‘Tornadoes also exist in the Netherlands’

Hail, lightning and heavy wind? Normal people would rather stay inside, but journalism student Gilles Tijmes wouldn’t. He goes outside during heavy weather.

Everyone knows the documentaries on Discovery Channel in which overenthusiastic guys chase tornadoes in big trucks. They are beyond happy when they see the whirlwind. But Gilles wants to emphasise that storm chasers are not cowboys hopping in their car when they see a raincloud. It is about patience, good preparation and especially knowledge of the weather system. Gilles: Storm chasers are looking for high instability and wind shear. The warm air that collides with the cold atmosphere causes showers and sudden local change in the wind, you call that ‘warp’. This ensures that the showers become interesting in terms of structures and may form extreme side effects such as hail, fall winds, lightning, gusts of wind or glowing clouds.”

It is like cooking: all the ingredients have to work well together to create the perfect dish. “Sometimes there is just one ingredient missing this means that you travelled all the way to a special location and ultimately nothing happens.”

‘Towing direction’ of 100 km per hour”
Gilles knows that better than anyone that nothing is as changeable as the weather. When he goes out with other weather enthusiasts, they never know what they will find. Like when he went out last week. “The cards looked super good. The showers had a direction of 100 kilometres an hour and descended abruptly on mother earth then they form ‘wall clouds’. We went to Oss to wait for the showers there. Eventually, it all started later in the evening, so we drove on to Belgium. We still got a tail of that from the heavy weather that later clumped together in a storm line that crossed the Netherlands with less force.”

Cauliflower clouds
Gilles (22 years old) lives with his parents, on a farm in Broekhuizen in Drenthe, a neighbourhood near Meppel. Growing up among the cornfields, tractors and dirty rubber boots, the young Gilles quickly became aware of the elements. “When my grandmother looked out the window at night and saw cauliflower clouds, she already knew it was wrong. That meant a thunderstorm was coming.”

That interest quickly turned into a great fascination. “When Gilles was barely taller than the kitchen counter he said that he would study in Oklahoma because he wanted to become a meteorologist,” says mother Roely. “I was very surprised because I could barely pronounce the word myself. When Gilles was twelve, we drove to South Holland to buy a weather station for the garden, it is still there.”

In the same year, a strange car suddenly appeared in the yard. “I thought storm chasing was only possible abroad until I started browsing the internet,” says Gilles with a bright smile. “One day I met a few people from Zwolle to drive to the predicted storm in the Noordoostpolder on a whim. My parents thought that was a bad idea, but they eventually let me go after I promised to tell them before I would go out with strangers.”

‘To that cloud, you are no more than a grain of sand on the road’

Mother Nature
What does Gilles really like about chasing storms? To be able to explain that properly, he makes a comparison with his other big hobby: going to concerts. “If you are in a large group of people and there is a very beautiful song, it feels like you are all alone in the world, with the artist. With a big rain shower it feels the same way, but even better. The weather does not care about people, at that moment you feel the power of Mother Nature and you feel very small and vulnerable. It doesn’t matter what you do or what worries you. At that moment all that matters is that storm roaming around there and you are no more than a grain of sand on the road for that cloud. Then you realize that you really are just a very small part of a bigger whole.”

“We recently drove near Klazienaveen and it seemed as if we were in a scene from the movie ‘Twister’. We drove around with four cars on country roads looking for a place to get a good view of the storm. Deep down every storm chaser is still that little kid watching Discovery Channel.”

Conspiracy theories
Gilles is often streaming on Social Media when he is storm chasing. “I have many followers from all over the world on Twitter and Instagram.” You would expect that such a nerdy hobby attracts intelligent people, says Gilles. “But the app groups and forums of storm chasers are primarily used to spread conspiracy theories. Many are convinced that the government is trying to influence the weather by allowing aircrafts to spread chemtrails“, laughs Gilles. He thinks that is only pseudo-scientific and he doesn’t believe in it. “I’m here for the facts.”

Polder tornados
The ultimate jackpot for storm chasers is, of course, experiencing a tornado up close. “Many people think that they do not occur here, but the Netherlands has the highest number of tornadoes per square kilometre in the world.” That requires more explanation. Gilles: “That’s because we are a small country with a relatively large amount of water. And a tornado is created where cold and warm air collide. After a hot day, a lot of water vapour rises from the sea, while the cold air in the atmosphere is pulled swirling down. But it seldom gets as out of hand here as it does on videos from America that you see every spring. That’s because our polder tornadoes rarely build up as much speed because we don’t have large open prairies where they can grow into apocalyptic proportions.”

‘The Netherlands has the highest number of tornadoes per square kilometre in the world.’

Deadly victims
The last tornado with fatalities happened fifty years ago, says Gilles. “On July 26, 1967, in the Gelderse Tricht.” He once spoke to a woman who experienced it up close. “She suddenly saw hay and straw everywhere. Her husband then told her to quickly get the baby from the attic. The wind hit the windows. They were lucky enough to live in a house that proved to be able to survive this heavy wind. All seven people who perished that day lost their lives in the street she lives in. The houses were rebuilt in differently coloured bricks, so you can still clearly see the contrast between the old and the new there. The story of Tricht is known to every storm chaser and to hear about it from a survivor was very special. She didn’t want to tell the story anymore but because I was young and interested, she told it one more time.” “In the Netherlands, we tend to still go for a swim if it’s code yellow or to go on the road while it’s code orange. This lady urged me not to ignore the warnings of the KNMI because their advice could someday save your life.”

Text: Maarten Kors
Pictures: Jasper van Overbeek

Gilles: “ I took this photo after I drove half an hour across the border at Enschede. We had our eyes on a rainstorm and we wanted to try to take pictures of the lightning. Then suddenly, this big storm appeared behind us. The storm was developing a ‘shelf cloud’ and the front curled more and more. It was so dynamic that it was almost frightening to see.”

“These shining night clouds were a real highlight for me. This type of cloud is proof that the sky has so much to offer even for amateur weather enthusiasts. This cloud field was one of the largest and clearest fields of recent decades, a pleasure to experience!”

“On the day this photo was taken, the showers moved unbelievably fast. Jolien, with whom I always go out, had chosen an area a bit further into Germany. Eventually, we drove through small villages with this storm behind us and we tried to explain to people on the street that they really had to go inside. A storm of this formation is often accompanied by a lot of wind and rain and sometimes worse presents, so you don’t want to walk your dog during this storm.”

“Last August, we drove towards Amiens in France before the thunderstorm. In these grain fields and hills, everything felt a lot bigger than I was used to. The piece just behind the sign is a “wall cloud”. Because I had never seen one in real life, I wasn’t sure if it was one. But one of the more experienced chasers took a look at it, and suddenly yelled “drive!” I was glued to the window with my nose, adrenaline was flowing through my body and I just thought: That wall cloud could just drop a tornado.”

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