Storm chaser who swapped North-east for the Midwest

Roger Coulam tells Jonathan Brown how tornadoes pulled him out of Sunderland
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Anyone who has caught themselves grumbling at the inclement autumn weather of late should spare a thought for Roger Coulam. The leading British meteorological photographer has made a career seeking out the very worst that Mother Nature can throw at him. A former fast-food chain manager, he gave up his job nearly a decade ago to brave 300mph tornados, stand within yards of million-volt lightning strikes, and drive thousands of miles across the prairies of America's Midwest in the pursuit of extreme weather.

"It is pure excitement. It is one of the few times in your life that is jaw-dropping," he said of his first mega-storm in 2000. "The plains are so flat and the sky is so big it feels completely awe-inspiring to be in the middle of it. The storms can go up 60,000ft and you can see them from 100 miles away. It is a huge living entity that can be moving at up to 90mph and completely dominates the environment," said the 45-year-old from Sunderland, Tyne and Wear.

Storm chasing has become big business in the US. Sometimes up to 400 vehicles can be found following the latest report of a tornado in the flat lands of Texas, Oklahoma or Kansas. "It can be a little bit alarming. You will be driving into the blackness and the first indication that something is happening is all the other vehicles passing you the other way with their lights on," said Mr Coulam.

On one occasion his tripod was leaning against a wire fence and began crackling blue sparks – making his hair stand on end. "It was time to get the hell out of there," he said. The most dangerous thing, however, is not the golf ball-size hailstones or the downed power lines but the torrential rain that can turn highways into rivers.

The tornado season runs across America's Midwest from April to June. These storms are brought on by the collision of cold fronts from the Rockies meeting warm air from the Gulf of Mexico. His most memorable experience came in Nebraska when a storm threw out 13 tornados in a couple of hours and he was able to observe the drama unfold from blue sky to end. When in Britain he has to satisfy his craving for heavy weather by photographing the North Sea.