May 31, 2020
It’s hard to believe that most days begin with blue bird skies and barely a whisper of wind. As the day heats up, we begin to see small cumulous clouds develop that soon start exploding energy high up into the atmosphere. It’s easy to get caught up and want to start chasing, but the key is to wait for which system becomes dominate. That’s our supercell. It’s such a wild ride the whole afternoon and well into the evening. Experiencing the raw, powerful energy that Mother Nature creates is breathtaking and terrifying at the same time.
In 2018 I set out to create a short film about Australian storm chasing photographer Nick Moir called ‘Chasing Monsters.’ Our crew – comprised of myself, Nick Moir, Skip Armstrong and Keith Ladzinski – fell in love with storm chasing and had decided immediately that we needed to come back again in the 2019 season. In fact, we would’ve been there again this May but obviously the pandemic has caused us all to reevaluate our plans.
My challenge as a creative was experimenting with how we could tell a photographer’s story without the aid of a voiceover and rely purely on visuals for the film. I knew the visuals of chasing these behemoths across the American Midwest would provide incredible imagery to support Nick’s character. And perhaps I always wanted to find the perfect excuse that would allow me to experience what it’s like to see a tornado in person as I still love the cult classic film ‘Twister.’
Last year, over the course of 12 days we drove approximately 8,000 miles. Weaving our way through Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, New Mexico, and then multiple laps in between those states. Each day we would spend an average of 10-12 hours in pursuit of severe weather, guided by weather radars and updating forecasts, ready to hop out at a moment’s notice with our cameras. One of the most notable days during our journey came when we saw ‘The Mothership’ in Imperial, Nebraska. A moment that stands out not only in storm chasing, but also a memory that I’ll carry with me for life.
We began the chase in Colorado, and the supercell was showing promise as a funnel cloud began to extend. Unfortunately, it collapsed before it could become a tornado and the chase kicked off as we followed the supercell into Nebraska. Last year, there was a lot of moisture, which created a lot of difficult situations when it came to visibility. As we sped (within the speed limit) up the road, visibility dropped to zero and it came to a split-second decision by Nick that we needed to bail NOW.
I must admit that the adrenaline was pumping through my body and I couldn’t help but question his decision and if he was sure. Nick and I have a friendship that is often fueled with sarcastic and ridiculous humour, but when he re-enforced his decision, I didn’t hesitate. The valuable lesson I learned there is that if you lose visibility, it’s simply not worth the risk. Later on we learned that a multiple vorticity tornado had touched down and caused two storm chasing touring vans to roll more than a dozen times. Thankfully, no one was seriously hurt.
After the detour down some backroads, we found ourselves in the Rear Flank Downdraft (RFD) which meant two-inch hail creating absolute chaos for the next couple of hours. Each time it hit our front windscreen, I was sure it was going to crack. The sound of such large hail hitting our car meant that we had to yell as we sat next to each other to be heard. As a group, we agreed to keep pushing through, and when I saw that sliver of sky, it was the biggest relief to come over me as it signified the edge of the storm.
As we drove into the clear, Nick started to notice the perfect striations stretching out across the sky. It was sheer luck that we hit the timing that we did, as it felt like the peak moment to capture as we pulled over to the side of the road in Imperial. It was insanely beautiful to witness ‘The Mothership.’ The supercell we had been chasing caused so much energy in the outflow boundaries that it caused another supercell to form. There is a lot more science that goes into this, as I’m still learning the ropes with meteorology, but it was an amazing moment to witness unrestrained nature.
I can’t deny that it’s a surge of adrenaline that pumps through the body, but when I think back to those extraordinary moments, I feel like a young child in complete awe and wonder. Seeing anvil crawlers extend out over the entire sky above me has made me yell in excitement every time without fail. But there have also been terrifying moments, like when lightning struck within 100 metres and I sought refuge in the car, praying that we wouldn’t get hit. I also remember a day where everything above us was swirling and we couldn’t quite read where the tornado would drop. Feeling such fear is a grounding experience that keeps me in check and constantly reminds me of the dangers that come with seeking out tornadoes.
I’m often categorised as an adventure photographer, and I too have associated myself with that identity for a majority of my career. But I’ve also identified myself as an artist and I prefer that term as it allows a greater freedom in the work I wish to pursue. I don’t want to be pigeonholed into a particular direction and love taking on new challenges or new adventures wherever that may lead me – in this case, down many backroads. I know a few friends were shocked that I’ve started storm and fire chasing, but for me it doesn’t feel like a shock, it just felt like a natural move in this direction as I strive for new challenges that will educate me.
As for what the future holds for me right now, well, I don’t know if anyone can answer that question considering the severity of the pandemic. The silver lining I see in this situation is that it’s given me the greatest opportunity to reset completely. I think the world needs a reset and for all of us to question our previous ways and how we can better that. In moments of tragedy there also exists a positive outcome.
Here’s to hoping there are more storms to chase in the near future.
Photographer • Artist • Woman of Adventure