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The Gap Year Blog

Into the Wild Meets: Explorer and Stormchaser George Kourounis

3 Jul 2018 13:10 PM
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Photo credit: Storm Chaser | George Kourounis

George Kouronis is a Canadian explorer, stormchaser and all round adventurer. He specialises in documenting extreme weather, and travels across the globe to track down never before seen footage of natural phenomena. His TV show ‘Angry Planet’ shows a wide variety of natural disasters; from avalanches to exploding volcanoes. Through the wonderful medium of skype he shared with us some of the experiences that his adventures have led to.

You’re sometimes described as a storm chaser, what exactly does that involve?  

Being a storm chaser is only one small part of what I do. Really it’s how I started,  I had to learn how to weather forecast, it was all self-taught, so I could find out where the worst weather was going to be and document it through videos, still photographs, really anyway I could. Sometimes it was part of a tour company fly to Oklahoma two week trips to take tourists to see storms. It’s really taken on a variety of different means. The things it’s led to have been wonderful, I’ve worked for a variety of different TV programmes including my series Angry Planet. 

Photo credit: Stormchaser | George Kourounis


What started you off travelling and exploring?

When I was a kid, I loved science and the outdoors but I didn’t start extreme travel till later in life. My first tornado trip was in 1998 and I was 28 before I really started getting into the travel aspect of it all. It snowballed when I landed Angry Planet. Chasing tornadoes sort of expanded into travel, and it’s just one of the elements of the whole experience. You have to go where the action is. By virtue of doing that I became traveller and have been lucky enough to visit every continent multiple times and go to places that most people couldn’t find on a map. I even visited North Korea last year!

Do you have a favourite place to travel to?

I really love rugged mountainous places like New Zealand, Iceland and Indonesia. They are so beautiful. I sometimes see New Zealand as a smaller version of Canada.

Don’t say that to any New Zealanders!

 I don’t mean that in a negative way! It’s just that it’s more condensed. It still has mountains, beaches, metropolitan cities, volcanoes, all different types of geography. It’s just on a much smaller scale. You can drive from one side of New Zealand to the other easily. It’s probably one of the reasons that Lord of the Rings was filmed there! 

 

Photo credit: Stormchaser | George Kourounis

 

 

Has there been any natural situation that’s been particularly scary? Other than diving into a volcano.

Do you want the full list or just the top ten?! I’ve had a lot of scary encounters over the years. I had a komodo dragon try to eat me for lunch, I had lighting strike so close to me I could feel the heat from the electricity and see sparks fly from the ground. One time a tornado pushed over a car I was in. Another time I had to dodge pieces of lava flying through the air. Then I got Dengue fever from mosquito. You can plan and plan and plan but sometimes things will go wrong.  

Recently, you did some work in Canada’s far north with polar bears what was that experience like? 

Yeah! I was in Northern Manitoba and it was fascinating, it’s highest density of polar bears in the world. A colleague of mine is a polar bear specialist, so was demonstrating the proper way of approaching polar bears on foot. It was very intense. There was a large male that was very interested. You can’t turn and run as that’s worst thing to do but it’s the only thing your brain wants to do! But that is what would make the bear go into predator mode. Instead we had to make deep grunting sounds and show that we were big and intimidating, but initially it was still interested so took some steps towards us. We just had to push back by getting closer and show that we were not being afraid. Eventually we got him to lose interest, but it was scary! Polar bears are strict carnivores and only eat meat; unlike all other bears who are omnivorous.  They were also on land rather than sea ice so the seals they feed on had not been around for months.

Photo credit: Stormchaser | George Kourounis


In your work have you noticed the effects of climate change? 

Here’s the thing, climate is what you expect but weather is what you get. Climate by nature is the average of weather over 30 plus years. To really determine how things are changing you have to step back big picture. Instead we really need to look at the frequency of these events, and the escalation at the extreme ends of the scale with events like floods and droughts. So far there’s no hard evidence that tornado frequency is linked to climate change but realistically who knows. 

Has there been anything in particular you’ve learn from making ‘angry planet’?

Lots of things! It’s been amazing being on the front lines and seeing first hand effects of climate change. In places like Bangladesh people have lost their homes and lost their land. Farmland doesn’t exist anymore. Cities like Dhaka are overcrowded, and you’re already seeing climate refugees.  I’ve seen the effects of melting permafrost; it releases vast amounts of methane gas, which is a greenhouse gas, which causes the atmosphere to warm even more, which causes the permafrost to melt even more, which releases more methane gas… It could become a runaway feedback loop. You also get to meet some of the most interesting people. It doesn’t matter if I meet a fire fighter or a volcanologist they will only show you the best they have. People love to show off what they do when you turn up with a film camera. This also means I’ve been privileged enough to do things that many people don’t have the opportunity to do like flying in helicopters over forest fires, or into the eye of Hurricane Ike c130 air force plane It’s great to experience these things myself but also gives people a chance to see things they never would otherwise. 

Photo credit: Furious Earth | George Kourounis

 

Do you have any upcoming expeditions or research you’re particularly excited for? 

Well I was supposed to be in the South Pacific now, but regrettably I had to have surgery. A little upset about missing that! But in the fall I’m guiding a photography trip around South Africa. I’ve never been to that area of the world before so it’s a real treat. We’re starting in South Africa then travelling up through Namibia, Botswana, and then into Zimabawe. I’ll be teaching photography and sharing stories with my students so it should be a lot of fun. 

What advice do you have for young people looking to get involved in travel or expeditions?

Get outside! Put the phone down and go outside. I’m an explorer, and we are all born as explorers. We have curiosity for the world around us as soon as we can crawl. At some point we lose that curiosity if it’s from life or work or school, it seems a force sucks curiosity out our souls. We have a scale and on one side we have fear and one we have curiosity, and the only way to get rid of fear is to gain curiosity. So study, learn, and get outside!  Appreciate nature as we as a species only care about things we are aware about. Remember a little dirt never hurt anyone!

By Marnie Woodmeade- Online Journalism Intern

Frontier runs terrestrial & marine conservation, community, teaching and adventure projects in over 50 countries - join us and explore the world!