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Lovestruck by lightning strikes

Ryan Keller gets a good shot of a storm in 2011.

It’s a hot, humid day in Alberta when the skies turn weird, the radio broadcasts a severe storm warning, and everyone is advised to get inside and stay safe.

Some people, however, prefer to be out there in the thick of the action. With hail-battered cars, mobile phones and cameras at the ready, these storm chasers are more than just extreme danger seekers and shutterbugs with eyes on lightning strikes.

They’re out there to spot the bad weather as it happens, and make sure the warning goes out to the rest of us.

Kyle FougÄŤre said he moved to Alberta from Nova Scotia in part because of his fascination with storms. Naturally, it was Edmonton’s infamous tornado of 1987 that spurred his interest. Even perpetually rainy Vancouver didn’t have enough gusty gusto for his tastes.

“I just love watching the thunderstorms. They’re so different here. They certainly didn’t have the power that they have here.”

The website for the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Earth Observation Science states that Alberta has proven to be particularly susceptible to costly thunderstorm events, with more than 40 lives and $2.5 billion in damages since 1981.

It all starts when a series of conditions all come together in just the right way. Environment Canada says that high temperatures and humidity are the ingredients but they use an analogy for why it’s tough to predict where a storm will start.

“Imagine putting a pot of water on the stove and turning the burner to high,” the agency writes on its Summer Weather Watching Tips page. “We know that eventually the pot will begin to bubble, but determining where the first bubble will occur in the pot is almost impossible.”

“What you look for is a rotating thunderstorm. A lot of times what you see is what we call helical striations. It looks like a barber pole. That’s how you know it’s rotating, and those are the most severe thunderstorms. Often you’ll see a wall of white behind the barber pole. That’s the hail shaft, which is really one of the most dangerous parts of the storm and ends up causing the most damage … just because they cover such a wide area.”

Many of these people aren’t just storm chasers; they clearly love the weather, studying atmospheric science, becoming meteorologists, even teaching others about what turns the blue skies into grey.

Out in the field, they monitor real time data such as surface observations and radar, reports through mobile networks, all while getting close to the zone but not too close for comfort or safety. They’re in it for the science, not the money or the glory.

When they see the storm happening, that’s when they call the Canadian Weather Amateur Radio Network, also known as CANWARN or contact Environment Canada via email at storm@ec.gc.ca or on Twitter with the hashtag #ABStorm. The public can contact the public reporting number at 1-800-239-0484.

Jeff Wallace loves the wonder of nature, and its brutal power. As a photographer, he is awed by the majesty of the atmosphere. He’s also concerned about how so many regular civilians can be caught unawares by everything that clouds can hide.

“The magnificence of the storm, when they’re really quite well structured, and you’re saying, ‘Holy cow! Would you look at that? Somebody’s about to get bigfooted by something.’ They’re also quite stunning to look at.”

This is his first bona fide season as a storm chaser, having just been invited to join the Twisted Chasers, a collective of field reporters, based out of Red Deer. Like so many others, he has a story or two about close calls, but staying safe is always a priority, especially because one of the goals is to warn others through official agencies’ broadcast systems.

Even when he’s working out of his downtown office, he keeps an eye on the windows. When Edmonton got hit with a flash storm a couple of years ago, he immediately put his “Safety Patrol” hat on.

“It was a very severe thunderstorm, very dark, very green down in the city. I don’t know if it was scary but it was interesting. I told staff in the office to get away from the windows just in case anything happens.”

Some people are out there just for the thrill of the hunt though, striving to catch magical and intense photos of lightning and strange cloud formations. Drew May is a professional photographer who focuses on landscapes. Severe weather has always been a part of his portfolio.

“Inclement weather is exciting as it is,” he offered. “It adds a little drama to a landscape. I’ve been chasing lightning for the last four years because it’s really exciting.”

“There’s nothing like risking your life doing what you love,” he laughed, recalling a tornado that breathed down his neck once. He was less than half a kilometre away from it after having chased it for three hours trying to get in front of it.

He is often joined by fellow chaser Shauna Jackson who also brings along her camera. Her cellphone has a number of apps for keeping an eye on the weather. She’s less about storm chasing but more about storm racing: trying to get in front of the storm to set up the tripod and snap some new entries in the supercell and lightning strike photo albums.

“I’m after really nice profile shots of cloud formation. I love dramatic clouds! It adds so much to a photograph. It creates a lot of emotion. A lot of people respond with, ‘oh wow, you’ve got to be nuts to go out into that!’“

She did liken her drive to continually get gorgeous photos to an addiction.

“At the same time, I get to see the raw power that Alberta can produce for her weather. I want to share that. If something happens, if it’s hailing and doing some damage, of course it should be sent to the collective to keep Environment Canada apprised.”

For its part, our federal agency used to offer a guide called the Severe Weather Watcher Handbook to provide guidelines and tips to help storm chasers do their job and avoid harm. Now, they simply refer people to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s training portal website at www.nws.noaa.gov/training/wxspot.php. Alberta’s storm chasers say that there’s a broader wealth of experience and knowledge south of the border. They all agree that Americans get far worse weather than we do anyway.

Scott Hayes: Scott Hayes joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2008. Scott writes about the arts, entertainment, movies, culture, community groups, and charities. He also writes general news, features, columns and profiles on people.