There are many words we can use to describe it: Captivating. Exhilarating. Thrilling. Addicting. Boring. Frustrating.
That’s certainly one word to describe the 2023 season here in Alberta. But therein lies the problem of putting high expectations on things you have no control of, especially something like the weather. Doing so is pretty foolish. But high expectations are hard to temper when you’re passionate and excited about something and high expectations I had nonetheless.
Those expectations for 2023 began long before the snow melted and the springtime convection started. Indeed it was while I was laid up for eight weeks following my second foot surgery at the end of 2022 that my anticipation began in earnest. With two large pins running through my biggest big toe joint and orders to stay off my feet as much as possible for as long as possible I had a wee bit of free time on my hands. Enter YouTube. Specifically, weather YouTube. Though I’ve technically been chasing since 2016, I still feel that I have so very much to learn so I made it a priority during this recovery to learn as much about weather and forecasting during this downtime as my unscientifically-inclined brain could manage. I consumed as much info as I could thanks to the Tornado Titans, Pecos Hank, Reed Timmer, Skip Talbot and many others. I learned how to read the models, skew-ts and hodographs in greater depths. I filled my brain with more terminology and science than ever before. And yet somehow I ended up feeling even more in the dark than I did when I started. Considering I’d done more than well enough in the past just using composite models and Radarscope, I wondered just how much better a chaser any of this would make me, at least for chasing in Alberta.
Even if I was struggling with a lot of the science of forecasting, one thing was for sure: consuming that much weather content was getting me more and more amped up for the upcoming season. And well before the season would get underway, I decided to check out a little event that had caught my eye on Twitter: Chaser Con Canada!
Held semi-annually, Chaser Con Canada is an event that brings together the storm chasing community for a weekend of informative panels and chaser camaraderie. The 2023 event was held in Olds, Alberta on April 7th and 8th and featured a number of incredible speakers from across Canada and the US. I only knew a handful of folks before I went to the event but left with a number of wonderful new friends and even more inspiration than I had before. I was determined to chase as much as I possibly could this year, putting everything I’d learned into practice. Or at least attempt to. As you’ll see, our 2023 season was challenging in many ways and a couple of big misses made me even more determined to keep learning the science behind one of my favourite photographic pastimes.
So let’s talk about the two big factors that impacted this year’s season: drought and smoke.
Over the last several years temperatures have been increasing and precipitation has been decreasing. This has led to incredibly dry conditions across western Canada and in 2023 resulted in a very early start to our wildfire season. Temps in early May soared into the low 30s (Celcius) and converted already dry conditions into tinder boxes. Over the course of the next several months Alberta would experience one of its worst wildfire seasons on record.
These dry conditions also mean no storm juice and all of the smoke in the air can inhibit convection, meaning no new storms which leads to a perpetual cycle of drought.
At the time of writing over 2.2 million acres have burned in 2023 in Alberta alone and the province has registered its greatest number of recorded smoke days since records began. All of this helped contribute to a weaker storm season overall. Most of the major systems failed to make it off the foothills or were taken down by the seeders before they could reach highway 2. Despite these challenges, I chased as much as I could. Many, many miles were driven this year and here’s how it went…
May 30 – Shakin’ Off the Rust
The first chase of the year is rarely about the storm. It’s often too early in the season for anything really severe to develop so the chase is more about shaking off the ring rust, getting your head back in the game after 9 or 10 months out of the storm mindset, dialing your timelapse game back in and, hopefully, getting out with a good friend. This is exactly the kind of day that May 30th was. I met up with Mark Jinks on the west side of Highway 2, south of Leduc and watched a moderate storm develop to the west, took a few snaps and as it came towards us, we crossed over the highway, found a quiet range road and watched as it passed to the north of us. Nothing to set the world on fire but a good day to get out and stretch those legs for the two months ahead.
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I would hit the road for a few weaker set ups over the next couple of weeks but nothing was really worth the gas.
June 14 – The Day of Wizards! (and a day I don’t wanna walk about…)
I don’t wanna talk about it. But I’m gonna anyways. On June 14th there was a landspout tornado outbreak in southern Alberta. All told, nine, EF0 landspout tornadoes formed between Calgary and Medicine Hat (and an additional one near Vermilion) and I didn’t see a single one. In fact, I didn’t even leave the house that day as there was nothing of note that I saw in the models with my very rudimentary understanding of meteorology. But storm chasing legends Kyle Brittain and Darren Howard, the Gandalf and Saruman of Alberta meteorology, used their wizardry and saw something worth seeing and put themselves right where they needed to be. While I can only wish I was there, seeing the photos and videos they captured puts a smile on my face and I encourage you all to check out Kyle’s video from the day.
