Eye on the storm: Life of a storm chaser

Some say they are a little bit nuts, others see the adrenaline rush of driving into the middle of a Canadian prairie super cell thunderstorm. We call them storm chasers.

There are about 50 that currently chase storms across the province of Alberta and you’ll see their pictures flood your social media accounts when the skies darken and the thunder crackles.

Chris Ratzlaff (@ratzlaff) with Prairie Storm Chasers (@PrairieChasers) says he always had a passion for weather and storms, but it wasn’t until 2010 when he spotted a tiny, little tornado from his backyard in Airdrie that he became officially hooked.

“It was nothing more than a little shingle rattler and wouldn’t have done much damage,” Ratzlaff tells Rural Roots Canada, “but at that point, I kind of got hooked and wanted to see more.”

He started talking more about the tornado and got introduced to a larger pool of people also interested in storms and storm chasing.

For Beth Allan the answer for how she started driving into storms instead of away from them are similar.

“Storms are cool, they are fascinating, it’s amazing to see what nature can produce just out of water vapour and wind.”

Allan, who also classifies herself as a storm photographer, (check out her twitter feed @adolwyn for just a few of the amazing shots she has taken) says another reason why she started chasing was to be the eyes on the ground for Environment Canada.

“I chase storms so I can report to them what the storm looks like and what the storm is doing, is there anything life-threatening like a tornado, which could help to improve storm warning lead times,” says Allan.

CTV Calgary Meteorologist David Spence agrees and cites an example from earlier this summer.

“A couple of weeks ago a storm moved through central Alberta which had a classic tornado signature on radar, a ‘hook echo’, and had radar been the only source, warnings likely would have been issued.”

Spence says on the ground chasers let them know the storm wasn’t all that serious and partially because of that, no warning was put out.

So far the 2017 storm chasing season has been ‘quiet’ according to Ratzlaff.

“In June and early July we were starting to think it would be a very quiet season,” adding that it was a quiet season down in the United States this year.

In late July, central Alberta did see a few good storms between Crossfield and Rocky Mountain House.

On the damage side of things, both Ratzlaff and Allan cited the major wind storm that hammered Red Deer on June 20.

The storm prompted a local state of emergency after outflow winds from a line of thunderstorms knocked down trees and power lines as gusts topped 100 km/h.

Other than that, Allan says she hasn’t seen much in the way of crop damage.

“I know there has been some for sure, but the high-end wind damage has been significant, lots of tipped over grain bins, tipped over barns, some crops that have been blown down,” says Allan who adds that damage is the opposite of what a chaser wants to see.

Hail damage might be the biggest concern for the rest of this storm season as Ratzlaff says traditionally August seems to be the month where we see most of those really large hail stones.

Storm chasing typically takes the chasers into very rural and often remote areas.

Ratzlaff says he’s had a few near encounters with farmers over the years.

“One time I was parked next to a field in the Water Valley area about 80 kilometres northwest of Calgary near a driveway, the farmer pulled up and was curious what I was doing.”

The veteran chaser says the farmer then wished him luck on the storm chase, but also wished himself luck that they wouldn’t have any hail that day.

Love storms and want to start chasing? Ratzlaff says to start slow.

“Best place to start is to become a member of the Alberta storm chasers group, that basically facilitates learning about chasing,” according to Ratzlaff, who add’s “for myself I kept my distance from storms for quite a few years until I began to understand what they do.”

He says the biggest concern is knowing how to get yourself out of trouble because it’s easy to get yourself into trouble chasing a storm.