What do you do when your truck is lifted off the ground by the largest tornado ever recorded? If you’re Greg Johnson (’92), you take heart-stopping photographs and keep on driving.
Known as the Tornado Hunter, Johnson is the photographer and leader of a dedicated team who find and photograph extreme weather events. He’s also one of the most successful storm chasers in the world.
“Part of the reason we’ve experienced so much success is that I’ve been fortunate to witness and survive the largest tornado ever recorded on Earth,” he says. “Our truck was actually in the air.” The storm happened at El Reno, Oklahoma, on May 31, 2013, and killed three storm chasers who were on assignment from National Geographic. “They were friends of ours, on the road about half a mile behind us. It was a tragic day and our most dangerous moment.”
Johnson and his team have experienced several of these once-in-a-lifetime events. Only last June, they witnessed and photographed the first ever recorded twin F4 (half-mile-wide) tornados at the same time.
How does an Ottawa boy with a degree in Political Science end up hunting tornados?
“I grew up in Ontario, and all my friends were going to universities close by, but I decided to leave home,” he says. “Both my parents (Patricia Petrie ’68 and Doug Johnson) attended Acadia, but it was not familiar to me or to my peer group. The decision to go to Acadia turned out to be one of a long list of decisions throughout my life when there were forks in the road. Every time I made a decision to take the road less travelled, those were the decisions that have influenced who I am today.”
Johnson says that being at Acadia taught him how to learn and to be on his own and to take risks. “I spent a couple of summers in Wolfville where I didn’t have much money,” he says. “I worked at the dining hall and the Acadia Cinema. Those were tough times, but they had such a huge impact on shaping my ability to take risks today that I would never give them up.”
After a brief stint as a political staffer on Parliament Hill, Johnson got involved with hockey. In 1995, he was hired by the Western Hockey League as a referee and moved to Saskatchewan, where he still lives. “When I moved out here, I fell in love with the prairie culture and prairie thunderstorms,” he says.
Photography was always an interest, and he invested early in digital technology. Five years ago, he sold the advertising firm he had built over the previous 10 years and decided to recreate himself as the Tornado Hunter.
“I really didn’t know if I’d be able to make a living as a storm chaser,” he says, “but I’ve been able to make a much better living than when I had 27 employees and was running an advertising firm. I changed not only a career but my life.”
Now the team has a TV show called Tornado Hunters. It has been picked up by CMT in Canada for a full season starting this September and will also air in the US. “It’s a show about the lives of three storm-chasing friends and our desire to capture the world’s most extreme imagery,” Johnson says.
Storm chasing is a small fraternity. In North America, there are only about 12 professional storm chasers, and only one other Canadian.
Johnson is the author of Blown Away: a Year Through the Lens of the Tornado Hunter. The book has sold out and won’t be reprinted, because he’s working on a new one.
He also teaches workshops and gives keynote speeches all over the world.
“Whether I’m speaking to a graduation class or to a corporate organization, I speak on two main subjects,” he says. “The first is on building and leaving a legacy, whether it’s corporate or personal. For some people, their legacy is their life with their children; for others, it’s what they leave behind in their community. But I also like to talk about making changes in our lives. What I say to people is the same message I give my kids: that whether you’re 60 or 16, you can learn to do something new and take a risk. All the good stuff in life happens when you take a risk.”
Is he having fun?
“Every single day of my life, I say, ‘I can’t believe I’m making a living doing what I’m doing,’” Johnson says. “I’m the happiest guy in Canada.”
Written by Rachel Cooper ('89)
Originally published in the Bulletin, Spring 2015.