June 16 – Shelf Madness!
In the late afternoon on June 16th an unassuming, non-severe mesoscale convective system (MCS), a fancy term for a messy storm, built to the west of Edmonton and quickly fell apart. The storm itself was relatively benign but as it collapsed it produced a strong outflow boundary (OFB) that pushed to the east. At first, the boundary didn’t look like much on radar but in person, this OFB produced an incredible quadruple-decker shelf-cloud that tracked east for quite some time. It was good friend and fellow photographer, Jeff Wallace, who made me aware of the shelf, sending a photo from a St. Albert grocery store parking lot he was in. I went into the backyard to see it making its way over Edmonton and decided to head east to try to get ahead of it. Once clear of the city we could see just how massive this shelf was as it stretched from north to south, horizon to horizon. We trucked down highway 14 making a few stops here and there before ultimately stopping at a favourite location of mine, the Dirty Shorts elevator in Shonts. Here we waited as this massive stack of pancakes quickly bore down upon us. I didn’t have time to set up a timelapse and instead ran around like a chicken with it’s head cut off taking single frames and handheld panoramas. This shelf had one of the most incredible structures I’ve ever seen and although it wasn’t a severe storm, it was easily one of my three most photogenic storm chases of the year!
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June 18 – Father’s Day
The forecast wasn’t looking too bad for June 18th but it wasn’t looking too promising either. Lots of early morning cloud inhibited convection and the storms that did develop were just a big mess. Still, the day was amazing for another reason. I had wanted to take my dad out on his first storm chase, and while the chase itself was a bust, the day was anything but. We ended up at my grandfather’s old homestead where we wandered around in the rain with Kwinn checking out the old barns and property. We had a great time enjoying each other’s company, sharing stories and snacks and taking in the sights along the road. I’ve always loved road tripping with my dad and though we didn’t see anything but rain, the day was one of the best I had all year.
June 30 – My Best Chase of the Year?
The ECCC predicted that the Canada Day long weekend was going to go off with a bang (insert cheesy joke about nature’s own fireworks) and they were bang on with that prediction (see what I did there?). As the afternoon of June 30th wore on, severe storms began developing west and southwest of Edmonton and choosing a target was proving to be difficult. Initially I forecasted that the area around Pigeon Lake would be my target but storms directly along highway 16 to the west of Edmonton proved tempting enough to take me off my plan. After navigating my way through the city’s abhorrent rush hour traffic I was finally headed west unencumbered. And as storms are wont to do, my targets began to fall apart as they got closer to the city. The famed Edmonton “weather dome” was striking again. As I was heading west I couldn’t take my eye off the massive anvil that was to the southwest of me and on radar, this storm appeared to be gaining strength. I cut southeast and made a beeline towards my original target area of Pigeon Lake, a little over 100km away. And as I tracked south, so did the storm which added even more distance before I could get in front it. Ultimately I took the backroads and secondary highways another 75+km south towards Bentley and as I did so, the seeders succeeded in bringing the big storm down. But another series of monsters were building fast west of Sunchild and I was in a perfect position along highway 12 to catch the last one as it went tornado-warned. The anvil of this beast stretched far to the east above me long before I could see the wall cloud which dropped a brief tornado caught by Braydon Morriseau and Kyle Heatherington. Under the base of the anvil were some of the most incredible mammatus clouds I’ve ever seen so I stopped to shoot those while waiting for the storm to get a little closer to me.
It continued to track to the south as it made its way west so I shot down some hilly backroads before finding a spot in the bottom of a valley just northeast of Leslieville to set up and wait. I had two cameras rolling with timelapses and a third camera handheld to take shots in between taking video and super-cellfies with my phone. The storm was beautiful on its approach with a mean hail core in its midst.
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I had a nice paved exit strategy beside me and raced to get ahead of it as the storm was almost overtop of me. One of the things we try to avoid as storm chasers is getting caught with large bodies of water in the middle of our road network. But this storm was tracking directly towards Sylvan Lake, which I was north of at this point. Erring on the side of caution I opted to go further east and cut south on the east side of the lake instead of the west. While technically the safest decision, it wasn’t one that kept me as close to the storm as I would have liked. As a result, I missed some great structure shots that I could have had had I decided to cut south on the west side of the lake.
Still, it’s better to be safe than sorry when dealing with tornado-warned storms that had already dropped one and I was able to head back west on the south side of Sylvan and get back in front of it for another timelapse series. I continued to stay ahead of the storm until I was just outside of Red Deer where I opted to let the storm pass over me and end my chase.
By this point I was nearly 5 hours and 200km south of where I’d started west of Edmonton and still had an hour and a half drive home. Exhausted, I didn’t even bother to stop to capture the backside nocturnal bolts that were dropping as the storm continued to plow eastward before ultimately falling apart a short time later.
