Territory Stories

SyNTax : tales from the Territory



SyNTax : tales from the Territory

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Tourism NT


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Tourism -- Northern Territory -- Periodicals

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Tourism NT

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no. 7

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Profile Storm Chaser Theres nothing quite like standing on the veranda watching a big storm roll in, but few of us actually contemplate jumping in the car for a spot of hair-raising storm chasing. But for Darwin storm chaser, Mike ONeill, the crash of lightning and rumble of thunder means business. After a short stint in the Territory during the mid eighties, it was inevitable that Mike would return to fulfil his new fascination with thunderstorms, and in 2001 he moved his family to Darwin. Initially captivated by the photography of lightning, Mikes enthusiasm was elevated after encountering American meteorologist Reed Timmer and his Discovery Channel Storm Chaser series. I wanted to know the how and why and when of thunderstorms, what makes them tick and 9 years later my knowledge of thunderstorms and chasing has enabled me to pinpoint and target the better lightning active storms to get the magical shot that never seems to end, says Mike. Its opened my eyes to how nature works and what was once a hobby has become a passionate obsession to find the ultimate storm. Combining photography with forecasting and nowcasting, Mike also works closely with the Bureau of Meteorology in Darwin. As a chaser I am their eyes out in the field. I can call in certain aspects of a storm to them via the storm spotters network and let them know data such as strong wind gusts, lightning frequency, hail or flooding, says Mike. And it appears chasing is not just a matter of looking out the kitchen window seeing a few dark clouds, throwing a handful of dust into the air and flat footing it to towards the eye. In fact, the analysis of a storm can take weeks of preparation, checking of observations, satellite images, radar and weather models all before the chase actually begins. Its not as easy as people think, theres multiple meteorological aspects that have to be taken into account and during the chase I have to keep an eye on the radar and satellite images which show me where storms may fire, says Mike. My chasing can be as close as 6km from home or as long as 1400km. Each wet season visitors throng to Darwin from interstate and overseas in the hope of witnessing some of the Top Ends magnificent storm activity, especially the electrifying flash of lightning. Ask any Darwinite or visitor why they have ventured out of the airconditioning during the intensely humid moments prior to a storm its to see the lighting. The variety of lightning is a draw card, says Mike. There are many types of thunderstorm systems in Darwin and they produce an astounding light show which is the envy of other countries. Our storms are akin to Florida because of their tropical nature and Darwin has over 90 thunderstorm days per year, but what a lot of people dont know is that we have the largest thunderstorms on earth. Like all fields of science, there are the serious and the experienced and there are the amateur and the foolhardy and the storm chasing community is no exception. Im a firm believer that theres too many out there that tag themselves as chasers, but they dont do the miles or do the research, its movies like Twister that are to blame for that!, says Mike. Some do it for a hobby to get some photographs, some do it simply to say they are chasers without any knowledge whatsoever and only a very few make a living out of chasing and they are in the USA. Regardless of the group one falls in to, its a given that storm chasing now requires a certain amount of technology such as a laptop and GPS but theres a special characteristic that Mike says is vital - save the ability to get out of bed in the middle of the night. What one needs is passion. A passion for all things weather because storm chasing is not all about storms. Its learning about weather, educating the public and contributing to science. I would spend my last $2 in fuel money if I knew there was a storm coming which showed good potential. I have jumped out of bed at 3am in the morning to chase storms 50km away just for one photo. Its because I know how storms work, I expect a certain shot and when I dont get it its highly frustrating! 90% of chasing is waiting. I love the hunting aspect to chasing, doing the research and achieving my goal, says Mike. However this passion can fall into the wrong hands. There are too many redneck types out there simply videoing to get their name on YouTube, but in reality theyre an annoying bi-product of storm chasing which hardcore chasers despise, says Mike. Storm chasing is very dangerous in actual fact, its not just the winds one has to worry about its the lightning. Darwin especially! What ever one sees on those Twister type movies should forget it. Its nothing like that. But what a lot of people dont know is that we have the largest thunderstorms on earth. Photo: Storm over Kakadu, Northern Territory.