A tribute to storm chasers
At its core, storm chasing is an extremely dangerous pursuit, as witness several events in late April and early May: Some storm chasers were killed or severely injured, not from a tornado directly, but as a result of the countless hours of driving to successfully encounter and chase a storm across the landscape. Three up-and-coming meteorology students from the University of Oklahoma lost their lives after a horrific accident near the Kansas/Oklahoma border. Soon afterward, a crash in Minnesota claimed the life of a meteorologist who had travelled all the way from Mexico to chase, and a well-known academic was seriously injured. Chasers are, after all, a small and tightly knit community dedicated to following their passions and resistant to thoughts of shying away from a storm.
These early-season tragedies, so close together and striking such passionate lovers of weather, have shaken the storm-chaser community, sparking dialog, soul-searching, and, for those who knew them personally, painful sorrow and fond memories.
I hope the points captured in this post, and other parts of this ongoing series, serve as a tribute to and remembrance of these individuals and their commitments to a better understanding of these violent, yet captivating, severe weather events…. Charlie Randall
ON THE ROAD ACROSS THE AMERICAN MIDWEST – My mother commented recently how surprised she is by my obsession with storms and tornadoes given how utterly terrified I was of them as a child.
I remember bits and pieces of this fear, especially involving nighttime lightning and thunder, but not to the degree she describes. A face of sheer terror and confusion greeted her any time the cacophonous ripping of air molecules radiated its show of sound and light through our house in rural Ontario. I’d curl up on her lap and bury my head in her shoulders doing whatever I could to escape the chaos. But somewhere along the way, that fear transitioned into awe. I’ve read of others going through such a remarkable transition, and even though I can’t remember exactly when it happened, a few instances do stick out.
When I was nine or 10, a severe thunderstorm came through my hometown, as I watched from the front screen door. With sheets of wind and rain working in tandem to transfer energy throughout the atmosphere, some of that energy lofted our blue kiddie pool into the air. Appearing already airborne to my right and quickly floating through the air, it tumbled jarringly before ending up lodged in a neighbor’s tree.
That was the first time I remember seeing wind do something other than rustle the leaves or playfully blow my hat off my head.
A few years later, on my birthday, our family and I were at my aunt’s house in Barrie, Ontario, as a tornado was approaching from the southwest. We had clear skies where we were, and the tornado lifted back into the sky before reaching the city. It had hit some buildings, and some of the debris had been sucked vertically high into the sky before falling onto the grass in front of the house. I watched a piece of pink insulation drift calmly onto the ground, in stark contrast to the way it must have been violently torn from wherever it had been.
The influence of the movie ‘Twister’
These events and a few others captivated me, locking me into an undying obsession with the many mysteries and phenomena of the atmosphere. One such event was the movie “Twister.” For many people like me, it brought to the fore the most violent part of severe storms, and the not new but certainly not well-known idea of actually chasing the storms. As the lead of a group of scientists, actress Helen Hunt’s character Jo has many incredible scenes. But the one that really sums up the hypnotic element of tornadoes is when, with a tornado barrelling down on her and co-star Bill Paxton, she inexplicably starts to slowly walk towards it, muttering to herself ‘I want to see it, I WANT TO SEE IT!’. Earlier in her life, Jo’s father was horrifically sucked out of a storm shelter as she and her mother watched helplessly, and no doubt this trauma played a part in her desire to not only study them but get as close as possible to the weird shape-shifting snake that took her father into the sky.
Yet still, even if you haven’t experienced a traumatic tornado event like that, the sheer beauty and intensity of a tornado draws people from all over the world to the American Midwest in springtime to take a dangerous chance at witnessing what is easily one of the most awe-inspiring things this planet has to offer.
Since coming down to the U.S. from Toronto at the beginning of April, I’ve chased a dozen or so storms, primarily across Arkansas, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. While wanting most to witness a tornado, I’ve also wanted to engage with local populations and other chasers to flush out what weather means to people and why it affects many so profoundly.
One early experience came as I was headed back north from storm-watching in the U.S. As I was crossing the border into Canada, a stone-faced border guard asked me the nature of my trip. When I said storm chasing, the veneer of authority evaporated, and she looked at me with curious intrigue and wide eyes. “Really?” she asked.
We immediately delved into our mutual fascination with weather, and she, with more vulnerability than I had expected from a border guard, admitted that even though it fascinates her, wind specifically terrifies her. “It’s so forceful and loud, and when I hear it banging on the side of the house or something, it leaves me so unsettled.”
“I get it!” I replied, acknowledging how crazy it is that this mostly invisible force can so often not be a bother … yet at other times, can keep one up at night or, at its worst, wipe a home clean off its foundation. Even though the wind terrifies her, we shared our mutual excitement and reverence for the sky, leaving us a beautifully connective human moment … about something non-human.
Throughout my weeks of storm chasing across the U.S, I’ve also witnessed how deeply ingrained storms are in the every-day lives of people in what is one of the most severe-weather prone areas of the world. Driving down backroads in Arkansas chasing a tornado-warned supercell, I noticed members of an entire family on their front lawn; grandparents, parents, and children all together, eyeing the sky while taking in the power of a passing storm.
In Kansas I came across two adult sisters and two twin girls who had driven all together on a single ATV from their house about a mile down the road to reach a better vantage point to watch the storm. Obviously taken in by the weather, they seemed even more taken by the sheer amount of storm chaser traffic they found on their normally desolate country roads.
This small-town fascination with the influx of chasers who now follow most storms around the country was evident also in Arkansas a few days later. I had stopped at a tiny bar to use the restroom in between two tornado warned-storms battling for dominance. When the patrons inside, swigging beers and playing pool, learned I was from Canada, one was so shocked he took out his phone and said, “Oh wow, I gotta get you on video!.” I indulged him and beckoned him to come outside where I gave a short synopsis of the interplay of the two storms taking place in front of us.
Many locals are very aware of the storms; Few chase, but some do. In north Texas I spoke with a young mother with her two young kids in the car’s back seat. “I didn’t have a sitter, and they love coming out for the ‘naders’,” she said as the older of the two girls bounced contentedly on the back seat. Quite moving to me, that site illuminated how the lustre of these weather phenomena really does touch people of all ages.
I later met two older gentlemen who told me stories about how they used to chase storms when they were younger, most likely in the mid-1990s. One was on his way home with groceries and didn’t stay long because his wife would wonder where he was. Nonetheless, he said he had to stop and watch for a bit, feeling the pull of the wonder of nature and unable to look away.
It’s the complete enchantment of storms for so many facets of society that has been one of the more striking elements of my travels throughout the U.S. But, in the end my time “down here” in the states is all about tornadoes.
All the severe hazards within supercells are fascinating. From the absolutely torrential downpours that can create flash flooding within minutes, to hail the size of a baseball that either buries itself deep in the mud, explodes on impact with an asphalt road, or shatters windshields as it finishes its downward journey from high up in the sky at speeds of up to 90 mph.
Most elusive, violent, and captivating though is the tornado, still somewhat scientifically enigmatic. After weeks of endless driving, lack of sleep, and several beautiful storms that left me feeling oh so close, I at last succeeded in witnessing an incredible tornado in the dusty north Texas scrubland in and around wind farms near Lockett, Texas.
More on that to come with my next post at this site.
Charlie Randall is a Canadian photojournalist, one-time meteorology student and, now, an avid storm chaser traveling across parts of the U.S. observing extreme weather and its aftermath.
Editor’s Note: Photos and captions in this series by Charlie Randall unless otherwise noted. Look for his upcoming post on fulfilling his dream of his first tornado chase … in Texas.