‘It leaves you speechless’: Australian storm chaser captures America’s monster sky | Photography

Krystle Wright doesn’t have the words to describe the feeling she gets when she stands in an empty field staring at a supercell on the horizon.

“It leaves you speechless,” she said. “I don’t like to express the feeling because often I can’t find words to capture the full force of what I feel in these very intense moments.”

The 35-year-old adventure photographer from Queensland’s Sunshine Coast is one of thousands of storm chasers who travel the world each year to document supercell storms.

Wedge tornado forming over a home in Texas
A dusty wedge tornado forms on the outskirts of Morton in Begging Texas. Photograph: Krystle Wright/The Guardian

“It’s amazing,” she said. “Usually around 3 p.m. what started out as blue skies, a calm day, turned into an absolute monster. It’s black with fury.

Among storm chasers, the biggest prize is documenting a tornado. These weather events can form in the deserts of Argentina, on land in Sicily in the Mediterranean, or on the flat islands of the Philippines. They can also be found hopping in northern Australia, but there is a strip of land in the United States that stretches from Texas in the south to Minnesota in the north – known as Tornado Alley – where we see them most often.

Supercell storms form tornadoes across this flat, predictable landscape for a two-week period each year, making it easy for storm chasers to track them down.

Massive clouds head for South Dakota farmland
South Dakota farmland is soaked as a supercell unleashes a downpour.

In Australia they appear with less regularity and can be harder to find. “We have phenomenal storms to document, but in the Queensland region the telephone network is extremely limited [which] means that I still have to read the sky.

In addition to forming tornadoes, these severe thunderstorms can produce streaks, cloud structures and dust storms that blur visibility. Whatever happens, Wright, who just finished his third season, will be there to testify.

“At some point this year, we were looking for a high intensity day across Minnesota,” she says. “It was 6 p.m. when we saw the forecast models for the next day and it looked much more favorable to return to Oklahoma.”

“So I turned around in Minnesota and went back to Oklahoma.”

Incredibly dark cloud with a thin band of light moving across south-central South Dakota
A supercell moves through south-central South Dakota on the grasslands of the Rosebud Indian Reservation.

His photographs document his zigzag journey across the country: “monster skies” sweeping across the landscape outside a ranch in South Dakota; a storm chaser taking a moment to exhale in front of an old Montana saloon; an angry column of gray clouds rising behind a lonely oil rig on a desert plain in Texas.

“I think at this point the story for me is that it’s about an environment; not only is it a stormy environment, but it’s also Midwestern land,” says Wright. “The American Midwest is the folklore of storm chasing. When people talk about tornadoes, they’re talking about the Midwest. »

A rainbow over the highway against dark clouds near Weatherford, Texas
The tail of a supercell creates a rainbow over the highway near Weatherford, Texas.

Wright’s photographs, along with video and readings taken by other storm chasers, help fill in the gaps in the current state of scientific knowledge. In one example, material collected by storm chasers helped confirm that tornadoes can form from the ground.

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These images are even more meaningful as climate change progresses, bringing more powerful storms and destructive conditions to those caught in their path.

The Fujita scale measures the intensity of tornadoes, ranging from the weakest at F0 to the strongest coded F5. The classification system not only takes into account the size or strength of the winds, but also the amount of destruction they cause.

“You might witness a really big tornado, but it might be downgraded because it didn’t cause any destruction. It’s kind of sadistic, really,” she says.

A spectacular sunset near Weatherford, Texas.
The sun sets over the highway near Weatherford, Texas. Wright says the biggest risk for storm chasers is often not the weather, but traffic accidents caused by sleep-deprived driving.

To stay safe, Wright, a former Sydney Morning Herald photojournalist, says she works as a team. Her regular partner is veteran storm chaser Nick Moir, who mentored Wright through her first season in 2018 when she produced a short film about her photographic work, titled Chasing Monsters.

The biggest risk for storm chasers is often not the weather, she says, but road accidents caused by sleep-deprived driving. In May, three meteorology students returning from chasing a tornado in Kansas were killed when their car hydroplaned and swerved into outgoing traffic.

Wright, who also recently got into bushfire hunting, says that while she learned from experience to trust her instincts, be aware of her surroundings and take precautions, she also learned to accept the unknown.

“That’s the thing with adventure, there’s always a risk,” she says. “You try to minimize it, but sometimes things go wrong.”

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