It's another sweltering summer day in Fergus, Ont., a day that looks good to storm chaser Dave Patrick because of the potential for wild weather that sends other people scurrying indoors for cover.
Patrick has been watching thunderstorm conditions develop for five muggy days, carefully tracking the developments as a cold front rolled into the area. Now, as billowing clouds interrupt the blue sky above his driveway, he’s packing up his storm chasing vehicle. He’s as excited as a teenager getting ready for a date.
Hours later, huge storms rip through the region. In Waterloo Region, damaging winds reach 119 km/h, the same strength as a Category 1 hurricane. Trees are torn from the ground. Some $500,000 worth of damage is wrought on the area’s hydro systems. And Patrick is out in the middle of it, racing along roads near the town of Palmerston, hoping to spot a tornado – the prized weather phenomenon for chasers.
"That’s what it’s all about," Patrick says.
"It’s Mother Nature. I’m here to watch it, document it and report … I’m passionate just about being there and seeing it form."
- How the technology storm chasers use can keep you safe
- Watch this explanation of how a tornado forms
No tornados materialize for Patrick this time, but he’s seen three tornados in Ontario this summer. At the time of writing, Environment Canada has confirmed the touchdown of nine tornados in the province (the average is about 12 a year), and Patrick expects a recent twister near Ottawa to be confirmed as well.
Though they are rare, some twisters can grow to the same size as the storms that pummel American states like Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma, Patrick says.
He calls southwestern Ontario "Little Tornado Alley," for the way its lake breezes and hot temperatures can create ideal conditions for severe thunderstorms and swirling wind. While most Ontarians are "lackadaisical about the weather," Patrick says, he is constantly excited by it.
A chaser is born
Patrick, a married father of two daughters, spends his days installing flooring. His spare time, however, has been spent chasing severe weather ever since he first encountered a twister on a university road trip in the States.
Patrick said he was instantly "hooked." But learning about storm chasing required him search out obscure magazines and read whatever meteorology books he could get his hands on.
Now, the internet lets him see more storms, study weather models and see how storm chasers around the world approach dangerous weather.
Patrick's chases of storm cells throughout Ontario are documented on sites like YouTube and ChaserTV.com.
"That perfect shot lasts five minutes. Then it’s all over," he says.
The sheer thrill of seeing a tornado form up close is immediately clear when you see one of Patrick’s videos. "Look at that beautiful pipe!" he yells in one chase captured on camera, his voice full of wonder as a tornado touches down in an Arthur, Ont. field earlier this year.
His excitement is all the more understandable when he reveals it took him over seven hours of work to get out in front of that storm and see the funnel cloud strike ground.
There’s an obvious element of danger to what Patrick does. During his most recent chase he had to scramble to pack up his gear amid fierce forks of lightning.
"When you’re seeing it strike and hearing it at the same time … it’s time to get out of there," he said. In the past he’s had windshield glass shatter all over him after a bowling ball-sized hail ruined his car. And he knew two of the storm chasers killed in Oklahoma earlier this year.
"It was kind of a shock because they were some of the best chasers in the world," Patrick said.
"There can be some bad consequences."
So far, Patrick says he’s been "prepared lucky." He keeps a hard hat ready for hail. He’s welded together a rack to save his latest windshield from big hail and flying debris. And he insists he’s more nervous driving in normal traffic than he is about being hurt by a tornado.
"That’s not to say we don’t get caught," he says.
Patrick’s chase vehicle is a maroon Ford pickup truck. It’s his third chase vehicle – most are retired due to the mileage he racks up on them – and unlike some of the specialized vehicles American chasers use, it doesn’t have spikes to anchor it to the ground.
Inside the truck, a laptop runs several radar maps that show him how storms are moving. He uses one software program called GR Level 3 (which costs about $100 and only displays U.S. radar information), but for the most part Patrick relies on the same information the public has access to.
He keeps a GPS locator to track his position, and maintains communications with other local chasers over a radio.
Camera-wise, he has several on hand; including a dash mounted HD video camera that streams his footage online.
And, of course, he has his cell phone, which he uses to call and tweet out news of severe weather. "I’d be selfish not to do it," said Patrick, who has almost 2,000 followers on Twitter. He also sends information to Environment Canada, which considers him a "storm spotter" – part of its network of weather-watching Canadians.
He doesn’t carry any technology to investigate storms, unlike some chasers who drop probes to measure wind speed and dew point inside the swirling winds. "I’m not there for the science," Patrick said, laughing. "I’m out there to watch the storm."
Eye on the sky
A week after the big storm, another sudden downburst – a blast of 100 km/h-plus wind driven by pressure systems – topples more trees in Kitchener. The storm came as a shock to many in the affected area, some who were still cleaning up from the last storm.
Patrick wasn’t chasing the winds, but had an eye on the situation and knew there was potential for severe weather. Patrick says throughout his chasing career he’s been surprised by the number of people who don’t pay attention to the weather.
"There’s lots of people that have absolutely no idea," he says.
"It doesn’t matter how much I can talk to you and you go on the radio … there will be a person that says ‘I had absolutely no idea there was a chance of tornadoes today, I don’t know how it happened and I don’t know why my house got hit.’"
You don’t have to become a storm chaser, Patrick says, but ignoring the threat of severe weather is downright dangerous.
"There’s really no way you cannot know that there’s certain types of weather coming," he says.
After all, if there are storm chasers in your region, that’s probably a good reason to keep an eye on the sky.