Editor’s note: Western is poised to become the country’s leading authority on tornado tracking and research thanks to a major expansion of its Northern Tornadoes Project. Read more about it.
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David Sills still remembers the smells and sounds of that mercurial evening in July 1980.
It had been humid without relief for days when late-afternoon clouds began billowing from the west and racing towards Windsor.
“They were just wild clouds. The colour was all strange and the next thing we knew everything was flying horizontally. We ran to the basement. When we came back up, all the trees around the neighbourhood were knocked down.
“It was one of these big neighbourhood events where everybody is out checking out what’s going on and talking with each other and helping each other. You tend to remember those events when you’re a kid.”
If there is an ideal city where a Canadian can grow up with an interest in extreme weather, it would be in Sills’ hometown of Windsor, the portal to Ontario’s tornado alley.
Sills is the newly announced Executive Director for the new Northern Tornadoes Project based at Western. With a goal of detecting and analyzing every tornado in Canada, project organizers know its findings will save lives, mitigate losses and strengthen our understanding of severe storm activity.
Sills comes to Western after more than two decades as severe-weather scientist at Environment and Climate Change Canada, where he has been the federal department’s public face of severe-weather forecasting and analysis.
His academic credentials include a doctorate in atmospheric science, a certificate in meteorology and an undergraduate degree in atmospheric science.
At Western, thanks to a donation from ImpactWX with supporting funding from the university for an endowed chair, Sills joins a group of fellow scientists aiming to catalogue all tornadoes in Canada.
He is breaking new ground, even as he follows in the footsteps of meteorologists he remembers seeing on Detroit television stations, each of whom had its own radar. “It was a great place to see what’s possible in weather forecasting – a hotbed of activity in terms of storms coming up from the Midwest,” Sills recalled.
Where some of his friends might have run from storms’ power and potential, Sills was fascinated by them.
In high school, he wrote projects about weather and weather forecasting and, in the process, contacted Environment Canada to determine how he might become a severe-weather meteorologist.
As soon as he was old enough to drive his parents’ car, and well before storm-chasing became a phenomenon, he drove around to take a closer look and see whether and where his hunches were borne out.
“It was beginning to be cemented in my head that I was going to do this (for a living).”
But weather wasn’t a lock.
As a guitarist/singer/composer, music was his other siren call.
“Music is something that’s been in my family for a long time. I always played something from an early age. I had to decide early on whether I was going to go into some sort of artistic endeavour, such as music, or science. I thought, ‘Well, if I go into science, I know I have a paycheque and I can do the music stuff on the side.’”
The roots rocker boasts a variety of musical influences – from The Beatles to Blue Rodeo, Johnny Cash to Neko Case. He gathered his friends and family over a cold Ontario winter to record Fifty, an album of original songs mixing Great Lakes folk, blues-based rock, and outlaw country. The album was released in February.
In addition to his songs and tour dates, his music website features a picture of Sills and his guitar, mortised into one of his storm photos.
Taking weather photos is another hobby. He has a flickr site showing favourites that include catching a bolt of lightning in an angry sky across a field of ripening canola. “Those types of images are hard to come by. It’s basically luck and trying to replicate those is difficult but fun.”
Sills sees this new work at the Northern Tornadoes Project as contributing both to science and public service about a phenomenon that has long held the power both to terrify and intrigue Canadians.
“I feel that the way we’re pursuing this project, and pursuing a partnership with Environment Canada, really contributes to that public service in that that we have more resources we can devote to this goal. It is aimed at helping all Canadians.”