Logan West's in the eye of the storm chasers
Storm chaser Kirsty Hellmech and her daughter.

Logan West’s in the eye of the storm chasers

Every August, Ben Mawhinney starts to get edgy.

It’s a combination of nervous excitement and anticipation. As Ben packs his car with drones, camera gear and radar apps, he knows Logan West will deliver the goods.

History doesn’t lie.

Ben is one of a growing number of storm chasers who flood to Logan West every storm season to capture nature’s summer fury.

Logan West has become a prime destination for storm chasers in Southeast Queensland thanks to a range of climatic and geographical factors that make the area storm central in the summer months from October to February.

“It’s definitely an industry or community that keeps us on our toes,” Ben said.

“But the number one rule of storm chasing is that we do everything we can to avoid dangerous situations.

“It’s not worth my life or someone else’s life for the sake of 10 seconds of footage,” he said.

Ben, who runs SE QLD Storms with fellow weather watcher Kirsty Hellmech, says their online community now has more than 30,000 members, after launching in October 2019.

“Our focus is not about the number of followers we have but getting information out there for the people of Logan, Park Ridge or wherever they are in Southeast Queensland.”

Kirsty said her passion for storms started as a child and morphed into full-blown storm chasing more than a decade ago.

“Doing this is a photographer’s dream,” she said.

“Weather has always been an interest for me, but it has grown over the years.

“I love doing this,” she said.

To highlight the risk of filming storms, Kirsty now wears a hard hat while she’s out in the field.

“I once got hit in the head by a 4-centimetre hailstone and it nearly knocked me out.

“So now I wear a hard hat to protect my noggin’.”

“It’s not worth taking any chances,” she said.

Photo 3 Wilkinson Drive Crestmead
A storm front approaches Wilkinson Drive, Crestmead. (Photo: Kirsty Hellmech).

In 2020, Kirsty experienced firsthand the volatility of Logan’s storm corridor, after she was caught up in a rapidly forming cell that became known as the Halloween storm.

The storm, that caused more than $1-billion damage across Logan and Ipswich, peppered Kirsty’s car with 10-centimetre hail.

“It was pretty scary…I’m not gonna lie.

“Storms don’t normally bother me but this one was scary.

“My car ended up looking like a golf ball,” she said.

Ben and Kirsty are both registered storm spotters with the Bureau of Meteorology and collect data which they pass on to the bureau, in real time, during a storm event.

They agree the thrill of capturing Mother Nature’s raw power fed their desire to keep following storms.

“Part of it is definitely the thrill of the chase,” said Kirsty, who is a professional photographer.

“There’s no doubt you get a huge adrenaline rush doing this but we’re also providing an important service for the community,” she said.

Ben, whose day job is a police sergeant at the Petrie station on Brisbane’s northside, said juggling a full-time career and storm chasing was challenging.

“It can be hectic at times.

“But in both my roles, as a frontline police officer and storm chaser, I see that I am serving, protecting and helping the community,” he said.

A landmark University of Queensland study in 2016 identified two key storm corridors in Southeast Queensland – the first known as the Boonah-Beaudesert corridor – sees storms funnelled along a north-east pathway that often sees suburbs such as Greenbank, Boronia Heights and Crestmead bear the brunt of intense cells.

The study drew on 19 years of data from the Bureau of Meteorology and mapped storm intensity across the Greater Brisbane area.

For storm chasers like Ben, the study only confirms what they already know.

“There’s no doubt there is a clear storm path that heads north-east from the Great Dividing Range.

“But the bottom line is that in storm season, a severe storm can strike anywhere in Southeast Queensland,” he said.

Former Beaudesert local Jordan Brook is now extending the University of Queensland study and is currently completing a PhD that seeks to use radar and satellite imagery to better predict hailstorms.

Jordan, who is conducting his research at UQ’s School of Earth and Environmental Science, said two previous studies, and his own research, confirm the Boonah-Beaudesert storm corridor definitely exists.

