Krystle Wright has no words to describe the feeling she gets when she stands in an empty field and watches a supercell on the horizon.
“It leaves you speechless,” she says. “I don’t like articulating the feeling because I often can’t find the words to capture the full power of what I’m feeling in these very intense moments.”
The 35-year-old adventure photographer from Queensland’s Sunshine Coast is one of thousands of storm chasers who travel the world each year to document supercell storms.
“It’s incredible,” she says. “Usually around 3pm in the afternoon what started out as a blue sky, calm day has turned into an absolute monster. It’s black with anger.”
Among storm chasers, the biggest prize is documenting a tornado. These weather events can form in the deserts of Argentina, on land in Sicily in the Mediterranean Sea, or on the flat islands of the Philippines. They can also be found in northern Australia, but there’s a strip of land in the US that runs from Texas in the south to Minnesota in the north – known as Tornado Alley – where they’re most commonly seen.
Supercell storms form tornadoes in this flat, predictable landscape for two weeks each year, making them easy for storm chasers to spot.
In Australia they occur with less regularity and can be more difficult to find. “We have phenomenal storms to document, but telephone service is extremely limited in regional Queensland [which] means I have to read the sky.”
In addition to creating tornadoes, these violent storms can create streaks, cloud structures, and dust storms that reduce visibility. Whatever happens, Wright, who just wrapped up her third season, will be there to bear witness.
“Sometime that year we chased a high-intensity day through Minnesota,” she says. “It was 6 p.m. when we saw the forecast models for the next day, and it was looking much more favorable to return to Oklahoma.”
“So I did a U-turn in Minnesota and went back to Oklahoma.”
Her photographs document her zigzag journey across the country: a “monster sky” sweeping across the landscape outside a South Dakota ranch; a storm chaser taking a moment to exhale outside an old Montana saloon; an angry pillar of gray cloud rising behind a lonely oil rig on an empty plain in Texas.
“I think at this point the story for me is that it’s an environment; Not only is it a blustery environment, it’s Midwest country,” says Wright. “The American Midwest is the folklore of storm chasing. When people talk about tornadoes, they’re talking about the Midwest.”
Wright’s photographs and the videos and readings taken by other storm chasers help fill in gaps in the current scientific understanding. In one example, material collected by storm chasers helped confirm that tornadoes can form from the ground up.
These images are all the more meaningful as climate change continues, leading to stronger storms and more destructive conditions for those who stand in their way.
The Fujita scale measures tornado intensity, ranging from the weakest at F0 to the strongest coded F5. The classification system not only takes into account how big or how strong the winds are, but also how much destruction they cause.
“You could witness a really big tornado, but it could be downgraded because it didn’t cause any destruction. It’s really a bit sadistic,” she says.
To be safe, Wright, a former photojournalist for the Sydney Morning Herald, says she works on a team. Her regular partner is veteran storm chaser Nick Moir, who mentored Wright during her debut season in 2018 when she produced a short film about his photographic work titled Chasing Monsters.
The biggest risk for storm chasers is often not the weather, she says, but traffic accidents caused by lack of sleep. In May, three meteorology students returning from chasing a tornado in Kansas were killed when their seaplane car crashed into outbound traffic.
Wright, who also recently started bushfire hunting, says while she’s learned through experience to trust her instincts, be aware of her surroundings and take precautions, she’s also learned to accept the unknown.
“That’s the thing about adventures, there’s always a risk,” she says. “You try to minimize it, but sometimes things just go wrong.”