Weather News

When Rosie Kew was a small child she was terrified of storms. Now she chases them

By Kate Doyle, Sunday July 26, 2020 - 09:49 EST
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There is a whole community of people drawn to the spectacle, wonder and thrill of storms. - ABC

For most of us a storm is a reason to run and hide, but for storm chasers the urge to put themselves in nature's way is overwhelming.

The hobbyist

When Rosie Kew was a small child she was afraid of storms. Now she chases them.

"When I see a really big storm now, I still have to admit being slightly terrified," she said.

"But it's that idea that if I understand them more, then maybe I'll feel less terrified and much more in control. Then I've fallen in love with them."

To Ms Kew, storms are now beautiful.

"I think it's the expression of, how can just water vapour and heat be so powerful and impressive, and organized and stunning all at the same time?"

She isn't the only one. Ms Kew is part of a large and enthusiastic community of storm chasers in Australia and around the world.

"That's actually a really nice common ground to have with people away from what your everyday is," she said.

"It's a shared love of the something that's just so natural and transient.

"It's not like a mountain that's always there, it's something that's there in the moment, and if you're not there in that moment you're not going to see it like I saw it."

But it isn't as easy as just stepping outside. It takes time and skill to deliberately find a storm.

"If you predict things wrong, if you read the charts wrong, or you look at the wrong models or you completely miss the hotspot for the storms, it's pretty disappointing and a little bit upsetting.

"My husband will attest to the fact that I get pretty angry, frustrated is probably a better a better term."

With everyone vying to get that amazing shot there is a certain level of competition.

"I sometimes see that people go beyond safety to get that one shot and that sometimes worries me and disturbs me.

"But, for me personally, it's just about seeing something so beautiful and actually being able to capture that," she said.

The photographer

In Darwin, Paul Thomsen was initially interested in wildlife photography before he fell into storm chasing.

"Initially, you might get a bit of a [lightning] bolt recorded on your camera and that's pretty cool. Then you want to get a better one. You see one that someone else gets and it inspires you," he said.

Now he chases the thrill of getting that perfect shot and he's in a good spot for it.

"Being in Darwin, we're very lucky. It's probably one of the storm capitals of the world up in the tropics here, so we get some really wild storms."

But he knows all about the dangers associated with storm chasing.

One afternoon he was chasing a storm through Darwin and had captured a few good bolts of lightning when he felt he was a little too close so hopped in his car.

"I just held the tripod outside the window on the ground cause the wind was sort of starting to blow so I didn't want the camera to blow over," he said.

"Then there was a big bolt near me somewhere. I didn't actually see it, but I must've just got a little, the storm chasers call them a little feeder bolt, like just a little arc coming off the main bolt.

"It went up the tripod and up my arm and gave me a really big electric shock and I thought, yeah, that's enough. Blow that!"

So he pulled the tripod through the window and called it a day.

"So yeah, a bit more careful these days."

So does his Indigenous heritage give him an edge?

"A lot of colleagues or friends of mine do think I'm pretty good at getting close to nature and wonder how I got that shot. Maybe it's a bit being passed on about reading behaviour and sitting quiet in the bush and sneaking up on things.

"Perhaps it helps a bit, who knows?"

The scientist

Dr Joshua Soderholm, research scientist at the Bureau of Meteorology, is on the hunt for storm data.

Back in his post-doctorate days, Dr Soderholm's team would take a mobile radar out as close as they could to a thunderstorm to get finer imagery than they could with the standard radar.

Or they would put devices out just in front of a storm to try to land some hail measurements.

These chases have taken him a mecca for storm chasers as it experiences some of the most intense thunderstorms in the world.

"These additional measurements help us get a much more detailed picture of the inner workings of thunderstorms," he said.

More recently at the bureau, his team has been looking at the capacity of these instruments to help them validate future forecasting techniques by providing a highly detailed "ground truth" to refer to.

Not content with getting data himself, Dr Soderholm has also created an app called of rain, hail, wind and flooding, to be used by researchers.

The young gun

"Every chaser would have seen the movie Twister," chuckles Kyle Howard, who caught the storm chasing bug early.

"When I was quite young I used to just stand out the front at home all the time watch the actual storms come in.

"But I always wanted to see how they start, build into maturity and sadly when they end."

Storm chasing allows him to do just that.

His passion for storms has shaped his career aspirations as well as his hobbies.

"Meteorology for me is pretty well my life," he said.

"I'd love to be a technician for the Bureau [of Meteorology] to help maintain all their weather stations."

He is studying to get there but, in the meantime, he is using those systems along with the satellites and models to find storms to chase.

"Not everything is going to be smooth as butter," he said.

"Some things will change. We might get a storm and that might collapse quite quickly and we might see some new development somewhere else.

"Using this technology that's where we will make our decision: 'should we stay put or should we move elsewhere?'"

The pro

Brisbane's Justin Noonan has made a living out of guiding storm chasing tours around the United States.

"We basically start in Oklahoma or in Denver, in Colorado there, and we go up and down through the Great Plains for weeks at a time and hunt down all mother nature's greatest bits. Whether it's large hail or lightning, tornadic events.

"You get to meet some amazing people from all around the world. A lot of them have never actually been chasing before, or even seen a tornado.

"So you can really just share their excitement and your own excitement with them. When you get to see something that's really, really cool, the look on their face is just mind blowing. It's so good."

Back at home, he works as a forecaster at the early warning network as well as selling photographs and footage from his chases.

Mr Noonan credits his knowledge to learning through experience and the advice of others in the weather and storm chasing community.

One of the groups he recommends is the Australian Severe Weather Association.

"That's actually how I basically cut my teeth when it came to weather and storm chasing across Australia," Mr Noonan said.

"It's basically a bunch of like-minded people all around the country in an online forum.

"They have a general meeting once a year at a capital city and everyone gets together and shares stories and videos and forecasting tips, and it's all made up of chasers and meteorologists."

There are also many local groups and pages on social media which you can join spread all over the country, with helpful advice and information.

How to get started

All the community and spectacle can't remove the fact that chasing around storms is inherently dangerous.

Upon asking about safety, each of the chasers rattled off more information than could possibly be included here.

But reaching out to the online and real-life storm chasing communities is a good way to start.

There are also rules and etiquette around things like keeping out of private property to consider before heading out all gung ho.

Ms Kew said to Google some free meteorological "how to chase storms" tutorials because understanding how they worked was the best way to stay safe.

"If you don't understand them, then you might put yourself in a place of risk," she said.

"Being aware that lightning will drop on you and kill you, being aware that trees can fall on you, being aware that flash flooding is very dangerous, don't drive on flooded roads.

"Just being aware that you're really distracted when you're chasing. So have somebody with you to help you chase, preferably somebody who has done it before."

She said there were even some storm chasers who would take people out if they asked kindly, taking into account all the latest social distancing restrictions.

"Getting a bit of experience and learning from them, that's how I've learned," she said.

"I've learned from those who are more experienced than I am."

But if you are stuck at home at the moment, or if all this thrilling talk of storms hasn't distracted you from the possibility of being hit by lightning, perhaps you could start start by watching Twister.


© ABC 2020

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