Former Ontario storm chaser targets 'gap' in dangerous weather alerts

A close call chasing a tornado four years ago prompted Adam Skinner to create a business he says helps "fill a gap" in how information about dangerous storms is sent to the general public.

Close call with a tornado prompted Adam Skinner to create InstantWeather alert service

Funnel clouds tore through Huntsville, Ont. on Friday afternoon as Environment Canada issued a tornado warning for the Muskoka and Parry Sound areas. (John Lancaster/CBC)

A close call while chasing a tornado four years ago prompted Adam Skinner to create a business he says helps "fill a gap" in how information about dangerous storms is disseminated to the public. 

On April 18, 2013, Skinner was an amateur storm chaser in Ontario's tornado alley west of Barrie, Ont. 

That day, Skinner, 34, chased a storm a little too closely and found himself within 30 metres of a funnel cloud, part of a tornado that touched down in the township of Melancthon, just northwest of Shelburne. 

The violent storm tore to pieces a large industrial stable.

"The building exploded like a roadside bomb," he recalls. "A piece of sheet metal went right over the hood of the car."

Luckily, Skinner wasn't hurt. Not so lucky was the fact that there was no severe storm watch or warning issued by Environment Canada. 

"The storm was flying toward Barrie and all I was thinking was, 'I've got to call Grandma.' I have to try to connect with as many people as I can," said Skinner. 

The incident prompted Skinner to create the Tornado Watch Facebook page and form his company InstantWeather, Inc. They use the same radar data that Environment Canada uses to alert the public about storms. But Skinner says he's often able to get his alerts out ahead of Environment Canada. Also, his alerts go out as text messages while Environment Canada posts the information on its web page. 

Alerts sent out by text

InstantWeather offers a service that for a $3.39 monthly fee, sends out a customized text alert to warn users of violent storms. Skinner says text messages are an ideal way to reach the widest possible audience because they don't rely on internet access. 

Skinner says revenue his company collects through the text-based subscription service goes toward developing an app that will be free. 

Only Environment Canada is legally allowed to issue official tornado warnings. So why aren't they issuing text alerts in an era when almost everyone carries a cellphone? 

CBC London spoke to Peter Kimbell, a warning preparedness meteorologist with Environment Canada.

Adam Skinner says seconds matter when it comes to issuing alerts about tornadoes and other dangerous weather. (Submitted by Jeremy Brenneman)

He said Environment Canada has a service called EC Alert Me, which sends weather notifications directly to mobile devices of users who sign up. However, the service is only available to members of the media and emergency services but Kimbell said Environment Canada is working to expand it to the general public. 

The federal government is working to create an all-encompassing alert system (not just weather) that will automatically send information about life-threatening events to all phones within a specific geographic area regardless of whether or not the user has signed up for it. But the system is not yet ready. 

Meanwhile, the public must turn to Environment Canada's website for official weather watches and warnings. 

"There's a small period of time that it takes for the warning to be drafted, issued posted and uploaded to weather radio," said Kimbell. "There is a small lag time between when the forecaster presses 'send' and it shows on our website. It's pretty fast."

This damage was caused by a tornado in the Windsor area that was mentioned on the Ontario Tornado Watch Facebook page before Environment Canada had issued a warning. (Greg Layson/CBC)

Last summer, Environment Canada was criticized after two different storms, later confirmed as tornadoes, ripped through Windsor and the neighbouring community of LaSalle. Environment Canada issued its tornado warning at 7:28 p.m. but Tornado Watch began warning of a storm "likely producing a tornado" 20 minutes earlier. 

The Weather Network offers free, customized weather alerts sent directly to users phones but they wait to call it a "warning" until Environment Canada does so. 

Skinner isn't critical of Environment Canada, saying the organization does the best it can given staffing constraints. He says what can often give his company the advantage is its online "community" of 200,000 weather watchers and 20 staff members.

And though he isn't a meteorologist or a climatologist himself, Skinner does have three meteorologists on his team. 

He said those boots on the ground can make the difference in predicting, spotting and reporting storms. Ontario tornadoes can cover ground at rates exceeding 100 km/h, meaning seconds do matter. 

"If you warn only when a tornado is on the ground, there's folks directly in the path of that ... by the time the alert finally gets to the public, it's too late." 

About the Author

Andrew Lupton

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Andrew Lupton is a B.C.-born journalist, father of two and a north London resident with a passion for politics, photography and baseball.