'Angry Planet' Explores Mother Nature's Dark Side
Intrepid stormchaser still enthusiastic after 10 years
By Joan Delaney
Canadian George Kourounis has an unusual hobby, one not for the faint of heart: he chases storms.
For more than 10 years, Kourounis has been chasingand filminghurricanes, tornadoes, desert monsoons, lightning storms and wild dust devils all over Canada and the United States.
He has filmed inside the rotation of a tornado in Oklahoma, and inside the Erte Ale Volcano in the Danakil Depression of Ethiopia, the hottest place in the world. And yes, he was on the spot when Hurricane Katrina devastated part of the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005.
These wild weather phenomena and Kourounis' experiences while capturing them on film are the subject of a six-part series premiering March 6 on OLN. Angry Planet covers Kourounis' adventures as he and his associates travel to wherever nature is providing the action.
"I consider myself to be a bit of an explorer, and I go to these places that are in extreme transition, when a hurricane is hitting a city or when a volcano is erupting," says Kourounis, who is currently filming avalanches in the Selkirk Mountains in British Columbia.
Forest fires are another force of nature that haven't escaped Kourounis' camera, and he has documented wildfires in various parts of North America for Angry Planet . He filmed the big fires in Kelowna in 2003 and in Thunder Bay last September, during the most intense late-season forest fire in the region in two decades.
Along with Angry Planet filmmaker/producer Peter Rowe, Kourounis flew above the massive flames in a helicopter while filming firefighters in a second helicopter dripped flaming jelled gasoline onto the forest.
"Sometimes you have to fight fire with fire, so they were doing this controlled burnout. The flames must have been 200 feet above the treetops. It was so hot that when I pulled my camera in from outside the helicopter it was hot to the touch."
In the first episode of Angry Planet, George visits Oklahoma City, capital of the infamous Tornado Alley. About 1,000 tornadoes touch down in the U.S. a year, many of them in Tornado Alley. The hail can be as big as baseballs in the Alley, says Kourounis, and much more dangerous.
"When the hail gets that big we immediately try and seek shelter because it can destroy your carand destroy you. Luckily hail that big is not that common, I see it maybe once or twice a year."
Kourounis doesn't head out into these storms unprepared. His stormmobile is equipped with ham and CB radios with roof antennae, devices for measuring wind speed and air temperature, a computer station for navigation, and weather radar maps.
While hurricane Katrina was making its deadly way to the Gulf Coast, Kourounis and fellow stormchaser Mark Robinson drove non-stop from Toronto to Gulfport, Mississippi. He had been tracking the storm for days, and he knew it was going to touch down along the coast near New Orleans.
The stormchasers holed up in a multilevel, steel reinforced concrete parking garage on the ocean front in what turned out to be one of the hardest hit areas. When the floodwaters started coming in on the ground level, they moved the truck up a few floors.
"We didn't get any sleep the night before because we knew how bad the storm was going to be," says Kourounis. "It was by far the strongest hurricane that I've ever experienced, and when it finally came ashore the next morning it was like being in a blender for eight hours; so much wind and so much water and so much flying debris."
Stormchasing has acted as an odd sort of therapy for Kourounis' friend Robinson. He used to suffer from clinical depression, but after he started getting up close with nature at its wildest he found his depression vanished. He accompanies Kourounis on many of his adventures.
Kourounis says he always plans an escape route, which is why he carries extensive maps and GPS navigation systems. And he has a rule that, no matter how exciting the chase or how great the storm, if somebody needs help the chase is abandoned.
To get footage the active Erte Ale volcano in Ethiopia, Kourounis had to trek 25 kilometres through the hottest desert in the world. After he donned an aluminum heat suit, he was lowered by rope 20 metres down onto the crusted surface of the lava lake. As he walked around, the volcano floor collapsed under his feet and he started sinking, which provided a few tense moments.
"It's like being on another planet because it's so inhospitable" says Kourounis. "There's poisonous gasit's like being on Venus or Mars."
For all the risky situations Kourounis finds himself in, he doesn't take chances and maintains a healthy respect for the power of Mother Nature. "I take risks but they're calculated risks," he says.
Which is why, during a lightning storm, he does most of his filming from inside the truck.
"With a tornado, you can watch the direction that it's moving in, you can get a pretty good idea what it's doing. But with lightning, it happens so quickly that you'll never even hear the thunderclap from the bolt that kills you."
Kourounis' footage has been shown on many television networks, and over the past few years he has logged more than 65 appearances on North American news programs which have tapped into his expertise.
What started out as a hobby has now become a full-time job for the avid stormchaser. He jokes that with climate change going into full gear, there won't be any shortage of extreme weather events to keep him busy.
"Now is a really good time for this because there's going to be more extreme weather events. By raising awareness and by getting people more in tune with what Mother Nature is capable of, then maybe people will be better prepared in the future."
First 6 series of Angry Planet will be aired on Outdoor Life Network (OLN) every Tuesday 9:30EST, 10:30PST, staring next week on March 6. The next 7 series will be aired in August.