Toronto storm chaser George Kourounis shares 10 of his all-time favourite extreme-weather moments

Storm Chaser

George Kourounis shares 10 of his all-time favourite extreme-weather moments

By Caitlin Stall-Paquet| Photographs courtesy of George Kourounis
| April 5, 2023

With vicious spring storms battering southern Ontario, it’s no wonder so many of us are weather obsessed. One Torontonian in particular is keeping a close eye on conditions both here and abroad. Storm chaser George Kourounis has made a career out of documenting meteorological mood swings, a passion turned profession when he became fascinated with the CN Tower’s ability to withstand 75-plus lightning strikes a year. Over the past three decades, he has captured extreme natural phenomena in more than 80 countries, filming documentaries, hosting the TV show Angry Planet and snagging a Guinness World Record for reaching the bottom of Turkmenistan’s Darvaza gas crater (and recording a ground temperature of 400 degrees).


What makes you run toward storms instead of away from them?
Some might say I’m not burdened with common sense. Also, storms can be very beautiful and awe-inspiring, especially the larger rotating ones that look like alien ships flying across the horizon. 

Are you trying to transmit that awe to others with your work?
Absolutely. I’m privileged to go to amazing places, so I try to share everything I’ve seen with as many people as possible, especially kids. We can’t protect the planet unless we care about the planet, and we can’t care about it unless we know about it, and we don’t know about it unless we’re exposed to it. Hopefully I can get kids as interested in nature as Jacques Cousteau did for me.

Is it hard to get people to tune in to their surroundings?
Society and technology insulate us from nature. Getting out in a hurricane and feeling the wind, the noise, the shaking ground and every raindrop hitting you like a bullet is powerful. But don’t try it at home, kids.

Related: This Toronto storm hunter braved 160-kilometre winds during Hurricane Ian

Any close calls?
Do you want the whole list or just the top 10? Here in Toronto, I’ve had lightning strike so near to me that I saw the sparks come off the ground and felt the heat on my face. In places like Oklahoma and Nebraska, I’ve had really close calls with tornado debris. One time, a piece of farm equipment smashed the windshield of the van I was driving. I was filming, and the video ended up on CNN that night. 

It’s lucky that you’re alive.
I strongly disagree. I would say there’s a little bit of luck, but it mostly comes down to planning, preparation, research and knowing when to get the hell out of there. I have this mathematical formula: danger equals proximity multiplied by time. The trick is not to panic, because then you become irrational. Fear is okay, but panic will get you killed. 

What are some of your top safety tips?
Don’t do something you’re not comfortable with, and don’t linger in really dangerous places. When I started out, I was mentored by experienced storm chasers who taught me how to forecast the weather, how to look at a storm, how to navigate and drive around it. Some parts of a storm are relatively safe; others are extremely dangerous, where you’ll get baseball-size hail, torrential rain and maybe a rain-wrapped tornado.

As the climate crisis has made weather more extreme, have you seen increased interest in storm-chasing?
Absolutely. When I first started doing it, everyone knew everyone. Over the years, with lots of different documentaries coming out and movies like Twister, so many people have gotten into it that I’ve lost track. I’ve run into traffic jams on back roads in places like rural Kansas, where nobody lives. Suddenly, you’ve got 100 vehicles all converging on the same little intersection out in the countryside. 

Do you ever have storm-chasing FOMO?
I wish I could have been in Florida in 2018 for Hurricane Michael, a category five that made landfall. Some colleagues of mine were in the eye of that hurricane, and they experienced what we call “the stadium effect.” That’s when you look up you see a clear blue sky surrounded by the edge of the hurricane. It looks like an open dome, like you’re in the middle of a football stadium. It’s a rare experience, and I missed it.

You co-created and hosted a show called Angry Planet. Do you really think the earth is mad at us?
The planet does not care about us at all. It just does what the planet does: it tries to equalize itself through high and low pressure systems, tectonic pressures. I should have called the show Indifferent Planet, but that’s less catchy.


A Toronto storm in 2021.

