows to give fans a better view of the interior of his storm-proof ride. Eager fans arrived early to meet Casey, ask him questions, get autographs and pose with him for photos. Based on the smiles, nervousness, and excitement I saw, his fans weren’t disappointed.  Many mentioned that it was an honor to meet him and said that he was living their dream. Chasing twisters instead of typing? Get out.

Nancy_TIV_March 2012

But Casey seemed just as excited as his fans. He was accessible, easy-going and happy to meet everyone. I overheard all sorts of comments and questions for Casey, but the two most common questions I heard were: How much does the TIV weigh? and What kind of gas mileage does the TIV get?

Answers: 14,500 pounds and 10 miles per gallon.  Casey also introduced all-new showings of his newest film Tornado Alley, now playing at the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre at HMNS.  His introduction included anecdotes about his early days of storm chasing from a rental minivan to getting pulled over by the police (50 percent of the time in Texas) to the eight years it took to make his latest film.

The highlight for me was watching two lucky contest winners go for a ride in the TIV at the end of the day. After a long day outside with heavy fog in the morning and sunshine and high humidity in the afternoon, I thought of my own question for Casey: Does the TIV have air conditioning? Answer: No. Regardless, our contest winners had a fabulous excursion through the museum district impressing all the spring break traffic with Casey and the TIV.

Casey is about more than tornado chasing, though. I learned two more fun facts about the Discovery Channel star: First, he likes to eat at Chipotle and has gotten quite lost following freeways signs in search of a good burrito. Second, he really enjoys metal detecting with his oldest daughter, so he was drooling over the Ausrox Gold Nugget, which weighs about 748 troy ounces and is now on display for a limited time inside the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals.

While it was an extraordinary opportunity to spend the day with Casey and the TIV, it was also another day in the life of a Houston Museum of Natural Science employee.

Enter the “Take a Ride on the Wild Side!” Sweepstakes

Houston is no stranger to severe weather.

Thunderstorm in Northern Oklahoma

Within the past few months we’ve experienced both a drought and flooding.  Hurricanes and ice storms have shut the city down for days. Most residents have a story about witnessing extreme weather conditions, from hurricanes to tornadoes, but never quite like this…

Tornado Alley 3D opens March 9 in the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre!

Ride along with filmmaker Sean Casey of the Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers series and researchers of VORTEX 2 as they bravely capture dramatic and destructive tornado footage in this fascinating film.

Casey uses a fleet of customized vehicles that can withstand the most threatening weather  - allowing them to go right to the heart of a tornado and even document the birth of a tornado with a 70mm camera.

Tornado Intercept Vehicle

On March 12, you can meet Casey and his Tornado Intercept Vehicle!

From 9:30 – 11 am, the TIV will be parked at the front entrance of the Houston Museum of Natural Science and Casey will be available to meet visitors.  While you’re here, check out Tornado Alley 3D  – showing at 11:40 am, 12:30, 3, and 3:50 pm – Casey will  introduce each film.

Want To Ride in the TIV?

Enter to win a ride with Casey in the Tornado Intercept Vehicle at approximately 4 pm on March 12!

To enter, tell us about your strangest weather experience, your favorite episode of Storm Chasers, or your thoughts on Houston’s weather – just leave a comment on this post between February 23 and March 8!

The winner will be selected randomly and contacted on March 9, 2012.  For official contest rules, please click here.

The winner will be contacted by email – so don’t forget to leave that information in the comment entry field – don’t worry, your email will be kept confidential.

Solve a Mystery 75 Years in the Making – Who First Climbed Everest

In 1924 George Mallory and his team attempted to climb Mount Everest. They were last spotted only 800 feet from the summit, before they disappeared completely. It is unknown whether Mallory died before he made it to the top. If he and his team reached the summit, they would have been the first people to have climbed Everest. Mallory’s body was never found, until climber Conrad Anker discovered it frozen and intact 75 years later.

