“There is something magical about storms,” Bondor says. Even meteorologists cannot always predict what’s going to happen within the next half hour. The Hungarian became interested in weather phenomena at the age of 14, when he began noting the highest temperatures and the actual weather every day.
“When there was a storm coming, everyone ran off inside their houses – I did just the opposite,” the storm chaser remembers. “It did not matter how heavily it was raining and how strong the wind was – I was sitting on the terrace and waiting for the storm.”
As Bondor tells it, he was always interested in physics and mathematics. “I was still at school when I started reading books about meteorology.” Later on he read websites such as metnet.hu for more information about weather science.
“In 2006 I entered the szupercella.hu group, which had only four members in the beginning,” Bondor recalls. The website with the same name serves as a forum for the storm chasers from all of Hungary.
The storm chaser organisation
One of the primary goals of storm chasing is to take pictures of supercells, which are thunderstorms characterised by the presence of a mesocyclone, a deep, persistently rotating updraft. Bondor bought his first compact camera in 2009 and he learned how to take good pictures with it: “I mostly photographed storm clouds near my home town. I did not travel much back at that time.”
However, this changed a few years ago. “Between 2014 and 2017 I participated at five to six storm chasing hunts per year.”
He is not the only one with this curious hobby in Hungary. About 20 active storm chasers are listed on the website szupercella.hu from around the country. “In Budapest it’s quite easy to put together a team when you are expecting big storm or a supercell,” Bondor assures us.
Every storm chaser must abide by certain rules when participating in the often spontaneous occasions. In order to be equipped for different situations, the experienced enthusiast says, there must be at least three storm chasers present during the pursuit of the extreme weather phenomena: “One person has to drive, the other navigates and the third one takes the photos and checks the storm.”
A dangerous hobby
How do you become a storm chaser anyway? Before going for the first time on a storm hunt, Bondor says, you must consider the following: it’s important to know the weather conditions, of course, and you need some meteorology knowledge.
“Before going on a storm chasing mission we also have to familiarise ourselves with the specific circumstances of the destination.” Navigation is the alpha and omega of things. Although the hobby is very interesting and exciting, it is not completely safe.
“It might happen that you’re transformed from hunter to being hunted, and you have to seek a safe shelter in case of a storm turning really heavy. Of course, we always try to avoid personal injuries and car damages,” Bondor explains.
Despite the danger, nobody has ever yet got really seriously injured during storm chasing in Hungary. However, in hail it has happened that storm chasers’ cars have been damaged.
In order that interested beginners might prepare for the possible conditions, the group regularly organises theoretical presentations with important information. “However, these do not replace gaining your own experience,” the experienced storm chaser emphasises.
It is the responsibility of every single person to take care of their own safety. “You cannot be careless during storm chasing,” Bondor warns.
Coming from the USA
The place where storm chasing is the most popular is the United States. “We simply do not have such extreme weather conditions that often. The number of tornados is also quite low here,” Bondor says to explain the differences between the two countries.
Several hundreds of such whirlwinds can be spotted in the USA each year. In Hungary, on the other hand, there are only five to ten days in a year when it’s worth going on a storm hunt.
When it happens though, Bondor and the other enthusiasts meticulously prepare. “We have to prepare a weather prognosis and build a team one of two days earlier.”
Usually the team covers 150 to 500 kilometres on the day of the storm to reach its centre. Sometimes even more: “At the end of June the szupercella.hu team travelled 850 kilometres,” Bondor remembers.
Even though it’s quite unlikely that a tornado will be spotted in Hungary, “We try to capture each supercell on the camera that might evoke such a weather phenomenon.”
When photographing these kinds of weather phenomena, there is an optimal angle that gives a clear view of the “cell structure” and all other components of the phenomenon. The distance of the supercell is also decisive: “You can take good pictures especially from a long distance. If you drive too close to the storm you cannot get the whole thing on the photo anymore,” Bondor says.
Moreover, you have to find the right moment. “Some cells are moving very fast. You do not have enough time to stop the car and take the photo, since by that time the supercell is already out of sight.”
To meet the high technical requirements for photographing storms, you need good quality equipment. “We use single-lens reflex cameras with a digital recording sensor. These take the best quality photos.”
A Global Positioning System appliance also comes in very handy during a storm hunt. One of the most frequently encountered problems during storm chasing in Hungary, according to the storm chaser’s opinion, is that trees make it difficult to find the right viewpoint to see the storms.
Storm chasing outside the Hungarian borders
The Hungarians do not chase storms only in this country though. “We have already made trips with the group to Croatia, Austria, Slovenia, Romania, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Italy,” Bondor lists.
He has quite special memories about the latter country: “One of my most beautiful storm hunts was in 2014, in northern Italy. We followed nine supercells on that occasion.”
One of them, a so-called classic supercell, had a particularly beautiful structure. “It was not far from becoming a tornado,” Bondor recalls with enthusiasm.
In 2018 he spotted a supercell in Hungary that was on the verge of forming a tornado, a sight more often spotted in the US. “I have never seen something like that before in Hungary,” he says.
Tornados in Hungary
According to Bondor there are two places in Hungary where you might find supercells: at the Austrian-Hungarian border near Szombathely, and in the north-east in the counties Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén and Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg.
His biggest dream is seeing such a supercell changing into a tornado in front of his very eyes. “It’s not impossible. It just happens much less frequently than in the USA,” he says with a bright smile.
Although storm chasing is a completely satisfying hobby for him, you can’t really make it a full-time job. Storm chasing is a seasonal activity, primarily between May and August. In the other months you have to survive by dealing with scientific research.
“This is neither worth the money nor would I say that it was interesting. For me that’s not storm chasing anymore,” he sums up. “You can make storm chasing truly lucrative only in the USA.”
Still, Gyula Bondor will be on his way again when the next storm report is received, armed with his camera and waiting for the right moment to take the perfect storm photo.
What is a supercell?
Supercells are very rare weather phenomena. Very special conditions have to be fulfilled for their creation, including a high air humidity and formation of condensation clouds. One of their special features is upwind created by rotating air masses, the so-called “mesocyclone”. We are talking about a supercell only if these have been existing over 30 minutes. Supercells have furthermore clearly separated upwind and downwind areas. This might make them really strong and potentially dangerous. These are usually stately thunderstorms that often extend over kilometres.
Supercells might form under different weather conditions: heavy hail, strong wind and even tornados. Supercells are especially frequent in the central western area of the United States. In Hungary, however, their number and average intensity is much lower in comparison.