Most people look forward to staying home, curled up and cosy under covers on the dreary, dark days when it is pouring outside. Many even consider it one of life’s simple greatest pleasures.
But for 39-year-old Sarah Al-Sayegh, her idea of all things fun and exciting, quite literally, lies within the eye of the storm.
As a storm chaser who is thrilled by hunting ferocious tornadoes and flashing lightning bolts, she has felt the heat of lightning that struck a mere feet ahead of her in Colorado, and was whipped by gusting winds while watching huge rainstorms dance across the sea in Kuwait.
“It’s the greatest adrenaline rush capturing nature in its most breath-taking moments. We see it in movies and documentaries but it’s nothing like witnessing the process in person. You want to see more, capture more and chase more!” said Sarah.
A single storm can create more than a thousand lightning bolts – huge electrical discharges that typically spark over two to three miles – in a matter of hours. According to National Geographic, the charge contained in each bolt is so intense that it reaches 30,000°C, about five times hotter than the surface of the sun.
High tropical heat, combined with sea breezes and coastal moisture, brews the perfect blend for a storm, explained Sarah.
She said, “Storms are completely different between the US and Kuwait because of the varying temperatures in the atmosphere, which also affects the intensity. In the US, large storms and tornadoes occur constantly with the potential to destroy everything in its way because it happens in very low-arctic-level cold pressures blasted from Canada, mixed with the warm air that comes from Mexico.”
“Meanwhile, in this region, the storms tend to be quite mild because we don’t have the mountains that will push all the cold wind and air that comes from Europe and mixes with the warm weather coming from the Arabian Sea.”
The Middle East has always been hit by dust and sandstorms and is considered one of the dustiest regions in the world.
She noted, however, that there have been instances of severe damage in Kuwait resulting from the rainy storms and flash floods. She recalled the blinding dust storm that swept across portions of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in 2011 and in 2018 which saw heavy rainfall and floods engulfing the streets and residential areas of the countries. The torrential rains and chaotic winds resulted in one death and 409 injuries in Kuwait, reported Kuwait Times.
The worst, yet most memorable pursuit, she described, was in 2016 in Texas, based in the US. While she and her companions of other storm chasers, including renowned photographer and Emmy award-winning videographer, Mike Olbinski, were stationed beneath a set of power lines in close proximity of a storm ready to capture some shots, a sudden clap of ear-splitting lightning struck just feet ahead of them.
“It was the worst chase in the US, but still so exciting! Mike warned us to be careful as we were under some power lines, which is dangerous during thunderstorms and, while a friend was doing a 360 camera turn while on a video call with his wife, a huge bolt of lightning suddenly lit the sky, a few feet in front of us. We heard snaps across the road and felt the hairs on our hand and arms rise. We were so close to being struck by lightning, so frighteningly close!” she shared.
Asked what makes a good storm photo, Sarah, who began taking pictures of seascapes in 2005 after experimenting with her father’s camera, emphasised the importance of thorough preparation.
Danger is an inevitable risk in storm chasing. Therefore, preparation requires a week-long weather monitoring through weather prediction and radar maps, noted Sarah.
“You firstly need to know what to identify in the weather prediction maps,” she explained. “There are lots of models such as the Euro, UK and US models and they predict the chances of heavy rains, thunder, etc. I monitor mine for a week and, the day before, I call local authorities of wherever I’ll be with my equipment and inform them where I’ll park and where the exit plans are.”
“There’s so much studying, planning and numbers before the chase, I have to also read the due points from the sea level all the way to 5,000 feet above, so it is time consuming.”
Moreover, at the scene, Sarah positions herself in locations where she can avoid mudslides and unpaved roads which might result in the car getting stuck easily. “I remember in 2018, there was a huge storm on the sea in Kuwait and I was so excited to take a picture of the lightning striking the sea but, all of a sudden, this mighty wind just blew into me and threw all my cameras and lenses on to the ground. My entire equipment got destroyed.”
“Great moments demand great patience and preparation,” she added.
The subculture of storm chasers includes enthusiasts from numerous professions, including meteorologists and scientists to thousands of amateur storm chasers.
Born and brought up in Kuwait, a tiny country based at the top of the Gulf, Sarah’s full-time job is at a bank as an accountant, and she makes an annual trip to the US, known to have the highest occurrence of tornadoes in the world.
However, it is not just experiencing the thrill of the chase that draws Sarah, but the responsibility she has shouldered since observing the effects of climate change and the benefits her findings bring to the Kuwait Meteorological Centre, fuelling her interest in meteorology.
Despite the cloud formations and structured storms being a lot more interesting and breath- taking, recently, due to the impact climate change is having on the weather patterns and balance of nature, she is concerned about the greater frequency of extreme weather events disrupting the Middle East.
“Recently, in the past 5 or 6 years, I’ve seen tornadoes happening even in Saudi Arabia, all of which should be documented properly to be able to study them, because the weather is going to keep getting more and more severe because of climate change and the warning systems and predictions need to improve and operate more efficiently, which is lacking across the Middle East and Kuwait,” she said.
“The warnings are too brief in comparison to the systems in the US where every angle of the atmosphere is discussed, including from aeroplane levels. This is absent from the Kuwaiti system.”
“There are a lot of changes; something drastic is happening with nature and weather and we need to be prepared. It’s an emergency.”
Storm chasing, for Sarah, is an efficient way to advance research and studies in meteorology, as the data collected during a chase can help with multidisciplinary studies. She also hopes her pursuit in this field will inspire women in the region to be more actively involved in STEM and climate issues.
“My main target is for women to stop being stereotyped in the Middle East. We can chase, we can climb and, if we have a passion, we can take all the time and energy to pursue it,” she concluded. “I want to see more Arab women in this community and experience being close to nature in a way that most people will never experience. It’s a powerful feeling.”