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SPOTLIGHT: Rockton student pursues storm chasing

By Elizabeth Davies

Rockford Register Star

Published: Thursday, Aug. 11 2011 5:05 a.m. MDT

In this photo taken July 28, 2011, amateur storm chaser Alec Scholten poses outside his home in Rockton, Ill. Now 18 and a student at Rock Valley College, Scholten has been on five storm-chasing trips and intends to pursue a career in meteorology.

Rockford Register Star, Scott Morgan) MANDATORY CREDIT, Associated Press

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ROCKTON, Ill. — When a major storm is headed his way, there's one place you can be sure to find Alec Scholten: outside.

"Ever since I can remember, I would run outside and watch until it started raining on me," he said.

And indeed, his longtime fascination with weather systems and storm clouds is picking up speed as he gets older. Now 18 and a student at Rock Valley College, Scholten has been on five storm-chasing trips and intends to pursue a career in meteorology.

"I want to do something involving the weather," he said. "Whether it's a journalist or a photographer — I still have a lot of research before I narrow it down."

Even so, Scholten has far more weather knowledge than your average teen. As a high school student, Scholten had a weather Doppler on his phone and would check it in the bathroom in between classes. Even his neighbors know to call the Scholten house to see if it's time to move into the basement during a severe storms.

And while he is really interested in hail and tornadoes, Scholten said snowstorms and blizzards capture his attention during the winter months.

"That's the saving grace in the winter to keep me from getting too bored with the weather," he said.

Because of his fascination with weather, Scholten's parents looked into sending him on a storm-chasing trip when he was just a young teen. The weeklong tours take customers through plain states during storm season, where they hope to see major storm systems develop.

"You know there's a (safety) risk, but it's not going to change my interest in storms," Scholten said.

Even though storm chasing can mean driving some 3,000 miles and hitting as many as eight states in six days, Scholten loved the thrill of the chase.

"It was my cup of tea," he said. "I wanted to keep doing it, so we've done it every year for the past four years."

His most memorable moment came in Wyoming when, hours into the weeklong tour, they saw a tornado from just three or four miles away. Using radar to stay out of the tornado's path, they were able to watch it touch down, pick up and move away again.

While watching, however, softball-sized hail began to fall and smashed the windshield of their van.

"We had to run to the car and speed away," Scholten said with a grin.

Although he long has taught himself about weather through books and the Internet, Scholten says his weather tours have been a big part of giving him hands-on weather knowledge.

"You learn a lot on these trips," he said. "They talk in these meteorology terms and you learn just from hearing them talk."

Of course, Scholten understands that storms can leave behind very devastating effects. His parents have brought him to do storm cleanup so that he can see first-hand the destruction it can cause.

"We wanted him to realize there was another side to this," said his mom, Lisa. "There are people who have lost everything, including their lives. He's also sensitive to that — it's not all fun and excitement."

Still, Lisa understands his passion. For a long time, it seemed he was alone in his fascination with weather. Then he realized that there was another weather fan in the house: his mom. She has been on all but one of his storm-chasing trips with him and says she gets just as excited when a major storm approaches. Both mother and son say they enjoy sharing that common bond.

"How many people can say they share an interest this crazy with someone in their own family?" Alec asked.

Information from: Rockford Register Star, http://www.rrstar.com

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