A Fort Saskatchewan man is spending his summer chasing after storms and trying to achieve a first in Canadian extreme weather history.
Nevin deMilliano and the rest of the four-member Prairie Storm Chasers crew are on a mission to get a data-collecting weather probe into the path of an oncoming tornado, a feat deMilliano says has never before been accomplished north of the U.S. border.
The team just needs to get close enough to one of the whirling storms to drive the piece of $15,000 storm-proof equipment into place. If all goes well, the probe, made by Campbell Scientific, will gather valuable information on wind, temperature, and pressure as the tornado passes over it.
“It’s designed so that the tornado won’t be able to pick it up,” deMilliano said. “The wind will go over it and push it down.”
DeMilliano’s storm chasing career began years ago in the stacks of the Fort Saskatchewan Public Library. As a boy he haunted the science shelves reading books about the earth and weather. When he was 16, driver’s license newly in hand, he took his interest on the road.
“It just became a natural progression,” he said. “I started chasing storms and learning how to forecast them and be safe around them."
For deMilliano, the adrenaline factor is just a small part of the fun when it comes to seeking out dangerous weather. Tornadoes are rare in Canada, numbering around 60 to 80 a year here compared to over 1000 in the U.S. Tracking one down takes some careful planning.
Weather models showing patterns conducive to extreme weather can give the Prairie Storm Chasers a hint of things to come about five to seven days ahead of a chase. After that, it’s a matter of waiting for the skies to brew the right mix of ingredients into a rotating thunderstorm.
“Is the moisture there? Is the instability in the atmosphere there? Are we getting that heat that we need?” deMilliano said.
From about two days out, the team can try to narrow down where they think a storm might happen.
“But it doesn't always work out,” deMilliano said, adding that for many people the movie Twister comes to mind when they think of tornadoes and the people who chase after them.
“What they don't seem to paint is the 14 hours of driving in blue sky sunshine to get to where you need to be to even get a storm.”
Then there’s the hail to watch out for. And the lightning.
“A tornado is not really the biggest danger for us because we know where that's going to form and we can get out of its way if we need to. But lightning bolts, we can't,” deMilliano said.
The four members of the Prairie Storm Chasers, who use Twitter to keep the public updated about their pursuits, are based in different parts of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Only about one in 20 rotating thunderstorms the team members chase ends up producing a tornado.
As far as deMilliano knows, they are the only team around trying to get a weather station under a Canadian tornado. 2018 is the second year they’ve been trying to get the probe in place. The closest they’ve come so far was during a tornado outbreak near Foam Lake, Saskatchewan, last summer.
When they finally get to the right place at the right time, team member Sean Schofer will get behind the wheel of the Dominator 3, an armoured pickup truck designed to withstand tornado-force winds, to put the probe in place.
“So he can actually drive into tornadoes. So he's the guy who has that probe that's able to go do that,” deMilliano said. “It's not like anyone can just go and do that.”
(Video courtesy of Nevin deMilliano)