Chasing Extreme Weather With Southern Ontario Storm Chasers Chapman And Sills

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Photo shot on August 24, 2011 in London, Ontario. Shot during a tornado warning for Middlesex county. photo:S. Sills

Did you know on average 12 tornadoes strike Ontario each year? That’s why David Chapman (@northof44pics) and I (@wxspencersills) commit our summers to capturing severe thunderstorms on video and through photography.

My name is Spencer Sills and I am a chaser located in South Western Ontario. I have been chasing storms for the past 10 years. I became obsessed with the weather and more specifically severe weather in 1996. On April 20, 1996 a tornado had hit Williamsford, Ontario. This was my first experience with a tornado and it has become a permanent fixture in my mind, partially due to the fact there was still snow on the ground the day it had hit.

Now we fast forward to summer 2011, when there were fourteen confirmed tornadoes including  the Goderich F3 tornado as well as three tornadoes during the August 24th  severe weather outbreak during the late afternoon and evening. I was unable to be out during either of these days but what I was able to do was keep the public informed of the current severe weather as well as help give warning for the tornadoes.

Photo shot on September 15, 2011 in South West London, Ontario. A waterspout advisory was in effect for Lake Huron and Erie, while on the way to Lake Huron I came across this Cold Core Funnel off of a early morning thunder shower. image:S. Sills

Last Summer was…interesting.  I witnessed more than  my fair share of active weather. I encountered five funnel clouds, several gust fronts or more commonly known as squall lines here in Ontario, and hail from pea size to golf ball sized  in Seaforth back in April 2011. I’ve also encountered strong wind storms which included a storm on September 3, 2011 in Birr, Ontario which uprooted several large trees. My personal worst storm occurred on June 7, 2011 in Elora, Ontario. A large and intense cell came through late at night bringing with it 80-90 km/h winds, heavy downpours, frequent lightning and quarter-coin size hail. I was fortunate to not be injured during this storm because I was in a tent at the time and had no warning beforehand other than a loud lightning strike before it hit. There was a severe thunder storm warning with the cell but our campground chose not to relay that information to campers and I only found out about the warning once I put on my portable radio after the storm came.  That same storm went on to produce a tornado warning over Hamilton but did not spawn a tornado that night. It did however cause extensive wind damage in the city.

Cloud to Ground Lightning: photographed on May 28, 2011, image:D. Chapman

My new chase partner for this year is David Chapman.  David and I both grew up within minutes of each other but never met until recently due to the power of twitter.  From twitter I was able to glean that we both have similar interests and goals which will allow us to mesh well together. [ Check the hashtage #WX on twitter for tweets related to extreme weather CP ]

Hello Silo readers. My name is David T. Chapman and I am a professional photographer with a passion for storm photography. I developed an interest in weather when lightning hit my house in Guelph, Ontario, years ago. The thunder was terrifying and the rain was so heavy that even though I was only three years old at the time, I have clear, vivid memories of the storm. My interest in weather was rekindled in the late 1990’s when I spotted my first multi-vortex tornadoes with my dad and brother. Since then, I have followed the weather every day to determine the best time for photography in all kinds of conditions.

The 2011 Ontario storm season was an active one. It allowed me to get a personal record number of lightning photographs in one season with 105, not including sheet lightning shots. My first storm was in April, when a very weak storm pushed into the Niagara region. Something that you don’t see very often is a thunderstorm with snow on the ground, but that night I had both. But the stormchasing season  really didn’t start seriously until May 28 when an evening storm rolled through Southwestern Ontario right into my area. The squall line formed directly to our west and there was no way around it. We had to puncture the core of the storm to try to find a dry slot. We were hit hard with heavy rains, strong winds and continuous lightning.

Anvil Crawler: photographed on August 24, 2011, Southeast of Hamilton, Ontario image:D. Chapman

One of the hardest things to get is a lightning photograph when there is a downpour because it blurs the image. The first line of storms went through when we crossed an open field area and then we were hit by a strong second line of storms. Extremely strong straightlines came at us with winds easily in excess of 90 km/hr. We got into position, but unfortunately, with the rain still pounding our photography team, it made it impossible to get crisp, clear lightning shots. It wasn’t until after the storm had passed that the back end of it lit up and we were able to capture some very beautiful lightning.

The summer carried on with sporadic thunderstorm activity consisting of small thunderstorm cells with intense lightning and hail. Generally, with smaller storms, you only get 4 to 5 lightning shots. I’ve come back after chasing a storm perfectly with only 1 or 2 lightning shots to show for it. It wasn’t until the outbreak of thunderstorms on August 24th that our team had a very successful night of shooting. On that night, Faith Beni and I ended up in St. Mary’s, Ontario. There were tornado watches all across Ontario, the most I had ever seen. The thunderstorm cell that we were interested in was towards Nairn, Ontario. We left the Niagara region at 5:30 p.m. and got to St. Mary’s around 7:45 p.m.

