Interview with Ian Carruthers
Mathematics undergraduate student, DIT and weather enthusiast
1. When did you become interested in meteorology and in particular storm chasing?
I’ve been interested in meteorology since I was young. I remember that snow fascinated me when I was small and I used to sit at the window for ages just watching it fall. Thunderstorms amaze me - I remember one particular one where the church just across the road from me got struck and the thunder was so loud that it shook the windows to near breaking point. From then on, up until when we got the internet, I checked Aertel teletext (page 161) for any potential storms being forecast for my area. Before seeing the film Twister I did not know there were people chasing storms for a living or for fun. I always thought that I could never do something like that as it was just in films. After seeing the Discovery Channel's Storm Chasers series I said to myself “I want to do that some day". It just seemed like such a cool and interesting thing to do. My first ever storm chase was to Achill Island in November 2010 where there were gusts of around 80mph - it was brilliant!. The whole car was rocking and you could lean all the way into the wind! 2 months prior to this (my 21st birthday) I booked a place on Net Weather’s Chase Tour 2011.
2. What sparked your interest in severe weather?
Basically any weather out of the ordinary seems to amaze me - frigid temperatures, intense rain/snow showers, thunderstorms. It is just a sight to look at and admire the forces of the atmosphere. The fact the there's always the possibility of a more severe storm than the last is something that made me interested in severe weather in Ireland but also around the world.
3. As regards Irish weather, is thunderstorm activity your favourite?
That's a very hard question. I would say yes but only if the thunderstorm is close enough for me to get the full experience of it. From the huge flashes of lightning to the
roar of the thunder, I love every minute of it. My mother used to say that I was “like a child on christmas morning”. A snow storm is a very close 2nd .
4. Tell us about your storm chasing expedition in the USA? Can you describe what it felt like to be so close to tornadoes?
I can simply say “I can’t wait for next year" . It was an amazing experience, I’d go again for the thunderstorms alone! Being with a group of people who are all into the same thing as you is great, with all of us keen on seeing something spectacular. We ended up seeing 5 tornadoes in total, 3 of which were quite close to us. I was awe stricken seeing them form - I couldn’t believe what I was seeing as it's something that very few people in the world get to witness in their lives! It is hard to believe that something so spectacular could be also so devastating. But as I am young and adrenaline filled, I actually wanted to be closer and I wanted to hear the famous “roar” of the tornado. The first one was a classic tornado (about 50m wide) and it kept jumping around after touching down initially. I was delighted to see my first ever tornado and even if I had not seen any more after that I'd still have been very happy. The 2nd one was a half mile wide wedge tornado (bigger in width than in height). This one made me nearly jump out of my seat - we couldnt believe it, it looked so menacing. This one scared me a bit as it was really close to a town but luckily it skirted the town and no injuries were reported in the end. The 3rd one was a photogenic rope tornado (about 50m wide ) also known as an “elephant trunk" tornado. I wanted everyone I know who is interested in weather to be right beside me - it was a moment to remember as was the whole trip.
5. What aspect of storm chasing excites you most?
Witnessing the raw power of the atmosphere - how it all comes together with the right ingredients to produce something so spectacular. The feeling that you get when you know that you are in the right spot for a storm is great and that all you have to do is just wait. The adrenaline rush that goes through you when golf ball size hail starts to explode on hitting the ground around you is great too. I could go on and on...
6. Can you tell us something about the equipment you used during your recent storm chasing experience in the US?
We use 2 big cars, one laptop in each connected by 3G to the internet. We had a program called GRlevel 3 on one laptop, and Mobile Threat Net on the other, which is powered by Baron Services. Basically, these commercial programs sent us updates every 10mins on all aspect of the atmosphere around us. From temperatures and dew points to wind speeds and cloud top heights . This data were used to get an idea of the regions where storms were likely to form. Then, once storms became severe, the programs automatically displayed a vector marker to indicate the directions and speeds and it estimated how many lightning strikes there were in the vicinity. The programs also gave rain rates and estimated hail size. If the storm became tornadic and started rotating (the main thing to look for when chasing tornadoes) another marker appeared showing this. These programs, along with a sensible mind, are what keeps nearly all storm chasers safe. We also had a 2 way radio to stay in constant contact if the cars got separated for any reason. Satellite radio in the cars also meant that we could tune into the National Weather Service station for any warnings relevant to our area.
7. What's your ideal job?
My ideal job is anything involved in the field of meteorology where in the summer I would have some time off to go to the States to chase storms and to join government research teams to learn more about tornadic storms and how to increase warning times for the public which is the key to saving lives.
8. From a weather point of view, where in Ireland would you choose to live? And similarly where in the world would you choose to live?
In Ireland, I'd probably choose Donegal, storms coming in off the atlantic in the late autumn would give some decent wind events. The elevation of the area is great for snow coming from the north and temperatures can go quite low there too. In the case of anywhere in the world, I'd probably choose any of the northern plain states in America. They get nearly the whole lot there, snowstorms, ice storms, thunderstorms and even tornadoes. It sounds dangerous, but to me it just sounds interesting!
9. What's your earliest weather memory?
St. Stephens Day storm 1998 (I think ) when we were at the annual family party and all the lights went out and we had lots of candles everywhere. We all stayed over night, but couldnt sleep as the wind was howling so much! Conveniently enough the film Twister was on that evening too!
10. Besides meteorology, what other interests have you?
I’m interested in photography, music, playing piano and also swimming. I also have an interest in astronomy and will hopefully get a chance to see the total solar eclipse in March 2015.
11. Have you ever been frightened by extreme weather conditions.
I was never frightened by extreme weather effecting me but when we saw the half mile wedge I was afraid that it was going to cause some fatalities. Fortunately it changed course and avoided the nearby town.
12. If you were to come back as an animal what would it be and why?
An eagle - the ability to fly would be great.
13. As a music fan, what style of music appeals to you most? and what is your favorite song of all time?
Indie rock has always interested me as it's great to chill out to I think. As for a favourite song of all time I couldn’t name just one but "Don’t Stop Believing" by Journey is a up there in my top 10.
14. During a thunderstorm, what is likely to impress you most: the spectacle of lightning or the sound of thunder?
The lightning! When I was in the USA I was always the one who was amazed at seeing every single strike. Each strike is different - they can be intercloud, cloud to cloud or cloud to ground. The way it can just light up the whole sky like daylight is just crazy! There was one great storm when we were in North Nebraska having some food at a Pizza Hut restaurant. Just as we sat down we started to see some distant strikes. We put our orders in then went straight back outside to try to capture some lightning photography as the storm came right by us. We didn't go back in until our food was all on the table ready for us to eat . We all were very unsociable that evening, as we were all just looking out the windows while having our food, but because we were all storm enthusiasts I think it was acceptable.