Aaron Rigsby makes a living predicting and filming extreme-weather events like hurricanes.
He rushes to the scenes to get footage of the storms that news outlets can use.
This is why he thinks documenting increasingly extreme weather matters, as told to Hayden Vernon.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Aaron Rigsby, a 28-year-old full-time storm chaser from Ohio. It has been edited for length and clarity.
The funny thing is, I was terrified of storms as a kid.
Eventually, that fear turned into interest, that interest turned into passion, and I was fortunate enough to turn that passion into a career.
In June 2010 a small tornado hit Marysville, Ohio, where I grew up
Seeing what extreme weather could do ignited something in me and I knew that I wanted to start storm chasing.
I started by taking pictures of lightning and took a course to learn the basics of “spotting” — the process of watching for the approach of severe weather, monitoring its development, and relaying the findings to local authorities.
They teach you what to look for — wall clouds, shelf clouds; what it looks like when a tornado is coming. I learned that there was a way to predict these things, and that they are not quite as scary as I made them out to be.
The destruction they leave behind can be scary, but I think it is important to document it.
In 2013 I signed on with a broker, Live Storms Media. They market my videos to news outlets and take a 40% cut of the profit. As time went on, I would make a few more sales each year, but nothing significant.
In early 2018 I was juggling working at a warehouse with storm chasing
I felt like I had lost my way by getting sucked into something sustainable, convenient, and boring. I reevaluated and decided to combine my minimalistic lifestyle with the career I wanted to pursue.
It was a rough journey, but I learned a lot about what did and didn’t work. When I’m shooting, I try to put myself in the editor’s seat and think about what I would want to see in the videos I capture.
I try to tell a story, whether that be an audacious rescue, a community coming together after a disaster, or a dramatic video that nobody else has captured.
At some point, instead of me reaching out to other people, opportunities started coming to me. I recently got a gig on a documentary from an offer like that.
The bigger the following you get, the more traction you have, and it has a snowball effect
With my broker selling my documentary work and prints of my photos — and selling my videos to news outlets — I have been able to make storm chasing my full-time job.
The day-in, day-out of the job can be hectic. I can predict where I think there is going to be severe weather a few days before it hits. I look at computer models for troughs — dips in the jet stream, which bring arctic air down from Canada and pull up moisture from the Gulf of Mexico.
I hone in on where I think those two are going to meet, a location where the best parameters for forming tornadoes are.
On the day of a chase, I use real-time data and surface observations to adjust my target area. If there are multiple storms forming, I have to decide which one is going to produce tornadoes, big hail, or any kind of structure that I want to get pictures of.
As I’m getting ready, I’ll look ahead for escape routes
Tornadoes can make sudden movements and smaller satellite tornadoes can touch down ahead of the main one. When you’re getting close, you need to have your eye to the sky. It’s the same with hurricanes. It’s a lot of calculated risk — the last thing you want to do is become part of the problem and take emergency resources from others.
Then, once you do start shooting, you have to get your video up quickly. Social-media videos from other storm chasers might undercut yours; the business can be cutthroat. It’s not uncommon for me to be editing a video while still shooting footage. I have a constant stream of videos pumping out.
I have been in some hairy situations
The worst was Hurricane Harvey in Rockport, Texas, in 2017. The hurricane was nearly stationary and produced 130-mile-per-hour winds for over an hour.
Our hotel could not take it, and the wind ripped off the third-floor wall, the fourth-floor wall, and part of the second-floor wall. At one point you could lean on the wall and feel the hotel swaying.
It was moving so much that the water in the toilet bowl sloshed back and forth. When the eye of the hurricane passed over us, it was the most beautiful and terrifying thing I have ever seen.
We walked outside and when we looked up, we could see the stars, the Milky Way, and the “stadium effect,” with lightning illuminating the wall of clouds around the eye of the storm.
I have seen the effects of the climate crisis firsthand. From 1992 until 2018, not a single category-five hurricane made landfall. Category five is the highest level of intensity, with sustained wind speeds over 157 miles per hour.
From 2018 to 2021, we had back-to-back category-five hurricanes make landfall, one of which indirectly impacted the US and another that hit the Bahamas. On top of that, we’ve had multiple category-four hurricanes make landfall, including Laura, Ida, and Maria.
The counterargument is that these things come in cycles — but these cycles seem to be speeding up.
A lot of people think that storm chasing is disaster chasing, especially when it comes to profit margins
High-impact events do drive the market, but I don’t ever like to see damage, to see people lose everything. I feel guilty when I get to go back home and sleep in my own bed, but people need to be aware of extreme weather, especially if it is increasing.
I think that showing the power of these storms brings awareness, so people may hopefully take the next extreme-weather event more seriously.
I have been storm chasing for over a decade now. The videos never do it justice, no matter how hard you try. The storm itself is only a small part of what is going on: When you can see the whole sky spinning and rotating, it’s an otherworldly experience.
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