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Amazing pictures of storms from America’s Tornado Alley

About the author

Stephen Dowling is BBC Future's associate editor.

Twitter: @sjdowling

He also blogs about analogue photography: Zorkiphoto

 

  • Eye on the storm
    Mike Hollingshead has been chasing extreme weather since 1999 and can travel up to 20,000 miles in a year in pursuit of the perfect storm. (Mike Hollingshead)
  • Trailing twisters
    The Great Plains see as many as 1,200 tornadoes every year. This thin-funnelled tornado was captured near the city of Fort Dodge, Iowa. (Mike Hollingshead)
  • Supercell hunter
    Hollingshead’s speciality is taking pictures of supercells, the rotating cloud formations which can form tornadoes, like this one in South Dakota. (Mike Hollingshead)
  • A monster forms
    This huge supercell was captured in Sand Hills, north-central Nebraska. Supercells form between March and November across America’s Great Plains. (Mike Hollingshead)
  • Ominous cloud
    Not all cloud formations Hollingshead takes pictures of are supercells – this arcus, or shelf cloud, usually appears at the leading edge of an oncoming storm. (Mike Hollingshead)
  • Wall of energy
    Supercells are often isolated from other thunderstorms, and often form violent hailstorms as well as creating high winds and massive downpours. (Mike Hollingshead)
  • Bolt from the heavens
    Storm season also leads to a huge amount of lightning. Hollingshead says the threat of being hit by lightning is far scarier than tornadoes. (Mike Hollingshead)
  • Alley of the beast
    Tornado Alley – so called because of the likelihood of ground-reaching tornadoes during storm season – stretches from north Texas to the Canadian Prairies. (Mike Hollingshead)
  • Icy messengers
    Tornado Alley’s clouds can take strange shapes – mammatus clouds like these in Oklahoma are formed from ice and are often associated with thunderstorms. (Mike Hollingshead)
  • A sea of strikes
    Night-time lightning, like these bolts, can be seen as far as 100 miles away. (Mike Hollingshead)
Photographer Mike Hollingshead chases the storms which form across the US Midwest every spring and summer – taking jaw-dropping photographs of nature’s power.

In spring and summer, the great plains of the US Midwest are visited by some of the most awesome and frightening storms on the planet. Mike Hollingshead, however, doesn’t head for shelter when they appear on the horizon; he jumps in his SUV and drives toward them.

Since 1999, Hollingshead has amassed an amazing archive of stills and video of storms both stunning and scary – as well as tornadoes, lightning storms and cloud formations and auroras that transform the skies with otherworldly textures and colours. Three-quarters of the tornadoes that sweep across the planet do so in North America – a disproportionate number of which occur in a loosely defined region running though the centre of the US and Canada, known as "Tornado Alley".

Based in Blair, Nebraska, the 37-year-old photographer travels across the Midwest, to states like Iowa and South Dakota, often driving 20,000 miles a year chasing storms. After chucking in his job at a corn mill in 2004 to chase storms full-time, he has often driven through the night to save money on motels during the peak of the season. His speciality is supercells, which can sometimes form tornadoes and are most common in spring and early summer, and are characterised by rapidly rotating winds rising into the storm called a mesocyclone. The spectacular supercells are his most photogenic target – and means he has to outrun them to get the best shots. “It's not hard to find and see a supercell. It's harder to find the good ones,” he says.

The adrenaline-pumping storm chase, Hollingshead admits, leaves little time to be scared – even when the clouds form potential threats. “The thing that gets you is simply repositioning on a storm and staying with it,” he says. “As many times you have to cut through the storm to get back ahead of it. You don't always know what could be buried in the rain.” Often this results in a white-knuckle drive through heavy rain and hail, driving faster than he'd otherwise like to just to make sure he can beat the storm.

Tornadoes are harder to find. “Tornadoes are only on small sections of roads for very short periods of time usually,” he says. “Even the guys trying to drive tanks into them have found that hard to accomplish.”

However, he had a narrow escape from a tornado which formed in a rainstorm he was chasing near Kirksville, Missouri. “It was moving east pretty quickly, 35-40mph. The problem was for much of the time it was so buried in rain you couldn't see it,” says Hollingshead.

“The last I saw before the rain hid it again it looked like it stopped moving left to right. Then I could hear the thing and not see it at all still. That spooked me out. I fled south and could see stuff out in the field to my west flying around.” 

After driving into the main city he saw what destruction a twister is capable of.. “I could see the edge of it out the window now but there was no time to stop and look to see which way it was moving, he says. “It ended up just missing where I was first parked and could hear it but not see it. It blew in the garage door on the building right next to where I was. It mostly hit a half-mile from there, where it threw cars at a car dealership and destroyed several homes.

“That was also the only tornado all these years that I've seen that had killed anyone."

* For more of Mike Hollingshead’s images, head to his website.

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