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Last Updated: Sunday, 19 September, 2004, 10:09 GMT 11:09 UK
The art of safe storm-chasing
Carl Yapp
BBC Wales News Online

John Mason - picture courtesy of John Mason
John Mason checking the location of the latest storm
The British obsession with the weather is legendary, but a select group has taken the infatuation a step further - by chasing storms.

Some may call John Mason's hobby extreme, but he says the fascinating natural world is the inspiration behind his pastime.

From his home in Machynlleth, mid Wales, he studies howling winds, thunder and lightning via the internet.

He then travels and takes photographs as weather conditions unfold.

A full-time geologist who works for the National Museums and Galleries of Wales, he swaps stones for tornados mainly at the weekends - providing the potential is there for some great pictures.

Storm-chasing in the United States has been enjoyed by hundreds of people for decades and was dramatised in the Hollywood movie Twister.

With the devastation of Hurricane Ivan still fresh, it is particularly topical.

"We storm-chasers and weather photographers are a small but growing community here in the UK," said Mr Mason.

"I think there are three of us in Wales - the others are in Brecon and Knighton.

The art of the successful storm-chaser is to watch what is going on from a safe vantage point
John Mason
"But I think it's fair to say there are fewer than 50 in the UK.

"I've always held a deep fascination with the natural world out there and I've been interested in the weather for about 10 years, but it's only in the last five years that I've really become interested in chasing storms.

"I found out about the hobby from websites in the US - it's really popular over there."

He added: "Caught in the wrong place and wrong time, storms are both terrifying and dangerous. So why actually go out seeking them? No wonder some of my mates find my hobby a source of amusement.

Vantage point

"Terrifying and dangerous, yes - but I would add another adjective to the list - magnificent."

Mr Mason also described the art behind the hobby and what made a good storm-chaser.

"The art of the successful storm-chaser is to watch what is going on from a safe vantage point.

"Close but not too close, somewhere where the beautiful cloud-structures are revealed as they develop, constantly changing, works of natural art marching without opposition across the landscape," he said.

A funnel-cloud near Machynlleth - copyright John Mason
The storm-chaser saw the funnel-cloud in August 2000
"In the early to mid-1990s I lived on a small hill-farm to the south east of Machynlleth, with an unbroken view north and east across the hills of mid Wales.

"I don't know when it happened but at some point during this time I realised I was diving for my camera every time there were storms about.

"The early results were not that rewarding, but by 2000 I had started browsing around the numerous chaser sites from the USA and elsewhere.

"The more you understand storms, it seemed, the better your chances of results, whether chasing a tornadic supercell in Kansas or a fast-moving single cell in Ceredigion.

"The realisation of the importance of studying the data bore fruit at last in August 2000 when, on one of my earlier chases, I ran straight into a photogenic funnel-cloud and from then on I was hooked."

The British seemed to talk about the weather most of the time, but knew very little about how the system worked, explained Mr Mason.

Storm clouds - copyright John Mason
Storm clouds gathering near Machynlleth
"There seems to be a culture present in today's society within which the natural world around us is held in denial," he said.

"The poem written years ago, which begins with 'What is this life, if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare' seems to be more appropriate a commentary on society now than when it was written."

Mr Mason said he'd been following the progress of Hurricane Ivan, one of the fiercest storms ever recorded.

"I've followed it via the National Hurricane Center in the US," he explained.

"It will probably peter out over the US.

"It's been one of the most intense storms we've ever seen. We're unlikely ever to see a hurricane in the UK because they need a tropical climate, although we do get hurricane force winds which are classified at 72mph."

The BBC's Stephen Gibbs
"The damage Ivan left behind is still emerging"

Hurricane Ivan brushes Cuba's tip
14 Sep 04  |  Americas
Catching twisters by the tail
05 May 99  |  Americas
Tornadoes smash through eastern US
11 Nov 02  |  Americas


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