See Wildest Dream: The Conquest of Everestnow playing in our IMAX Theatre. This amazing IMAX story follows George Mallory’s life and incredible journey, recreating it from letters and interviews with his relatives. Linking the past with the future, Anker attempts to climb Everest using the same route and equipment available to Mallory, to try and solve a mystery 75 years in the making: did Mallory make it to the top?

Never-before-seen archival footage combines with the spectacle and grandeur of present-day Everest on the world’s largest screen to portray an adventure — shrouded in mystery — that spans generations.

Can’t see the video? Click here.

Born to be Wild 3D – Baby Orangutans!!

Born to be Wild 3d is an amazingly cute IMAX film about how two exceptional people (with the help of their teams) rescue orphaned baby elephants and orangutans and raise them. They help the animals overcome their loss and prepare them to one day be re-released into the wild. Today’s blog post is about Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas, and the orphaned orangutans she raises at the Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine in Borneo.

Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine (OCCQ)

Orangutan means person of the forest in the Malay language. “They are one of our closet living relatives in the animal kingdom,” Dr. Galdikas states. “They share 97% of our genetic material, are benign beings and very intelligent.” They live exclusively in the tropical rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra, and are the only great ape living in Asia.

The OCCQ employs over 130 local staff who care for over 300 orangutan orphans, with the intention that all will ultimately be released into the wild. The facilities include an operating and X-ray room, medical laboratory, library, living quarters, as well as a separate quarantine complex.

The orphan orangutans living at the OCCQ are separated into age groups. The youngest ones are infants who live in the center’s nursery. These orphans require constant attention and coddling. A baby orangutan will physically not leave its mother’s body for the first year of life. So the human caretakers are tasked with caring for infants even more demanding than human babies.

In the wild, orangutans will naturally leave their mothers around eight years old, so that is the typical age when OFI’s orangutans are released back into the jungle. At a younger age, they’re still immature and small enough to become prey to clouded leopards. But once they’re older, as their natural instincts kick in, additional time spent under human care can impede their ability to thrive in the wild.

The relationship between the caretakers and the orangutans is significant. The young ones are so fragile during their formative years that the humans who commit to caring for them become, in fact, surrogate mothers. “If you put a baby orangutan on the ground it will not stop screaming,” Dr. Galdikas details. “They are literally pulled off their dead mother’s body when they are captured. They know no other place than in her arms or on her back.”

In a peat swamp forest near the OCCQ the orangutan orphans enjoy a kind of supervised release, learning invaluable nest-building skills as well as foraging techniques. Small wooden facilities allow the orangutans and their caregivers to sleep in the forest at night. The halfway house this forest represents to the orphans is of dire importance in their journey back to surviving in the wild. When the orangutans reach the age of eight years, they are usually ready to be released into the wild.

Several scenes in the film Born to be Wild were shot at the OCCQ and in the surrounding jungle, including interaction with Tom, the dominant male orangutan now living in the area outside the camp. Tom is a totally wild orangutan, but Dr. Galdikas has known him ever since he was born. Thirty-five years ago, she helped raise his mother, Tut, who was one of the original rehabilitated orangutans released at OCCQ in the 1970s.

“We spent a lot of time with the larger orangutans that have been rehabilitated by Biruté,” comments Drew Fellman, producer of the film. “They might be 30 years old, having lived wild now for over 20 years, but they’ll come back to Camp Leakey to visit. They might just come up and sit down next to you, or as you hike through the forest, one will take your hand and walk with you awhile. Many of those that Biruté raised now have offspring who are completely wild, and don’t interact with humans at all, which is a great thing. That’s the whole point of her project. Sometimes the first generation that returns to the wild is transitional and still leans on humans for support, but success is about the future generations.”

Can’t see the video?Click here.

If you missed our blog on orphaned elephants and their upbringing at the Nairobi Elephant Nursery, you can read it by clicking here. Make sure to check out Born to be Wild in 3D, now showing in IMAX