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How one storm chaser captured this iconic Canadian shot

The Weather Network logo The Weather Network 2017-06-11

There's a reason Ryan Wünsch calls it his bucket list shot: It was years in the making, coupled with a fateful occurrence just 300 metres away from where he sleeps.

The Saskatchewan storm chaser had just returned home from Tornado Alley, where drove roughly 14,000 kilometres over 20 days. Two days later, he captured the photo below – his "bucket list shot."

"I'd been trying to get a really good lightning picture the whole time I was in Tornado Alley," Wünsch told The Weather Network. "I never got a single bolt."

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"Bucket List Shot," a lightning strike in Leader, Saskatchewan. Photograph courtesy of Ryan Wünsch.

On June 5 Wünsch heard about storms in Alberta and Montana. Hesitant about the storms' set-up (and hoping to save gas), he opted to stay close to home.

He took to Twitter just 10 hours before capturing the shot.

"I don't even know why I said that," the storm chaser later told The Weather Network. "I got really, really lucky."

But this photo isn't just a bucket-list moment for Wünsch – it could also be among the most "Canadian" in storm photography: A single shot that features a Prairie storm fuelling a lightning bolt, over a canola field, that also just so happens to showcase the last standing grain elevator in Leader, Saskatchewan.

"[W]hen I got the shot, being that it's Canada's 150-year, one of my first thoughts was 'what a year to get this picture,'" Wünsch said. "It's one that I'd envisioned for years."

Grain elevators – an emblem on Canada's Prairies – are no longer a frequent sight. Wünsch told The Weather Network that towns surrounding Leader, Sask., have lost many grain elevators, and the neighbouring town's grain elevator burned down in January.

Safety, preparation, and research: The formula for great storm photography

Wünsch has been professionally photographing storms since 2012, but first explored the concept of "storm chasing" in the early 2000s.

"I don't remember ever not enjoying severe weather. It was just something I was born with, I think," he said.

"My first actual memory of severe weather was hiding out, at the age of four, in a basement for a tornado. My uncle was having a panic attack. The rest of the adults were afraid that he was going to make the little kids scared. I just wanted to go count the seconds between the lightning and the thunder and watch for this tornado to come."

In his early years chasing storms, after the Bill Paxton classic Twister was released, Wünsch says he would just wait for the storm and then "[do] everything the wrong way."

"When we wanted to see a storm, we'd drive right into it and see how big the hail was," Wünsch says of his early days chasing.

Today, he avoids the hail, generally avoids the rain, and always ensures he has an "escape route" if needed – particularly in the case of hail or tornadoes.

"They're Here," a supercell taken on June 10, 2016 in Standford Montana. One of Wünsch's favourite photos, where he saw "the most amazing supercell he'd even seen in pictures." Photograph courtesy of Ryan Wünsch.

After taking a brief break from his hobby, he approached it with a different take. Reading, learning, and researching, Wünsch says, have helped him chase in a safer and more efficient manner.

"The interesting thing about weather is you can learn something about weather every day of your life. You're never done learning."

Wünsch credits Canada's supportive storm chasing community for a lot of his learning and teaching opportunities.

The Unexpected Dangers of Storm Chasing

Chasing supercells, Wünsch says, is what he enjoys best. Though he doesn't usually chase to observe tornadoes, he's mindful of the fact that that some supercells can lead to a twister. Perhaps surprising to some, Wünsch says tornadoes aren't the biggest danger associated with storm chasing – lightning is.

"Lightning can strike 20 feet away from a thunderstorm. So any time we're getting out of the vehicle we realize that, you know, there is a chance that we're going to get struck by lightning."

Right after lightning, quite often, is the danger posed by traffic.

"Not even because of other storm chasers, just because other people on the road are going to be looking at the sky and they're not going to be paying attention to the road," Wünsch tells The Weather Network. As for tornadoes and the storm itself? Those rank third and fourth on the storm chaser's list of the most imminent occupational hazards.

Capturing the Moment: Tools for Success

Storm chasing is best carried out between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., Wünsch says, or from mid-afternoon until evening. Once it's dark, if storms persist he'll try to capture lightning – just as he did with his bucket-list shot.

He relies on weather models for long-range and short-range forecasts to identify the right ingredients necessary in a supercell initiation. On the day of the storm, Wünsch then looks at surface observations and satellite imagery.

A four-hour supercell captured this year in Kansas. Photograph courtesy of Ryan Wünsch.

Despite the latest in weather forecasting technology, he says it's tough to pinpoint exactly where a storm will be.

"People compare it to a boiling pot of water: You're going to know the location of the pot but you're not sure where the first bubble's going to come up."

Wünsch adds that arriving early to the scene of a storm (instead of chasing storms that are actively in progress) can play a role in the success of his storm photography. It's one reason why he continues to learn about weather forecasting from fellow chasers and weather experts.

"The better I can be at forecasting, the better chance I have to be set up, to be ready, to have a glass of water, and to not be trying to catch the storm that's already in progress," he says. "It helps to be able to follow a storm on it's full cycle and see its evolution as well."

Wall cloud rainbow captured this year in Colorado. Photograph courtesy of Ryan Wünsch.

When asked if he has any advice for aspiring storm chasers, Wünsch encourages learning and observing the work of established chasers. He also suggests taking a CANWARN storm-spotter course, or, online, the National Weather Service's Skywarn storm spotter program.


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