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‘It leaves you speechless’: Australian storm chaser captures America’s monster skies

On the outskirts of Jal, New Mexico, a staccato bolt explodes from a super cell.
A staccato bolt explodes from a supercell storm cloud on the outskirts of Jal, New Mexico. Photograph: Krystle Wright/The Guardian

Krystle Wright doesn’t have the words to describe the feeling she gets when standing in an empty field watching a supercell on the horizon.

“It leaves you speechless,” she says. “I don’t like to articulate the feeling because often I don’t find words can grasp the full force of what I’m feeling in those very intense moments.”

The 35-year-old adventure photographer from the Sunshine Coast in Queensland is one of thousands of storm chasers who travel across the world each year documenting supercell storms.

Wedge tornado forming above a house in Texas
A dusty wedge tornado forms on the outskirts of Morton in the Texas panhandle. Photograph: Krystle Wright/The Guardian

“It’s amazing,” she says. “Typically by about 3pm in the afternoon, what has begun as a blue sky, calm day, has turned into an absolute monster. It’s black with fury.”

Among storm chasers, the biggest prize is to document a tornado. These weather events can form in the deserts of Argentina, on land in Sicily in the Mediterranean, or on the flat islands of the Philippines. They can also be found skipping across northern Australia, but there is 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 are seen most frequently.

Supercell storms form tornadoes in this flat, predictable landscape for a two-week period each year, making it easy for storm chasers to track them down.

Massive cloud heading across the farmlands of South Dakota
Farmlands in South Dakota are soaked as a supercell unleashes a downpour. Photograph: Krystle Wright/The Guardian

In Australia, they appear with less regularity and can be more difficult to find. “We have phenomenal storms to document, but in regional Queensland the phone network is extremely limited [which] means I’m left to read the sky.”

As well as forming tornadoes, these violent storms can produce striations, cloud structures and dust storms that blur visibility. Whatever happens, Wright, who has just finished her third season, will be there to bear witness.

“At one point this year we were chasing a high intensity day through Minnesota,” she says. “It was 6pm when we saw the forecast models for the next day and it looked far more favourable to head back to Oklahoma.”

“So I did a U-turn in Minnesota and drove back to Oklahoma.”

Incredibly dark cloud with thin strip of light moving across south-central South Dakota
A supercell moves across south-central South Dakota on the grasslands of Rosebud Indian Reservation. Photograph: Krystle Wright/The Guardian

Her photographs document her zigzagging journey across the country: a “monster sky” sweeping across the landscape outside a ranch in South Dakota; a storm chaser taking a moment to breathe out the front of an old saloon in Montana; an angry column of grey 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 is an environment; not only is it a storm environment, but it’s also the land of the midwest,” Wright says. “The American midwest is the folklore of storm chasing. When people talk about tornadoes, they are talking about the midwest.”

A rainbow over the freeway against dark clouds near Weatherford, Texas
The tail end of a supercell creates a rainbow over the freeway near Weatherford, Texas. Photograph: Krystle Wright/The Guardian

Wright’s photographs, and the video and readings other storm chasers take, help fill gaps in the current state of scientific knowledge. In one example, material gathered by storm chasers helped confirm that tornadoes can form from the ground up.

These images are even more significant as climate change advances, leading to more powerful storms and destructive conditions for those caught in their path.

The Fujita scale measures the intensity of tornadoes, ranging from the weakest at F0 to the strongest coded F5. The classification system doesn’t just take into account how big or how strong the winds are, but how much destruction it causes.

“You might witness a really big tornado but it might get downgraded because it didn’t cause any destruction. It’s a bit sadistic, really,” she says.

A spectacular sunset near Weatherford, Texas.
The sun sets over the freeway near Weatherford, Texas. Wright says the biggest risk to storm chasers is often not the weather, but road accidents caused by driving while sleep-deprived. Photograph: Krystle Wright/The Guardian

To keep safe, Wright, a former Sydney Morning Herald photojournalist, says she works in a team. Her regular partner is the veteran storm chaser Nick Moir, who mentored Wright through her first season in 2018 when she produced a short film on his photographic work, titled Chasing Monsters.

The biggest risk to storm chasers is often not the weather, she says, but road accidents caused by driving while sleep-deprived. In May, three meteorology students who were returning after chasing a tornado in Kansas were killed when their car hydroplaned and moved into outgoing traffic.

Wright, who has also recently taken up bushfire chasing, says although she has learned through experience to trust her instincts, be aware of her surroundings and take precautions, she has also learned to accept the unknowns.

“That’s the thing with adventure, there’s always a risk with it,” she says. “You try to minimise it, but sometimes things just simply go wrong.”