FEATURE: Storm chasing in the USA

Photos by storm chaser Lewis Blythe
Photos by storm chaser Lewis Blythe
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Sunny, calm skies are what most holiday-makers dream of but for storm chaser Lewis Blythe they couldn’t be less desirable.

The 29-year-old was relieved to only have one ‘blue sky bust’ day while on his first ‘storm chase tour’ in the US during the 2012 tornado season.

Photos by storm chaser Lewis Blythe

Photos by storm chaser Lewis Blythe

He did, however, have baseball-sized hailstones, close lightning strikes and 80mph winds to contend with – just what he had signed up for!

Lewis, who finds the power of storms compelling, said: “When you can feel the storm taking in all the winds, all the warm air, you feel it hitting your face – almost like a hair dryer hitting your face – and you look at it, it’s like a bomb, the power of it is just enormous. But then you have the beauty of it as well.

“The size of the storm is amazing – you just don’t get it like that in the UK.”

While on the 10-day tour, Lewis, a former King Edward VI student from Bury St Edmunds, travelled up to 6,000 miles across eight states with the UK-based Netweather team in pursuit of America’s biggest storms.

Photos by storm chaser Lewis Blythe

Photos by storm chaser Lewis Blythe

And after encountering daily supercells, a tornado and some pretty impressive funnel clouds that almost touched down as tornados, he was pleased with what he had seen, and with what he managed to capture on his Nikon camera.

Picture the movie Twister, only with a lot more driving and many more hours waiting around, and you will have a fair idea of what he got up to.

Travelling in a three-vehicle convoy, the team – consisting of five members of staff and up to 10 guests – set off each day for their chase target area, altering course as new information became available.

Tour leader Paul Sherman was in the lead car with the radar equipment, while the middle car carried both the navigator and the ‘nowcaster’ (someone who maps the current weather and uses estimates of its speed and direction of movement for very short-range forecasts).

Photos by storm chaser Lewis Blythe

Photos by storm chaser Lewis Blythe

For Lewis – whose interest in extreme weather began as a child, when he and his twin brother, Adam, would video storms from their back garden – the excitement set in the moment storm clouds became visible.

“The adrenalin really starts to kick in because you’ve probably travelled a few hundred miles just to get there and when you start to see the cumulonimbus clouds (TOPS) in the distance you think ‘there’s a storm!’ and off you go,” he said.

“Most supercells and tornadic supercells move north east so we sat south east so as riding up the side of it. There were a couple of times it got really scary though.

“After we saw our tornado, actually, we had no choice but to core punch (drive through the centre of the storm) and we were hit by baseball-sized hail, which cracked the window of the car behind us and we got baseball size dents in every car.

Photos by storm chaser Lewis Blythe

Photos by storm chaser Lewis Blythe

“We had to put our jumpers over the windows – we took our jackets off and held them up because we didn’t want the windows to break and fall in.”

“We also got hit by the rear flank down draft (RFD), which is basically damaging winds.

“We were shooting (filming) lightning and there was a hook echo forming on the storm, basically showing the winds were starting to circle in one area.

“The winds hit 80mph and we were outside so the staff told us to get in the cars because there might be a tornado – we drove two miles down the road and all was calm.”

Hearing Lewis recall being ‘in the bear cage looking at the centre of the storm’ with lighting strikes close by and gunshot thunder within half a mile and having him relive the moment under a mesocyclone – rotating storm – when ‘the chasers became the chased’, it is easy to see why he finds the chase so thrilling.

But, despite his fascination with extreme weather, or perhaps because of it, he maintains a healthy respect for Mother Nature.

Photos by storm chaser Lewis Blythe

Photos by storm chaser Lewis Blythe

While on the tour, he visited Greensburg, Kansas, an area struck by a devastating EF-5 tornado in 2007 which levelled 95 percent of the city and killed 11 people. It had a profound effect on Lewis.

He said: “That put it all into perspective – it’s not just about having fun. Storms, they can be deadly. At the end of the day, you don’t mess with Mother Nature.”

This year, the team he toured with in 2012 caught the biggest, strongest tornado ever recorded – 2.6 miles wide, with winds that reached nearly 300mph.

It hit El Reno, Oklahoma, on May 31 and was responsible for the death of 18 people, including four storm chasers.

Is Lewis gutted he wasn’t there? Of course, but, for now at least, he is restricting his storm chases to the more affordable confines of East Anglia – locally that means Bury’s multi-storey, from which he has seen some impressive lightning strikes over the sugar beet factory, and the top of Barton Hill.

If you too are interested in extreme weather, Lewis recommends the following: Severe Weather Europe, Netweather.tv, MetEd, Estofex and ChaserTV.

Photos by storm chaser Lewis Blythe

Photos by storm chaser Lewis Blythe

Photos by storm chaser Lewis Blythe

Photos by storm chaser Lewis Blythe

Photos by storm chaser Lewis Blythe

Photos by storm chaser Lewis Blythe

Photos by storm chaser Lewis Blythe

Photos by storm chaser Lewis Blythe

Photos by storm chaser Lewis Blythe

Photos by storm chaser Lewis Blythe