Greg Johnson still remembers the storm that ignited his interest in tornadoes and other forms of severe weather.
Johnson, a renowned Regina-based storm chaser and photographer nicknamed the “Tornado Hunter,” was driving just outside of Carlyle in 1995, not long after he had moved to Saskatchewan. He encountered a tornado that caused him to lose control of his vehicle, and nearly veer off the highway.
“Ever since then, I've been fascinated by them,” said Johnson.
Johnson was in Estevan on February 16 and 17 to conduct an introduction to digital SLR photography workshop. He offered photography tips to participants, explained how they can get the most out of their cameras, and shared the knowledge that he has gained over the years.
“I basically travel all over western Canada, doing workshops and teaching people about severe weather and photography,” said Johnson.
He also uses his own images, from storms and other scenes, as teaching tools for participants.
While his interest in tornadoes and severe weather came later in life, he has always had an affinity for photography. He was a self-professed “dark room nerd” in high school, and he would stay up all night working on photos for the high school yearbook and other projects.
“Through university, and afterwards, I kept it as a hobby,” said Johnson. “When digital came into existence in 1999 and 2000, I was one of the first photographers in Saskatchewan, and one of the first in Canada, to make the move to digital, and that's really where everything changed for me.”
He said he loves shooting tornadoes because they're difficult to photograph, and there's an adrenaline rush associated with storm chasing.
“Tornadoes, as an example, are the fastest wind speeds on earth,” said Johnson. “They're the most elusive natural phenomenon on the planet, so there just isn't a lot of good imagery out there of them. Usually if people catch tornado pictures, it's because they're in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
He carries with him a variety of cameras, ranging from small, basic technology to top-notch digital SLRs worth upwards of $10,000. The cameras aren't the only expensive equipment; he also have a “top-notch” satellite-based radar system in the vehicle that brings real-time Doplar imagery to the vehicle at all times. They also have data plans, and an array of weather instruments to measure wind speeds, the barometer and more.
Johnson has been chasing storms for about 10 years, but it wasn't until two-and-a-half years ago that he started to pursue it on a full-time basis, when he sold his marketing and communications business.
Despite the harrowing nature of his career, it's worked out well. He has released a book of his photos and stories, “Blown Away,” which is a Canadian best-seller.
Last year was very busy, as there was a bevy of storms in the Prairies and in the northern mid-west U.S.
He expects it'll be another busy year for severe weather this year.
“The central United States – the plains states – are still under a very deep drought,” said Johnson. “That hasn't alleviated itself at all. We have nothing but snow up here north of the border.”
Moisture at the surface is a key ingredient for severe thunderstorms and tornadoes, he said. Since there is moisture in abundance in Canada, there could be an above average year for severe weather.
Johnson studies forecasts extensively so that he knows where to travel before a storm arrives. The short-term and medium-term forecasts are two to seven days in advance, and he also examines a 14-day forecast.
He's up at 6 a.m. each morning to view weather prognostications, and to plan travel destinations.
“Generally we will have a good five or six days of advanced notice, based on the models, as to where we have to be going,” said Johnson.
During storm season from May to August, he said he's in the Estevan area at least once each week, either chasing a storm that's in the southeast, or heading to the U.S. to reach a storm.
“Last summer, for example, even though we didn't see a tornado touch down, probably one of my most spectacular storms was about 20 miles north of Estevan when we had an incredible, sunset-lit mammatus display, which are kind of those booming clouds that people enjoy looking at and photographing,” said Johnson.
Johnson said they have live streaming for their storm chasing efforts, and cameras on the truck, so that people can tune in on the Tornado Hunter website, and listen as Johnson and his crew chase storms and speak about the freak weather occurrences.