Storm Chaser

Out on the Great Plains a photographer documents one of the natural world’s truly awe-inspiring journeys.

Photographer Mitch Dobrowner wrote his will two summers ago. With a wife and kids, it was time, he says—and his latest passion added incentive. Dobrowner lusts after major storms, undeterred by tornadoes or softball-sized hail. He wants to witness a tempest’s birth, see it thrive, and be there for its death. “I don’t get scared,” he says. “I’m in awe. Sometimes I can’t believe what I’m taking a look at.”

For the past year and a half and guided by expert storm chaser Roger Hill, Dobrowner has been photographing extreme weather across America’s Great Plains. After his second day in the field, he was hooked. Hour after hour on July 13, 2009, Dobrowner and Hill tracked a gigantic and steadily morphing system that lured them from South Dakota into Nebraska. It was still alive at midnight, 11 hours after first developing. “This storm probably processed more air than any thunderstorm in the country last year,” says Hill, cofounder of Silver Lining Tours. “It was bigger than most counties.” That sighting was part of a 10-day, 5,000-mile expedition.

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For a front-row seat to the bluster, there’s no better place than the wide-open spaces of the plains. Of all the types of severe weather, Dobrowner prefers supercells—huge thunderstorms distinctive in part for their persistence. The Great Plains provides a perfect breeding ground for such systems. Winds from elevated western lands deliver warm air that meets, then rises above, moist currents from the Gulf of Mexico. That combination, along with a high-altitude cold air mass, creates instability. The confronting westerly and southerly winds travel at different speeds, producing shear that creates rotation. Under just the right conditions, a supercell forms—and the race for its survival is on.

As the supercell travels, it can devour other burgeoning storms in its path, gaining steam. By deviating from the primary air current, this billowy beast can elude death for hours, avoiding what often quickly kills a garden-variety thunderstorm: its own cool precipitation, which can eviscerate the clouds from the inside out. “[Supercells] are like these living things,” says Dobrowner. “They do everything they can possibly do to stay alive. And every one’s very different.”

Their enigmatic beauty drives Dobrowner, who grew up on Long Island and received his first camera—a WWII-era Argus Rangefinder—at 17. A few years later, inspired in part by Ansel Adams’s sweeping vistas of seemingly alien terrain, he launched a back-and-forth cross-country trip spread over four years. Dobrowner eventually settled in Los Angeles, and photography fell to the wayside until five years ago, when he picked it up again after a two-decade hiatus. Preferring landscapes, he found himself venturing out in the worst kind of weather. Besides his digital Canon or Sony and a tripod, Dobrowner’s main piece of equipment is his beanie, which doubles as a protective cover for his cameras. He shoots only in black and white—“I see every day in color,” he says—occasionally using a red or yellow filter. To him, traditional darkroom techniques, such as dodging and burning or adding contrast, are acceptable, but digital manipulation is not.

Dobrowner’s wife and children overcame their initial concerns about his safety and grew to admire his work, which he pursues with them in mind. “There’s so much to see, there’s so much going on, and life’s so short,” he says. “I just wanted to document what things are like right now for myself and my kids.” And few phenomena evoke mortality like the sound and fury of a storm.