Storm chasing is something I have wanted to do for years now. After seeing photos at the Sony World Photography Awards a few years back by Mitch Dobrowner it looked like an amazing thing to do. Landscape photographers are obsessed by clouds, and in many cases they can make or break a photo, influencing the direction of and strength of the light. With storms seeming to form around early evening in the US the late evening light combines with whatever crazy wind is going on to make something you just don’t see anywhere else really.
On a recent trip to Norway with Tony Spencer he mentioned he was going storm chasing again this year with some friends and asked if I wanted to go along. It didn’t take long for me to say yes! I had no real idea what to expect. All I know is that what I really wanted was to achieve three things:
- See a supercell
- See a tornado
- Get scared by some form of impending doom
The third one might seem like a stupid thing to want for many people, but for me it’s part of the adventure. Holidays sat on a beach are not my thing. I want a good story or memory to bring back with me.
As a quick summary before the long blow by blow account below here are some stats:
Distance driven – 7000 miles (yes, that’s 7 thousand)
States visited – 10 (New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas)
Supercells – 3 (I think)
Tornados – 1
Times when I feared for my life – 1
You can see the photos from this in the Latest Work gallery. There’s also a time-lapse video if you click on the link below. It’s my first ever time lapse and, whilst it’s far from perfect, I’m quite pleased with it.
We started in New Mexico, flying in to Albuquerque and landing at around 7pm. Between four of us we had 5 bags. Two showed up. Not a good start. My bag, along with two others had been held in Dallas by American Airlines and after some discussion with the ridiculously unhelpful and frank girl in the lost baggage we finally found out the bags would arrive on a later flight and we would have to come back to the airport later that night to pick them up. We headed off to the airport hotel to meet Robert, our guide. Robert seems to know everything. Every road, every town, every fact about state flowers, and this is even before we start talking about the storms. As a day job he is a grad student, sponsored by NASA and completing about 13 other courses at the same time. He gave us the low down for the next few days as to what we could expect. It seemed like the following day we would be heading over to the Texas panhandle, about 4 hours drive away as there were some interesting conditions that could lead to storms. I don’t confess to understand a word he said, as there was lots of talk about shear and cape and cap and pfds or something. I still have no idea what it means. Anyway, tired but excited we all went off to sleep, with the last member of our party arriving on a later flight.
The next day we were due to head off at around 6am to give us enough time to get to Texas and get in position before the storms. Unfortunately one of the bags held back by the airline had still not arrived, so we ended up having to delay by a few hours. One great thing about the US is freedom of speech, meaning that I can openly say “Never fly American Airlines”. On the way out there I had severely regretted buying my flight with them, even though I did it through the BA website. The service you get is just appalling. Out of four flights (two out, two back) I took with them, three were severely delayed for no apparent reason, except on the final flight back from Chicago where the reason was that a bit of the plane was broken so they were going to replace it. This instilled me with lots of confidence obviously. Either way, due to the various flight experiences it is safe to say I will never travel with American Airlines again.
Right, so back to storms. We started by heading off to the Texas border to a small town called Clovis, which was a dump. I mean a real dump. This became a recurring theme throughout the two weeks. New York is amazing, San Francisco is amazing, but once you start storm chasing you find yourself in some really rubbish places such as some small town in the middle of Nebraska, where there is NOTHING. OK, maybe a gas station and a Subway…if you’re very lucky they have a Pizza Hut. Luxury! I have digressed again…
After hanging out in Clovis for a few hours staring at tramps and McDonalds wrappers the storms never really materialised, so we started driving north. On the way we were treated to this huge storm cloud on the Colorado/New Mexico border which, although it wasn’t worth chasing from a supercell or tornado point of view did form an incredible shape like a huge ship right around sunset. This was followed by some incredible mammatus clouds which was a great introduction to storms and potentially the best sunset I have ever seen.
