This story appears in the February 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.
When you are storm chasing, most mornings start off in a cheap hotel sipping bad coffee and trying to remember where you had ended up the night before. If all goes well, you know that later that day you’ll be racing headlong into chaos. You hope that you’ll also catch a moment of the sublime.
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Video by Keith Ladzinski @ladzinski | A time-lapse of a massive supercell cloud spins over the town of Imperial, Nebraska, dropping a wall of rain and hail in its path. This spiraled shape is classified as a “mothership” in the meteorology world, and it's sculpted by a strong rotation coupled with rapid lifting air. Supercells can can stretch for hundreds of miles and are known for dropping powerful tornados at their center. To see more storm chasing photos, please visit @ladzinski
On this particular morning, we were in Wichita, Kansas, midway through a project to photograph the dramatic and destructive weather that barrels across the middle of the United States every spring. Nick Moir, our expedition leader and weather sage, sat stooped on the edge of the bed, poring over a litany of apps and online radars in search of a good storm cell for us to pursue. Nick is fluent in the subtle hieroglyphics of location forecasting, which are incomprehensible to almost everyone else.
We loaded the car with our gear, and off we went, driving under cloudless blue skies for hundreds of miles. We left that serene day behind when we reached the fringe of our targeted storm and entered a dark scene of clouds, distant lightning, and intermittent rain. As we neared the heart of the cell, we found ourselves contending with high winds, torrential rain, and merciless hail. Krystle, at the wheel, accelerated to get in front of the storm, but it was moving too fast. We could barely keep pace with it.
Then we caught sight of a nightmare whipped up by the storm: a rain-wrapped wedge tornado half a mile to our right. The chaotic conditions made it difficult for us to keep the monster in sight. Its shape flickered in and out of the rain. We lost our cell phone reception—and all the data we were desperately dependent on for radar apps and communication. We couldn’t see beyond 20 feet, and the hail was so loud we had to shout to communicate. Our road was on an intersecting path with the tornado.
That’s when Nick called it. “We have to bail,” he yelled. “This is too much!”
Krystle abruptly changed direction, punching the car north onto a country road. For the next hour we were battered by large hail as we escaped the madness of that dangerous chase. Purged of adrenaline, disappointed and defeated, we knew that retreating was the right thing to do. But rationality can be gutting.
We weren’t done. Nick located another supercell not far from where we were. Off we went in hot pursuit—as if nature hadn’t humbled us enough for one day. After a stretch of clear skies, we found the storm waiting for us—a dreamlike immensity with rotating updrafts, and the “mother ship” supercell above.
This time, we managed to get in front of it. Then we pulled over near the grain silos in Imperial, Nebraska, and watched in awe as the stunning formation surged across the landscape, unleashing hell below. For hours we followed the storm on its brutal path, stopping to photograph its majesty and racing back to the car to avoid its wrath.
A little past midnight, we let the storm go. We watched as the lightning-filled cloud rolled away, illuminating the night sky—a beautiful reward for those reckless enough to seek it.