Striking Images From a Storm-Chasing Photographer Obsessed With America’s Heartland
A new book from photographer Eric Meola features powerful images of tornadoes, lightning, and severe weather phenomena taken over four decades of storm chasing trips—all of which began on a drive with Bruce Springsteen.
“There are some things you learn best in calm, and some in storm.”
These words by Willa Cather, the 20th-century author known for her novels depicting life on the Great Plains, are the first ones you’ll see upon opening Fierce Beauty: Storms of the Great Plains (The Images Publishing Group, 2019), a captivating new image book from photographer Eric Meola.
Out November 11, the book showcases more than 100 photographs of tornadoes, lightning, dust storms, and other atmospheric phenomena, captured by Meola on storm-chasing trips in the expansive North American flat lands known as the Great Plains over over four decades. (Located west of the Mississippi River and east of the Rocky Mountains, the Great Plains cover parts of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico, as well as portions of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and the Northwest Territories in Canada.)
Meola says his longstanding passion for chasing storms was sparked in a rather surprising way: on a 1977 road trip through the middle of America with the legendary Bruce Springsteen, while on assignment to shoot images for the musician’s upcoming album, The Promise. At one point during their summer drive along the 518-mile stretch between Salt Lake City and Reno, a powerful storm formed overhead. “We went up to the top of a hill and just watched it,” Meola says. “I really was entranced by the beauty of the storm, and that stayed with me. I said to myself, ‘Someday I’m going to come back here and photograph more storms.’”
And “photograph more storms” he did.
One year after Meola’s initial storm-watching experience with Springsteen, the photographer reached out to Tempest Tours, a Texas-based storm-chasing tour company led by a team of veteran “storm spotters.” Meola spoke with the operator’s head meteorologist, William Reid, and after hearing Reid describe his own storm-chasing experiences, Meola signed up for the next available trip.
“It became a very spiritual thing to me—watching the sky, watching storms evolve,” Meola says. “I was hooked. Chasing storms was an excuse to drive hundreds of thousands of miles on the dirt and gravel roads of the Great Plains. I just kept going back out there, and I’ve been going every year since.”
“Most people call this part of the country a ‘fly-over zone,’” Meola says. “I’m inspired by the small towns, the people, and the experiences that come with driving the backroads.” The photographer calls the book his “visual diary of a journey to a place often maligned as flat, lifeless, and empty.”
While the photography book is in some ways Meola’s love letter to North America’s flat lands, it can also serve as a massive source of inspiration for anyone intrigued by storm chasing. “What I hope people realize is that [storm chasing] can be a very safe thing to do if you go with a reputable company,” Meola says. “And it’s an experience unlike any other. Nothing focuses the mind more than a great storm as it approaches on the horizon.”
Referencing the words of yet another American author with reverence for the Great Plains, Meola quotes Ian Frazier in the photography book’s introduction, from Frazier’s best-selling book Great Plains:
“The beauty of the plains is not just in themselves but in the sky, in what you think when you look at them, and in what they are not.”
Storm chasing 101: How to have a safe experience
“Chase season [in the Great Plains] begins in early April when warm, moist air flows into the Deep South from the Gulf of Mexico,” writes Meola in his book. “By Memorial Day weekend, the storms have moved north to the High Plains. Those who chase storms live for the time between early April and late July when the storm-chasing calendar defines their lives.”
If you’re interested in taking a single- or multi-day storm-chasing tour, it’s advisable to set out with a veteran company led by experts. The team at Tempest Tours consists of trained storm spotters, climatologists, and meteorologists whose top priority is safety. The storm-watching tours are conducted using heavy-duty vans that carry a maximum of six to seven passengers—and most importantly, if the weather takes a turn, everyone must hop in the vehicle and get going.
See Tempest Tour’s storm-chasing expedition schedule (both single- and multi-day).
Buy Now: $85, bookshop.org
This article originally appeared online in October 2019; it was updated on May 26, 2020, to include current information. Products we write about are independently vetted and recommended by our editors. AFAR may earn a commission if you buy through our links, which helps support our independent publication.