What I learned on my first day of storm chasing: Stay safe. Stay in the truck.
Heavy raindrops were hitting the windows and roof so hard that it sounded like being pelted by gravel. Visibility was still good as we drove along, but the dark clouds above held the promise of even heavier rain ahead. Suddenly, the pressure against my eardrums built to the point of near-pain as we encountered the gust front, and then just as suddenly as it came on, the pressure subsided as we punch through. Even though we weren't chasing a very strong storm at the time, I could see why this was becoming so popular.
The start of my day on Wednesday, June 18 was fairly quiet. I arrived at work, started up my computer, rooted around in my RSS feeds for stories to write about, and attended the morning weather briefing to see what's going on across the country. I was about to return to my desk when I was intercepted by my boss, Ryan Johnston, and The Weather Network Executive Producer Derek Snider. For some reason, the smiles on their faces made me a little nervous.
"Scott. Do you get motion sick?" Derek asked me, while both he and Ryan continued to smile.
"Yeeeeesssss..." I answered, carefully, waiting to see what's up.
"How would you like to go storm chasing with Mark Robinson?" he asked without skipping a beat.
Having been a meteorologist for roughly a decade, I've been asked several times if I've ever gone stormchasing. Although I've been curious about it, my answer has always been that my basic inclination is to stay away from tornadoes. Given the destructive tornado that swept through Angus, ON, just the day before, that basic inclination was definitely there, but something unusual happened.
"Storm chasing? With Mark?" I replied, giving a slight pause before continuing, but rather than saying something about passing that day or the like, I heard myself say: "Cool!"
So, it wasn't too long before I found myself sitting in the passenger seat of Mark's truck, as we travelled down the 401 towards the far reaches of southwestern Ontario.
This being my first chase, I asked Mark if there was anything I should know about - any specific rules about storm-chasing that the uninitiated should be made aware of before we actually encountered any storms. It all came down to safety, with examples like:
1. If it's hailing, don't get out of the truck (and by extension, if it starts to hail, get in the truck)
2. If there's lots of lightning, don't get out of the truck (also, by extension, if lightning gets close, get in the truck)
3. Sometimes we need to move quickly, so always be ready to get back in the truck. Fast.
As we drove along, Mark talked about some of his experiences in southern Ontario, and how this is likely the best place for someone new to storm chasing to start out. This region can have some strong storms and tornadoes can certainly form, but in general, the storms just aren't as powerful as those seen further south. That gives an added buffer of safety for someone, before they try to tackle the storms that rage across US Midwest and Plains States. A great example is the devastating El Reno tornado on May 31, 2013. That particular tornado, which killed professional storm chasers Tim Samaras, Paul Samaras (Tim's son) and Carl Young, and caused injuries and damages to other storm-chasing teams operating in the area, as it tore through central Oklahoma. Mark was near El Reno at the time, along with Jaclyn Whittal and their cameraman, and the tornado passed by to the north of them, with only around one kilometre to spare. With his years of experience, Mark is confident in his abilities to keep himself and his team safe during a chase, but one aspect of the El Reno tornado that he pointed out was that the rain bands surrounding the funnel made it very difficult to identify as a tornado until it was nearly on top of them.
Checking the weather radar as we made a quick pit stop, Mark pointed out a storm in eastern Michigan that he liked the look of, which was going to cross over into Ontario somewhere between Sarnia and Chatham-Kent. Angling towards the storm, we met up with a stormchasing friend of Mark's, and set ourselves up west of Strathroy, ON, where we captured these amazing clouds that were pushing in ahead of the storm.
NEXT PAGE: AND THEN IT HAPPENED, GUST-NADO AND A BOWING STORM