Volunteer storm-chasers keep their eyes on the sky
Friday August 17, 2001
Whenever the next thunderboomer hits Waterloo Region, chances are Ron Gravelle will be the first to know.
Like a general leading an elite squad of commandos, Gravelle is the driving force behind the region's volunteer army of storm-chasers who keep their eyes on the sky for signs of trouble brewing.
"I don't forecast rain," says the 36-year-old Kitchener autoworker, surrounded by pictures of thunderstorms like trophies from past battles. "I look at the manly stuff, not the girlie stuff.
"A normal rainfall doesn't tickle my fancy. I enjoy a severe storm with wind and rain. I like the power and the beauty."
Because of a bad back that keeps him from sitting for too long, Gravelle is on leave from his job at the Cambridge Toyota plant and dedicates most of his time to the passion that has consumed him for six years. From his house dubbed Storm Central, Gravelle functions as a "nowcaster," a sort of human data feed who gathers information from satellite and radar images and relays it to his mobile -- and heavily armed -- ground troops.
"A nowcaster is the most important storm-chasing tool because he gives us the data we can't see visually," says Dave Patrick of Elora, one of about 200 weather spotters in Waterloo Region.
"We tell them exactly where we are and they have maps and can tell us which way the storm is moving," says Patrick, 31. "There's a trust factor involved with the nowcaster because your life is in his hands."
Gravelle is Waterloo Region's only licensed co-ordinator for CANWARN, a volunteer organization made up of ham radio operators who spot and report severe weather conditions to Environment Canada. Their task is known as "ground truthing" -- providing visual confirmation of extreme weather conditions spotted by satellites and radar.
CANWARN was started in Windsor in 1987 and today there are 12 co-ordinators in Ontario and more than 2,000 spotters.
"It's an extremely valuable program," says Ontario program manager Randy Mawson. "It proves that machines are great, and so are computers, but that human eyes and ears are infallible."
Yet while Mawson admits spotters serve an important function, he doesn't support storm-chasing of the variety seen in the movie Twister.
"There's too much danger involved, it's a huge liability," he says. "When you think that Environment Canada's role is first and foremost for the safety and security of all Canadians, it wouldn't make a whole lot of sense to dispatch people into areas we know are not safe."
Chasers say that their observations on the ground provide earlier warnings and more time for people to protect themselves. When conditions seem ripe for potentially harsh storms, as they did last night, Gravelle's squadron of chasers -- which includes Patrick, Mark Robinson of Mississauga and George Kourounis of Toronto -- gather at Storm Central to analyze weather data and discuss strategies before heading out.
Loads of high-tech gear
Each chaser has up to $20,000 of detection equipment in his car, enabling them to remain in contact with each other and Gravelle. Because they're licensed by CANWARN, they can also contact Environment Canada directly if necessary.
Among the three cars, there are close to 25 antennas, and when they set off, they resemble a convoy of porcupines. Equipment includes CB radios, cell phones, ham radio scanners, video and still cameras, camera mounts, speakers, TVs, VCRs, full weather stations, global positioning satellites and laptops with Internet access.
"It's a sight to behold," says Kourounis, a 31-year-old sound engineer who calls his black 1999 Honda CRV "the Batmobile."
Because of Ontario's road network and the number of trees affecting visibility, it's harder to chase here than on the flatlands in the U.S., but that doesn't dampen their efforts as they roar along Highway 401 from Barrie to Sarnia, otherwise known as Ontario's tornado belt.
"I don't consider myself a thrill-seeker because it's fairly safe," says Kourounis. "But there is a rush, but it's only two per cent of the equation. Most of the time, you're busy getting into position.
"The thrilling moments are so few and far between that you have to be patient because you spend endless hours chasing."
After five years of chasing -- a passion that grew out of photographing lightning -- Kourounis has seen 12 tornadoes, all in the U.S.
Patrick has been chasing the longest -- since 1994 -- and proudly calls himself a "pre-Twister-generation boy," adding that after the release of the film in 1995, there was an explosion of interest.
Not so glamourous
"It's certainly not as glamourizing as the movie made it out to be," says Patrick, who has spent up to 19 hours at a time driving after tornadoes.
His interest in storm-chasing stems from once watching a single fluffy cloud in the Nebraska sky develop into a massive thunderstorm with baseball-size hail.
"I'm interested in seeing mother nature make something out of nothing," he says.
Although a dry summer has made it a bad year for storm-chasing, the local squad had one heart-pounding adventure when a vicious thunderstorm rolled through southern Ontario on July 4. On a tip from Patrick, and with Gravelle's help, Robinson, 28, chased it from Guelph to Milton, where he saw it touch the ground. Robinson got within 500 meters of the twister and, in a moment of frenzied excitement, jumped out of his rattling car to film what he describes as a "a vortex on the ground with swirling wind like a tube of air."
Because only one in 100 severe thunderstorms produce the wind rotations necessary for tornadoes which usually last up to 15 minutes, he calls them the icing on the cake.
"It was a real rush to know that I had seen seen it and followed it," says Robinson.
"It's not like you're fighting Mother Nature," he adds. "You're just along for the ride."