Without daylight left, the thoughts of getting a tornado quickly changed to an opportunity for lightning photographs instead. One of the most dangerous things to do is to chase a tornadic thunderstorm in the dark, which is why our team has a policy to not chase these types of storms at night. We tend to focus on weaker storm cells that don’t have the tornadic potential but still have lots of lightning. The night of the 24th, though, was different. It seemed that any storm cell had the potential to drop a tornado. We pulled back to St. Mary’s and then we started getting reports of rotation heading to St. Mary’s. In just under 2 minutes, I saw 4 reports of rotation for St. Mary’s. We started to get pounded with large hail and the the hydro went out. We left St. Mary’s and pushed north towards what looked to be some late evening twilight. We got to the back of the storm and were able to photograph the lightning that was in it. We got some of the best anvil-crawlers that I have ever seen. Anvil-crawlers are a particular type of lightning that can either go for short distances or for distances over 100 km.

This year for the first time, Spencer Sills and I will be working together to get some very powerful images. Our biggest goal is to get a photograph of a tornado. Last year, I was close 3 times. The first was in Grimsby, where an EF0 hit and damaged a small gazebo. Eric Chapman and I were right on the storm but unfortunately we could not see the tornado because of heavy precipitation. The second was the Nairn tornado on August 24th and the third was a rotating wall-cloud that I photographed towards Bryson, Quebec.

Spencer and I often hear about how tornadoes don’t happen here. We want to let the public know that they can and do occur here, [ South Western Ontario CP ] so that watches and warnings should always be taken seriously. The Goderich tornado in 2011, in which one person died, is a grim reminder of just how intense tornadoes can be and that they do, in fact, affect Ontario residents. With Spencer’s and my knowledge combining for the 2012 season, we stand a much better chance of capturing a tornado on video.

Photo shot on August 25, 2011 in Nairn, Ontario. Tornado damage in Shady Pines Campground in Nairn. A tornado touched down the previous night and bent these pine trees in half, the tornado also caused extensive tree damage in the area as well as damaged a house and destroyed a metal silo. image:S.Sills

David and I both have experience in chasing storms, and take safety very seriously. We will be travelling with a First Aid kit just as well as weather alert radios and radar to help us along our way, we hope that we don’t ever need the kit but it’s always a great idea especially if others are in need of help, we could very well be the first people on the scene of a possible tragedy so we must be prepared. We will be posting pictures and videos throughout the season but do not recommend that anyone attempt to recreate either of them and place themselves in danger.  I will be working with David Chapman in hopes to help warn others as well as capture these storms through video and photography to share with others who may not get to experience them. We are ready to combine our passion for storms to get the best results possible and share those results with others.

Websites and Social Media Links for Spencer:

Blog Link : http://wxspencersills.blogspot.com/
Twitter : https://twitter.com/#!/wx_spencersills
Websites and Social Media Links for David T. Chapman:

Website: www.naturebirdsandweather.com
Twitter: https://twitter.com/#!/Northof44Pics
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/David-T-Chapman/173134962767601

Photo Credits for Spencer
(Lightning.jpg) : Photo shot on August 24, 2011 in London, Ontario. Shot during a tornado warning for Middlesex county.
(cold core funnel.jpg) : Photo shot on September 15, 2011 in South West London, Ontario. A waterspout advisory was in effect for Lake Huron and Erie, while on the way to Lake Huron I came across this Cold Core Funnel off of a early morning thunder shower.
(Nairn.jpg) : Photo shot on August 25, 2011 in Nairn, Ontario. Tornado damage in Shady Pines Campground in Nairn. A tornado touched down the previous night and bent these pine trees in half, the tornado also caused extensive tree damage in the area as well as damaged a house and destroyed a metal silo.
Photo Credits for David
Cloud to Ground Lightning: photographed on May 28, 2011,
Southwest of St. Catharines, Ontario

Anvil Crawler: photographed on August 24, 2011,
Southeast of Hamilton, Ontario

Stay tuned to the Silo for more Wx features from Chapman and Stills.

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2 Comments to Chasing Extreme Weather With Southern Ontario Storm Chasers Chapman And Sills

  1. Graham MacArthur

    I remember that storm because I was camping with my wife. We had no idea that a storm was on its way. Anyone who thinks Ontario is safe from extreme weather is sorely mistaken. Always check your phone for weather alerts when you’re out camping. I found this story by searching extreme weather in Ontario. Great story and site.