Women storm chasers pursue their passion as climate change creates extreme weather

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Twenty-six years ago, in the hit blockbuster “Twister,” actress Helen Hunt appeared on the big screen as Dr. Jo Harding in one of the first media portrayals of a storm chaser.

Opposite male storm chasers, Harding tracked down massive, record-breaking tornadoes with a combination of courage and scientific intelligence, shattering expectations of what a storm chaser could be.

But in the years since, the visibility of storm chasers — people who conduct field weather research to report tornadoes, storms, hurricanes and other high-impact weather to weather bureaus — has dwindled. .

According to Gallup, one in three people in the United States say they have been personally affected by an extreme weather event in the past two years, as concerns about climate change mount.

“We’re stuck in this cycle where the media will go to male hunters for content, to cover their pursuits, and women will kind of be left behind in that regard,” said Jen Walton, a storm hunter. from Colorado. “Then the culture, because they’re watching this media, assumes a storm chaser is a dude.”

Jen Walton.Courtesy of Parker Koppes

Lack of representation is one of the many barriers women face when witnessing and documenting some of nature’s most remarkable moments.

“I think the combination of thinking it was too dangerous and you have to be an expert and not seeing people like me led me to believe that hunting wasn’t for me, wasn’t something I could do,” Walton said.

An opportunity to change that perspective presented itself in 2018, when Walton started chasing storms, but she eventually found herself frustrated by the inequalities she experienced on the road, such as male pursuers getting a commitment. more regular online and greater financial compensation for their work.

“I had to work twice as hard to get the same recognition,” Walton said. “And he finally hit a breaking point.”

To fill the void, Walton and storm chasing veteran Melanie Metz launched Girls Who Chase last year as an Instagram page for women to share their work.

Melanie Metz poses with a tornado in the background in Ashby, Minnesota on July 8, 2020.
Melanie Metz poses with a tornado in the background in Ashby, Minnesota on July 8, 2020.Courtesy of Mélanie Metz

“If we don’t get deserved or appropriate media coverage for what female hunters do, we’ll create our own until we do,” Walton said, adding that she’s heard from eager female hunters around the world. that women take center stage. A sixth-grade science teacher contacted Walton to say she had shared the page with her students.

“Every time I get something like this it would blow my mind,” Walton said. “I’d think it’s a lot bigger than me or even storm chasing.”

In response to interest, Girls Who Chase expanded to Twitter, where it hosts Q&As, and set up a Patreon subscription service with educational opportunities. The group has also launched a podcast featuring interviews with women in storm hunting and meteorology.

Jen Walton in Burns, Wyoming.
Jen Walton in Burns, Wyoming.Courtesy of Parker Koppes

Walton said he saw an influx of female chasers that began around 2020. Among them is Holly LaMontagne of Michigan, whose lifelong interest in the atmosphere began with a tornado warning she experienced in his childhood.

“As we rounded the corner to go down to the basement, I could see out the side door window and the air was green — not the sky, but the air,” LaMontagne said. “It was the moment when I was like, ‘What is this? I need to know more.'”

But her journey was derailed when she failed to see herself represented in a community she felt was filled only with serious scientists or dramatic daredevils.

Holly LaMontagne relaxes with her dog, Howie.
Holly LaMontagne relaxes with her dog, Howie.Courtesy of Holly LaMontagne

“My worry was that I wouldn’t be taken seriously or looked down on, especially because I’m very feminine and I’m not a very serious researcher,” LaMontagne said.

Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit, giving LaMontagne more time to learn how to spot storms. Coupled with the support of other female pursuers, this created a perfect storm that propelled her to Ohio, where she captured her first tornado.

“It just clicked for me to see him right in front of me,” she said.

The conditions are ripe to increase public interest in storm chasing, said Raychel Sanner, co-founder of Tornado Titans, a storm chasing collective that publishes educational materials on the subject.

Raychel Sanner.
Raychel Sanner.Courtesy of Raychel Sanner

“People are more interested in the weather because of climate change,” Sanner said, “because they see it’s impacting my life more than usual.”

Metz, a pioneering veteran of storm chasing for nearly 20 years who starred on the TV show “Twister Sisters” in 2007, has seen firsthand the rise in the number of female storm chasers.

“I think one of the first steps is happening now, where we connect more with each other as women and connect with those who have experience, like me, who can help share a few tricks and tricks to help people feel a little more confident and confident about coping,” she said.

Nazli Zeynep, a storm chaser from New Jersey, said she feels pressure in her Turkish community to pursue a more traditional career in something like business, but that seeing the work and careers of veteran storm chasers like Metz had given him the strength to embrace his passion. .

“It helps us come together and say, ‘Hey, you know what, I don’t have to be embarrassed, I don’t have to be ashamed of this. I can do it,” Zeynep said.

Jennifer Brindley Ubl, a Wisconsin photographer who has captured the fastest and largest tornadoes on record, has been hunting since 2006. She compared the changing perception of female storm chasers and growing media attention to the sun breaking through a cloud, shining a light on the diversity that has always existed.

Jennifer Brindley Ubl circa June 2020.
Jennifer Brindley Ubl circa June 2020.Courtesy of Jennifer Brindley Ubl

“Women, hunters of color, trans and queer hunters, we all exist and have existed in this community for a long time,” Brindley Ubl said.

Sanner, an Emmy-winning transgender storm chaser for more than two decades, said the spotlight was shifting to highlight more LGBTQ chasers and chasers of color.

“Time is for everyone,” Sanner said. “It’s not just for the old guard of storm chasers. It’s for everyone.

Brindley Ubl said nothing qualifies someone to be a storm chaser except “a totally uncontrollable obsession with wet weather and witnessing the power and fury of Mother Nature”.

For some, the obsession is about the adrenaline rush as the danger increases with the speedometer. Those with a meteorological or scientific background try to learn more about weather phenomena. Others want to help the National Weather Service spot storms so it can warn affected communities faster and more effectively.

Then there are those who make up the majority of hunters, Brindley Ubl said, people somewhere in the middle who have a passion for hunting safely and experiencing the magnificence of a tornado.

“Once you stand in front, you feel that raw power. There is absolutely nothing like it,” Brindley Ubl said. “It fills your tank all the way to the top, and you go, ‘OK, that’s why we’re doing this. That’s what this sacrifice is for. Let’s do it again.'”

Kylie Cox.
Kylie Cox.Courtesy of Gabe Cox

Girls like 10-year-old Kylie Cox, who chases storms with her father, Gabe Cox, a Colorado-based professional hunter who takes extra safety precautions on their trips, are already picking up the slack. They traveled to central Texas last year as part of Take Your Kid to Work Day, spotting a funnel cloud up close.

“When you go storm chasing, you realize that a lot more people than you think are interested in storm chasing, and it’s just super fun,” Kylie said.

As she aims to become a fashion designer in Paris, she would like to continue chasing storms as a hobby. On her bucket list is chasing a hurricane, which her father says should wait until she’s old enough to drive.

Jessica Moore and her daughter, Lily, are waiting for a storm.
Jessica Moore and her daughter, Lily, are waiting for a storm.Courtesy of Jessica Moore

Jessica Moore, a Colorado meteorologist who is pushing for more female on-screen meteorologists providing live reports from the field, took her daughter, Lily, 11, to chase the storm in their home state last year. last and had the memory of a lifetime watching a tornado land.

“It’s just such an amazing bonding moment because it shows him that, you know, this is the path that I created. It’s a unique path that didn’t exist before,” Moore said, who once worked for WeatherNation TV as a field correspondent, “And if you’re passionate about something, you can do it too.”

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