National operations manager for the Early Warning Network, Michael Bath is chasing tornado's in the US.
National operations manager for the Early Warning Network, Michael Bath is chasing tornado's in the US. Michael Bath

Meet the Northern Rivers man who chases tornados

A DESTRUCTIVE vortex of violently rotating winds hurtling towards you would make most people run in the opposite direction, but not Northern Rivers man and storm enthusiast Michael Bath.

The McLeans Ridges resident was the national operations manager for the Early Warning Network, and was currently on his fifth and longest tornado-chasing trip to the US - the first one being a one week-long stint in 2010.

His passion for weather begun in high school but Mr Bath said it became an obsession following the two major floods in Lismore in March and May 1987.

"I researched reasons why Lismore is so flood prone and was also taking up lightning photography around the same time following being involved in the school magazine at Ballina high school," Mr Bath said.

"As with storms in the Northern Rivers, I love the spectacle of thunderstorms, the lightning, wind, colour, and hail. I really like seeing hail.

"Tornados are the ultimate, but relatively rare in Australia so I head to the US for a better chance of seeing them."

Mr Bath said the act of chasing the often-violent storms was an emotional rollercoaster.

"It really is surreal and a huge emotional high," he said.

"You can chase dozens of different days and travel thousands of kilometres and to target an area and to see a tornado is the ultimate.

"There also can be huge lows when you are on a storm and the next one 50-100km away produces the tornado and yours doesn't. Close misses are worse than when they occur well away from your storm chase target."

And staying safe? Extensive knowledge of supercells and making sure you have road options was vital.

 

"A huge part of the storm chase is the navigation to and around the storms being chased.

"The lightning can be dangerous at times along with the threat of damaging winds and giant hail but those are part of the experience."

Mr Bath said while there have been daily storms and "amazing chases" on his current trip, it's been a poor season for tornados in the US.

Regardless, Mr Bath and his fellow storm chaser Anthony Cornelius have clocked up 18,000km in four weeks, and have visited Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Montana.

"We've seen tornados on three different days, one of which had six different tornados."

"My trips are typically three weeks but this is a longer five week one. How often I go over depends on who else of my weather friends are available to do it.

"Chasing in the US is not something you can do yourself due to the distances and long days."

But if chasing tornados in the US was something you want to do, there are storm chasing tours available where professionals forecast and drive you to storm targets.

Preparing for a day "involves poring over computer weather models to pick the most likely areas for severe thunderstorms".

"We are looking for supercells - storms that rotate due to the wind shear, that is where winds change direction and speed with height," Mr Bath said.

"We look the day before to make sure we have enough time to drive to a target, then get up early to look again to refine the targets. Once in the target area we monitor satellite imagery, radar, updated weather models, road maps and the sky.

"Storms often kick off late afternoon and continue well into the evening. We look for the strongest looking storms visually and by radar then pursue or intercept those and stay with them as long as the storm remains strong. Most storms do not produce a tornado so a little bit of luck is sometimes involved when they do - given there can be several targets areas and dozens of storms occurring at once over several states.

"After the chase you have to find a motel and it can be midnight or later before sleep on the big days. Then start again 7am. Some days when we finish earlier we try to catch up with other chasers in the area we know for a meal. It's amazing how often we meet up with other Australians doing the same thing."

Mr Bath said information and knowledge gained on the US trips in identifying severe weather locally.