“We start monitoring the jet stream on long-range numerical forecast models that are available on specialised weather websites, from the beginning of May. When the data across different models begin to show a consistent low pressure pattern pushing into the Rockies, we book our flights. I’m lucky to have an accommodating boss who lets me leave within five days. We fly to whichever international airport is closest to the severe weather, be it Dallas, Oklahoma City or even as far up north as Minneapolis. Anywhere along Tornado Alley in the Great Plains.” And then the wait begins.
As anyone who has watched the 90’s cult film Twister knows, finding and pinpointing storms used to require a lot of big, sophisticated equipment, a degree in meteorology and a whole lot of luck. Today, open access to advanced meteorological technology means that anyone with a basic knowledge of weather patterns and the right equipment can find a storm and follow it. During their annual 10-day trip, Rafael and his two fellow storm-chasers (old friends from high school), are permanently hooked up to radar, satellite feeds and navigation systems. They drive nearly 7000km per week, spending up to 16 hours a day in the car. “You need to have patience, there’s a lot of sitting around in diners plotting the next move. And a lot of fast food!”
As the team’s weather forecaster, Rafael constantly watches and analyses the figures on screen and scans the horizon out of the sturdy 4x4 SUV window for the first signs of a storm. Then it’s about choosing the right storm to follow, as not all turn into a spectacle. The goal is to get into a good position early. Ideally, ahead of the storm, in an open plain with clear views, a clear exit route and then let the tornado come to you.
The reality is that storms, like life, are unpredictable. They change direction. Or arrive faster than planned. “Sometimes you just have to get out of there. The sirens are going, the rain is so thick you can’t see further than the SUV’s front bumper and you lose all spatial awareness. That’s when you know. You’ve lost the fight. It’s time to get out.” And getting out is not always possible. “One time in 2018, we were cutting through the most intense part of the storm aka ‘core punching’ to try to get ahead of it, but we took a wrong turn and ended up in a cul-de-sac. The only way out was the way we’d come, straight into the ‘bear’s cage’, where the tornado is hiding behind the thick rain ‘bars’. The safest thing to do is to get out of the SUV, find a ditch, lie as flat as you can and hope the car is still there when it’s all over.”
For Rafael, tornado chasing is about the adventure and uncertainty. “Finding the perfect storm is like a treasure hunt. The data and weather give you all kinds of clues, you have to analyse them and make snap-decisions. It’s a strategy game. The reward is to be witness of the sheer intensity of mother nature.”
Unexpectedly, storm chasing has brought out another passion: sharing the experience online. Through a series of ‘best of’ videos posted to his YouTube channel Destination Tornado Alley, Rafael has gained a solid following with up to 43k views on some of his videos. “I think it’s an activity that people would love to try but don’t necessarily have the opportunity to. Our videos give them a glimpse of what it’s like, especially our live streaming. I’ve developed a creative side I never knew I had. It’s new to me, it goes beyond the adventure.”
The rest of the year Rafael’s holidays are far more traditional, usually at the beach with his family where all he wishes for is blue sky and sunshine. He gets his thrills running in the hills near his home and is currently training for his first ultra-marathon, the 100km Swiss Peaks in September 2021.