Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Photographer chases storms with scientists

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.   

Drew Angerer/Getty Images
A caravan of storm chasers arrive on the scene of a supercell thunderstorm, May 10, 2017 in Olustee, Oklahoma. Wednesday was the group's third day in the field for the 2017 tornado season for their research project titled 'TWIRL.'

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.

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CSWR intern Hunter Anderson prepares tornado pods as a severe thunderstorm moves into the area in Paducah, Texas, May 10, 2017. The storm did not produce a tornado, but the group was prepared to deploy the pods if one developed. The tornado pods are heavy metal discs with measuring instruments that measure and map winds at ground level. Wednesday was the group's third day in the field for the 2017 tornado season for their research project titled 'TWIRL.'

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.

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Traveling in a tornado scouting vehicle, support scientists Rachel Humphrey and Tim Marshall, a 40 year veteran of storm chasing, discuss the radar and storm path as they chase a storm on I-70 during a tornado research mission, May 8, 2017 in Elbert County near Agate, Colo.
DREW ANGERER/GETTY IMAGES
Traveling in a tornado scouting vehicle, Tim Marshall, a 40 year veteran of storm chasing, monitors a storm via radar on his smartphone during a tornado research mission, May 8, 2017 in Elbert County near Agate, Colo. 

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.   

DREW ANGERER/GETTY IMAGES
Cloud to ground lightning strikes during a supercell thunderstorm, May 9, 2017 in Lamb County, Texas. Tuesday was the group's second day in the field for the 2017 tornado season for their research project titled 'TWIRL.'

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. 

DREW ANGERER/GETTY IMAGES
A tornado scout vehicle and the Doppler on Wheels (DOW) vehicle chase after a supercell thunderstorm during a tornado research mission, May 10, 2017 in Olustee, Oklahoma. Wednesday was the group's third day in the field for the 2017 tornado season for their research project titled 'TWIRL.'

"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." 

DREW ANGERER/GETTY IMAGES
As a small funnel cloud develops behind him, Hunter Anderson, a meteorology student at St. Cloud State University and current intern with the Center For Severe Weather Research, prepares tornado pods in case they are needed during a tornado research mission, May 8, 2017 in Elbert County near Agate, Colorado.
DREW ANGERER/GETTY IMAGES
The Doppler on Wheels (DOW) vehicle scans a supercell thunderstorm during a tornado research mission, May 8, 2017 in Elbert County near Agate, Colorado.

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.

DREW ANGERER/GETTY IMAGES
Cloud to ground lightning strikes during a supercell thunderstorm, May 9, 2017 in Lamb County, Texas. Tuesday was the group's second day in the field for the 2017 tornado season for their research project titled 'TWIRL.'

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." 

Drew Angerer/Getty Images
A thunderstorm rolls into the area in Paducah, Texas, May 10, 2017. Wednesday was the group's third day in the field for the 2017 tornado season for their research project titled 'TWIRL.'

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." 

DREW ANGERER/GETTY IMAGES
Tim Marshall, a 40 year veteran of storm chasing, monitors a supercell thunderstorm during a tornado research mission, May 8, 2017 in Elbert County near Agate, Colorado.

And patience is crucial. "You’re at the mercy of Mother Nature," he said.