Interviews

The storm chaser

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When people are fleeing something dangerous, the man running in the opposite direction is George Kourounis. The Canadian adventurer has for 15 years explored furious tornadoes, active volcanoes, floods, blizzards, hail and lightening; often while hosting the TV series Angry Planet, whose 39 episodes were broadcast worldwide from 2006 to 2010. He tells us about getting caught in a tornado, visiting a lethal 52˚C crystal cave and getting married on the edge of an erupting volcano. 

The first question has to be: what inspires you to do this? 

I get inspired by nature itself. I find it exciting to document things others might be frightened of or run away from. The beauty in nature is all around us and I gravitate towards the extreme end of the scale. Chasing storms and other extreme natural phenomena combines all the things I love: science, nature, travel, adventure, exploration, photography, all wrapped into one lifestyle that has allowed me to do things I never imagined possible.

What have been your most exhilarating experiences so far?

Oh, there have been so many it’s hard to choose. From swimming with piranhas and diving with sharks to flying into the eye of a hurricane or taking groups of tourists up close to tornadoes in the US Midwest. How can a person decide?

Certainly visiting the Naica Crystal Cave in Mexico is right up there. It’s the most spectacular place I have ever witnessed and is as deadly as it is beautiful. It was accidentally discovered in 2000 by silver miners tunneling 900 feet below ground. They broke into a chamber containing the world’s largest crystals, some of them weighing 55 tons and measuring more than 30 feet. It honestly looks like something from another planet; it’s beyond surreal.

It lies above a chamber of magma and the air inside is 52˚C with the humidity approaching 100 per cent. It’s like combining the heat of the Sahara desert with the humidity of the Amazon jungle. You start to die as soon as you step inside and you’d only last about 15 or 20 minutes before suffering heat stroke. We had to wear special ice-filled suits with chilled air respirators; even then we only lasted about 40 minutes.

How many close calls have you had? 

Quite a few. My scariest tornado encounter happened in 2003 when I was producing storm at night near Oklahoma City. I knew there was a tornado nearby; I just couldn’t see it in the dark and before I knew it, debris, pieces of wood, trash cans and other wreckage were flying past me. Electrical transformers were exploding beside my vehicle, sending showers of blue sparks into the air. It was like driving through a swarm of bees. I managed to drive behind a shopping mall to shelter myself, knowing we were right on the edge of a tornado. When I looked up, I could barely make out the outline as it passed us. It took about 10 minutes for my leg to stop shaking.

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Do you ever fear for your own safety?

Yes, of course I do. Many of the things I do are genuinely dangerous; there’s no getting around that. The trick is to weigh the risks versus the rewards of any situation. I try dangerous things in as safe a manner as possible because I want to keep doing this for many more decades. I’m certainly not fearless. The fear that I do experience helps to keep me sharp, and if I don’t have at least a little bit of fear, I might make mistakes. And when you’re chasing tornadoes and climbing volcanoes, there’s not much room for error.

Which precautions do you need to take when exploring these places?

Safety is always my number one concern. There is no school for ‘adventure and exploration’ so I had to learn as I went along. When I’m chasing tornadoes, I almost always travel in a group and we’re all looking out for each other. We use GPS mapping software to plot any escape routes and we’re always watching the latest radar and satellite imagery to try and predict what the storm will do next.

Of course when I’m climbing a volcano, the precautions are completely different. I’ve had to learn how to use different types of climbing equipment and rope techniques. I’ve had to learn about geology and volcanology, and knowing how close to get before you are in the extreme danger zone. Sometimes just getting to these volcanoes can be dangerous. Many are found in parts of the world gripped by civil war or other social unrest, and there have been times when I’ve needed armed escorts with machine guns in places like Ethiopia or the Congo.

You got married on the edge of a volcano. What was that day like?

One of the strangest of my life. Michelle and I travelled to the small island nation of Vanuatu in the South Pacific where there’s a volcano named Yasur that has been erupting every few minutes for more than 800 years. We climbed the side of the volcano in our wedding clothes; I had my tuxedo on and she was wearing a beautiful wedding dress. We were accompanied by local natives who were performing the ceremony. They were dressed in native garb including grass skirts, face paint and feathers in their hair.

At the summit we could look down into the crater and watch these dramatic explosions send shockwaves up the crater walls and throw glowing hot pieces of lava hundreds of yards through the air. As you can imagine, it was a brief ceremony. But every few minutes our vows would be punctuated by more explosions and clouds of ash billowing up into the sky. After the final “I do’s” were said, we popped a bottle of champagne and at that exact instant the volcano erupted one more time. It was beyond fantastic.

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What places or phenomena are next on your list?

I have yet to document a typhoon in the Western Pacific. I really want to travel to Taiwan, Japan, or the Philippines and get right into the eye of one of the huge typhoons they have there. Another place on my list is Mount Erebus in Antarctica. It is the southernmost active volcano in the world and inside its crater is a bubbling lake of lava. I just need to figure out how to get there.

The global environment is a concern to all travellers. What is your view on what can be done?

The crisis is a symptom of what is actually a much, much bigger problem: global human overpopulation. There are just too many of us, consuming limited resources and not behaving in a sustainable way. The road ahead is a difficult one, and I’d hate to imagine what future generations will think of us knowing that we handed this world down to them knowing what we know now.

There is hope however. If we all can reduce our impact on this planet, perhaps small changes can combine so that we are not out-pacing our planet’s sustainability. Travel as efficiently as you can and be careful about what you eat. Avoid things like shark fin soup, and encourage others to do the same.

What advice would you give to travellers to get the most out of their holidays? 

I think many people would do themselves a big favour by getting off the beaten path, spending some time with the locals and just embrace the idea of getting lost for a while. It’s great when the trip goes perfectly smoothly. However, when your plans get turned upside down, these misadventures end up making stories you’ll be telling your friends for the rest of your life. Sometimes it’s a good idea to bow to the absurd and just see what happens.

Visit George Kourounis’s website at www.stormchaser.ca.

Photos: Charles Edwards, Ross Velton, Peter Rowe/George Kourounis.

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