With the storms of earlier this year still fresh in our minds, most of us are hoping for calm when we look to the weather forecast — but not Colleen Webb.
The Post Office counter worker from Portglenone has become Northern Ireland’s first female storm chaser.
Colleen has been taking full advantage of the stormy days of 2022 — heading out with her camera whenever she can. And incredibly, her passion for bad weather actually developed from a childhood fear of thunder and lightning.
One of her first ever memories was being a little girl, around three years old, and travelling in a car with her dad during a thunderstorm.
“I remember being terrified,” the 28-year-old explains. “I think that’s where it all stemmed from. By the time I started school it had turned into a real phobia.
“I was bullied in the playground — the other kids would chant, ‘Look Colleen, there’s a storm coming’. It didn’t matter what the weather was doing; I was convinced a storm would come. At times I was so frightened I was even physically sick.”
Colleen’s fear led to her having days off school because she was too scared to leave the house. As a teenager she developed OCD and ended up seeing a psychotherapist.
But it was her maternal grandfather, John Frampton (86), who helped her to conquer her fear. Ironically John was a retired meteorologist and had spent 40 years working for the Met Office.
“He tried to teach me about the different types of clouds, so I knew which ones might bring a storm,” says Colleen, “but the real breakthrough came when I was 16.
“I was visiting my granda and a storm was approaching. Normally the only place I felt safe was under my duvet, but Granda said, ‘Come on, you can do it’ and we decided to sit and watch it together by the window.
“As we watched the lightning I just thought ‘wow’. It was so spectacular; I was completely in awe. My fear just seemed to fall away and be replaced by fascination.”
Colleen started learning how to read weather charts, pressure charts, and what to look for in the clouds. Instead of avoiding bad weather she became obsessed with watching storms.
When she passed her driving test six years ago she began going a step further, and taking herself out on drives in search of bad weather.
She used weather apps on her phone to read up-to-the-minute charts, allowing her to follow the path of weather fronts as they moved.
“The idea is to stay just on the outside of the storm, because that’s where you get the best photos,” she says. “I’d try to send texts to my mum, updating her, but it wasn’t always easy.
“When you’re chasing a storm you can end up anywhere. I’d go out on my days off, fill up a flask and just drive. It was all part of the adventure.”
Colleen bought some camera equipment and taught herself how to photograph the various weather events she was seeing. Most of the time it was exhilarating, but she admits there have been times when she’s been nervous.
“There was one time when I ended up driving through torrential rain in the middle of a thunderstorm near Rasharkin with lightning directly overhead,” says Colleen. “That was quite nerve-wracking. I had to just pull over and wait it out in the car.”
Colleen works behind the Post Office counter at her local branch of Eurospar and admits it can be frustrating when storms hit while she’s at work.
She explains: “I do get FOMO, worrying I’m going to miss something. Then sometimes on my days off I go out chasing and spend hours waiting while nothing happens. The weather is like that; even the best forecasts aren’t always right.”
She now regularly teams up with other weather watchers — including experienced storm chaser and photographer Martin McKenna from Cookstown — for “the craic” and because there’s an element of safety in numbers.
“Colleen’s a great girl; very passionate and dedicated,” says Martin. “As far as I know she’s the only true female storm chaser in Northern Ireland. She was terrified of storms when she was younger, yet now she’s battling her demons and chasing thunderstorms, snow storms and aurora.”
Colleen’s had some memorable moments along the way. She now goes out as often as her shifts will allow.
“In one of my favourite chases in 2020, we all ended up on this beach in Co Sligo, photographing lightning over the sea,” she says. “It was such a magical experience. I can’t believe I was once so frightened of it.
“And last year I photographed funnel clouds — the beginnings of tornados — for the first time in Northern Ireland, right here near my home.”
Colleen says one of the beauties of being interested in weather watching is that it’s completely free and it’s different every time.
“Some days are quieter than others. My worst kind of weather is dull grey skies where there’s nothing to see. But then other days you look up and there’s big dark storm clouds that just look so incredible. As a storm chaser you always have your eyes on the sky.”
Colleen’s ambition is to travel to America and chase tornados. Until then, she gets her fix via her favourite movie.
“I love Twister,” she laughs. “I have it on repeat.”
To view Colleen’s work, search Colleen Webb photography on Facebook