OLDS — Wind buffets the walls of the portable tent where members of Alberta Storm Chasers are selling storm pictures and spreading the message about storm safety.
It’s a cool blustery morning, but not the type of morning that heats up the blood of people who spend their free time tracking tornadoes, says member Chris Kiernan of Edmonton.
Founded by Joe Vonesch, Alberta Storm Chasers is an umbrella organization whose membership includes a number of smaller groups, such as Twisted Chasers in Red Deer.
Kiernan says he’s one of the very few storm chasers in Alberta who is not also a photographer. While fellow storm chasers work on getting stunning new images of storms, Kiernan’s dream is to answer the unanswered: What is the mysterious factor that makes the difference in whether a storm cloud will or will not produce tornadoes?
With windspeeds measured at up to 450 km/h, tornadoes are scored on the Fujita scale, which rates them by intensity and the amount of damage they cause, he said.
The Pine Lake tornado on July 14, 2000 was rated F3, while the Edmonton tornado on July 31, 1987, was an F4.
The most dangerous tornadoes are the ones that are never seen, said Kiernan. Like Pine Lake, they are masked in heavy rains that make them invisible to the human eye and to Environment Canada’s weather radar.
“It can be a monster tornado and you’ll never see it.”
Helping people understand the risks and prepare themselves for the possibility of violent weather brought Kiernan and other member of his group to Main Street in Olds on Saturday, where local merchants and groups had set up a trade show and other events to celebrate the first day of summer.
Humid summer weather brings with it the ideal conditions for summer storms, with Olds being at the heart of Tornado Alley in Alberta, said Kiernan.
Part of his groups mission on Saturday was to teach people about tornado safety, explode a few myths and help sell some of the members’ storm photos to raise money for the STARS air ambulance society.
Chief among those myths is that people on the highway should seek safety under an overpass, said Kiernan.
Highway overpasses are actually about the most dangerous place you can be during a tornado. Like the canyon effect among high rise buildings, the structures actually funnel and intensify the winds, blowing people and cars out with tremendous force.
Kiernan said his grandfather Claude Kiernan, was the first storm chaser in the family.
Grandfather Kiernan was one of the firefighters on duty in Edmonton during the 1987 tornado. He followed the storm in his fire truck, said Kiernan.
A new generation of storm chaser has been born to Kiernan and his wife, Andrea, who went on one chase with him, saw a tornado drop and vowed never to repeat the experience.
Although Connor Kiernan was only 42 days old on Saturday, his dad expressed plans to get him involved as soon as possible. His mom, however, has decreed that Connor cannot see the storm chasers’ ultimate movie, Twister, until he is 13 and she doesn’t want him chasing any storms until he is at least 25, said Kiernan.
“Spoiler alert: We’ve already watched Twister,” he said.