A Chinese storm chaser

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Few people in China savor lightning strikes more than Liu Yijing, a 21-year-old photographer who has traveled thousands of kilometers across the country to capture scenes of thunderstorms.

Darkening sky, howling wind and cloud-to-ground lightning flashes always excite the slight young man. "Nothing on Earth can compare to how I feel when I am standing in front of a massive storm," said Liu. After traveling 27,000 km and snapping around 50,000 photos of hundreds of hair-raising weather phenomena, he considers himself "a storm chaser."

While other people cover their ears to avoid thundering sounds, Liu instead claps, exclaiming with delight. Since 2020, storm chase has become a focus of his life: driving into the heart of storms, filming with equipment in hand and sharing his photography online.

His posts have gained him over 500,000 followers across social media, where he is known as Range Sifang (Four Directions). Liu also received high-profile media coverage, with his story and incredible photos featured by multiple news outlets.

He was invited to give lectures at prestigious universities, and national broadcaster China Central Television has begun to use his works.

Liu attributes his success to extensive research and adequate preparation. Before setting off, he will observe weather conditions, check the forecast and select filming locations. He handles everything, from renting a car to booking air tickets and, of course, preparing his camera and equipment.

His passion started in his childhood reading weather books his mother gave him. Born and raised in Jiangxi Province, east China, Liu has been obsessed with the processes and phenomena of the atmosphere for as long as he can remember. Unlike other children who were fascinated with cartoons, little Liu's favorite TV program was the weather forecast.

Although he majored in computer science at university, Liu devoted his spare time to meteorology. He read professional books, consulted experts and joined online groups of amateur meteorologists.

In 2018, while playing with his camera at home, Liu snapped a lightning strike. He was elated with the unexpected shot and made up his mind to focus his lens on storms from that moment on.

Capturing lightning strikes and images of storms has now become a way to earn a living. As his photos gained popularity, they also began fetching higher prices, allowing Liu to quit university and take up the hobby as a career.

His latest work was a perfect shot of a complete supercell storm churning over north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region on Aug. 22, 2021. The picture became an internet sensation and graced the cover of the international journal Advances in Atmospheric Sciences this month.

Academic circles are also fans of his work as his photos can also help in the study of weather.

"As most first-hand imagery materials about the supercell come from foreigners, Liu helps rectify China's lack of storm photos at close range," said Meng Zhiyong, a professor of physics at Peking University.

Supercell thunderstorms, potentially the most dangerous of all convective storms, are usually accompanied by hail, torrential rain and strong winds. Whilst working, Liu has had some near-death experiences.

On Aug. 1, 2020, Liu tried to shoot a squall line storm on a prairie in Inner Mongolia. To capture a complete picture of the linear thunderstorm structure rushing toward him, Liu stayed until the last possible minute, the point when the winds picked up speed.

His camera was smashed by the wind and Liu had to grab hold of the roof rack of his rental vehicle so that he would not be blown away.

Staying safe is his primary concern. He always keeps 5 to 10 km away from storms and warns viewers in his posts not to take unnecessary risks. Severe weather is often followed by magnificent skies, with rainbows, burning clouds or a colored band of lights. The more beautiful the scene, the more dangerous they may become, Liu noted.

During a chase in 2020, he felt sad when a herdsman told him the storm he pursued had damaged local crops, herds, and houses. He suddenly realized that the things he loves can bring disaster to others.

Liu has also decided to do something to help people understand nature and its influence on daily life. Alongside his awe-inspiring photos, he adds meteorological information to his social media posts, including what causes hailstones to form and how to escape from a tornado.

Liu believes that climate change has affected the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, including forest fires, hurricanes, droughts, and storms. He calls on his viewers to slow down climate change by taking emission reduction efforts, to make these events less destructive.

"I hope my efforts can help people understand nature more," Liu said. 

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