Punch the Eye of the Storm with TyphoonHunter
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27 October 2007:
Imagine a job that is dependent upon bad weather and staying awake for days without sleep. It requires a helmet, rain gear, and an instinct that puts hedge fund managers in New York to shame...even with the power on. That description rocks the world of James Reynolds who travels southeastern Asia in pursuit of typhoons.
Reynolds, 24, was born northeast of Birmingham, United Kingdom, in Wycombe, but calls Shanghai his home today.
"I was always fascinated when something out of the ordinary occurred in the sky," he told Think & Ask. Whether it was snowfall, thunder or wind storm, he was hooked from the age of 4. His earliest memory of weather watching was in the late 1980s during a blizzard in Great Britain. "As I grew up I always kept my eye on the sky and when I reached the appropriate age I'd be out filming thunderstorms," he said.
In 2005, Reynolds earned a scholarship that enabled him to plop right down into the world's most active storm region. "[It] didn't take me long to realize Taiwan lay in the path of seasonal typhoons, and as it happens it didn't take long for a category 5 monster to strike the island."
Reynolds has been posting video clips of his typhoon hunts on YouTube. The documentary filmmaker-in-training undoubtedly puts equipment through stress tests provided by Mother Nature. He uses a digital SLR Canon 20D camera and a Sony DCR-DVD404E video camera. "As soon as I have the means I will upgraded my video camera to a compact Sony HD camera, but they cost about $1,400 so [I'm] saving the pennies."
He said the cameras have so far survived pounding rain, winds in excess of 100 mph, and flying debris. Reynolds turns to his trusty Acer TravelMate 660 for capturing storm data and providing tracking updates when he is chasing typhoons. He also plans to invest in a satellite telephone to connect from any location no matter what the weather.
"Most important part of safety is my helmet. I also always travel with lots of spare batteries, torches (flashlights,) medical kit, etcetera, which are useful if I end up stranded somewhere for a few days," he said.
TyphoonHunter, as he is known on YouTube, graduated in 2006 from University of Edinburgh in Chinese and chases typhoons both on his own and with friend Geoff Mackley of New Zealand. "Chasing with Geoff is great since it's always useful to have an extra pair of eyes and it provides more photo opportunities," Reynolds said.
But before you, dear reader, grab your video camera and head off to southeast Asia keep in mind Reynolds faces dangerous circumstances. "I would not recommend going head long into a hurricane or typhoon for the first time alone or without having at least spoken in person to an experienced storm chaser."
"There are lots and lots of factors which need to be taken into account. I was lucky as I covered my first storms in Taiwan, which has excellent infrastructure and is very typhoon hardy, and thus got a gentle intro into the game so to speak. However covering a storm in a third world country requires a lot of preparation and even in Taiwan there are plenty of surprises which can be thrown your way and slip you up," he said.
Typhoon Xangsane during September 2006 placed Reynolds in a tough spot. "It put me face to face with the most widespread destruction I have seen," he recalled.
The typhoon claimed the lives of 279 and caused almost $800 million in damage across the Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand. "The storm devastated central Vietnam and one local official described the scene as being akin to a B52 strike," Reynolds said. "Thousands of houses were destroyed and up to 70 people killed. The resilience of the locals was amazing. The day after the storm I was out and about in the affected area assessing the aftermath and people were very hospitable and putting up a brave face -- these are some of Asia's poorest people who had just lost everything."
As recently as 6 October 2007, Reynolds and Mackley met with typhoon Krosa in Taiwan. Winds slammed the coast with 140 knot winds and the pair "punched into the eye wall" of the storm to document the impact for online viewers.
"Reaction to my work has generally been very positive which of course makes me really happy. Capturing images in the heart of a raging storm is incredibly difficult but after each trip I learn so much and adopt new techniques. Many people have said they can see an improvement in my short films," he said.
Even feedback from viewers, dozens of whom post encouraging words for his work on YouTube, have influenced his approach to filmmaking. "For example, a couple of people contacted me and said they'd really like to see more video diary stuff, so I now add that to my storm chasing films as and when it's appropriate. Another man, from Hong Kong, said he'd like to see more pictures/film of me taking wind measurements, so that's something I try and incorporate now too."
If the Internet itself was not part of Reynolds' distribution network, he said it would be near impossible to chase. "The ease of communications the Internet allows is fantastic. I'm able to liaise with weather experts and monitor U.S. Navy websites to get up to the minute updates on approaching storms.
"I'm not affiliated with a news network it would be incredibly hard to get my message out without the Internet...I wouldn't be able to use fantastic websites like YouTube and Nowpublic and Pbase," he said.
To view Reynolds' videos visit YouTube and search TyphoonHunter. Photographs are available at pbase.com/typhoonhunter
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