Jordan grew up witnessing ferocious storms first-hand and said the experience of living in a storm corridor had had a sub-conscious impact on him wanting to study weather and climate at university.

“My undergraduate degree was in physics, but I find that radar and satellite data is compelling to look at,” said Jordan.

“In Australia, hailstorms have the costliest impact of any natural disaster. More so than bushfires, floods, or cyclones. Hailstorms cost the most for insurance companies,” he said.

Photo 1 UQ mobile radar
UQ’s mobile radar that is used to track and analyse storms in Logan West.

Jordan, who as part of his research chases storms with a mobile radar and a portable freezer to collect and document hail samples, says he too was caught up in the so-called Halloween storm of 2020.

“My supervisor and I ended up in the car park at Grand Plaza in the middle of the storm. It was literally forming over our heads.

“I was scared,” he said.

Jordan said after the storm, he and his supervisor collected hail samples and stored them in a mobile freezer as evidence of the extreme event.

“There was hail up to 6-centimetre which is pretty big,” he said.

“Some residents collected bigger samples. It was massive.”

Jordan said the mobile radar he was using as part of his PhD enabled him to collect valuable data from the centre of a storm, which provides a higher level of accuracy when it comes to predicting storms.

“The Boonah-Beaudesert storm corridor has double the annual frequency of hailstorms as the Brisbane CBD or the Gold Coast,” Jordan said.

“Storm season typically runs from October to March but data from the last five years indicates the seasons are starting earlier.

“This year we saw a very active period in September and October.”

Jordan said residents in Logan West can expect storms anytime in spring.

“Typically, the season really kicks off at the end of spring and then we can normally expect another uptick at the end of summer,” he said.

Jordan said because everyone has been through a storm, they attract widespread interest and excitement, particularly in Queensland.

“Weather, and more specifically storms, are a really popular subject because everyone has their own personal story or experience.

“There’s no doubt that storms are exciting, and people just want to be part of it.

“This has contributed to a growing number of recreational storm chasers,” he said.

The 2016 UQ study revealed weather conditions, in particular sea breezes, often converged over Logan West, providing optimal conditions for severe storms.

The study also revealed that storms in Southeast Queensland were more likely to be severe multicell storms rather than ‘supercell’ storms.

Bureau of Meteorology severe weather research scientist Dr Joshua Soderholm said early research, using radar data from the past 25 years, indicated storm behaviour was changing.

He said the Bureau of Meteorology was also using samples of hailstones to provide greater insights into how storms form.

Dr Soderholm, who is a hail research expert, said preliminary findings suggested Southeast Queensland-style hailstorms may become more frequent in parts of Southeast Australia that have not typically experienced these kinds of storms.

“Hail is a lot like a tree. It has rings,” Dr Soderholm said.

“We can cut through the hail and investigate hail formation and it gives us insights into the conditions that caused the storm.”

He said although the research was in its early stages, the results indicated new storm patterns could be the result of climate change.

Dr Soderholm said the bureau’s objective was to ensure no lives are lost as a result of severe weather.

A spokesperson for the Bureau of Meteorology said the bureau does not comment on storm chasing or storm chasers.

However, the Bureau of Meteorology recommends residents take storms seriously and be prepared during the storm season.

A spokesperson said when a storm threatens residents should:

  • Check the bureau website or app and listen to your local radio station for storm warnings and updates.
  • Shelter and secure pets and animals.
  • Check your yard or balcony and secure or store items that could blow around in strong winds, such as garden furniture or trampolines.
  • Park vehicles under solid shelter or cover with firmly tied tarpaulins/blankets.
  • Secure all external doors and windows and draw curtains.
  • Put valuables, medications and spare warm clothing in plastic bags.
  • Have an emergency kit and keep it handy. An emergency kit should include bottled water, a battery-operated torch, medications, copies of important documents and safety gear like gloves and shoes.

A complete list of the BOM’s storm safety tips is available at: http://www.bom.gov.au/weather-services/severe-weather-knowledge-centre/

Further details on SE QLD Storms can be found at their private Facebook group at: SE QLD Storms. Membership is free.