July 1st – I REALLY Don’t Wanna Talk About It
As I mentioned at the start of the June 30th entry, the Canada Day long weekend was just getting started with storm activity. High hopes were pinned on Canada Day and despite the grueling chase the day before, I was eager to get back on the road and see what July 1st had in store. And boy, was it a day for the ages. Unfortunately, I was nowhere near where the action was.
Earlier in this piece I stated that forecasting is a challenging thing, especially when you’re not really scientifically-inclined. I did my best and ultimately decided that southeastern Alberta near the Alliance area would be the best opportunity for severe weather. I wasn’t alone in this forecasting choice; the aforementioned wizards of Alberta meteorology and some other chaser pals also determined this area would have the best chance of success. As I waited for friends Mark Jinks and Nikon rep Russ Vanderleer to join us in Camrose, word came from friends positioned just north of Calgary, between Didsbury and Olds, that a massive tornado was on the ground. And we were nowhere even close to it. This massive, incredibly photogenic, once in a generation, EF4 tornado stayed on the ground for some time destroying property and unfortunately killing livestock. Thankfully no one was killed during this tornado which was Alberta’s first EF4 since Black Friday, 1987. Check out the video from chaser Aaron Jayjack to see this incredible storm and the damage it left.
Disappointed yet undeterred, we made our way towards the billowing cauliflower cumulonimbus clouds we could see to the south of us and watched as they anviled out and developed on radar as we got ever closer. Two severe-warned storms ended up forming in close proximity to one another near Galahad and Alliance and we had to deftly thread the needle between them to try to get in position.
Unfortunately neither produced a tornado nor were they particularly photogenic and ultimately we gave up the chase and stopped in Castor to regroup. Another smaller storm began to develop as we made our way west but it fell apart quickly leaving us with only some lovely mammatus over the fields to photograph. While the day may have seemed like a bust, knowing that my forecasting was similar to that of other highly-regarded chasers felt like a win nonetheless.
July 16 – Smoked!
By mid-July the smoke was relentless across Alberta and being outside was just an unpleasant experience all around. The air was orange and it hurt to breathe. Air quality statements were a daily occurrence. I typically don’t chase on smoky days but two weeks had passed since my last chase and I took a chance on a storm developing near Alder Flats. We positioned ourselves just south of town and waited. And waited. And waited. Finally what we were seeing on radar was inching ever closer but was still completely obscured by the smoke. We cut south and back east and positioned ourselves for an intercept just north of Leedale. On radar this storm looked incredible but it was still obscured by the smoke. Finally it emerged through the thick veil and had an eerie, shark-like appearance. The storm was falling apart by this point but I still managed to come away with one shot that feels unique amongst my other storm shots from this and previous years.
Side note: two days before this chase I started feeling unwell. Sore throat, chills, fever, bad cough and not covid. Some of these symptoms persisted for the better part of six and eight weeks and my next few chases were done with a high fever and while feeling very ill. But chasers gotta chase!
July 17 – Bust!
The meteorological setup for July 17th had people very excited with terms like Didsbury 2.0 being tossed around the day before. Though the smoke had cleared a little bit and was still hampering convection, that still didn’t stop me from heading down towards Olds to meet up with some friends for their first chase. Sadly, the forecast was mostly bluster and all that materialized was a messy MCS where we were located.
July 22 – Another Bust!
There was an ongoing joke amongst storm chasing friends this season: that highway 22 was where storms went to die. For whatever reason most storms just fell apart before reaching the highway, ending most chases before they even began. So many hours were spent sitting in that area waiting for the storms to come only to have them vaporize before your eyes. On the west side of the 22 is nothing but foothills and trees and very limited roads. With few exceptions, it’s not a place you even can chase, let alone should chase. July 22nd once again brought me to the 22, just outside Rocky Mountain House where I watched a beautiful supercell fall apart while all I came home with was an okay shot of some okay mammatus.
July 23 – Holy Lightning!
Highway 22 strikes again. Incredible supercells formed northwest of Drayton Valley on this day but that area is one I try to avoid and for good reason; we ended up stuck on some unforgiving roads and didn’t see a thing. After meeting up for dinner with some chaser friends we started making our way back to Edmonton when we noticed an incredible amount of lightning firing up all around us from a large MCS making its way from the west. We stopped just outside Tomahawk where I spotted a picturesque red barn and set up a quick timelapse to catch as many bolts as I could. It was an incredible show and just that one night of lightning seemed to make up for the hundreds of kms driven and gas burned over the last several bust days. I felt vindicated!
