Photographs by Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Text by Ye Charlotte Ming
Witnessing nature in full force can be an extremely exhilarating experience. But besides the thrill, the data and images collected during the pursuit can help scientists better understand how to predict storms and minimize damage.
There are more than a thousand tornadoes annually in the U.S., and half of them occur in the Great Plains region, dubbing it Tornado Alley.
With the season approaching, photographer Drew Angerer spent three days embedding with a group of scientists and meteorologists from the Center for Severe Weather Research (CSWR), a weather forecast service based in Boulder, Colo. The team traveled across states to get close to supercell storms and tornadoes, hoping to study tornado structure, strength and how low-level winds can damage buildings.
Angerer rode with the scientists in a tornado scout vehicle. This truck has weather instruments that measure wind speed, direction and barometric pressure and is equipped with tornado pods to measure winds at ground level.
The group also traveled with a Doppler on Wheels (DOW) truck which allows scientists to scan storms and tornadoes and make 3D maps of wind and debris.
Witnessing and capturing storms on camera requires great patience, which Angerer described as the most difficult part of the activity. On the second day alone, the team drove across four states searching for a tornado.
"Each night, the group would evaluate forecasts to determine what their route would look like the following day. But things are always flexible since weather is unpredictable and constantly changing," Angerer explained. "While we saw a few small funnel clouds, we did not see a tornado touch down over the course of the three days that I traveled with them."
The high-excitement activity can also be deadly. In early 2017, three storm chasers were killed after their cars collided while pursuing storms in Texas.
"Though [the scientists] do get close, they always are aware of what roads are around so they know they have a way out of the storm when they need to get out," Angerer said.
However, as storm chasing has grown in popularity over the years, roads can become cluttered with amateur chasers, causing safety concerns.
"The roads can get very crowded,” he said, “and accidents do happen when people drive carelessly when rushing to catch a storm."
Aside from urging safety, Angerer has these tips for photographers who want to brave the storms to shoot severe weather.
"If you want to photograph lightning, you’re going to need a tripod or something to steady your camera with,” he said. “Lightning strikes so quickly and you need to leave your shutter open for longer exposures to try to catch the strikes. Rather than just photographing the clouds or the sunset, try seeing what else you can put in the foreground of the photo or how you can give the viewer a better sense of place. Wide angle lenses can also help give a more dramatic view of the storm."
And patience is crucial. "You’re at the mercy of Mother Nature," he said.