POLITICS

Wicked weather and tornadoes draw storm chasers to Saskatchewan

07/04/2012 06:21 EDT | Updated 09/03/2012 05:12 EDT
REGINA - The wind picks up and clouds begin to swirl ominously as a funnel cloud starts to form.

This isn't Kansas and Dorothy isn't about to be swept away to a magical land called Oz. It's a field in Saskatchewan, which storm chasers say is becoming an epicentre for prairie tornadoes this year.

"Storm chasers are going to go wherever the storms are," said Greg Johnson, a man dubbed the tornado hunter.

"People are saying, 'So why is everyone coming to Saskatchewan right now?' Well, because this is where the storms are. The jet stream is positioned correctly so that storms are going to happen in Saskatchewan."

Johnson, who lives in Regina, usually chases storms in the United States in states such as Oklahoma and Texas, where there are more opportunities for severe weather for a longer period of time. But this year, his home turf has been the hot spot.

Johnson and his team intercepted two tornadoes in rural Saskatchewan on Tuesday. Last week, on June 26, they caught another tornado near Moose Jaw. The chases are streamed live on his website tornadohunter.com.

"This season in particular has been really busy in Saskatchewan. We've had more tornadoes than average," he said.

"Having said that, last year was extremely below average for tornadoes in Saskatchewan. We only had three recorded last year and on average Saskatchewan has 10 to 12.

"This is the thing about weather: it's fickle."

Johnson noted that Saskatchewan has had its share of tornadoes.

On July 2, 2010, an F3 tornado hit the Kawacatoose First Nation, 200 kilometres southeast of Saskatoon. The tornado destroyed more than a dozen homes on the reserve and in the nearby community of Raymore.

Environment Canada said the twister was about 500 metres wide, cut a path 45 kilometres long and may have been on the ground for as long as one hour. There were no fatalities.

"The reality is that they happen in Canada," said Johnson.

"They're equally as devastating, equally as dangerous and, frankly, equally as elusive. It's just as hard to catch a tornado in Kansas as it is in Saskatchewan."

John Paul Cragg, a severe weather specialist with Environment Canada, said the agency is still trying to determine how many tornadoes have touched down in the province so far this year.

"The problem is we haven't confirmed how many tornadoes have happened over the past little while, so we still have to finish the confirmation process, but we'll probably be over 12."

Tornado season in Saskatchewan typically runs until the end of July before tapering off in August, Cragg said.

Meteorologist Mark Robinson, a storm chaser with The Weather Network, usually looks for tornadoes in southern Ontario or heads stateside.

But the Toronto-based meteorologist made his first chase in Saskatchewan last week and loved it.

"We actually almost have like two tornado alleys in Canada — one in southern Ontario and the other part is Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta. And in a big way, Saskatchewan is sort of becoming sort of the epicentre for the Prairies chasing," said Robinson.

"It's really an amazing spot."

Robinson said a lot of chasers don't realize that Canada is a tornado hotspots, but better radar and data is drawing them to Saskatchewan. In some ways, it's even better than chasing south of the border, he said.

"In the states, especially down in Kansas, the roads down there are almost made of dust. And when they get water on them they turn into this real thick, clinging, pudding-type mud and it's just horrible," he said.

"But up in Saskatchewan, the roads are all that solid gravel ... and it's a beautiful grid pattern, so you can just sort of go wherever you need to go to get close to the tornadoes and get close to the storms. I was amazed at that and sort of went, 'Wow, this is incredible.'

"Add on top of that it's beautifully flat ... and you can see these storms for miles."

(With files from CJME)