Toronto, 2021: “On this particular day, there was a tornado warning. A beautiful shelf cloud, which is the leading edge of a storm, was moving across the top of downtown. It happened so fast—a few minutes total—but I was able to get into position and set up my tripod before it was gone. Sometimes you get these little moments where all the conditions come together.”

 

George Kourounis shares 10 of his all-time favourite extreme-weather moments.

Marum Volcano, Ambrym Island, Vanuatu, 2017: “Marum is so deep that you could take the CN Tower, drop it into the crater and then walk off the edge of the crater and step right into the 360 Restaurant. There are only seven or eight lava lakes in the world, one of which is at the bottom of this volcano. It boils away violently, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The lava produces sulphur dioxide gas, so you need to have a gas mask with you at base camp in case the wind blows in your direction.”

 

George Kourounis shares 10 of his all-time favourite extreme-weather moments

Fergus, Ontario, 2022: “Places like Fergus get more tornado warnings than areas around the GTA, where they’re pretty rare. Instead, we get storms. In the summer, the sun heats the ground and the ground heats the air, with cooler air coming in from Lake Ontario. You get lake breezes that converge and move up, and that’s where the storms form.”

 

George Kourounis shares 10 of his all-time favourite extreme-weather moments
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South Dakota, 2010: “When I saw the tornado out in the field, I could tell by the way it was moving that it was going to cross the road we were driving on. It passed just behind that little church and then right in front of us. As soon as it crossed, it vanished.”

 

George Kourounis shares 10 of his all-time favourite extreme-weather moments
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Bermuda, 2010: “During Hurricane Igor, I was staying at a resort by the water that had an outdoor hot tub. A bunch of us spent time out there during the hurricane, but during the most ferocious parts, we were out on this dock getting bashed by tremendous waves. People think the wind is the most dangerous part of a hurricane, but it’s the water. People drown in seawater that gets pushed ashore by the wind surge.”

 

George Kourounis shares 10 of his all-time favourite extreme-weather moments

Anak Krakatoa, Indonesia, 2008: “When Krakatoa erupted in 1883, it made the loudest sound ever recorded. People almost 5,000 kilometres away are said to have heard it. Since then, the volcano has been rebuilding itself, and now it’s called Anak Krakatoa, or “son of Krakatoa.” In an active volcano like this one, you sometimes get ash particles rubbing together, building up static electricity. That can create lightning, like it did here. I spent years trying to get this shot.”

 

George Kourounis shares 10 of his all-time favourite extreme-weather moments

Toronto, 2012: “On this night, the CN Tower got struck several times. What’s interesting is that the lightning bolts are actually coming up off of the CN Tower. With lightning, you have energy that comes down from the cloud with a negative charge, and if it gets close, a positive charge will come off of you. When that circuit is completed, that energy will flow to the ground. But sometimes you get what are called positive bolts, where the polarity is different. That’s what’s happening here with the CN Tower: you’ve got bolts that arc up from the top of the tower, then explode outward and spread like a flower.”

 

George Kourounis shares 10 of his all-time favourite extreme-weather moments

Boiling Lake, Dominica, 2007: “I did the world’s first-ever rope traverse over Boiling Lake, which has hot gases underneath it that cause the water to boil 24 hours a day. I cooked lunch for our team by lowering eggs into the water, though the shells turned black from the hydrogen sulfide. The most dangerous part of the expedition had nothing to do with the lake—it ended up being the tiny mosquito that gave me dengue fever.”

 

Lake Erie, 2022: “During last December’s winter storm Elliott, I knew based on the direction the wind was blowing and its strength that the houses on the shores of Lake Erie would be encased in ice. When I walked out onto the lake, mine were the only footprints—I was all alone. The wind had frozen a whole row of a dozen or so houses and covered them in thousands of kilograms of ice.”

 

Canadian, Texas, 2015: “Tornado Alley, which spans from Texas to South Dakota, gets between 800 to 1,200 tornadoes every year. Farmers in that area have seen it all. On this particular day, a tornado touched down and there were hay bales in the foreground. It’s an artistic photo, one that showcases the beauty of something that is potentially very disruptive.”


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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