A large crowd gathered in a University of Alberta lecture hall on Nov. 8 to listen to one of Canada’s greatest explorers: George Kourounis. His presentation, titled “Images of Climate Change,” was put on by the City of Edmonton, MacEwan University, and the U of A.
Kourounis has chased storms for over a decade and tracks mother nature’s extreme weather conditions on a television series called Angry Planet. He polled the audience for potential storm chasers: “Who wants to join me?” An enthusiastic third of the crowd raised their hands. After showing the audience video of some of his experiences, Kourounis was sure that the number of enthusiasts would dwindle substantially.
The host joked that his job is to “poke mother nature with a stick and see what she (will do).” Before he acquired his position as the host of a series with “intense” occupational hazards — chasing tornadoes, standing in hurricanes, and taking selfies yards away from molten lava — Kourounis was an amateur storm enthusiast, or, as he explained, “a weather nerd.”
As a child, Kourounis would sit inches from the television screen and watch his hero Jacques Cousteau discover the wonders of the natural world on National Geographic. Kourounis’s proximity to the screen was not only a result of his curiosity but also his poor eyesight — Kourounis was born legally blind — and this factor afforded him a different perspective of the world. He responded to bigger pictures and wanted to be as close to the experience as possible. Eventually, he wandered away from the screen in search of the real thing. The young Kourounis rode through hail storms and jumped in flood waters while his “poor mother” waited at home, growing grey hairs.
After a few career detours, Kourounis started to indulge his fascination with stormy weather and gained a reputation as “the guy that was there when all hell was breaking loose.” With this reputation, he was eventually approached by a television producer who wanted to create a series around Kourounis’ lifestyle as an unofficial storm chaser. Kourounis advised to always say yes when someone asks to film your passion-driven pursuits.
He took the audience through the major phenomena of the natural world: tornadoes, hurricanes, volcanoes, crystal caves, and flaming pits of methane. The intensity of his voice rose as he showed personal videos of tornadoes he has chased, one of which killed three of his colleagues. Another clip was shot as Kourounis hunkered down in a concrete parkade in Mississippi while witnessing the strongest landfall hit of Hurricane Katrina, which decimated the town he was stationed in for the storm. He showcased his descent inside Marum crater, a boiling lake of lava in the volcano of Vanuatu that sounded like the “Devil’s washing machine,” and the Naica Crystal Cave found 900 feet underground, which Kourounis described as “Superman’s fortress of solitude” where he needed to don a specialized suit or his eyeballs would melt. After these astounding videos, he asked, “Still want to join me?” The hands were fewer, but the few were eager as ever.
Kourounis explained that these spectacles are “not natural disasters (but) are natural phenomena.” When the phenomena come into contact with humans, they becomes disasters. Over the life of the Angry Planet series, he noticed that storms are becoming stronger, a fact that is increasingly linked to the effects of climate change. But he wanted to inspire the audience and not leave them hopeless; no slides of starved polar bears or foreboding graphs and charts were shown.
Instead, he hoped the next generation would put him out of a job, and give him less of an Angry Planet to explore. He hoped that lectures like the one at the U of A and series like Angry Planet would spark a dialogue about the changing global climate and what we, as individuals, can do to help reduce our carbon footprints.
The crowd in the lecture hall that evening was proof of an interest in weather patterns and climate phenomena. To help make productive change, we need only connect to our childlike wonder. Kourounis began his journey as a weather nerd because he was curious, and because his vision guided him toward witnessing the big picture events in life. Ultimately, becoming “the hero” to his 10-year-old self was the pinnacle motivator for Kourounis, and that piece of advice may be what our Angry Planet needs more of.
Photography courtest of Stormchaser.ca