Storm chaser has filmed America’s deadliest hurricanes

Mark Robinson chases a 2009 tornado in Aurora, Colorado

   Above: Mark Robinson chases a 2009 tornado in Aurora, Colorado

He’s filmed Katrina, braved Gustav and chased Earl, Ike, Igor and Noel. His truck is fortified with hail guards, his $10,000 video camera is waterproof and he wears wetsuits to do his job. Meet Mark Robinson, storm hunter.

Last year, while finishing his certificate of meteorology at York, Robinson worked the briefing desk at The Weather Network. Now, he’s on call to track extreme weather events – thunderstorms, tornadoes and hurricanes – and get eyewitness footage as well as storm data. You can follow the Mark Robinson38-year-old’s adventures in episodes on the network’s “Storm Hunters”, launched recently to showcase forays into the most powerful winds on Earth.

“It’s an intellectual as well as an adrenaline thing,” says Robinson, who’s been doing it for more than 10 years and has his own website, “To get to the storms, you have to know how to forecast them.” And getting there can take days. “A good 80 per cent of my time is spent driving then waiting in gas stations for things to happen,” says Robinson. “Once you get close, things get hairy.”

Left: Mark Robinson

There’s nothing like standing underneath a swirling sculpture of wind and water taller than Mount Everest or watching a funnel dance across a landscape to make the heart pound. The colours are brilliant, the light intense. It’s a breathtaking, terrible beauty that has Robinson addicted.

Of the 100 or so storm chasers in Canada and some 2,000 in the United States, Robinson counts himself among a few hard-core enthusiasts in Canada and about 30 in the US who chase hurricanes. Tornadoes are local events, maybe two miles wide, but hurricanes like Ike, which landed in Galveston in 2008 and moved north into Canada, can spin over whole continents. As of August, he and his hurricane partner, George Kourounis, have  experienced 11 hurricanes – two in Canada and one in Bermuda, the rest in the US. They’ve seen two of the five deadliest to make landfall in the States – Katrina in 2005 and Ike in 2008. Katrina was “one of the most intense experiences of my life,” says Robinson of the deadly storm that devastated New Orleans.

“We treat these storms with a healthy respect,” says the father of two little girls, “because we want to do this for the rest of our lives. It’s not an adrenaline, yahoo thing. We take this stuff seriously. We Flying debris during Hurricane Katrina seen from a parking garage in New Orleans. Photo by Mark Robinsontake safety precautions so that our next adventure is not a trip to the hospital.”

Right: Flying debris during Hurricane Katrina seen from a parking garage in New Orleans. Photo by Mark Robinson

Every year, Robinson spends weeks at a time in tornado alley in the southern States. “You have to be extremely aware of your surroundings,” he says. “You have to be prepared to leap into the car with a minute to spare before a tornado is on top of you.”

If he’s chasing hurricanes, Robinson heads for the Gulf of Mexico and Florida coast, where they may touch down with crashing force. As they did to shoot Katrina in New Orleans and Ike in Galveston, he and Kourounis find the nearest multi-storey, open-sided garage and park on a level below the roof, protected overhead from the rain and high enough to avoid surging floodwaters below. Because the structures are built to handle the weight of hundreds of cars and allow winds to pass through unimpeded, they are the safest place to be.

In June, Robinson filmed the devastation left behind after a tornado battered Joplin, Missouri. This kind of assignment is particularly hard. Strangers often approach him and ask why he loves something that kills and destroys. His car is equipped with six antennas and weather-station equipment to read wind direction, wind speed, rainfall and air pressure. “The better I can understand these storms, the better my forecasting,” Robinson will tell them. Forecasting is critical for early warning systems.

Believe it or not, Robinson used to hide under the bed during thunderstorms. Terror turned to fascination when, one day at the zoo, his parents whisked him to safety against an impending storm Beauty in tornado alley.  Photo by Mark Robinsonthen watched it go by. Years later, at university, the wildlife biology student was surfing the Internet when he came across a band of people who chased storms. Three days later he jumped in his car and headed for the nearest thunderstorm. Not only was he hooked, he had found an antidote to his chronic depression.

Right: Beauty in tornado alley.  Photo by Mark Robinson

Soon he was spending all his spare time chasing extreme weather events. He taught himself how to take photos and videotape his escapades and began selling footage to news outlets. It was more fun than the office job he landed after graduating from the University of Guelph, but he didn’t know he could make a career of it until he took York meteorology professor Dave Sills storm chasing south to tornado alley in the central States. Why not get your certificate of meteorology from York, Sills suggested.

“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” says Robinson about returning to school after 10 years. The family man took four years to earn his certification part-time while earning a living doing mould remediation with his father – he still dons scuba gear to clean out a Mandarin Restaurant minishark tank in full view of dining customers – and supplementing his income selling storm footage to media.

He joins a handful of meteorologists forecasting for television networks and certified at York, which offers the only meteorology program in Ontario and one of six in Canada. Nick Czernkovich, who earned a BSc Spec. Hons. in earth and atmospheric science and his certificate in 2003, and Johanna Wagstaffe, who earned her certificate in 2007, work for CBC TV. Chris Scott, Robinson’s boss at TWN, earned his BSc combined honours in earth and atmospheric science and his certificate in 1998.

The storm hunter stalks a funnel cloudNow, credentials in hand, Robinson’s on call as a meteorologist ready to jump in the truck at any moment to chase storms for TWN news and for  “Storm Hunters”. He has also travelled to far-flung places to film for Kourounis, host of “Angry Planet” on the Outdoor Life Network. The two have strung ropes across, and cooked eggs in, the boiling waters of a lake in Dominica, climbed Alaska’s Mount Washington in -30-degree winds in winter, to get footage for the show.

Left: The storm hunter stalks a funnel cloud

Winter storm footage sells better than anything and is hardest to shoot. You’re in and out of the car, bitterly cold one minute, melting the next, trying to keep the equipment protected. Robinson has filmed snow squalls off Lake Huron and winter storms all over Ontario, and has a growing library of storm footage. A self-taught photographer, he rarely goes anywhere without his Z-1U Sony Prosumer video camera and Canon Rebel camera. He remembers filming storms while waiting for the bus at York.

Robinson also visits schools to share his adventures with children, drawing on his extensive library of storm footage. His dream job? “I would like to be the Jim Cantore of Canada” –  a reference to a roving meteorologist for America’s The Weather Channel.

By Martha Tancock, YFile contributing writer