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.

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