A storm chaser captures the ‘incredible raw power’ of Mother Nature (2024)

A lightning bolt strikes in front of a supercell thunderstorm in Imperial, Nebraska, in 2019. This “mothership" spawned a tornado but didn’t cause extensive damage, according to the Omaha World-Herald.

Editor’s Note: The CNN Original Series “Violent Earth with Liev Schreiber” explores the harrowing weather events that are increasingly frequent in our changing climate. It airs on Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT.

Krystle Wright was driving through Nebraska five years ago when she came upon “the Imperial mothership.”

The supercell thunderstorm, resembling a UFO from a sci-fi movie, was unlike any that the Australian photographer had ever seen before.

“It’s still probably one of the most incredible days my life,” Wright said.

She was visiting the United States along with a team that included Nick Moir, one of Australia’s most well known storm chasers, and she said it was pure luck that they intercepted the storm at its peak moment near Imperial, Nebraska.

“We were absolutely in awe and couldn’t control our excitement,” she said. “You just can’t believe you’re witnessing such a thing.”

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A storm chaser captures the ‘incredible raw power’ of Mother Nature (2)

Wright has been to the United States several times over the last few years to chase storms and document them. She started in 2018 and quickly came to understand why it can be so addictive.

“The adrenaline rush is certainly a part of it, but it is just honestly being humbled by Mother Nature and witnessing this incredible raw power,” she said. “And every storm is different.”

Supercells, such as the Imperial mothership, are the ones that storm chasers target. These are the least common types of storms, but they often produce the most severe weather. Not all of them spawn tornadoes, but they are where most tornadoes will originate. They also make for some of the most dramatic photos.

“As a storm chaser, we know that if we come over in the spring for about two weeks, we’re going to be guaranteed supercells to chase,” Wright said. “America is the most ideal setup when it comes to storm chasing.”

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Tornadoes happen around the world, but they’re most prevalent in the United States.

On average, there are more than 1,150 tornadoes that happen in the United States every year — that’s more than Australia, Canada and all European countries combined.

The reason is geography. Low pressure systems pull warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico and cool, dry air from the Rocky Mountains or the High Desert in the southwest. The states that fall in between those two regions have the ideal conditions for severe weather to ignite as the two opposing air masses clash.

When it comes to tornadoes, “nothing compares to the consistency that you find in the American Midwest,” Wright said.

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A lightning bolt emerges from a supercell high above the grassy plains of South Dakota.

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After a storm chase near Lockney, Texas, Nick Moir begins his routine of checking the forecast for the next day.

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The planning for a day of storm chasing begins the night before, looking at the forecast and taking an educated guess as to where the storms may come the next day.

But it’s far from straight-forward. You have to constantly monitor the radars, Wright said, and be ready to move quickly.

“It can be a lot of waiting around,” she said. “So you sit and you wait. And sometimes the challenge is finding cell signal, because you can definitely lose it in the Midwest.”

Many days will start out with perfectly blue skies, with no clues of the monster storm to come.

“Generally I would say it’s around lunchtime, maybe early afternoon, that the action will usually start,” Wright said. “And gosh, by like 3 p.m. usually, it’s on. I’ve seen skies turn to black by 3 p.m. and you think you’re driving at midnight. It’s pretty wild.”

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A storm chaser captures the ‘incredible raw power’ of Mother Nature (8)

On her storm-chasing trips, Wright has been part of a team of four with Moir, photographer Keith Ladzinski and videographer Skip Armstrong. She said she is usually the driver and that it can be thrilling, but also terrifying — and not always because of the weather.

“(Memorial Day) weekend would always scare me because I knew there’d be a surge of people on the road, and typically that is the most dangerous thing about storm chasing really — the other drivers, not so much the weather,” she said.

Other drivers can get so transfixed by the changing skies around them that they forget their whereabouts, she said. So she has to take great care to watch out for them while also navigating roads that can get icy because of hail.

“You’re so much safer chasing as a team, at least two people,” she said. “Because you are driving incredibly long hours and you need someone who’s focused behind the wheel and then someone else focused on the radars.”

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Some storms are moving so fast that Wright and her team might pull over and stay only for a couple of minutes before they have to hop back in the vehicle.

“Sometimes you’re lucky — like, oh we could stop for 15 minutes — but the storms are moving fast,” Wright said. “If you want to stay with it and keep chasing it throughout the afternoon, into the evening, it’s a constant go-go-go.”

The goal is to see the storm at its most peak moment, so sometimes that means making the decision to try to get ahead of it. Sometimes it means following the same system for hours and hours.

It’s also important to stay the right distance away from the storm. Not just for safety, but for the right photos.

“We like to be a certain distance back, because you want to see the whole structure,” Wright said.

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A storm chaser captures the ‘incredible raw power’ of Mother Nature (11)

The storm photos that Wright takes are spectacular, but they can also serve a greater purpose.

“Visual documentation is some of the best data that scientists get to work with when it comes to learning about storms and trying to find a deeper understanding,” she said. “I mean, they are still coming up with new theories about tornadoes and how they form.”

In 2013, a massive tornado near El Reno, Oklahoma, killed storm chasers Tim Samaras, Paul Samaras and Carl Young. At 2.6 miles wide, it was the widest US tornado on record.

Wright said the tornado’s erratic movements took many by surprise that day and that authorities collected everyone’s data to study the tornado and try to understand what happened.

“We truly still don’t know a lot about storms,” Wright said.

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A storm chaser captures the ‘incredible raw power’ of Mother Nature (13)

A lightning bolt strikes the ground on the border of New Mexico and Texas.

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The sheer force of a storm caused this utility pole and others like it to snap like twigs.

Wright grew up on Australia’s Sunshine Coast and has always been drawn to nature, the outdoors and adventure.

Her work has taken her to isolated places all around the globe. She’s tracked penguins in Antarctica, swam with whales in the Azores and paraglided in Mongolia.

“I like being in places that not a lot of people have access to,” she said. “There’s something alluring about being able to go to places where there’s no cell service, like you’re truly just out there in the nature.

“With my photography, I’ve always been attracted to the real sort of barren landscapes for some reason. I find so much beauty in them. My curiosity wants to keep taking me to extreme landscapes.”

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Wright is featured in the first season of “Photographer,” National Geographic’s new series that can be streamed on Disney+ and Hulu.

Her episode is titled Heart Explosions, which she describes as the feeling “when you experience a moment and you have zero control over your reaction — that can mean like where you end up bursting into tears or screaming in joy.”

She says these heart explosion moments, to her, are always connected to nature somehow.

“With storm chasing, it’s definitely happened a few times,” she said.

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A storm chaser captures the ‘incredible raw power’ of Mother Nature (2024)

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