As I child, I was terrified of storms. Especially those that occurred in the summer, when a strong contrast between hot and cold air made them particularly violent. I remember one occasion in August, when I had just turned six years old. I was out shopping with my parents just a few kilometers west of Salerno, Italy, when suddenly there was a loud noise coming from the direction of the Apennine Mountains.
A huge cumulonimbus cloud split the sky in half, with hot and sunny weather on one side, and a very strong thunderstorm on the other. As the storm got closer, lightning fell a few hundred meters from us, and hail whitened the streets in minutes. This was a totally new experience for me, and I ran into my father’s arms in terror. It’s a memory that remains with me to this day. I was afraid. But I was also in awe.
It is an area of natural beauty, and a perfect canvas on which storms can paint their beguiling magic.
Like the pull of a gripping horror movie, my fear morphed into fascination as I grew older. When a thunderstorm broke out at night, I would rush to my window to witness the night’s sky put on a brilliant show. As a young boy without a computer, I wasn’t able to access meteorological forecasts or detailed weather maps. But if I heard thunder, or sensed the sky was threatening, I would wait giddily in anticipation, ready with my parents’ camera in the hope of capturing a fleeting moment forever.
This led to my interest in photography, focusing mainly on the beautiful landscapes that form my home region of Campania. Here in Salerno, we are fortunate to have the Amalfi Coast to the west, and Cilento National Park to the south. Our coastline overlooks the southern Tyrrhenian Sea, between the Gulf of Salerno and the Gulf of Policastro. It is an area of natural beauty, and a perfect canvas on which storms can paint their beguiling magic.
Before long, my landscape photography focused almost exclusively on the niche that was getting the most attention and bringing me the most joy: storms. What once frightened me now gave me a strong adrenaline rush, especially the first time lightning struck just a few meters away and resulted in a spectacular photo. From that moment on, I realized that I absolutely had to chase storms throughout southern Italy. It became almost like my drug.
The storm season in southern Italy lasts almost all year, but the best time to hunt is from March to November, when the contrasts between cold and warm air are at their highest. At the end of winter, with the lengthening of the days and the longer daylight hours, the ground heats up more than in the colder months. Consequently there is more energy in play.
Living a few kilometers from the southern Apennines, thermo-convective thunderstorms often occur during the afternoon. They are characterised by the development of huge cumulonimbus ‘anvil’ clouds that develop up to the highest limits of the tropopause: the boundary in the Earth’s atmosphere between the troposphere and the stratosphere.
At the height of the thunderstorm season, it’s possible to see storm cells at sea, often associated with the arrival of a cold front that accompanies them. These are more dangerous, since the warm sea provides more energy than the spring or winter months. Most of the time they develop at night, when it is easier for us storm chasers to photograph lightning associated with waterspouts or tornadoes.
The best conditions in which to shoot storms are when there are isolated thunderstorms expected. This ensures the rest of the sky is clear and clean, especially during the darkness of night when you can admire the lightning bolts flashing out from the storm. Known as “positive lightning,” it is perhaps the most fascinating electrical manifestation that can develop from thunderstorms. These are extremely powerful discharges that are among the longest lightning that can be observed during a thunderstorm. Arising from young cumulonimbus clouds, they have the peculiarity of appearing to fall from a great distance from the cloud that generated them.
After consulting the weather bulletins and the medium and long-term forecasts, my storm chasing friends and I decide where to position ourselves the day before. Then three or four hours before the storm is due to arrive, we’ll jump in my Jeep and head to our chosen spot. My standard equipment includes my Canon EOS 200D camera, my various lenses (70-300mm, 50mm art, and a 14mm), and – key to a good shot – my fixed camera tripod. Given the chase lasts most of the day, snacks are a must.
People often ask me about the dangers of storm chasing. Put it this way: my parents are not too keen with my chosen activity. Before Covid, my day job was as a wedding photographer. They certainly preferred me photographing newlyweds, because it is of course a lot less risky. But it’s also a lot less exciting!
The truth is that storm chasing is quite dangerous, especially to those who set out to chase storms without acknowledging the risks, or respecting nature, or doing their research. Most accidents caused by lightning occur outdoors. You are most at risk in the mountains, but all large and exposed places such as a lawn or a soccer field can be a dangerous place to be during a storm. Especially anywhere in the presence of water, such as the sea, beaches, piers, docks or outdoor pools.
But it is not only lightning that is dangerous. Among the most dramatic and worrying effects of climate change is the increasing extremes of weather phenomena, destined to become increasingly violent as temperatures rise.
It was an epic experience, but really scary. Would I do it again? I would.
A frightening change that is already underway has seen hurricanes becoming more powerful and destructive. Near the coasts, if you are near large plains, you can also experience waterspouts or tornadoes that can be very dangerous to human life. I once witnessed this danger myself, and I’m thankful that I live to tell the tale.
It was the evening of October 3rd, 2019. Some weather models had offered a small chance of thunderstorms, and right on the Gulf of Salerno a self-healing thunderstorm formed. This is a phenomenon that feeds itself and regenerates due to the contrast between the warm and humid low altitude air and the cool and drier high altitude air. On this occasion, it brought gusts of over 100km/h and a flurry of hail, hitting first the city center, then the coastal area.
In a hurry to capture it, me and a friend positioned ourselves a few meters from the beach to shoot some lightning. And while the picture that came out is amazing, I was almost killed as two bolts struck just a few hundred meters from our beach.
It was a moment of pure terror, since we were positioned just steps from sea level. It was an epic experience, but really scary. Would I do it again? I would. But with a few more precautions this time.
Recently I became a member of the Extreme Weather Club, which is an invite-only platform that promotes the work of storm chasers all over world. But one day soon I aim to expand my storm chasing journey beyond Italy’s horizons. I would love to go to Venezuela where electrical storms are guaranteed almost all year round on the Catatumbo River and Lake Maracaibo. It’s one of the most fascinating places on the planet for those drawn to extreme weather.
Another dream trip would be the USA, where it’s possible to see and photograph supercells, tornadoes, and lightning all at the same time. My hope is to one day join a team of storm chasers in the USA and around the world, working with The Weather Channel or National Geographic. Maybe that will be the day that my parents finally accept my chosen career.
This essay first appeared at Discover Interesting. Photographs courtesy of the author.