December 7, 2022
BEIJING – Only 10 hours remained before Typhoon Muifa was due to make landfall in eastern China. Su Dike and his teammates decided to head to Zhoushan, Zhejiang province, from Ningbo to “encounter” the storm.
Their car hadn’t been on the road long before they encountered tire trouble and they had to immediately rent a car and move their equipment in the rainstorm. They finally made it to Zhoushan and found a good position to record the typhoon.
There were few people or cars on the road when they witnessed trees falling down under the force of strong winds and street lamps blinking out in the heavy rain. After some 10 minutes, the rain suddenly became lighter and the wind turned softer, meaning that they were now in the eye of the typhoon.
“While chasing the storm, we collected a lot of data that can reflect the microscopic characteristics of typhoons. We hope the information can help people to better understand such storms,” Su says in his video, recording this thrilling trip.
“People may think we — storm chasers — are looking for excitement, but we actually shoulder the responsibility for each chase, as we need to get to the deepest point of a storm to get first-hand data that will help us to deal with future (climate) change,” he explains.
In the past three years, the 21-year-old and his fellow storm chasers have visited over a dozen provinces, including Heilongjiang, Shandong and Jilin, racking up a total distance of over 30,000 kilometers.
For them, most natural events — a storm, clouds, sunset, a rainbow, lightning, hail or solar corona — provide their own reward. In addition to storms and strong convection, they chase the first snow, cold snaps, floods and dust storms.
As a senior student at Communication University of China, majoring in photography, Su has used almost all of his spare time chasing the wind. He is also a popular meteorological science video blogger on Bilibili, a video-sharing platform popular with young Chinese. He posts videos of his storm-chasing adventures and uses them to try and popularize climate science.Born in Chengdu, Sichuan province, Su moved to Hangzhou, Zhejiang, during middle school. As the east of the country is battered by typhoons on an annual basis, he developed his interest in meteorology. Ever since, he has been accumulating meteorology knowledge.
Su recalls that he also became a photography enthusiast around the same time and decided to pursue professional photography in college.
On Aug 10, 2019, when Typhoon Lekima, the second most costly typhoon in Chinese history, made landfall in Zhejiang, Su got to face such a storm directly for the first time.
It was during the summer vacation after he graduated from high school, and he asked his father to drive him through the area where the typhoon made landfall.
He remembers that night clearly, when they drove back from Wenling to Taizhou. The houses, farmland and high-voltage electricity pylons on both sides of the highway were all soaked with water, and the area was out of power, leaving them in darkness.Moving with the wind
From whether to chase a storm, which city to land in and which route to take, to which spot to set up and record, Su and his partners have to continuously make quick decisions in the 24 hours before a storm occurs.
Once a storm starts forming, they follow its growth and movement on radar and discuss whether to chase it or not.
The decision is usually made a day before whether the mission is a “go”. Once decided, Su and his partners draw a circle on the route map that covers the location they predict will be the center of the storm and find the nearest city.
When Su and his partners arrive in a city, they usually rent a car and buy some fast food en route to their designated recording spot.
Besides cameras and drones, they also bring a small sensor array — built by Su — that can capture up-to-the-second data pertaining to temperature, wind speed, atmospheric pressure and dew point, as well as transmit that data in real time.Su usually drives and his partner — more often than not 21-year-old Wang Lucheng, a senior student at the University of Shanghai for Science and Technology — sits next to him navigating.
Wang not only needs to monitor the navigation route, but also check the direction in which the storm is heading at the same time via radar software on his laptop.
Unlike self-driving tourists, who navigate to the parking lot of a scenic spot, Su and his partner pick a random spot in the storm’s predicted path, which requires constant adjustment in their navigation and destination while on the road.
“It’s like throwing a dart on the map. Sometimes we drive into a field because we don’t know what the spot looks like,” Su says.
For them, each chase is intense, as the deadline for a certain spot is set, and if they miss it, that’s it.
Wang says, “We need to find the best position to ensure that we can measure good data and also capture the storm from a good angle.”
Danger is an inevitable element of storms, yet the chasers are far more aware of how to stay safe than normal people.
Wang recalls that, during his first storm chase with Su on Oct 1, 2019, when Typhoon Mitag made its landfall in China, “The rain was so heavy that we decided to stay behind the car to record the rain, but Su’s glasses were blown away by the strong wind.”
When searching for a position to observe and record the storm, Wang says they avoid mountains, as the heavy rainfall can cause mudslides. Nor will they choose unpaved roads which might result in the car getting stuck easily.
“It can’t be too close to the storm, as the core location with heavy rain or hail will be life-threatening, but it can’t be too far away either. The best distance is between 5 and 10 kilometers from the storm,” he says.
Su says a storm is fast, it usually takes 10 to 20 minutes to pass overhead, but for that, they need to chase one for the whole day before the “encounter”.
“I don’t think about what time it is or where I am, I just focus on where we are in relation to the storm and calculate how much time we have before it arrives,” Su says.
Missing a storm is a regular occurrence, sometimes because their projection is not accurate and sometimes the storm does something that is completely outside the range of forecast.
“Sometimes after a day’s chasing, when we are about to reach the area, the storm suddenly disappears, which is frustrating,” Su says.
He adds that it’s a unique experience. “Each storm has its own temper, so the feeling is fresh. Once you ‘catch’ it, there’s a sense of accomplishment, and you want to chase more.”
The data collected during a chase can help with multidisciplinary studies, Su says, which is another reason for him to continue his trips. Some research institutions have contacted him about his data, Su says.
This year, Su took a signal communication device, made at the College of Surveying and Geo-Informatics, Tongji University, to collect data on a typhoon.
“They are studying the impact of extreme weather on positioning accuracy, which can serve information for future autonomous driving and other artificial intelligence applications,” Su says, adding that he plans to carry the device on future trips.Dialogue with nature
Su employs a “spirit of exploration” while chasing storms, which means not running around blindly, but preparing by doing research and analysis. “The chase itself is passionate and hot-blooded, but it also needs a cool head to execute. It’s a combination of science and romance,” Su says.
With his photos and videos of storms, Su aims to show their beauty from different angles and help raise people’s awareness of climate change. Only from such scenes can you witness what a typhoon is capable of, he says.
For example, the devastation that can be seen when standing within 3 km of a typhoon’s path, he notes.
“The bigger question is how we should better deal with climate change?”
Su is making a documentary about his storm-chasing adventures. “I am not the focus; I put storms at the heart of the documentary.”
As he gets to know storms better, he says that he finds they have a connection with things on the ground, including plants, animals and humans.
“The catastrophic nature of storms is quite a dialectical thing,” he says. For flora and fauna, a storm is a double-edged sword. It may provide a water source, yet with it may also come devastation. For people, he adds, storms can often be a disaster.
“But, on the other hand, because of our continuous struggle, and gamble against nature, our civilization has been able to continue,” Su concludes.
“After dealing with storms day by day, you develop a resonance with them, and it almost becomes a dialogue with them,” he says.