We’re at the heart of winter now, which means storms along the Cape coast and bitter cold inland. If you’re looking to lean into the season, National Geographic’s (DStv 181) new series, Gathering Storm, showcases extreme weather at sea in the world’s major hurricane zones, from the Gulf of Mexico to the South China Sea and Bermuda to Philippines. How they captured their footage might blow you off your feet.

Watch now on Catch Up


The eye in the storm

The Keo Films production team, who produced the series for National Geographic, negotiated with major shipping operators, port authorities, fishing companies, oil companies and the Navies of the United States and Canada to place around 1,000 cameras in the hands of workers out at sea. They also persuaded US weather agency NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) to allow them to film inside their offices.

Over the course of a year, they gathered footage from aboard cargo carriers, oil platforms, fishing boats and warships, and even one-man fishing operations, of extreme weather conditions at sea, then handed it all to their editing teams. The filmed materials show what workers have to do in the face of the gathering storms. It takes us inside operations centres as the captains and commanders discuss how to approach the storms, using real-time data provided by NOAA. And it reveals the terrifying reality of what it looks like out in the wild when the storm strikes.


Storm chasers

Not all weather data comes from satellites safely in space. Some of it comes from the heart of the storm itself, as pilots fly directly into hurricanes that normal air traffic does everything in its power to dodge.

NOAA’s P3 Hurricane Hunter is an airborne weather station that flies meteorologists into one end of a growing hurricane and out the other. “We directly measure things that can’t be measured any other way,” says NOAA Flight Director Mike Holmes. The data that they gather to map the extent of the hurricane and the position of its eye is used to deliver accurate weather data and storm warnings to the United States coast and surrounding regions, via the National Hurricane Centre in Florida. The Gathering Storm camera aboard the plane reveals everything, from what’s on the radar, to the jolly little plastic skeleton jerking about as it hangs from the pilot’s centre window for the bumpy ride, to the racket from the rain at the hurricane’s eye wall hitting the propellers so hard that it pits the metal.


Pearl Harbour: The war on typhoons

Gathering Storm’s cameras reveal how staff at the Joint Typhoon Warning Center’s offices in Hawaii’s Pearl Harbour, the USA mainland, The Philippines and Japan co-ordinated and exchanged information, allowing them to track typhoon Hagabis (which means “speed” in Filipino) as if raced across the Pacific, gathering destructive power in October 2019. Hagabis went on to become the strongest typhoon to hit the Japanese mainland in decades, and one of the largest typhoons ever recorded – a category 5 super typhoon.

Their work prompted Japan to issue evacuation warnings well in time before the typhoon struck land in Tokyo, bringing flooding and catastrophic winds that claimed 91 lives. Some sports fans might remember that Hagabis led to the cancellation of several of the Rugby World Cup matches in Japan at the time.

The cameras reveal the quiet but determined intensity of the weather centre staff as they try to work out what the storm is going to do next and where it is headed – with all the tension of watching a man-hunt for a serial killer. Seeing the contrast between the warning centres and the footage of people on the street preparing for the storm, then its sheer destructive power and the scale of rescue and clean-up operations, underlines how important that early warning was.


Storm warning

Gathering Storm’s cameras also captured the action from major 2019 storms like Hurricane Barry in the Gulf Of Mexico, Humberto in Bermuda – which mostly snatched roofs off buildings and 90% of that year’s banana crop – and Hurricane Dorian on the US East coast. It was a significant storm season because for the fourth year in a row, weather data revealed that the storms had been of above average intensity.

It’s a phenomenon that could be linked to recent climate change. Joao Teixeira, co-director of the Center for Climate Sciences at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, says, “Within the scientific community it’s a relatively well-accepted fact that as global temperatures increase, extreme precipitation will very likely increase as well.” Watching Gathering Storm and seeing the true power of these storms, viewers might wonder what it’ll be like if more of them strike land every year.

Watch Gathering Storm S1 on Wednesdays on National Geographic (DStv 181) at 21:00 or on Catch Up.

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