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Storm-chasing summer underway for Airdrie photographer Chris Ratzlaff

Airdrie resident Chris Ratzlaff has always felt a sense of wonder when he looks up into the sky. The clouds were always what did it for him. The different shapes and colours and the range of opacity held within themselves so much power – the power to amaze, bewilder and destroy.
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Storm chaser Chris Ratzlaff followed a wicked storm that rolled through Airdrie on Aug. 7, 2014. This is the photo he captured from 24 Avenue, just west of Airdrie.

Airdrie resident Chris Ratzlaff has always felt a sense of wonder when he looks up into the sky.

The clouds were always what did it for him. The different shapes and colours and the range of opacity held within themselves so much power – the power to amaze, bewilder and destroy.

After watching the progression of a small tornado from his Airdrie backyard in July 2008, Ratzlaff decided to become a storm chaser.

“It’s all about potential,” said Ratzlaff, who is also a landscape and Aurora Borealis photographer.

Now, almost 13 years later, Ratzlaff seems to have an efficient storm-chasing routine in place. He will watch weather models – the same ones that forecasters use to develop projections for weather broadcasts – to determine when the next storm is on the horizon.

However, Ratzlaff said even though forecasters and storm chasers are looking at the same models, there are different elements that may catch their eyes.

“When you see a weather forecaster on TV, a lot of times they are forecasting for the most likely thing to happen and high probability,” he said. “So, they won’t really forecast anything that’s less than 50 per cent probability.

“For storm chasing, the odds that might draw you out can be a lot lower. It could be 20 per cent probability of a really strong storm.”

Ratzlaff said this is the draw for him and other storm chasers – the slightest chance of capturing a grandiose storm will send him on the move, camera in hand.

While he usually likes to stick fairly close to home when it comes to a chasing adventure, some storms have drawn him out as far away as Lethbridge or Edmonton.

As dedicated as that sounds, Ratzlaff said he knows people in Alberta who will travel as far away as Manitoba to chase a storm. Just last week, he added there was a couple he knows that travelled from Ontario to chase a storm that was projected to form between Airdrie and Sundre, but the couple, as well as Ratzlaff, were disappointed when nothing came to fruition.  

However, he emphasized that just because a storm doesn’t pan out, it doesn’t mean the day or the trip was a waste.

“While the storm didn’t do much, it wasn’t a completely disappointing day,” he said. “One of the things I really love is just driving around southern Alberta, being able to get off the beaten path, go visit some of the smaller towns and locations around the province… That for me alone is a wonderful experience.”

He added there is a group of about 50 dedicated chasers in Alberta and a few others who will come out for the occasional storm. There is not much gathering among them in a non-storm setting, Ratzlaff said, so it is nice to get a chance to catch up with friends and members of the chasing community when they are out on the hunt together.

And with individuals travelling from different provinces to catch a glimpse of a tornado or other extreme weather, Ratzlaff said this gives him a chance to make new friends as well.

Ratzlaff said the number of chasers in the province closely correlates to the number of storms – for example, chaser communities in extreme weather hotspots in the United States can range from a couple of hundred people to just under 1,000.

Chasing in and of itself is risky, he added – not only because being close to a storm leaves one vulnerable to the elements, but also because watching, planning and pursuing a storm doesn’t always mean it will manifest into something epic.

As Ratzlaff said, sometimes all chasers get is a little bit of rain, wind and nothing else. But that doesn’t stop him from pursuing his passion.

“For me, it’s seeing that thing that no one else has ever seen before,” he said.

Airdrie residents interested in keeping up with Ratzlaff as he pursues his storm-chasing adventures can follow him on Youtube (bit.ly/2TYMG4s), Twitter (bit.ly/3j0r0zt), Instagram (bit.ly/3d3Qqs9) or take a glance at his website at bit.ly/2TVZusm