But for Australian storm chasers Clyve Herbert and Jane ONeill, change has been a consistent theme during their five years patrolling the Midwest, including the past three as part-time residents of Hillsboro.
“We haven’t seen a season yet in five years that was the same,” Herbert said. “We’ve been amazed by the variety and variability.”
Herbert and ONeill estimated they traveled some 30,000 miles in their technology-equipped van again this spring, from Texas to the Dakotas. As in years past, they haven’t been disappointed.
“I’m fascinated with the meteorology of America,” said Herbert, who is certified in the field after completing classes in his homeland.
“There are other factors to consider, too (in addition to atmospheric weather patterns),” he said. “You’ve got the Rocky Mountains, which affect the jet stream. You have the El Nino and Nina phasing, which is associated with sea-surface temperatures.”
Coincidently, he said Hillsboro and their hometown in Australia share the same longitude from the equator. Hillsboro is 38 degrees north and Trentham is 38 degrees south.
“But our seasons are not as severe as what you guys get,” he added.
That conclusion was confirmed again this year almost as soon as Herbert and ONeill arrived in Hillsboro in late February.
“We’ve heard of Kansas blizzards, but a couple of days after we got here we opened the front door of our place on Washington Street and the snow was almost a foot deep,” Herbert said. “I said, ‘Jane, you better come out and look at this.’”
“I’d never seen anything like it,” ONeill said. “We used to get excited (back home) if we saw four flakes of snow.”
One difference the partners noticed while recording this year’s storm season through photography and video was the prevalence of lightning.
“We noticed this year that storms seem to be more electrically charged than in the last four years,” ONeill said. “It’s very, very strong.”
Herbert said scientists know lightning occurs because of the positive and negative electrical charges that develop as ice crystals fly about at the top of a storm.
“They can understand the process, but how lightning happens is still not quite obvious,” he said. “Primarily it’s a static discharge. But how that static discharge develops and how it accumulates—they can’t say with certainty.”
The pair have captured the beauty of lightning in many of their photos, but they are keenly aware of its danger, too.
“This year the lightning has been pretty good,” Herbert said. “But bear in mind that lightning is what kills people, primarily. Every year, if you put the averages together, lightning is a dangerous aspect of a storm.”
But it also carries a benefit, particularly for farmers, that many people may not realize.
“You’ve got this dangerous aspect of lightning, but it also allows nitrogen to fall with the rain because it fixes nitrogen into the atmosphere and takes it to the ground,” Herbert said. “It’s quite amazing. So we need it.”
Added ONeill, “It will be interesting to see if next year, or even this year, there is a difference in the corn yield.”
Herbert happened to be in Australia for a week when the tornado hit. ONeill was in Oklahoma, but said she kept a safe distance away when she realized the magnitude of the storm.
About two weeks later, three weather researchers were killed by a tornado near El Reno, Okla.
ONeill and Herbert knew them.
“They were deploying probes,” Herbert said. “When you deploy probes in front of a tornado—we’ve seen enough tornadoes here in Kansas to give respect. We stay further way.”
The incident generated media attention by calling into question the number of storm chasers on the road during a dangerous situation.
“It wasn’t the number of chasers on the road that caused a lot of the problems,” ONeill said. “The problems were caused by the media actually advising people in the outlying vicinity that if they couldn’t get out of the Oklahoma City and El Reno area, and if they couldn’t get under ground, they should drive south.”
She said the warning resulted in “huge traffic jams” on the freeways, with traffic heading south in all four lanes.
“The problem with that is that tornadoes tend to be somewhat fickle in their pathway,” Herbert said. “You may avoid it here, but another storm may appear, or it may actually move south. They were pretty lucky in that sense.”
“The National Weather Service will ring us to confirm (storms), particularly if we are in remote areas,” Herbert said. “We’re not just chasers, we’re trained as spotters.”
He added that serious chasers are acutely aware of doing their job as safely as possible. One of ONeill’s and Herbert’s personal rules is to avoid metropolitan areas.
“The problem around big cities is that you get people who are not really weather savvy,” Herbert said. “They go out with their iPhones and they’re not sure what’s going on when they’re photographing. These are not spotters.
“I don’t have anything against those sort of people because they’re just as entitled to presume to be wherever they want to be,” he added. “But it does cause problems because they tend to be erratically driving.”
As a general rule, veteran storm chasers and spotters have developed “sort of an ethical way of driving,” Herbert said.
“You’ve got your flashers on, you don’t park on the roads, you never leave the doors open, you always park away from the road systems,” he cited as examples. “We always pull over, we’re always mindful of emergency vehicles and things like that.”
Coming back in fall
“We’ve done three seasons so far, but we haven’t done the fall season, photographic-wise,” Herbert said. “So in fall we’ll be doing the fourth season. That will complete our photographic library.”
In addition to local weather, Herbert and ONeill have been documenting wildlife and other scenic highlights, and want to produce a book to share with their friends back in Australia.
“It would be a relatively small publication run, but that’s what we plan to do,” Herbert said. “We’ve got wildlife in Australia, but not the type you have here.”
The pair say they plan to keep returning to Marion County for as many years as they can. Documenting the local weather is still compelling, they agree.
“It has been since we both were old enough to walk,” ONeill said. “The moment I got my driver’s license was my first motorized storm chase. I didn’t have to go on bicycle or foot anymore.
“We are unfortunately afflicted with that gene,” she added. “There’s just this urge to understand the atmosphere.”