He’s seen 63 tornadoes but that’s not enough to satisfy storm chaser Paul Lyons.
Growing up in Weipa, Cape York, Paul Lyons was fascinated by the awesome thunderstorms. When a cyclone warning was announced, he’d turn on the radio and track its progress. So it’s no surprise that, when Paul took up a job as a TV Director, he was quick to jump in and help produce the cyclone warnings.
“A friend at the station and I had seen a travel show in America where they where chasing tornadoes and we thought ‘Let’s go do that’,” Paul says. “It’s lucky we didn’t at the time because, with what I know now, we probably wouldn’t have seen anything or we would’ve gotten ourselves killed!”
The dream remained on the backburner, though, as Paul turned his career into freelance casual. Making the most of the opportunities that came his way, he worked hard saving for a rainy day…
“In 2009 I started getting really crook and everything just began to shut down. I couldn’t talk, bright light would burn my eyes and my parents had to help me toilet and shower,” Paul recalls. “Doctors couldn’t diagnose what was wrong but I spent about six months in bed, so I had a lot of time to think…”
Paul asked himself what he’d do if this were his last day on the planet. His answer? Storm-chasing Australia and the US.
“Once I got better, I bought myself a rooftop tent and travelled around Australia for six months across the top of the country during cyclone season. And as soon as I finished that trip, I jumped on a plane to America and did my first tour of Tornado Alley,” Paul says. “The name of the company was Silver Lining Tours, which seemed like a fit after everything I’d been through.”
The very first tornado Paul saw developed right over his head.
“You get a thing called cinnamon swirl and you can actually look up into the storm and see the rotation happening,” Paul says. “We were standing behind the van trying not to get buffeted by the wind when the system developed and dropped a tornado about about 500 metres away.”
Paul has now seen 63 tornadoes and says everyone reacts differently.
“Some people cry, some laugh, some scream. I’ve learned how to quell that adrenaline,” says Paul, who is now a volunteer driver and guide for Silver Lining Tours. “I have lives in my hands so I need a clear mind to make quick decisions.”
Of all the weather events he’s seen, Paul says twin EF 4 tornadoes in Nebraska were the most awe-inspiring.
“Some people cry, some laugh, some scream. I’ve learned how to quell that adrenaline. I have lives in my hands so I need a clear mind to make quick decisions.”
“Actually seeing two tornadoes side by side like that in 2014 was such a rare event. It hadn’t been seen by people since about 1965,” Paul says. “Another spectacular event I saw was a night-time tornado that stayed on the ground for about an hour. You could only see the tornado when it was silhouetted with a lightning bolt behind it. It was like a Hollywood animation happening right in front of your eyes.”
Paul has also seen his fair share of cyclones here in Australia and was on the ground for Yasi, reporting on the destruction for Reuters International.
“With Yasi I went in fully prepared with 100 extra litres of fuel and 100 litres of water, a rooftop tent and a generator so I could be self-sufficient,” Paul says. “The main problem with storm chasing in Australia is our weather isn’t as predictable as, say, Tornado Valley in the US. And if you’re going to chase a cyclone in North Queensland it’s quite likely you’ll be flooded in for a week or two.”
Paul reported on Cyclone Debbie for the ABC and is also a storm spotter for the Bureau of Meteorology in Australia. When he’s out filming severe weather, he sends in reports to help them update their weather warnings. As for what the future holds…
“A lot of the media organisations in the US chase tornadoes from a chopper and broadcast the weather event live,” Paul says. “I’d love to do that!”