The Prairie Storm Chasers
When they see a storm brewing, they jump in their car to get closer.
Photograph by Chris Ratzlaff
The skies begin to change. The clouds are roiling. What would your first instinct be? For most, it would be to seek shelter. For a select few, it’s just the opposite.
In 2010, Chris Ratzlaff of Airdrie saw a storm brewing in the distance and jumped into his car to get closer. It was, as he decribes it, “a very dramatic, very beautiful supercell” [a thunderstorm category that typically creates further inclement weather]. “I saw it from my backyard and I drove out a little ways to watch — not terribly far, but a few kilometres. I realized that these are things that I wanted to see more regularly. I had to figure out how I could do that,” says Ratzlaff.
In 2016, Ratzlaff joined the Prairie Storm Chasers, a group that includes Nevin DeMilliano, Braydon Morisseau and Sean Schofer. Along with the thrill of watching the power of nature unfold, the group members see themselves as public educators and early notifiers of potentially dangerous weather. DeMilliano views the team as the bridge between “the official side like Environment Canada” and “the public side that’s just wondering what’s going on.”
The group uses Twitter to update followers on storms as they are happening. They also notify Environment Canada as soon as they see any drastic developments in order to facilitate the earliest possible alerts to the public.
Both DeMilliano and Schofer say their fascination with extreme weather started in childhood, while Morisseau says he was inspired by both learning about weather in school and the movie Twister — the 1996 Hollywood action film about tornado-chasers in Oklahoma. For Ratzlaff, it’s the aesthetics of tempestuous weather and cloud formations that are the main attraction. “I’ve always been fascinated with the sky,” he says. “I had taken a lot of pictures of interesting clouds and got hooked on the spectacular nature of the storm and all the structure and shape and power a storm can bring.”
Though the Prairie Storm Chasers will chase storms across the Canadian prairies and even into the U.S., Ratzlaff prefers to stay closer to home, mostly chasing storms around the Calgary region. His favourite storms are the ones that develop between Crossfield and Red Deer, an area that tends to produce spectactular visuals.
Nature’s grandeur isn’t the only draw for Ratzlaff. “It’s the beauty of it, but it’s also the science, too. Being able to look at the weather conditions and [determine] where it’s going to be, where it’s going to end up, and go there and see it,” he says. “And then there’s the satisfaction of having it actually do what you anticipated.”