THE PULL OF NATURE
Adrenalin, opportunities for photographs and the science of weather drive storm chaser Bailey Allard
Some storm chasers love adrenalin, some love the opportunities for photographs, and some love the science of weather. Bailey Allard is described as being all three.
Atornado was churning up Illinois fields a mere kilometre away; far too close and Bailey Allard had no idea of its exact location. The sky was dark and walls of rain hammered her vehicle. Radar data was off and on, making it a “recipe for disaster,” says Allard, an experienced storm chaser from Glen Allan, Ont., near Conestogo Lake.
Without radar, it felt like Allard – chasing with a friend – was “charging blind.”
“We knew a tornado was crossing the highway we were on in front of us, but we didn’t know where.”
The weather radio told them the tornado’s mile markers, and they talked to fellow chasers on their radios. Finally, Allard pulled her car into a parking lot.
“We lost where we were. When that happens, that’s when you get out,” Allard says. “You stop and make a plan. “I could hear my friend hyperventilating.” Really, she should have stopped sooner,
she says, but the faltering radar sites had made it difficult to assess where the tornado was. And, she admits, the pull to see one of nature’s most awesome displays of power can be very strong.
It was July 2016 when an outbreak of tornadoes hit the American Midwest. Allard was chasing near Seneca, Illinois, with a friend in one car while another chaser friend was in a second vehicle.
After they stopped, “you could see power flashes so close which is a good indication of a tornado,” Allard says. Power flashes are light flashes caused by arcing electricity from electrical equipment damaged by the storm. Winds of about 145 kilometres an hour assaulted their car.
They didn’t wait around to see the damage caused by the tornado, rated EF2 on the intensity scale, but headed back to Ontario in order to stay ahead of the storm system
as it tracked east. (The Enhanced Fujita Scale or EF-Scale rates wind damage, ranging from EF0 to EF5, the strongest.)
Later, they saw photographs of the destruction caused by winds of about 200 kilometres per hour, powerful enough to lift cars off the ground, uproot large trees and tear roofs off houses.
They saw photos of the heavily damaged gas station where they’d filled up their tank only a short time before the building was hit.
“It was eerie filling up with the tornado sirens going off,” Allard says.
It was a too-risky experience for a storm chaser who likes to know the risks.
“That was a little too close,” she says. “We were fine, but you recognize sometimes you can be vulnerable. It’s knowing when to get out and sometimes you push it a little far.”
But that’s not typical for Allard, 32, who has been chasing storms since 2005. She does her research before heading out, watches radar on her phone, keeps in contact with fellow chasers.
Allard is one of about 10 to 15 chasers in Ontario whom veteran chaser Dave Patrick would “trust with (his) life” because of her experience, good judgment, observations and analyses of computer models.
She’s a smart, knowledgeable, “straightup” chaser who questions and keeps learning, says the Fergus-area man, a storm chaser for 34 years who keeps a hard hat and safety glasses in his pickup truck because of his experience with hail as big as five-pin bowling balls.
“She’s interested in the scientific aspects. She has no problem explaining why you do this hobby when everybody thinks you’re nuts,” says Patrick, 47.
“I’ve never known her to do crazy things. She has always played it smart,” says storm chaser/wildlife photographer Kayla Bendle, 33, who lives in Grand Valley, a community that was hit by a tornado in 1985. “She’s got a great storm-chasing team that supports her.”
Some chasers love the adrenalin; some love the opportunities for photographs and some love the science of weather. “Bailey is all three,” Bendle says.
Allard has taken training classes offered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which co-ordinates disaster response in the United States. She’s up to date on her St. John Ambulance first-aid and CPR training. She has also trained with CANWARN (Canadian Weather Amateur Radio Network), a stormspotting and reporting program of Environment Canada. Spotters provide extra eyes
to confirm and add information to data provided by satellites and radar.
She streams the storms live with other chasers and has given workshops on severe weather for the Scouts and other groups.
A graduate of the Earth sciences department of the University of Waterloo, Allard is studying part time for a bachelor of science in meteorology through distance education with Mississippi State University.
Last year, Wellington County Museum and Archives, between Elora and Fergus, featured her photographs and videos of extreme weather, and Allard made a public presentation describing her passion.
One day, Allard hopes to work as a meteorologist.