What followed next is likely typical of storm chasing. We had a period of days of hopeful waiting, looking at weather models, hanging out in gas stations eating Clif bars and jerky, and driving 500 miles a day. We drove up through Colorado and Wyoming, ending the second day in South Dakota with a quick stop off at Mount Rushmore on the way which, by the way, is a complete waste of time. I am glad I saw it, so I know never to go back. It’s particularly unimpressive. We stayed in Rapid City and, typically, the waiter in the Ruby Tuesdays we went to for dinner was an Arsenal fan. The rest of the guys took delight in pointing out I was a Spurs fan to him and the failures of this season’s ‘soccer’ campaign we discussed. Against my better judgement I still gave the waiter a tip. I guess it was good to take pity on an Arsenal fan.
We woke up for a long day of more driving and waiting, although we did find the most picturesque abandoned barn in some random back road in North Dakota which took a good deal of time with everyone doing time lapses whilst kicking around the football we bought from Walmart. The day ended with sunset in Montana whilst exploring the hoodoos of Makoshika State Park where I actually got a decent shot (I think).
The next day was to provide us with our first decent storm. After waiting around in the exotic location of Malta (Malta Montana, not the Mediterranean island) we got the call from Robert and started heading towards a storm cell in Fort Benton (still Montana). The next few hours were awesome and largely involved driving close to an MCS (mesoscale convective system, apparently), jumping out the car to take photos for five minutes of this huge approaching storm, jumping back in the car and driving away a bit scared, and repeating this in cycles. The storm was producing hail stones the size of quarters (or 10 pence coins in real money) and a lot of lightning strikes. It was the first time I got to see the turquoise of the storm’s hail core, the glow of which as a storm approaches is really quite a special sight. The storm was not particularly dangerous and didn’t form any tornados, but it was very photogenic with a huge shelf cloud and other structures. We all finished the day quite happy.
Following this were many frustrating days. Despite having some shots in the bag from the night before everyone was waiting for something special. Something to really scare you out of you wits, but it took a long time to come. We spent the days driving from state to state to position ourselves for any potential storm systems that were building and looking for abandoned buildings or derelict barns to photograph on the way. Having lauded American’s freedom of speech earlier I am now going to decry their land laws. In contrast to the UK where you can more or less walk wherever you want in the countryside, in the US the whole place is fenced up, even in the middle of nowhere. You just can’t walk where you want to walk, for fear of trespassing and getting shot. Even when we were pulled up at the side of the road the locals would drive past and question what we were doing. Quite what trouble you can cause in the middle of the Dakota plains is beyond me, but we were stared at like we were about to open up a meth lab and establish a centre for torturing bunnies.
Several days and states later we were running out of time to find a storm. For around 10 days we had unsuccessfully chased storms with no super cells and no tornados. Only one evening of decent photography had been and gone. The storms just weren’t playing ball. We were in the right places, as proven by the other groups of chasers we were keeping up with on the internet who were in the same states as they offered the best chance of something special.
Then came the scariest day I have had for a long time. We were in South Dakota where the biggest storm system for many years was brewing. Six or seven years ago a similar storm had formed and destroyed two towns, forming big tornados. Lots of chasers had gathered in the area with the potential for tornados, hopefully away from any towns. We spent the day waiting around for the storms to kick off and were exactly where we needed to be…then came the storm. We drove to point where we could see it coming and jumped out of the car to set up and take photos. We had been out of the car for about 5 minutes when Robert (our guide) started sounding the horn to get back in the car urgently. The storm front had overtaken us as it was travelling at 60mph, and we were surrounded by blackness. The dark that comes with a storm is something very eery. You look into pitch black clouds from the ground to the sky, like it’s midnight, but a different tone. It’s black and ominous rather than just dark. There is still light coming in from behind you where the storm hasn’t yet reached, so you can still see buildings and people like it’s just a cloudy day. It feels like the end of the World. The core of the storm was heading for us with baseball sized hail stones and stupidly strong winds, so we sped off down the road trying to get out from under it. As we were driving down one of those long, straight American roads all we could see was this huge cloud right where we were heading. It was rotating like crazy and lowering, and lowering, and rotating, and lowering, right in the middle of the road. We couldn’t turn back and drive into the core of the storm as we would be toast, but it looked like this was going to drop a tornado right on top of us. My pulse must have hit 200bpm as we got closer, then at the last minute we were under it and clear. What a sense of relief. I had wanted to experience something like this, but this was scarier than I imagined. As huge as the storm was it was not photogenic, so we ended the day with a few shakes but no photos.
