Alberta storm chasers keep heads up
Extreme weather hunters help Environment Canada track events
At the height of summer storm season, when most people run for cover, there’s a small but dedicated group that races headlong into some of the most fierce weather systems on the planet.
Many might call them reckless, but they call themselves storm chasers.
Beth Allan is a photographer and a storm chaser, and has been since 2007. When she’s not hunting tornadoes, she works as a school counsellor. Despite the exciting title, Allan says storm chasing can have dull moments.
“Usually, you’ll drive to a target area that you’ve forecasted the night before … and you might sit there for three or four hours watching clouds bubble and getting sunburned by blue sky,” Allan said.
“Really quite boring … then you start to say, ‘Ok there’s a cloud, that’s a tower that’s going to go,’ and then you start get into position around it … if everything goes right, there’s not a lot of franticness. You’re always sort of navigating to stay with the storm.”
Once they’re in a good spot though, things can get pretty intense.
“Last year in July, July 5, which was when the tornado in Outlook, Sask., happened, another storm chaser and I … had just decided to drive overnight, because maybe there would be a storm. We were one of maybe four storm chasers who ended up being on those tornadoes and got to see every single tornado from fairly close range … Seeing five tornadoes in a day is pretty good for Canada … They were just beautiful tornadoes,” Allan said.
One group that’s been hot on the trail of western Canadian storms is Prairie Storm Chasers, a four-person group that hunts extreme weather across Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba in an armoured Jeep.
Nevin deMilliano is a founding member of the group, which formed after chasing a storm near Olds in 2011.
“We (were) all chasing a supercell thunderstorm outside of Olds that went on to produce three tornadoes, so that was a long-lasting, slowmoving, supercell,” deMilliano said.
“And after that, we kind of started talking and just thought that all of our ideas about what storm chasing was supposed to be and how to do it were kind of on par, so we decided to form the group of Prairie Storm Chasers.”
DeMilliano says one of the group’s priorities is giving reliable, up-to-date information to Environment Canada. The federal meteorologists use radar to track possible tornadoes across the country, but need verification from eyewitnesses on the ground.
Environment Canada knows that Prairie Storm Chasers and other longtime chasers, such as Allan, are good sources of information on what prairie storms are doing. Chasers and other storm watchers, including farmers, call in to Environment Canada or tweet what they’re seeing, usually under the hashtag #abstorm.
DeMilliano and Allan say there haven’t been any major prairie storms yet, but aspiring chasers should keep their eyes on the clouds in July.
“Seeing five tornadoes in a day is pretty good for Canada.” STORM CHASER AND PHOTOGRAPHER BETH ALLAN