She hears the critics who call storm chasers “irresponsible,” especially when there’s “chase convergence,” or a number of chasers on the road at the same time as often happens in the U.S. Last year, she attended the funeral of two close chaser friends. Randy Yarnall and Kelley Williamson, contractors for the Weather Channel, died in rural West Texas in an accident with another vehicle at an intersection while they were tracking a tornado. The driver of the second vehicle also died.
The storm-chasing field isn’t so crowded in the big province of Ontario.
“In Ontario, if you know what you’re doing and understand what you’re looking at and read radar and choose what you chase and are smart about it, the risk is minimal,” Allard says.
“In the U.S., chasers are often first responders who get debris off the road so emergency crews can get to people. As much as we do it because we love it, we do it because we try to advance warning systems and change the way these events are brought to the public’s attention.”
And there’s no doubt about it, the adrenalin, the beauty of the turbulent sky and the challenge of predicting what will happen next can’t be ignored. Allard’s mother, Karen, or Allard’s boyfriend often go on chases with her, taking the wheel when thunder and lightning draw Allard like a magnet.
“It’s breathtaking. Sometimes there are no words for what you see,” Allard says. “It’s so beautiful and so powerful and you want to understand it.
“It does make you feel insignificant but not in a bad way. You’re a tiny speck in a greater scheme of things. The weather doesn’t care about you. We can do our best to understand it but it still surprises us.”
With long brown hair, expressive eyes behind glasses and her body a canvas of artistic tattoos that tell a story of where she has been, Allard is a fascinating mix of scientist, amateur geologist, musician – she produced electronic dance music for a Danish record label – traveller and a cat rescuer.
When she speaks, her arms sweep the air like the wind she chases. Meteorological terms are her second language.
On this day, there’s barely a puff of wind, and the farmers’ fields surrounding Glen Allan are topped by blue sky and white clouds. It’s hardly the kind of day to excite a storm chaser.
No matter. When Allard’s eyes aren’t focused on the sky, they’re scanning the ground for fossils, rocks, minerals and gems. She has loved rocks and weather since she was a little girl, taking after her mother who taught her and her brother about the outdoors. When other children were watching cartoons before school, Allard was checking the weather report and reading a treasured National Audubon Society book.
“I got the Audubon book at age seven or eight and learned about clouds and how they were formed,” she says.
“Some of my friends made fun of me,” she says with a smile. “But sometimes they’d ask me, ‘Bailey, how is hail made?’ and they’d stand there and I’d explain how it was created.”
As a rock hound, Allard travels to spots near the specimen-rich town of Bancroft to hunt for gems and minerals. “We know people who know places and researched
the mines,” she says.
“You look for different indication minerals. You see mica; you get garnets.”
A glass cabinet in her apartment in the house that she and her mother share contains specimens, all jagged edges and sparkling colour, with names that come easily to Allard – fluorite, tourmaline, pyrite, orpiment, aragonite, hornblende, aquamarine crystal from Pakistan, to name a few in her vast collection. She found most of them herself, but she also likes to travel to rock and mineral shows.
“My mother calls me magpie or crow,” she says. “It’s not about clarity for me. It’s about crystal structure. I don’t like tumbled rocks mostly because it takes away the crystal structure.”
Much like the weather, “the beauty of it is the way it’s formed.”
As Allard speaks, a wee cat, one of three indoor felines, twines around her feet while another suns itself on the floor. Cats and kittens that have been lost or abandoned seem to find their way to their country house, and Allard and her mother don’t turn them away.
Instead, they gather them up, catching even those that are feral, and take them to a sympathetic vet who spays and neuters them. Then they return and Allard, along with Pet Patrol, a local cat rescue organization, tries to find them homes.
For seven cats too wild to step inside her home, a shed in the yard with a little cat door is equipped with a bassinet padded with blankets on a shelf. She goes through multiple cans and a big bag of dry cat food each week.
With rock-collecting, cats, storm chasing and a job as a quality assurance inspector at Linamar in Guelph, Allard isn’t often still.
After graduation from University of Waterloo, she taught English as a second language for two years in Taiwan, using the opportunity to travel to Japan, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, China and Hong Kong.
While there, she became a model for tattoo artists and the art on her body is
striking and meaningful – koi fish on both arms to represent East and West; a whooping crane for good luck and prosperity; a bumblebee without its stinger to represent her strength in overcoming fear.
Living in the city of Kaohsiung, Taiwan, she witnessed a typhoon that dropped thousands of millimetres of rain and caused massive mudslides that killed hundreds of people in the mountains.
