Storm chasers and storm spotters came together Sunday to spell out a virtual tribute to Bill Paxton after learning about his sudden passing due to complications from surgery.
They were paying homage to the man who played Bill Harding, a veteran meteorologist and storm chaser in the 1996 hit movie, "Twister." The character Paxton portrayed is an icon for many who took part.
They used the Spotter Network to post the tribute online. The network of storm chasers, spotters, and public servants provides real-time positions and storm information to help improve the coordination of severe weather warnings.
"Part scientist, part folksy," said John Wetter, president of Spotter Network who coordinated the event, "Bill Paxton's character in 'Twister' helped to make meteorology -- and the hobby of storm chasing -- cool."
The tribute covered portions of the states of Oklahoma and Kansas, the heart of tornado alley, and was centered around the town of Wakita, Oklahoma. Wakita featured prominently in "Twister" and is home to a museum dedicated to the film.
Coordinating the tribute
The network uses GPS coordinates from registered spotters and plots them on the map. That information comes from GPS units that the spotters carry in their vehicles -- but can also be entered manually via the internet.
With the help of Daniel Shaw, a veteran storm chaser from Australia who created a Google Map with the coordinates needed to spell out the tribute, storm chasers were able to participate from around the world by plugging in coordinates to match those needed to spell out Paxton's initials -- BP.
"The whole process took about two hours to come together," said Wetter, who added that there was high interest in the tribute from the storm chasing community.
"There isn't a storm chaser alive that couldn't tell you some story about the impact that the movie has had on them as a storm chaser," he said.
Older storm chasers tell stories about how the movie turned their "niche-hobby" into a mainstream activity for thousands of people, Wetter said. Meanwhile the younger generation had their passion for weather and storms fueled by the movies storm scenes -- however exaggerated and lacking in scientific accuracy they might have been.
The 'Twister' effect
"Twister" enjoyed considerable box office success and maintains legendary status in the meteorological community. It also has been credited with helping to spawn a generation of young meteorologists.
According to John Knox, a coordinator for the Atmospheric Sciences program at the University of Georgia, "from 1990 to the late 2000s, the number of bachelor degree recipients in the atmospheric sciences in the US doubled. Meteorology professors labeled it "the 'Twister' effect."
Paxton enjoyed an impressive acting career with a number of major films to his credit -- but likely none of them were as influential as "Twister" in shaping the future of an entire field.
Sunday's tribute served as a visible thank you from the meteorological and storm chaser community.