Young storm chaser beats Météo-France

A 20-year-old from the Var has turned his passion for storm-chasing into a career by setting up a weather forecasting service which can help vineyards and communes avert disaster from floods, hail and lightning.

31 August 2016
By Jane Hanks

The mayor of La Londe Les Maures, François de Canson, said Yohan Laur­ito was the only one to predict devastating floods in 2014 and that his advice was more accurate for the area than national forecaster Météo-France

At the time, Mr Laurito was giving his information away free on his Facebook page – but he has since started his own business.

“I’ve got a growing number of clients and, in particular, I’m attracting more and more wine growers because a storm can spell disaster for them and they need to be forewarned.

“I can be more accurate than a national service because I have several of my own stations around the department, so my measurements are very precise for my local area.”

Although he has no formal training, he has observed the weather patterns around him and provides clients with daily bulletins and alerts at any time of day or night.

He told Connexion he has always been fascinated by weather and, above all, by the beauty of electric storms.

Despite developing his work as forecaster his passion is to be a “chasseur d’orages”.

“Storms are always different, always fascinating. It can be the structure, the quantity of lightning or an amazing light quality caused by a sunset.”

He finds storm-chasing addictive: “In a year, I can travel 50,000km to find storms that are even more beautiful. I love seeing them in my own department, the Var, where there is a varying landscape with hills, vine-
covered plains and the sea but I go to other regions as well – and I particularly like going to Italy where the storms are more intense.”

His aim is to capture the dramatic moments in a photograph: “You don’t need really sophisticated equipment but you do need to understand the basic techniques. More importantly, you need to understand where the storm is going to be so you can be in the right place at the right time. I look at the clouds and get satellite information and work it out.”

It is not a precise science and it is impossible to know exactly where a lighting bolt might strike: “The closest was one which shot to earth 10 metres away from where I was. Luckily I was in my car at the time!

“It is a dangerous occupation.

“Lightning can wound and kill so you have to know what you are doing and be able to read the signs.

“You also have to know when to leave as a storm can also mean flash floods, so you must be aware of the mechanisms of the weather.”

It is not all-action, though. A storm chaser has to be patient: “My family and friends find what I do interesting but they could never wait and watch for the long hours I spend in a field or in my car before the flashes that light up the sky start to appear.

“You really have to be passionate about storms to do what I do.”

His job and his passion do not fit a 9-5 pattern as he is out and about late into the night and on any day of the week, sleeping and eating in the car. His reward is an amazing set of images and the endless attraction of the ever-changing sky. He has compiled a book of his photos which is for sale on his website.

Another photographer with a passion for storms is Xavier Delorme, who took his first photo of lightning as a boy in his back garden in 1998. There was no stopping him after he learned to drive and he started going further afield to get that perfect shot.

Now he will drive 2,000km in a van fitted with solar-powered computers, a weather station, cameras, tripods and a camp bed in pursuit of a storm.

He says there are about 100 storm chasers in France but only 10 or so are prepared to travel as far as he does. Like Mr Laurito, he has turned his passion into a job after his work in the construction industry came to an end.

Supplying data on lightning impacts for Météorage, a storm-research subsidiary of Météo-France, he also runs storm photography courses (www.temps-orages.pro), sells his images and runs storm-forecasting courses for farmers and wine growers.

“Wine growers in particular want to know when a storm is coming so they can spray their crops with anti-fungal treatments ahead of heavy rainfall. Up to now, they have sprayed more than necessary ‘just in case’ but now they need to be able to forecast more accurately to use less chemicals.”

France’s storm season starts in April and goes on to October, peaking in June and July. The southwest and parts of Hautes-Alpes, in the southeast, boast the most dramatic storms.

Mr Delorme lives in Chartres so easily clocks up the kilometres. Before setting off he studies websites for continuous weather updates: “I make sure there is a good chance of at least one storm. Then, as I travel, I constantly refine my destination with the equipment in my van.

“There could be five or six other storm chasers in the area. Then it’s a question of waiting, sometimes as long as six to 12 hours. But it is worth it. When the lightning arrives it is a festival. It is the lightning that fascinates me. The structure. The massive amount of electrical energy concentrated in a hundredth of a second and captured in a photograph.”

He described one dramatic incident: “It was in October 2014. Suddenly I was trapped with lightning hitting the ground all around me. I endured rather than enjoyed the storm and in the end I had to drive away.”

He said the sound of lightning hitting the ground nearby is massive: “It is the noise that strikes you. It is like a slap on the face but louder. There’s a huge flash of light but it’s the sound you feel the most.”

What to do in lightning

  • If you have a car, get inside
  • If you are in the open, avoid trees, fence posts, poles and ponds
  • Keep clear of ridge lines or large boulders if on a hill, be downslope
  • Put walking poles 20-25m away from you, put phones, keys, coins and other metal in a waterproof bag
  • Crouch low on the ground, head down, feet together and on a non-metal backpack if possible
  • Count time between flash and thunder – each 3sec is a kilometre

DIY photos

TO photograph lightning, you need: tripod, camera allowing different length exposures, a storm that has passed.

  • Be at a distance from the storm, set camera on tripod and point towards storm
  • Take several test shots with exposures from 5sec up to 30sec to see when ambient light floods photo
  • Use best setting and shoot until you get lightning
  • If you can set colour balance, opt for fluorescent lights to get nice sky effect
  • Do not attempt in rain
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