After three days of forecasting, a 10-hour drive and hoards of gas station food – the Prairie Storm Chasers, who are based in Central Alberta, finally arrived at their destination in Saskatchewan.
It was 4 a.m. and the storm they had been tracking for a number of days wasn’t showing the signs they had wanted it to.
They called it a night and woke up in the morning around 9 a.m. to again see the daytime heat they needed to trigger the super cell was being vented through cloud cover. Disappointed, they began the long trek back to Alberta. Seemingly out of nowhere, a super cell developed before their eyes and it was heading right for them.
Determined to get behind the storm to observe it, and despite their firm knowledge foundation, the group of four punched through the cell’s hail core.
Finally they broke free from the blunt force of Mother Nature’s relentless pelting, just to see a massive, tunneling tornado billowing across the ground only a few hundred metres from them.
The Prairie Storm Chasers saw six more tornadoes that day, which amounts to but a small fraction they have witnessed in their careers. Together the group has witnessed hundreds of extreme weather events, ranging from large-scale tornadoes to baseball and tennis ball-sized hail, resulting in the loss of windshields.
“We weren’t scared though,” said Braydon Morisseau, member of the Prairie Storm Chasers. “We were just really excited there was a tornado right beside us.”
Matt Johnson, Morisseau, Tom Graham and Nevin deMilliano met in 2011 when they were all simultaneously chasing a storm from Olds to Red Deer, which produced three tornadoes outside of Olds and shortly after banded together to form the Prairie Storm Chasers.
deMilliano explained the group’s primary goals are to educate the public on how to report weather, as they are in frequent communication with Environment Canada throughout the storm season.
“As soon as we see anything remotely of interest we call it in, and they appreciate it, because with most of the prairies being so rural, there just aren’t the resources for the meteorologists at Environment Canada to cover all of it,” he said. “Even when farmers will call in weather to Environment Canada it’s huge for them because it helps to bring the cells to their attention and issue warnings.”
The group’s weather tracking ranges from the Ontario-Manitoba border west to Alberta, with Morisseau spending significant time in the United States’ ‘Tornado Alley’ where he not only tracks storms but assists in providing weather tours as well.
Morisseau explains it’s not quite like how you see in the movies stating that, “What they don’t show you in the movies in the 10 hour drive to get there, the 12 hour drives home in stormy weather, the gas station food, the multiple days beforehand of forecasting and hammering out weather models.”
The group emphasized contrary to popular belief, a person doesn’t have to be crazy or an adrenaline junkie to chase storms.
“You don’t have to be crazy, you just have to be confident in your knowledge base,” said Graham, with deMilliano adding, “We try to stay out of the danger zone as much as possible but usually the scariest thing when you’re storm chasing is lightning, because you can’t predict that.”
The group agrees their love of storms all began at an early age, with Morisseau’s interest being peaked in 1987 when the Edmonton tornado hit, devastating the eastern quadrant of the City and killing 27 people.
Morisseau explained he was in the wave pool at West Edmonton Mall when the F4 tornado hit.
Now referred to by many Edmontonians as Black Friday, the cataclysmic storm was powerful and devastating as it remained on the ground for an hour, cutting a large swath of destruction 40 kms long and 1 km wide injuring more than 300 people, destroying more than 300 homes and causing more than $332.27 million in damages.
While there is danger associated with their passion, the group agrees that knowledge is key to safety, and a deep understanding of the way storms work is essential.
“The best advice we can give is that if you don’t know what you’re doing, don’t go chasing storms,” said Graham. “It’s not just driving to where the clouds are, there are hours of forecasting ahead of time to make sure we are safe.”
The group will often spend up to 72 hours tracking storms and decide to leave in a matter of seconds.
“Calculated risk is the best way of putting it, and the way I see it, you’re going to miss 100 per cent of the shots you don’t take,” said Morisseau on how he decides to chase after a storm.
The Prairie Storm Chasers advise if you see extreme weather to report it yourself to Environment Canada by phoning 1-800-238-0484.
During the summer months, viewers can tune into the group’s YouTube channel by searching ‘Prairie Chasers’ and watching live streams as they venture into the eye of some one the prairies hefty storms.
For more information follow Prairie Storm Chasers on Twitter (@prairiechasers) or on facebook by searching ‘Prairie Storm Chasers.’