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July 30 – Bust-ish (but what a city sunset!)
Before things kicked off we positioned ourselves in Winfield, east of Alder Flats and waited to see what might develop. As we waited we played on the merry-go-round and made ourselves super nauseous, which made for a less than fun chase afterwards.
An incredible storm did develop and did cross the 22 but it wasn’t overly photogenic and we just couldn’t get into position ahead of it. It fell apart into an MCS and chased us all the way home and after getting back to Edmonton I managed to throw up the drone to catch some bolts and insane sunset light over the city.
July 31 – I’m Running Out of Gas
Figuratively and literally. Have you seen how expensive gas was this summer? Chasing all these bust storms was getting expensive and exhausting. But the models were predicting a decent set up and it was getting close to the very end of the season. I knew there just weren’t going to be many more chase opportunities so I convinced my reluctant girlfriend to come out for one more chase and hoped we’d get lucky. And we did!
My forecasting led me to base in Ponoka in the afternoon to see what would pop. A massive anvil was creeping towards us from the southwest and a pretty killer storm was showing on radar west of Caroline, roughly 130km away. Given the season’s track record, trying to get there before it fell apart was a gamble. A big gamble. But we were out and the constant reminder that this might be the last chase of the season kept pounding in my head. I decided to go for it. And I’m sure glad I did! The storm held and we stopped NE of Caroline, just north of Spruceview and waited for the storm to come to us. It was slower than expected (not a bad thing as it meant it was gaining strength) and after taking a short timelapse sequence I decided to move a bit further SW to get in a better position.
I found a gorgeous canola field in full bloom and set up my cameras as this beautiful, severe-warned storm crept ever closer. This was turning out to be one of the best chases of the year and a picture perfect storm! The only thing that would have made it better was catching a few bolts with it. But beggars can’t be choosers, especially this season, and I was ecstatic about the day. We got back ahead of it but the storm weakened behind us while a second system grew behind it. Hoping the new storm would make its way to us we held tight just outside Innisfail before heading south to intercept but the seeders brought it down just as we got back onto the highway so we turned around at Bowden and made our way home, with big smiles on our faces from the amazing day we had.
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Check out my timelapse from this day over on my YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QAzhBs4zwes
Aug 2 – Chasing Stixie!
Our Alberta severe storm season pretty much ends with the month of July. There’s often a chance of something coming together in the first week or two of August but all of the models this season pointed to the end after August 2nd. Knowing this was my last chase, I threw all my cards on the table. Once again I headed toward a massive anvil that was billowing off a storm that was building to the west of Drayton Valley, stopping just east of the 22 hoping it would hold and make its way to me. As it approached the highway, the storm fell apart as I timelapsed it’s demise, watching it spin smaller and smaller with beautiful crepuscular rays beaming from behind.
On radar I could see another larger storm building to the west and tracking NW. I made my way to Drayton Valley only for that storm to fall apart with another, larger storm growing in behind deep in the sticks. I held just outside of town, trying to decide to call it a night or to give it one last push. A quick check on Twitter and a shot from fellow chaser Jay Lesik who was near the Brazeau Dam made the decision for me. That storm was a monster, beautiful and photogenic, and even though the light was rapidly fading and the area was one without a great road network, I ventured forth into the blue hour light hoping it would be worth heading deeper into Stixie (a fun term I came up with for that area based off the US Dixie Alley and it’s similarly difficult terrain)!
Well, fortune favours the bold and worth it was an understatement! I stopped along the main road waiting for the fast moving storm to come upon me and was treated to not only the best structure I’d seen all year but an intense lightning barrage as well! I didn’t have much time to set up a timelapse or look for an amazing composition. This was a run and gun type scenario to get whatever I could. I hastily set up my timelapse and began recording some iPhone video as the storm bore down on me, capturing some absolutely insane bolts in the process! Hands down this was the best storm I’d seen all year and after outrunning it and getting to a safer position, I checked my camera to see the best shot I’d taken all season too!
Well worth the chase, to say the least, and helluva way to cap a summer of lacklustre storm chasing.
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At the start of this blog I questioned whether all the weather science I was consuming was helpful or not. I’ll admit that I still struggle with forecasting and some of that led to some frustrating moments this year. But it was also key to a lot of my success and I can’t wait to continue learning as much as I can. Frustration is part of the game and this year was no exception; I chased while sick for a lot of the season, I didn’t see the big tornados, and I only got a handful of photogenic storms. But the most important lesson in storm chasing is that even bust days are better than nothing. When I’m out on the open road, with my pup and my friends and I’m enjoying the majesty of Mother Nature and the beauty of the prairies, I’ve got to say, it’s pretty hard to complain.
Is it June yet?