Understanding a bit of the science, art, and adventure behind extreme weather
Tornadoes are fearsome and fascinating. Watching Twister and The Wizard of Oz as a kid convinced me of these two points. I would occasionally have surreal dreams about them, read about them in the news, and wonder about the science behind them. However, for the most part, tornadoes were not something I thought about on a regular basis. Last year, I came across a story featured on Marketplace how one storm chaser, Roger Hill, has turned storm chasing into a tourist attraction with his company Silver Lining Tours. Through the interview, it was evident how knowledgeable and passionate Roger is about tornadoes and storm chasing. His passion was inspiring and contagious! Not long after hearing the piece, I did some research and ultimately signed up for a photo tour with Silver Lining Tours.
The tour started in Denver, Colorado. We started off the tour with extremely good weather, meaning we did not storm chase the first day. Instead, we visited the animal sanctuary. It took a couple days for me to get used to the idea of being so excited about bad weather, so to speak. Each morning, we would start with a brief orientation regarding the weather forecast, and where we would be chasing that day.
Our first active chasing day led us to New Castle, Wyoming where we saw our first supercell of the trip. It was a stunning storm albeit waning storm. Regardless, it was extremely photogenic and made for a captivating subject over the fragrant and yellow sweet clover fields. Our second supercell that day occurred in Hulett, near Devil’s Tower. It was a massive storm with a wicked looking hook. It was a mean looking storm and felt like one too. As the storm approached us, we could feel it’s looming intensity. As it got closer, we quickly hopped into the vans and headed back up toward Devil’s Tower. Turns out, there was indeed a tornado in the storm structure. However, it was rain wrapped and hidden from view.
On the third day, Roger hosted an educational morning session regarding the different types of supercells, and how tornadoes form. I learned there are three types of supercells: low precipitation (LP), classic, and high precipitation (HP). In summary, LP supercells tend to have a higher base, and result in weaker tornadoes, if any. They can develop into beautiful cloud structures, as was the case of first storm we saw over the yellow flower field in New Castle. Classic supercells (the storm in Hulett, pictured above), have a well defined hook echo, and have a higher chance of producing tornadoes. The hook echo is often used to predict the probability of a storm being tornadic. HP supercells are considered to be extremely dangerous, due to their ability to produce strong tornadoes, often rain wrapped and thus hidden from view. The four key ingredients of a tornado are shear, lift, instability, and moisture, or SLIM for short. If you are interested in learning more, please check out this link from Silver Lining Tours.
We headed up to Broadus, Montana to wait for the afternoon storms, and spent the early evening chasing a storm resembling a stack of plates which produced electrifying bolts of lighting! In hindsight, I should have looked into buying a lightning trigger to assist in capturing the unpredictable bolts. It was both frustrating and amusing to try to press the shutter button as soon as I saw a bolt appear. Needless to say, my reactions were nowhere near fast enough. The photos I did manage to capture, I can confidently say, were based more on luck than any type of hand-eye coordination.
On the fourth day, our group was buzzing with excitement and anticipation, as there were three large storms brewing on the radar. We waited in Lewistown, Montana for them to develop. The first storm that evening did indeed produce a tornado. However, it was behind the mountains, and no roads were available for us to get a closer look. I was using my wide angle at the time, so the tornado turned out even smaller in the photos. Can you spot it in the first picture below? Hint: look center left behind the mountains. We wrapped up our night chasing two more storms, though neither produced a tornado. Regardless, they did produce some amazing cloud structure.
Although the intensity of storms waned during our last couple of days on the tour, we happily spent them actively chasing. In an ironic way, I quite enjoy the spontaneous nature of storm chasing. Despite the best plan, there is no guarantee of getting the shot you want. Even though I am a planner and constantly want to know exactly what will happen next, it is exactly this change in expectation that reminds me to make a plan, but more importantly, to be in and enjoy the moment. It also makes the desired outcomes that much more precious and beautiful, knowing there was some unknown randomness behind it all.
If you are interested in storm chasing, I highly recommend Silver Lining Tours. Roger and his team are passionate and professional. Storm chasing definitely has risks involved, thus it is important to do your due diligence regarding the tour company you will be signing up with, along with general risks associated with the activity. It is of utmost importance to choose a reputable company to ensure your safety is top priority at all times. You may want to consider travel insurance as well for peace of mind. I purchased mine through DOGTAG. Silver Lining Tours also provided a list of recommendations regarding insurance options.
As someone who is enthusiastic about road trips, photography, and adventure, this trip was a success! I was warned in the beginning that this tour tends to bring out your own personal Moby Dick regarding storm chasing and photography. This turned out to be true. Despite witnessing awe-inspiring storms, there is still more I want to see, learn, and photograph.