Gripping the worn-down steering wheel cover tightly in both hands, Peter Forister inched forward in the driver’s seat of his trusty Subaru and gunned the engine. He was in a race against mother nature. As he peered up at the looming storm clouds through a rain-spattered windshield, excitement splashed across his face – he had a storm to chase.
“I’ve always loved weather,” said Forister, a Charlottesville-based storm chaser. “Meteorologists say that they’re kind of born with a love for weather sometimes, and it’s literally been as long as I can remember that weather is my thing.”
Growing up in Colorado Springs, Colorado, he spent just about every afternoon in the summer watching thunderstorms roll in. When he got his driver’s license in 2013 he began driving to a local school in Winchester, Virginia for a better view of the dark clouds and flashes of lightning. From there, the sky was the limit as he adventured further out from the city, to the county, the state, and now he chases storms all over the country.
As the years went on, Forister’s passion for storm chasing steadily grew from a childhood fascination to something much more.
“Storms are just incredible,” he said. “They’re so huge, they’re so powerful, and when you get in an intense one it’s a massive adrenaline rush.”
Between North Carolina and Virginia, he has seen dozens of tornadoes and hundreds of supercell storms, or storms that have a rotating updraft. He says the “adrenaline absolutely smokes through your veins” as you experience the heart of a powerful storm.
He recalled one such experience when he and some friends climbed Grandfather mountain in North Carolina in the middle of a blizzard. They stood on the ridgeline and measured 110-120 mph winds with chunks of ice hitting their faces.
“120 mph wind to the chest is like… it’s really hard to describe how much power is in that wind,” he said. “So that was like a full sensory experience of just getting crushed by weather around you, and it was amazing.”
Fiddling with his phone in a parking lot off of Seminole Trail, Forister examined a weather-tracking app called RadarScope. With this app he is able to track a storm's reflectivity – how hard it’s raining, and velocity – how fast the wind is moving. This data helps him know what the magnitude of the storm he’s chasing is, and where it’s headed so that he can stay ahead of it. His goal is to document the storm’s structure which he says can look like an alien spaceship. Forister claims that a storm is most photogenic when it has good structure.
As a self-described “nature junky” with a master’s degree in geography from Virginia Tech, he has not only found the perfect hobby and part time job (he sells some of his photos and videos to various news outlets), according to Forister, he’s also in the perfect location.
“Charlottesville is a weirdly good storm chasing place - it’s kind of become this nationally recognized place,” he said.
Likening the area to Tornado Alley, a swath of central United States where tornadoes frequently occur, Forister says that it hasn’t been scientifically proven, but he believes that the Charlottesville area is a sort of “supercell alley” that creates a high number of major storms.
“These storms just go crazy around here,” he said. “Chasing’s just really fun around here - good storms, it’s challenging … but it’s reliable.”
He did offer a quick disclaimer to those who might decide to hop in their car and hit the road any time the skies open up.
“Only trained professionals should do storm chasing because there is an inherent risk,” he warned.
Not only does he have six years of studying meteorology under his belt, but he has spent the last dozen years working with other trained professionals in the field.
After quickly finding a place to pull over, he grabbed his camera and jumped out of the car – the supercell storm he was chasing had made an appearance. Every shade of blue collided in the sky, dappled with hints of aqua green. A trembling rumble crescendoed in the air, accented by blinding flashes of brilliant white light. Drops of rain pummeled the hood of the car adding a harsh staccato to the tumultuous cacophony that nature had wrought.
Standing there on the side of the road in his red raincoat, backwards Steamboat hat, and weather-worn Crocs, Forister was in his element.