“After the water receded, I saw the devastation. That gave me perspective on how different the weather can be and how lucky we are that we don’t get the same type of weather they do.”
She also experienced an earthquake; heard the roaring noise and felt nauseated, with vertigo symptoms afterward. Lights flickered, tiles on the school’s roof fell, her young students cried, but no one was injured and the building remained standing. She felt the aftershocks later in her 14th-floor apartment.
Allard began chasing storms in Ontario in 2005 after she photographed the damage caused by a tornado near Conestogo Lake. According to Environment Canada, two EF2 tornadoes with gusts between 180 and 250 km/h uprooted trees, tossed vehicles aside and ripped into homes, barns and cottages. One of them tracked through Milverton to Conestogo Lake.
“People assume that tornadoes are categorized by wind speed, but they assess wind speed by the damage,” she says. “So some people from Environment Canada have structural engineering degrees too.”
The power of the storm convinced her she wanted to see a tornado in action. Iowa became her favourite chase state. The road network is good; there’s little traffic and it’s a tornado producer. “Iowa never disappoints me.”
Each year, starting about March when the weather looks promising – as in promisingly severe – and she isn’t at work, Allard throws her touch-screen laptop, with its sophisticated software, into the SUV she bought for such a purpose, and joins a team of other chasers on the road.
It’s a close-knit community. After actor Bill Paxton, star of the favourite “Twister” movie, died Feb. 25, 2017, chasers everywhere moved their spotter network beacons to create Paxton’s initials on a map in his honour.
Allard subscribes to a cellphone app that gives her radar data along with tornado and severe-weather warnings and predicted storm tracks. She takes a mobile weather station with an anemometer, an instrument for measuring wind speed. A self-taught photographer, she always has her Nikon DSLR D5200 camera with her.
She looks for “good visibility and good proximity” to the storm. “You always want to be in the southeast quadrant of a rotating storm,” she says. “If you’re elsewhere, there are not as many exit routes.”
She calculates velocity by measuring how far the line of storms has travelled in a certain amount of time. “It’s nerdy,” she says with a smile.
When an EF2 tornado hit Teviotdale, Ont., in 2015, Allard was in her vehicle with her mother at 9 p.m. “I stayed a fair bit back from that as I was having radar issues and it was night.” She took video, posted on YouTube and Ontario Tornado Watch, which provides social media alerts.
“Lightning started to light up the shelf. It was interesting because at the leading edge of the wall cloud, I could see it.”
There was a “fantastic light show” that Allard captured on camera and streamed live about 10 minutes from Teviotdale. When they couldn’t move the large branches blocking the road, they turned around for home.
Allard has witnessed other tornadoes; one in Eads, Colorado, on May 9, 2015, when it “dropped numerous times and at points was a multi-vortex tornado.”
But it’s not always big weather that she seeks. At 3 a.m. on Nov. 7, 2017, she threw a sweater over her pajamas, pulled on socks and climbed out the bathroom window of her home to sit on the roof. She had a perfect view of the northern lights.
“From my roof, it was beautiful,” she says. SolarHam, an amateur ham radio website about the sun’s effect on Earth, is one of her favourite sources of information.
She took striking photographs of Lake Huron when a storm swept over the water in June 2015. She drove straight to Point Clark near Kincardine when she saw the line of storms on radar.
“At one point it was hard to tell where the water ended and the sky started as an extremely low shelf cloud scraped across the landscape,” she wrote in a description of her photos at her Wellington County Museum exhibit.
It resembled a big shelf cloud “flying into a whale’s mouth.” Winds blew up to 100 kilometres an hour. Clouds rotated horizontally but didn’t form a tornado due to lack of wind shear, she says.
Despite her identity as a chaser – or perhaps because of it – Allard isn’t in a hurry to settle on a career or put down roots as some of her friends have done. Her interests have opened doors. They’ve made her more comfortable speaking in public, exhibiting her work and making new friends and connections.
She wants to see where else she can go without others’ expectations influencing her.
She is smart, independent-minded and not afraid to go against the flow.
“Chasing is crazy and scary and hectic. It’s also kind of peaceful. You only think of one thing,” Allard says.
“How crazy is it,” she adds with a laugh, “that life is at a point where hanging out with a tornado is more relaxing than real life and the expectations of people?”
Armed with a touch-screen laptop and sophisticated software, Allard jumps into her SUV and joins other chasers.