Hunting Hurricanes

Poorna Kulkarni
Sunday, 27 October 2019

Storm chaser Josh Morgerman, who hosts Hurricane Man, talks about his strong interest for this adventure and his preparedness for the same

There are many who actively take part in various adventure activities, but it is quite unusual to chase cyclones and storms. Josh Morgerman is one such adventure junkie who has been popular for chasing storms for the last 28 years. Chasing storms involves a lot of risks, and calls for even more preparedness and knowledge in meteorology. We chat him up to know more:

With no academic experience in meteorology, what made you develop a keen interest in chasing hurricanes?  
I was born with this obsession. When I first started chasing, I was driven by one thing — the thrill of the chase. The adrenaline. But that’s changed over the years. My passion and biggest thrill now is collecting data from inside storms in order to better understand them. I love hunting down rare, hard-to-get, scientifically valuable data that otherwise wouldn’t exist. I’m not a scientist — I’m the hunting dog who fetches the raw data for scientists. I am happy with that role in the scientific community.

What motivates you to carry forward the chase?
I grew up on an island off the East Coast of the USA. Even as a child, I remember getting excited when a hurricane would approach. As the wind howled, as the trees waved, as the house shook, I’d have an emotional reaction — almost like I was taking a drug. Finally, when I was a teenager, we had a really bad hurricane. I was excited about that one, too, until the destruction made my mother cry. Then I felt terrible about it, like I had caused the calamity by wishing for it. And that began my complicated lifelong relationship with hurricanes. I have mixed emotions about them. They are beautiful and terrible. But that feeling I had as a child — I’ve spent my whole life hunting it again and again. That’s why I chase.

How did you prepare yourself for facing the cyclones?
I’m not as careful as I should be. I’m a terrible example for young people. On the other hand, I’ve been doing this for 28 years with only minor injuries. There are two main rules I almost always follow — I make sure I’m well above sea level because a hurricane drives the ocean onto land, like a tsunami. This is called a storm surge, and it’s the hurricane’s biggest killer.  I also make sure I’m in a structure that can withstand the winds. If it’s a Category 5 hurricane, that means it has to be a steel-reinforced concrete building. That said, I’ve broken these rules a few times, and paid the price.

Can you share your very first experience on chasing a cyclone, and how you felt after it was over? 
I was very young, in college, when I went on my first chase. A hurricane was racing up the East Coast of the United States. I wanted to be in the storm, so I packed a bag and raced to the train station. I jumped on a train to New York, and then another one to Providence, and I just managed to taste the hurricane’s core. This was before the internet or mobile phones, and before I was even old enough to rent a car, so it was a truly primitive effort. But I remember the thrill of the hunt as I got closer to the hurricane’s centre. I look back and laugh at this chase now, but that thrill was real. And I wanted to feel it again. Little did I know that this was the start of a lifelong addiction.

Till now you have chased 51 cyclones, do you plan for any different kind of adventure? 
No! Most storm chasers are versatile. They’ll chase different kinds of weather phenomena — hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards etc. Not me. I’m obsessed with hurricanes. Hurricanes are what I know and what I chase. I’m happy to remain narrowly specialised, to be the best at this and this only. It never gets boring because every hurricane is unique. They’re like people — each one has a different personality, a different size, a different voice, a different vibe. So, I experience plenty of variety and surprises just chasing hurricanes. 

Do you have any advice for those who want to follow in your footsteps? 
Yes! Don’t do what I do (laughs). In all seriousness, I have many young fans, and I worry I’m setting an absolutely terrible example for them. I’m happy that I inspire teenage weather nerds, but I don’t want them to get hurt trying to imitate me. Put safety first, follow the rules. You have one life and you can lose it in an instant. This is a truly dangerous sport.

What are the myths about cyclones that people have, and perhaps you too had before you started chasing them?
Firstly, hurricanes aren’t as large as everyone thinks. Yes, they look huge on satellite images, but the intense core with the destructive winds usually covers a small area around the eye (centre). It’s important to understand this, because often people think they survived a bad hurricane when actually they didn’t. The destructive core missed them. Secondly, hurricanes thrive on warm water, but that’s not the only factor that drives their intensity. So, you can’t just say, “The Bay of Bengal is very warm therefore the cyclonic storm will grow very strong.” It’s unfortunately not that simple.

Has this changed your perspective towards life in any way? 
When I’m in a severe hurricane, I’m really present in that moment. The spectacle of it focuses my mind. I’m not thinking about the past or the future, just the now. That is a liberating feeling. And I think, on a deeper level, that is maybe why I chase them. It brings me to a magic space and clears my mind. 

ST Reader Service 
The show Hurricane Man premieres on Sony BBC Earth on October 28 at 10 pm

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