Chasing China’s Perfect Storms
Like a scene from a sci-fi movie, a storm resembling an alien mother ship approaches from afar and slowly descends.
This was a fantasy Liu Yijing, 21, had back when he was in junior high school, around the time he became a weather geek. The mother ship is a cluster of tornadoes known technically as a “super thunderstorm cell.” Compared with the United States, China’s climate overall is much milder: Where the former battles on average more than 1,000 tornadoes per year, the latter has fewer than 50.
The day it came true, though, he was excited beyond words. Around 1:30 a.m., a dense blanket of black clouds descended on the city of Qiqihar, in the northeastern Heilongjiang province, as the thunder and lightning grew dangerously close.
In 2021, Liu became China’s first professional storm photographer. Since then, he’s traveled more than 24,000 km through 11 provinces and regions in order to capture hundreds of spectacular storms. “I film and photograph storms on the motherland,” he proclaims proudly in his vlog that has drawn around 130,000 followers on Douyin — China’s TikTok.
The perfect storm
At 4 p.m. on Aug. 22, 2021 in Tongliao, a city in Inner Mongolia, menacingly dark mammatus clouds — derived from the Latin word for ‘breast’ or ‘udder’ due to the lumpy growths that hang from their underside — gathered in the sky. Along the horizon, the evening sun’s final rays shone on the gentle hills that flanked the grassy plains.
In less than 20 minutes, currents of wind rapidly converged into swirling cones resembling tentacles, stretching all the way to the ground. Liu drove determinedly towards the storm’s center. It was so dense that, from a distance, it looked like a wall.
A tornado was on the way. He had arrived just in time to shoot it, but it was still too early to celebrate. Some storms sputter out and die prematurely. It’s only considered a successful chase if you document a weather event from start to finish, capturing all the stages in its life cycle.
Liu filmed the storm just as it was forming and resembled a dense cauliflower. The storm grew bigger and droplets inside the clouds produced rainbows, like a curtain woven from technicolor twine. At the peak of the storm, bolts of lightning rushed upward from the earth to meet the sky. Finally, as it dissipated and formed a tremendous arcus cloud, the evening sun set the clouds aflame and created a double rainbow.
Few people have the opportunity to see such a meteorological wonder unfold in front of their eyes.
When night sky photographer Dong Shuchang first met Liu in 2021, he had no idea that this “kid” in front of him “had such a unique career.” Liu is a gangly young man with a boyish face and pale skin who came from a humble background. He is cautious about his safety and plans carefully every time he goes out to chase storms.
Feng Zhicheng, a friend of Liu’s, first met him through a club for meteorology enthusiasts in high school. During the summer vacation of their sophomore year, the duo visited the local meteorology bureau. Feng recalls how enthusiastic Liu was discussing meteorology with the staff while he stood to one side.
But the two high school friends have since gone in different directions. Feng now works in finance, while Liu pursues a career in storm photography. “I was so busy with my studies that I just didn’t have time for my hobbies,” Feng recalls. Today, he only studies radar charts and predicts weather for his family as an amateur meteorologist.
Feng can’t help but wonder: “How come photography and meteorology stayed as hobbies for me, but grew to be a career for him?” He believes that the answer lies in Liu’s disposition. “He’s a headstrong, forthright kind of guy,” he says, adding that Liu didn’t hesitate to devote himself to something that others would not take seriously.
While most people who take up photography simply take pictures and see how they turn out, Liu devoured stacks of theory books before picking up the camera. In his sophomore year in college, Liu began to turn down Feng’s invitation to hang out at night because he had to get up early to capture the sunrise.
Every year from March to September, Liu travels from the south to northeast China and Inner Mongolia to chase the storms. In the north, the relatively flat terrain offers sweeping panoramas. Towns are less dense, which makes traffic a rare obstacle — an important consideration when one needs to step on the gas for a weather event. The dry air also makes it easier to produce sharper images of storms in their entirety.
Three to five days before a trip, Liu delineates an area of a few hundred square kilometers where he predicts a storm is likely to occur. If the area meets the three criteria listed above, he makes it his next destination. Upon arriving, he locates a driver who’s brave enough for the job. Sometimes, he is also accompanied by fans who come along for the ride.
“No rest for the weary, it’s like going into battle,” Liu says. Storms can come and go quickly, disappearing into thin air in a matter of minutes.
In the front passenger seat, he switches back and forth between several road maps and radars on his laptop, trying to work out the best observation point. “We spend hours and sometimes even days on the road to capture just a few minutes of footage, or nothing at all,” he explains. But such uncertainty is precisely what draws him to this unusual career. “If we knew exactly where and when storms would take place, where would be the fun in that?” he says.
“If you miss one tornado, there are still a ton of exciting weather events out there waiting for you,” Liu adds. This is also how he approaches life in general. From a young age, he dreamed of becoming a weatherman after high school, but a prolonged illness at a crucial moment in his studies disrupted this plan.
But Feng was certain that this hadn’t set his friend back. “He never gave up. Otherwise, how could he have become a storm photographer?”
In the second term of his freshman year in college, Liu discovered his second passion — photography. But as he found himself constantly imitating other people’s work, he came to doubt his potential in the field. He began to ponder what he could produce that would be truly unique.