Given that I get limited holiday each year due to working for ‘The Man’ I was getting anxious. We were getting closer to Colorado and I had been battling with the decision about whether to continue, or cut my losses and head to New Mexico to photograph Bisti Badlands, White Sands and Ship Rock. Unlike storms, these things don’t move around from state to state every day. We got within an hour of Denver airport and the storm outlook was not positive for the remaining days. I decided enough was enough, and that I was going to cut my losses and catch a flight back to New Mexico. After checking some details on the sat nav it seemed like driving me to Denver airport would mean no-one else would be able to chase the small storm that was forming that night. Not wanting to make everyone else miss something, I changed my mind and stuck with the group. We found ourselves in the aptly named Last Chance, Colorado, waiting for something to happen. It happened.
The small storm we had been waiting for turned into a big, mean supercell with some incredible structure to it. We tracked it for an hour whilst it matured, shooting from various angles over corn fields and silos. It started to lose its structure, but an hour later decided to reform so we kept on tracking it, shooting time lapses and location spotting before sunset when it produced something that looked like a UFO filled with lightning and one of the most impressive sunsets I have ever seen. After the sun went down we were treated to lightning bolts all round, with strikes every second or two throughout the night in a fantastic display. I was glad I didn’t have time to make the plane.
The next day we followed another promising storm, down through Nebraska to the Oklahoma pan handle but it died rather unspectacularly. Still, it produced a decent sunset and some mammatus to shoot. We continued down to Amarillo in Texas for the night. After arriving at midnight we were just about to go to sleep when the tornado sirens sounded. A huge storm was heading straight for town, severe warned with potential for some big tornados. We followed the news updates on the TV eagerly and headed downstairs in case the tornado actually hit. It was pretty cool to be in a place with crazy winds, rain lashing down, tornado sirens and the accompanying panic of the TV weatherman. In the end the storm passed without a tornado, and without further incident.
Our final day was spent travelling from Texas to New Mexico, where we followed a storm on the Colorado border. It teased us for a while with building structure followed by it falling apart so we decided to head off to another storm. About two minutes after getting in the car we looked out of the back window to see a funnel shaped tornado forming and lowering to the ground. Cue slamming on the brakes, piling out of the car and frantically scrambling to get some shots whilst grinning like a cheshire cat. On the last day we had been delivered a tornado. The form of the funnel was beautiful, such a clear point forming the connection between sky and land, and far more photogenic than many tornados that just form a lump of rain on the horizon. It was then time to head home. Back to Albuquerque. Back to London…via American Airlines…Did I say I was less than impressed with them? I can’t remember.
In two weeks we had covered 10 states and 7,000 miles. I had seen the three things I wanted to see, and a bit more besides. I had eaten waffles for breakfast every day until I was so sugared up on maple syrup that I actually wanted a salad.
Would I do it again. Yes, but not for a good few years. I am happy I went, and glad I saw what I wanted. The storms were awesome, but we had too many days where it just didn’t work out as storms are just that unpredictable, despite all the technology and models. The driving required was far more than I ever imagined, and I was just a passenger. The waiting can get tiresome, especially when the storms aren’t doing what you want. At the same time I can now cross it off the list. The sights of the super cells, the blackness of the storm and the fear/adrenaline when I thought we were toast are things that will live in my memory (until they get pushed out by something utterly useless and banal, which hopefully isn’t for a long time). Until you’ve seen it first hand, you can’t even imagine what it’s like.
This is probably the longest thing I’ve written since GCSEs. If you’ve made it to the end that’s 20 mins of your life you’ll never get back. Thanks for reading anyway : )