Epic Storms

Is that a spaceship? Or a mushroom cloud? Or a strange skyscaper whipped up by wild weather?

This story appears in the July 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine.

“Some things you learn best in calm,” wrote author Willa Cather, scribe of the Great Plains, “and some in storm.” She wasn’t referring to the local weather, but she might as well have been. Each year the American heartland offers a graduate course in natural tumult. From March to October these flatlands play host to thousands of visible, violent storms. Meteorology and topography conspire to paint blusterous murals and apocalyptic tableaux.

When dry air from the Rockies slides over moist air from the Gulf of Mexico, the stage is set for a storm. The burst may expel rain and hail, thunder and lightning, wind and funnel. It may kill people and animals, destroy crops and property, flood roads and towns. (The National Weather Service reports scores of storm-related deaths every year. In 2011, says the insurance industry, U.S. thunderstorms caused some $26 billion in damage.) Yet a storm giveth too, delivering rain to parched fields, wind to inert turbines, lightning-produced nitrogen to nutrient-starved soil.

To document these awe-inspiring tempests, Mitch Dobrowner, a landscape photographer inspired by Ansel Adams and Minor White, teamed with renowned storm chaser Roger Hill, a witness to more than 600 tornadoes. Over the past three years, aided by mobile satellite data, radar imaging, and more, the pair have stalked some 45 weather systems over 16 states and 40,000 miles, sometimes driving 900 miles in a day to capture a moment. “With storms,” says Dobrowner, “it’s like shooting a sporting event. Things happen so quickly, I really have to adapt.”

Working in black and white—“Color seems too everyday,” he says—he looks especially for supercells, rarest and mightiest of thunderstorms. A classic one, says Hill, “is the most violent, prolific tornado-producing machine there is.” Its recipe requires four ingredients: moisture, atmospheric instability, something to lift the air, and vertical wind shear to rotate the storm.

When those elements align, an erratic, uniquely structured storm appears. Powered by a strong, rotating updraft, a supercell can steer itself away from the prevailing wind, devour or destroy other squalls in its path, and dodge its own storm-extinguishing precipitation, staying alive for up to 12 hours.

Indeed, both Dobrowner and Hill see supercells as living things: born under the right conditions, gaining strength as they grow, changing shape and form, fighting for their life, eventually dying. Not that personifying them removes the danger. In the still wild West, says Hill, storms demand admiration and respect. “I feel honored to be shooting them,” says Dobrowner. “If I’m going to go, let me go like this.”

—Jeremy Berlin