Distant thunder rolls across the prairie as a supercell slowly takes shape on the horizon. You’ve navigated everything correctly – the models, the radar, the road network – now all that remains is for nature to take its course and hope that you’ve put yourself in the right position; a position almost directly in the path of the oncoming storm and one that allows you to make a safe retreat once it’s upon you. And hopefully come away with some epic shots in the process!
All of this is but a small part of storm chasing, a pastime that requires you to be equal parts amateur meteorologist, cartographer, IndyCar driver, social media reporter and expert photographer. It’s hours of boredom followed by short bursts of exhilaration and extremes. It’s exhausting. It’s dangerous. It’s addicting. And it’s a helluva lot of fun.
This past summer marks my sixth year chasing storms across Alberta (and often into Saskatchewan) and this was by far my most successful. This was in part because the season was substantially better this year than it has been over the past few years and also because I’ve committed more time to learning about and understanding severe weather over the last several years. I’m by no means an expert. Far from it. But I understand enough now to make strong plans and execute them effectively and safely. And before I go on, I can’t stress enough the safety factor of chasing. I do not recommend that anyone just goes out and chases a big storm. There is a lot to learn and know before you attempt to chase and I highly advise going out with others who are experienced first before attempting to chase on your own. You should also take the online courses through the Spotter Network and learn as much about severe weather as possible. Storms are dangerous and can be deadly. They need to be respected as such.
As I mentioned earlier, 2022 was a great season here in Alberta. Ample rain in June and a July heatwave provided some of the perfect ingredients for storm juice and the intensely blossoming canola added not just to the mix but to the photography foregrounds as well. There was only one thing complicating matters at the start of the season for me – on June 15th I had foot surgery and was required to be off my feet for 3-4 weeks for recovery; a period that put the start of my chase season in jeopardy!
Perhaps a bit too eager to buck the bed rest and shake off the chase rust, I enlisted my girlfriend, Jillian, to take me out for a little system that was developing close to home on the 19th, only four days after surgery. I was very, VERY careful and while the storm didn’t amount to a hill’o’beans, it felt great to get out of the house, stand out in the open prairie (on one leg) and get myself dialed back in ten months after my last chase. Ten days after that (now two weeks after surgery), my healing was going faster than expected and I’d been given clearance by the surgeon to take my big protective sandal off and, more importantly, to drive! My foot still needed to be babied in big ways but I was able to chase – and that’s all that mattered.
On July 1st, while everyone else was making plans to celebrate Canada Day, Jillian, Mark Jinks, Jeff Wallace and I were making plans of a different sort. A strong system looked to be developing to the east of Edmonton so we formed a posse and met up in Mundare, home of the world’s largest phallic symbol, to wait to see how things developed. Unfortunately an inversion cap kept things from coming together so we opted to do a little rural photography in the area instead. We may have been skunked on the storm but you can never go wrong with a day of outdoor photography with friends.
Finally, on July 7th, we had conditions that looked very promising for strong storms two days in a row down south so Mark Jinks and I packed up our vehicles and headed out to do a little chasing with some camping in between. We regrouped in Penhold and waited to see how things developed before deciding to chase a developing system down towards the Olds area. At 2:35pm, a tornado warning blasted across our phones as we got closer to the target zone. Erring on the side of caution, we pulled off a few kilometers from Bergen and soon heard reports of a tornado touching down there. Though we were too far away to capture good photos, I did manage to capture the tornado with an iPhone pano I took just as we’d pulled over. Unfortunately this tornado did a lot of damage before dissipating but from what I understand, no one was injured, thankfully. We stayed on the system as it rolled east and were directly underneath it as it spawned a short-lived funnel cloud before eventually falling apart. We didn’t have to wait long for another system to develop behind it and we were in just the right spot as it rolled closer to Olds. This one had some significant rotation and tried really hard to drop another tornado but it wasn’t to be. The storm began to overtake us in Olds when some of the loudest thunder I’ve ever heard shook the Jeep and rattled my teeth! We got back ahead of it east of Olds, passing by chaser friends Dar and Tree Tanner in the process (something we’d do several times over the next few weeks!) but ultimately the storm began to fall apart and our chase day came to an end. We spent the night at the Tolman Bridge campground where thousands of mosquitoes attempted to feed on us as we had our supper. Thankfully we had our Thermacells to keep them away.
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The next morning I walked my old adventure pup, Kwinn, around the campground and did a little birding. We then ventured to Dry Island Buffalo jump and then on to the Innisfail area where some towers appeared to be going up in the distance. We waited near the Dickson Dam for the systems to develop and then made our way east towards Innisfail with a giant wall of hail behind us. Unfortunately this system was short-lived and fell apart before building any significant structure.
