Come spring, the air over Tornado Alley begins to crackle and neon lightning whips across the denim sky: Nature’s brazen declaration that storm season has arrived in the southern plains of the United States.
For many, the telltale signs—dark, green-tinged skies, large hail, and a deafening roar—are signals to shelter indoors and wait. For others, like photographer Mike Olbinski, it’s an invitation.
“I've always loved the weather ever since I can remember ... My brother and I would sit up watching monster thunderstorms and lightning from our windows at night even though we were supposed to be sleeping,” he says.
Last year Olbinksi drove 25,000 miles over the course of 25 days through Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa, Minnesota, and South Dakota on the tails of tornadoes, haboobs, and his favorite: supercell thunderstorms.
“They are magnificent, gorgeous beasts," he says. "A storm so perfectly circular that it almost doesn't look natural. The rotating motion looks amazing on time-lapse and I absolutely love capturing these.”
For each time-lapse, Oblinski shoots 600 to 800 exposures at intervals ranging from one to four seconds. “You have to be driven and a little bit addicted to drive as much as I do just for the hopes of seeing a storm,” he admits.
Tornado forecasting dates back to the 1940s. The nation’s first storm spotter networks were established during World War II in an effort to prevent damage to U.S. military installations. In the 1970s NOAA implemented its latest iteration, SKYWARN, an organization made up of more than 350,000 volunteers who continue to monitor severe weather in their local communities.
Today, advances in technology have led to the proliferation of storm chasing as a recreational activity available to the masses.
Oblinski uses radar on his phone, a laptop mounted to his truck, and GPS to gauge information about the storm, including its size, movement, and location. While poor visibility, lightning, and violent winds may be a deadly combination, fatalities in the field are rare. Reckless driving and lack of preparedness can actually pose the bigger threat, Olbinski says.
A phenomenon known as “chaser convergence”—when crowds inadvertently clog local roadways—has emergency responders increasingly concerned about what storm chasing’s popularity means for public safety. And with the birth of a burgeoning tourism industry, more people than ever are outside pursuing the perfect shot.
"While I would do this anyways because I love it, it's also a business,” Olbinski says. In addition to offering his own guided workshops and tours, he licenses his footage for commercials, documentaries, and films.
Olbinski has already cleared his schedule for May and June and will set out for another season underneath the rumbling skies of the Great Plains. "For me, storm chasing is akin to an addiction," he says. "I can't help but chase.”