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.