The Last Place Gregg Alliss Wants to Be
When severe weather strikes in the spring and summer, most of us head for a safe area at work or at home until it passes. That’s the last place Gregg Alliss wants to be.
He wants to be standing at the side of a country road next to his camera and tripod snapping photos of nature’s storm power.
“It’s thrilling,” said Gregg, who lives in Cedar Rapids. “When I’m driving to get ahead of a storm, warnings are going off on my weather radio. I can see the storm coming in on the radar on my cell phone. My heart is pounding, and I’m excited about the possibility of capturing a rare weather appearance that not a lot of people have seen.”
The Passion Handed Down
The self-taught photographer is also a certified severe weather spotter. He credits his father for his interest in weather starting at a young age when the family lived in Des Moines. His dad, Walt, liked to take photos of clouds, and Gregg would stand with him on the back porch of their home to watch storms pass through. The family moved to Cedar Rapids when Gregg was 9 years old. When he was in high school, he purchased his own camera to photograph the skies.
His passion continued into adulthood, although he was content to wait for severe weather systems to come his way. He spent many hours in the parking lot of his church – Noelridge Christian Church on C Avenue NE – waiting for storms to roll over to photograph them.
That all changed in 2011.
A Transformative Weather Experience
The family enthusiasm for weather had been passed on to Gregg’s son, Ryan. He graduated from Iowa State University in December 2010 with a degree in meteorology and was waiting for his first job to begin in Houston in May 2011.
On Saturday, April 9, 2011, Ryan was online checking the Storm Prediction Center and thought the potential was good for severe weather to roll into western Iowa. Ryan and Gregg headed west, stopping in Ames to meet up with six of Ryan’s friends who were meteorology students at Iowa State.
The group and its two-car caravan arrived outside of Minden, 20 miles east of the Missouri River, and waited for the storm. They passed the time at a former convenience store lot along Interstate 80 throwing a football around and hitting golf balls.
“I’ve heard it said that storm chasing is 99 percent boredom and 1 percent sheer terror,” Gregg laughed.
At 4:55 p.m., the chase – and the terror – began.
Chasing a Supercell
“We could tell the storm was going to be very powerful because of the constant lightning. It was a cyclic supercell that produced multiple tornadoes. We saw eight to ten tornadoes that night.”
Monitoring weather radar, the group stayed to the southeast of the supercell as it progressed to the northeast. From Minden, they drove north on Interstate 29 to Sloan and then headed east.
“We watched an EF3 tornado go through the town of Mapleton. We had passed through there just 20 minutes earlier,” he recalled. “EF3 means a tornado has winds of 136 to 165 miles per hour. Sadly, it destroyed about 60 percent of the town. That’s the largest tornado I’ve captured on camera.”
Going to the Storm
From that experience Gregg realized if he wanted to shoot severe weather, he needed to go to the storm to increase his chances for getting once-in-a-lifetime pictures. Now, when severe weather season arrives in late April, he begins monitoring the Storm Prediction Center and weatherTAP websites for storm systems in the area.
Storm initiation usually occurs from 1 to 7 p.m., with 4 p.m. generally being a key time of day. That’s good for Gregg who works from 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. as an archivist in Document Management Services at Transamerica.
If a system looks like it could become severe, he monitors its strength, speed and direction and determines if he has time to pack his storm chasing and camera equipment in his 2006 Ford Freestyle and head the storm off. He typically shoots storms with a Nikon D7200 DSLR and a wide angle, low light lens. He’s also sure to bring along his bike helmet to protect his head from hail.
When he goes solo, one of his safety guidelines is to stay within about a 60-mile radius of Cedar Rapids. He’ll travel farther when others are with him. In addition to Ryan, his 25-year old daughter, Holly, has also accompanied him on storm chases. His wife, Sue – while supportive of his passion – prefers not to join him on these pursuits.
Father Walt, who is now 87, is happy that his son and grandchildren have embraced his interest in weather, and he’s proud of the incredible photos Gregg has taken. But he does worry about their safety in the vicinity of powerful storms – a natural concern.
A healthy fear and respect
As a journalist and amateur photographer, I can relate to Gregg’s desire and effort to get that exciting, unique image that unfolds before you and tells a compelling story. In a storm scenario that can quickly change, I can only imagine the adrenaline rush from being near a powerful weather occurrence while also constantly evaluating your risks.
Gregg has a healthy fear of serious storms and respects their power and unpredictability. And he accepts the risks and the rewards.
“Obviously, I realize there’s an inherent danger with this. I try to be smart about it and find a spot where I can get a good look at the storm, but I’m a safe distance away from it. Lightning presents the biggest danger because you don’t know where it’s going to hit.”
Every severe storm has its own personality and traits, he added. If he’s lucky, his chase results in capturing those special characteristics through his camera lens. But, there are also times when the storm doesn’t develop or dissipates, and the chase is a bust.
One of those times occurred earlier this year when he went on a “wild goose chase” driving a couple hundred miles to Tama, Sigourney and Williamsburg only to have promising storm cells die right before his eyes. While he was out chasing these cells, a tornado touched down in Central City just miles from his home.
Photos for Education and Enjoyment
But Gregg has been lucky many times over the years, and he has the spectacular photos and videos to prove it. His severe weather photos are used by the National Weather Service for training and educational purposes. He and Ryan, and pictures of a tornado in Oklahoma taken during a storm chase the two were on in July, were featured on the Weather Channel’s website, We Love Weather. Gregg also posts his photos and videos on his Sky and Weather Photography blog and his YouTube channel.
And it’s not just severe weather that intrigues Gregg. This past year he snapped the solar eclipse from Columbia, Missouri. He created a 10-image sun sequence picture of the event that’s posted on his blog. He’s also posted amazing images of the Milky Way and a celestial conjunction from the Badlands in South Dakota that he took in September.
“I just like to photograph anything cool in the sky,” he said, smiling.
Story by Annette Busbee. Portrait photos by Sarah Bozaan. Storm photos courtesy of Gregg Alliss.