'Like looking at a god': Chasing the storms in Tornado Alley

With three mates, Sydney Morning Herald photographer Nick Moir has been following awe-inspiring, terrifying storms in the United States in the worst tornado season since the 1980s.

A tornado being called the Imperial Mothership, in Imperial, Nebraska this week. Picture: Nick Moir

A tornado being called the Imperial Mothership, in Imperial, Nebraska this week. Picture: Nick Moir

I've been chasing storms for about 20 years, and this is my sixth chase in the US. But I've never seen a pattern of severe weather like this.

People are saying it's the biggest event since the 1980s.

The sheer amount of moisture and explosive development that's occurred across Tornado Alley and the midwest, it's caused massive flooding in Oklahoma, Kansas and the Texas panhandle, and Illinois and Ohio and Missouri as well.

Supercell with rain wrapped tornado near Memphis, Texas on Saturday. Picture: Nick Moir

Supercell with rain wrapped tornado near Memphis, Texas on Saturday. Picture: Nick Moir

Yesterday was the highlight of my storm-chasing career. It was astounding. First of all we were chasing a violent tornadic super cell across north-east Colorado, and we got into a position just to the north of the tornado and could see hints of it through the 5cm hail and 160km/h winds.

Then the road turned towards the tornado. In 2013 an event like that killed four storm chasers in Colorado.

It will just pick up your car and throw it a kilometre. We just let it go past, then left it.

Then we dropped south to the town called Imperial, in Nebraska. And there we saw what is called a mothership. A super cell. Now it's being called the Imperial Mothership.

A lot of chasers are calling this storm the most beautiful cell of the decade.

A tornado they are calling the Imperial Mothership in Imperial, Nebraska. Picture: Nick Moir

A tornado they are calling the Imperial Mothership in Imperial, Nebraska. Picture: Nick Moir

The atmosphere to the mid level of the atmosphere rotates around the storm, and it did it so cleanly and so well organised, that's how you get those amazing lines.

It was awe inspiring. It's like looking at a God. When clouds, the atmosphere becomes so organised ... it's no wonder people thought these things were deities.

I took a lot of shots, but I also just stood and watched it. It's rotating in real time, this thing that's 30 to 50km across. It's like the spaceship from Independence Day.

Later on, when we were very close to the tornado, that's scary because you can't see what's in there, and there's a point where you have to pull out.

And the road network might not work for you, and there are other people in the car with you.

A tornado developing in eastern Colorado on Sunday. Picture: Nick Moir

A tornado developing in eastern Colorado on Sunday. Picture: Nick Moir

Because of the enormous amount of moisture, it's been difficult. There are so many storms that they have interfered with each other, and so much moisture that it's foggy.

Some tornadoes become rain-wraps. It doesn't look like on the Wizard of Oz. It's a wedge tornado wrapped in a curtain of rain, and it's a really dangerous event. You can drive along and just drive into a tornado. They tend to be ones that kill a lot of people.

What's amazing from this event is that so few lives have been lost. That's been a bit of luck but also a lot of warnings, tornado warnings. There's a lot of weather information here.

I grew up in the Blue Mountains and I used to see the storms billowing up there, and I started taking photographs of storms building up around Sydney in the late 1990s, educating myself.

I chased a lot with Australian chasers back then, and you really had to read the skies. That's actually a big advantage in the field, because the instruments can sometimes fail.

Yesterday were were in a position where it happened across the region: GPS stopped working and data networks were being hammered by so many chasers.

A shelf cloud off Sydney in 2015. Picture: Nick Moir

A shelf cloud off Sydney in 2015. Picture: Nick Moir

There are literally thousands of chasers out here from universities, people taking video or photographers like myself. I'm with four people, one other Australian, two Americans.

It's the most difficult trip I've had, without a doubt. The lack of visibility on those storms makes it so dangerous. It's so easy to put yourself in danger. And I've been operating on three or four hours of sleep.

I'm here for another week.

  • SMH/The Age