Feeling a bit deflated we decided to head back to Edmonton in the hopes that we could intercept some distant towers that appeared to be building in the distance. This ended up being our best move of the day as the storms developed into a beautiful LP (low-precipitation) supercell near Maskwacis. We were in the perfect position to intercept this storm but it shifted south unexpectedly as we stopped in a new spot to take advantage of the blossoming canola field. While shooting we heard a thunderous rumbling across the prairie, similar to a thousand horses chasing a train in a horde of locusts and realized it was the sound of hail relentlessly pounding the ground and that the core was heading our way at a rapid pace. We rushed to pack up our gear and sped off down the heavily pitted out gravel road. I was briefly caught in the core but managed to get ahead to the edge of the storm and stayed along the southern edge for another couple of hours, chasing it to Highway 21 before it started to lose its structure in the rich colours of the setting sun. We finally rolled home around midnight, exhausted and ready to sleep in a comfy bed.
Now, as good as these two days were, the best was absolutely yet to come because on July 16th, central Alberta was treated to not one, not two, not three, but FIVE incredible, back-to-back supercells over a period of five hours. This was hands down my best chase day to date and I came away with some of the best storm photos I’ve ever captured. The day started around 430pm as a weaker system moved over the Ponoka area with another gorgeous cell developing right behind it, which I intercepted just south of Lacombe. From there two more cells were moving in tandem from the west, the first I intercepted northeast of Red Deer and the second southeast of Red Deer. The latter of the two lit up with the most incredible light at sunset where I was perfectly parked in front of a stunning canola field. It was a set-up that literal dreams are made of. I moved to the southern edge of the storm as it passed overhead and, exhausted, felt it was time to make the nearly two hour drive back home. But yet another cell was closing in, this time in an increasingly dark sky and I figured it might be a good opportunity to capture some great bolts as it moved by. I parked myself north of Penhold and set up my cameras in hopes of getting a flash or two of lightning but nothing really panned out and I decided not to press my luck any further. Afterall, the day had already given me more than I could have hoped for!
Just three days later, Mark and I were back at it again! Once again a big system began to develop between Bentley and Lacombe and we were in just the right spot for it. Unfortunately this one was incredibly fast moving and not as photogenic as we’d hoped and we eventually let it pass over us without much effort to stay with it. We may have erred as the storm continued east across the prairies and ended up being a beautiful rotating supercell near Oyen, which would have been epic to shoot. Alas, we ended up making our way home and intercepting a fast-moving groundscraper near Ponoka that overtook us before we could get any really amazing shots. But I did manage to get a couple that I was pretty happy with in the end.
The next couple of weeks were fairly quiet on the storm front but the season came to a thunderous end on August 1st when one of the most intense storms I’ve ever chased smashed its way across central Alberta. From the start, we knew the day would be more challenging than others. The 1st was a holiday which meant not only would the roads be busier with holiday travelers, there would also be a tonne of chasers out as well. The first cell to develop on radar popped up between Rocky Mountain House and Sylvain Lake. We got ourselves into the right spot but the seeders were out in full force and the cell lost all of its oomph in short order. Still, it was nice to bump into fellow photographer David Wilder at this spot and have a bit of a visit before deciding what to do next. At this point we were torn between staying on it on the off chance it regained steam or hoping that the cell developing behind it would end up picking up strength. Initially I was going to stick with the first one but at the last minute decided to intercept the incoming system. That ended up being the right move as this cell turned into a MONSTER. We were on it early and managed to get some great shots of the overall structure but we tarried a bit too long and the storm started to overtake us. We spent the next hour just trying to stay ahead of it, stopping here and there for some very quick photos, including a shot I’ve long dreamt about with the massive storm bearing down on the Niobe elevator near Innisfail. Here we bumped into friend and fellow chaser Beth Allan who informed us this system was reported to have softball-sized hail inside it. As it was almost directly overhead we decided to make a bee-line west to avoid getting cored by those softballs. Unfortunately, the cars traveling along Highway 2, Alberta’s major north/south corridor, weren’t so lucky. As the powerful storm crossed the highway, dozens of cars were caught in the wide open under the massive hail and smashed to pieces. Miraculously, no one was injured but the damage to the vehicles was extensive. We tried in vain to stay ahead of the storm but ultimately decided to cut south, out of the storm’s path, and let it pass us by. As it continued east, a beautiful rainbow appeared, bringing a sense of calm after so much destruction. As the beast rolled on, another system began moving in from the west. We tried to get ourselves back in position but it was moving incredibly fast and we just ended up trying to keep from getting cored as we attempted to move around the southern edge of it. Finally we did and began the drive home. All told we spent twelve hours chasing that day. We were wiped right out by the time we got home – and humbled by the power of what we’d witnessed earlier as videos and photos of the damage started to roll in.
Days like this are a stark reminder of the raw power of Mother Nature and how we are powerless in her wake. As wonderful as it is chasing and photographing storms, there’s a very real cost to them. Damaged property, crops and injury to people, livestock and wildlife are very serious effects of these beautiful forces of nature. But therein lies another reason why we chase – to offer real-time reporting to ECCC using the #abstorm hashtag on Twitter to help get better warnings out to people to stay safe as strong storms approach.
The storm on August 1st was a helluva way to end one helluva storm season. As I mentioned earlier in this blog, chasing is both exhilarating and addicting. It’s hard to come down from the high from an epic chase and the days that follow feel empty and hollow. I’m already eagerly anticipating our next storm season. It’s going to be a long ten months until it arrives.
*Prints are available of any of the images you see in this blog. Please contact me if you”re interested.