Looking to the skies

Jane and Clyve Herbert sit in their storm-chasing vehicle that has professional Doppler radar. They live in Kansas about six months out of the year and six months in Australia and storm chase in both countries. Wendy Nugent/Free Press
Jane and Clyve Herbert sit in their storm-chasing vehicle that has professional Doppler radar. They live in Kansas about six months out of the year and six months in Australia and storm chase in both countries. Wendy Nugent/Free Press
Bam. Bam. Bam. Horrific sounds of hail the size of baseballs and grapefruit hit their vehicle, slamming circular cracks in the glass.

Jane and Clyve Herbert of Hillsboro and Australia were out storm chasing in Wyoming a couple years ago. They seemed to be trapped on a road. In one direction, there was too much damage to navigate the vehicle, in another direction, the road was flooded and in another direction, they couldn’t see. They took the flooded road, but before that, with the rain, hail, lightning, flooding, tornado and thunder, Clyve decided to propose to Jane.

Jane said he asked for her hand in probably the most chaotic storm they’ve been in.

“Initially, she laughed at me, and then she said yes,” Clyve said.

The couple, who is retired and now storm chases for fun and to be helpful, married in December 2018 in Australia.

Clyve said he’d been thinking about proposing for a while.

“Jan and I have been really good friends,” Clyve said. “We support each other. I’d been thinking about asking for about 12 months. The emotional level of the relationship exceeded the near-death experience. It was a tornadic supercell.”

Sitting in the vehicle, Jane said they decided to take the flooded road because it was the safest route and that the water wasn’t very high.

When not in Kansas, the newlyweds live in Trentham, Victoria, Australia, where Jane ran a business in Melborne, and Clyve was a railroad engineer for 40 years.

“That’s why I like Newton because it’s a railroad town,” Clyve said.

When in Australia, they also storm chase there.

“We were born as weather enthusiasts,” Clyve said.

Jane echoed those thoughts.

“When I was 3, I used to climb out on the kitchen roof and watch the clouds go past,” she said.

Both just seem to have a natural affinity for the weather.

“I’ve always had a life-long passion for weather and atmosphere,” Clyve said. “My interest is in atmospheric science, as well. Ever since I was young, I wanted to come to Tornado Alley and study the storms.”

“We chase all weather,” Jane added.

“We like photographing weather in the landscape,” Clyve said, adding they like to get storms and storm clouds captured with the land.

On their Facebook page with Australian Sky & Weather, there are a number of storm, lightning and tornado photos they’ve taken.

They came to the Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma area in 2009.

“We were stunned at the storm dynamics,” Clyve said. “In 2011, we came back for an extended stay.”

That’s when they bought a cottage in Hillsboro and moved into it in 2012.

“We liked the area,” he said. “It is quiet. We like the road systems.”

They also became acquainted with people of a certain religion.

“We discovered Mennonites,” Clyve said. “We found they’re humorous, hardworking here, very genuine.”

While they’re in the Hillsboro area chasing storms in surrounding states and areas, people from Australia and Europe stay with them in May, storm chasing with them.

“What fascinates me is the storm dynamic and so fast,” Clyve said.

They’ve experienced a lot of those dynamics.

“We’ve seen about 200 tornadoes,” Clyve said, adding they travel about 35,000 miles each season. “We follow the storms from Texas to North Dakota,” adding they also go to Wyoming and Colorado in June.

Clyve said the storm season migrates and that the worst tornado they’ve seen was in Dixie Alley, which includes Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana. It was an EF4 a few years ago. When they chase storms, they have Doppler radar and other weather-chasing gear. During that tornado, they saw something they’d never seen before.

“There were tractor-trailers falling out of the sky,” Jane said.

“When you see something like that when you think you’ve seen it all; an incident like that is unbelievable,” Clyve added. “When you see the force when they literally tear the ground up.”

This is a double tornado taken by Australian Sky & Weather.
This is a double tornado taken by Australian Sky & Weather.
Clyve said wind strength goes up exponentially. If it goes up 1 mph, it increases four times, he said.

An EF5, the strongest and usually the largest of all tornadoes, comprise 1 percent of all tornadoes, but they do 90 percent of the damage.

Jane said one of their roles is storm spotting and reporting back what they see live.

“Quite often, we’re the first on the scene,” Clyve said.

They’ll send photos and report hail. They have professional, high-resolution live Doppler radar, which shows the hail core and rotation in the core.

They don’t offer their services for any financial gain, as they’re self-funded, and they do talks in the area for no cost. Those wanting to have them talk can e-mail them at ausstorm@gmail.com.

“Over the course of 10 years of chasing, I’ve learned so much by actually coming face to face with the Plains storms,” Clyve said, adding they can get up to 60,000 feet.

Seeing tornadoes and damage they leave aren’t the only weather experiences the couple has had.

Clyve said he was struck by lightning a few years ago.

“I got out to take a photograph,” he said, adding that when he stepped out, a nearby gate started humming, moving and sparking. He was hit by a peripheral strike, which affected his kidneys for a few weeks.

The coolest storm they’ve seen was in Matheson, Colo.

“That was a double tornado, including a tornado that spun the wrong way,” Clyve said, adding those are called anti-cyclonic tornadoes. A total of 99 percent of tornadoes spin counter-clockwise, but this one rotated clockwise.

There also was a 2016 storm that spawned up to 20 tornadoes in three hours near Dodge City, and all the tornadoes missed Dodge.

“One of the nastiest I saw was the Langley tornado,” Clyve said. “It was an EF4. There’s so many we’ve seen.”

They’ve seen a lot in America.

“America has the highest incidence of tornadoes in the world, particularly in the Plains area,” Clyve said.

Jane said they try to stay a little further away from the storms and tornadoes to “get the whole structure” in photos. The closest they’ve been to a tornado was a couple hundred yards.

“Every storm is different,” Jane said. “They have their own structures, they have their own sounds and colors.”

The couple said tornadoes can have a variety of sounds, resembling trains, loud whistles, jet planes, waterfalls and paddle steams.

There’s always two smells associated with tornadoes, Clyve said. Those are propane because of the damage they do and cedar.

The Herberts started chasing storms together in 1999, although Jane began years earlier.

“My first official storm chase was the first day I got my driver’s license,” she said.