Combining seven years of amateur meteorology with photography may come as a natural solution, but it’s easier said than done. “It’s not very realistic to do this in China, to think that you can shoot the kind of storms seen in other countries,” he says. But, eager to carve out a path in life, he nonetheless gave it a go.
It was on Aug. 1, 2020 that Liu was finally convinced that this could be a viable career. A shoot in Hulunbuir, another city in Inner Mongolia, produced a work that he was truly proud of. Since then, he has resolved to do it professionally.
Dangers and Responsibilities
Liu’s most dangerous encounter with a storm was also in Hulunbuir, where he photographed an arcus cloud formation. These are rare, low-lying clouds that sit atop turbulent currents of air and are capable of setting off violent windstorms. To capture every moment of a storm’s evolution, he was determined to see the whole thing through.
Just as he was about to stop filming, the winds lifted up a wall of sand several dozen meters high along the horizon, which rushed forward at a speed that took him by surprise. With little time to react, he quickly latched onto the luggage rack on the roof of his off-road vehicle. For a moment, the wind blew so hard that his feet lifted off the ground.
He later heard on the radio that the strength of winds in the city had reached a maximum of 11, the second-highest level on the Beaufort scale.
Since then, Liu has come to understand meteorology better and is confident that he can dodge the danger when chasing storms. “If you can ascertain the storm’s structure and where it’s located and heading to, you can keep safe,” he says.
But such confidence must come with caution. Fans who overestimate their meteorological knowledge and capability had imitated him in the past. He once received a message from a fan saying, “I’m on the roof of my building filming a lightning storm. A bolt just struck right next to me. Should I go inside?” This inspired him to add a warning at the end of each video that says “Storm photography is dangerous. Please understand the risks.”
Even so, accidents are bound to happen from time to time. On one occasion, he and his driver were caught up in a storm that approached much faster than they’d estimated and they were almost injured by hail. When he looked at the data after the incident, he discovered that the location of the radar station on the map was off by about 30 km. He wrote to the China Meteorological Administration about the discovery, from which he quickly received a reply. “It was a freak event. If I didn’t go after the storm, then no one would have known about the discrepancy.” he says.
Some people view Liu’s excitement for storms as inappropriate, given the destruction they cause. When asked about this criticism, two of his friends told the same story.
In August 2020, Liu met a herdsman while filming a storm. After learning of Liu’s work, the herdsman became upset and said: “You people should film us instead. Do you have any idea how bad the storm was this afternoon? Hail destroyed the crops I’d spent all year growing and smashed the glass panes on my rickshaw.”
Liu didn’t know what to say. The encounter haunted him for months. Is it right to find excitement in something that causes misery for others? Even if he hadn’t met this herdsman, he knows that one day he would be confronted by the aftermath of a disaster.
The extraordinary video footage and photos he took of the storms in 2021 were something that, he believes, came out of sheer luck and couldn’t even be created with “a decade of hard work.” There were more storms than ever to chase that year, which meant more disasters for the people that year.
Liu estimates that 2021 could be one of the three years that saw the most extreme weather events since the beginning of the 21st century. Tornadoes were seen in Suzhou, Wuhan, and many other places, while torrential rainfall ravaged the provinces of Henan, Shanxi, and Shaanxi.
Liu has decided to use his social media influence and knowledge to raise public awareness of these natural disasters.
He overcame his camera shyness to create a series of educational videos, in which he responded to various questions from his followers. He covered topics such as how to shoot a lightning storm safely, how tornadoes are formed, and how to protect against them, as well as why the rainstorms were so strong in Shanxi province.
Gradually, viewers of his videos have changed from only showing admiration of Liu’s work in their comments to recognizing the danger inherent in these meteorological wonders. For example, the breathtaking glacial blue clouds are a harbinger of hail and one should take cover immediately upon seeing them.
Liu is now well aware of the storms’ destructive power and the danger they bring, but he is still fascinated by storms. They have taught him how to find the silver lining.
Another perk of storm chasing for Liu is that he is able to put meteorological theory into practice. In March, a photograph he took offering a detailed view of a mesocyclone and wall-cloud formation appeared on the cover of the SCI journal “Advances in Atmospheric Science.” Since then, some meteorology classes in China have begun to use his work in mesoscale case studies, whereas in the past they could only rely on foreign photos.
For now, Liu only has his career in mind and wants to avoid “pointless” water cooler conversations. While he enjoys his work and even makes some income, it can come at a cost. Once, after a collaboration fell apart, he decided to travel to a remote desert to camp under the starry skies with his friend as an escape.
When Liu sees other photographers bringing their girlfriends with them on shoots, he would sigh with envy to Feng. But Feng, never missing a chance to tease him, would jest: “As if you had time to fall in love!” Liu would smile back silently.
The COVID-19 disruptions this year have affected both Liu’s filming opportunities and income, but he remains hopeful and only wants to live in the present.
“All you need to know is that tomorrow will be a better day,” he says.
Reported by Nikki Huang.
A version of this article originally appeared in The Paper. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and is published here with permission.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Zhi Yu and Elise Mak.
(Header image: Mammatus clouds and lighting in Ulanqab, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, August 2020. Courtesy of Liu Yijing)