Meet A Group Of Wild Weather Enthusiasts From Kolkata

The folks behind Kolkata Cloud Chasers travel across West Bengal, capturing the drama behind storms, from stunning cloud formations to brilliant lightning streaks
The members of Kolkata Cloud Chasers pose with a cloud formation
The members of Kolkata Cloud Chasers pose with a cloud formationKolkata Cloud Chasers

The monsoon in India has inspired poets, writers, and travellers for millennia who have created captivating works that successfully convey the monsoon's grandeur. Much has been written about the monsoon's magic, from the rain to the spectral cloud formations and the drama of lightning and thunder above us.

Poet Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, for instance, has several works dedicated to the monsoon. Here are the song lyrics of his "Oi Ashe Oi Oti Bhairob Horoshe":

There, there they come— monsoonal clouds, exhilarating, astonishing, moisture-laden

Fragrant, earth-soaked, dense, rejuvenated

Dark-hued, sombre, glorious— ready to burst.

While the beauty of the monsoon continues to inspire individuals in a variety of ways, some follow the weather to capture the drama. They are storm chasers, who use cameras and specially outfitted trucks to track a developing meteorological event for several days. These people track storms in order to enhance advanced warning systems or to take more comprehensive and breathtaking photos.

The Kolkata Cloud Chasers

The Kolkata Cloud Chasers is an informal group that meets regularly to travel to chase clouds, storms, hurricanes, and other natural phenomena. From the highest point in the state to the furthest south in Bengal, from Sandakphu in the Eastern Himalayas to Henry Island on the Bay of Bengal, their journeys have taken them across all of Bengal.

The group's members come from various professional backgrounds, including freelance photographers and digital marketing specialists. Members include Debarshi Duttagupta (Roadrunner), Chirasree Chakraborty (Phoenix), Diganta Gogoi (Hellboi), Joyjeet Mukherjee (Boltanator), Abhishek Saigal (Thunderman), Suman Kumar Ghosh (Goodboy), Krishnendu Chakraborty (Zeus), and Indranil Kar (Albatross). The group's call signs, or nicknames, are used when using walkie-talkies to track storms because cellphone communications can be patchy.

In May, they were on the road tracking the Extremely Severe Cyclonic Storm Mocha, which made landfall in Myanmar’s Rakhine state near Sittwe township on May 14, 2023. On May 13, the spiral end of Mocha caused some cloud formations over the coasts of West Bengal. The members of KCC visited Henry Island to document those.

The Mocha effect on clouds captured on the Bengal coast
The Mocha effect on clouds captured on the Bengal coastChirasree Chakraborty

On The Trail Of Clouds And Storms

After getting to know about the trajectory of Mocha from the IMD map data, the group decided to travel to the coastal areas of West Bengal. They planned the chase to Henry Island, the last accessible beach of West Bengal, closest to Bangladesh. "We started our journey around 7 am," says Chirasree. "Every now and then the sky would become dramatic with clouds. We reached Henry Island beach at 11 am. The spiral end of the cyclone was causing intermittent clouding over the area. We also noticed a rain shaft on the horizon, over the Bay. We stayed there for a couple of hours, observing the changing shapes of the clouds. It was so thrilling to watch that we forgot to have our lunch."

In April, a few group members had taken the road towards Durgapur Expressway, chasing thunderstorms, based on app-related information. The target location was the city of Bardhaman. Located around 90 km north of Kolkata, it is considered a storm-watching hotspot with localised thunderstorms either forming here or passing through this region regularly. "When we arrived, the sky was flat, and there were no visuals of any storm formations nearby, says Debarshi. "We stopped for lunch and had almost finished when we heard thunder in the distance. We could see the south sky getting dark. We zeroed in on this particular location by the banks of river Damodar to document the incoming storm."

The sky in Bardhaman
The sky in BardhamanDebarshi Duttagupta
On the road with the equipped chase vehicle
On the road with the equipped chase vehicleKolkata Cloud Chasers

The Chase Equipment

They use top-quality cameras, lenses, tripods, filters, battery chargers, and lightning detectors as part of their photographic equipment. They utilise several GoPros, an Insta 360 camera, a DJI Pocket, and video cameras for vlog coverage. During storm chases, mobile radios (free bands), tablets, and phones with preloaded apps are used as tracking and communication tools to communicate between teams. The group has several "chase vehicles" named SCIFs (Storm and Cloud Chasing Four Wheelers). The SCIFs have extra recovery tools, such as tow straps, winches, sand ladders, etc.

The members of KCC were inspired and guided by a number of well-known American tornado chasers they had met through social media before the organisation was founded in 2014. India's weather forecasting techniques at the time were not very accurate. The IMD website used to update around every half-hour. Weather maps are now updated minute by minute thanks to modern weather forecast systems from the Indian government, which include numerous weather satellites. "We have learned from experience in all these years with basic knowledge, and that has helped in situations where these apps don't work due to unforeseen circumstances," they say.

Stories From The Road

Storm chasing is not exactly a familiar and known activity in India, so the group tends to attract attention on their travels. "Wherever we stop with our decked-up storm chase vehicles, curious locals ask us about the cars - what exactly they are supposed to do," says Chirasree. "Most of them think that we are crazy city folk running behind these powerful weather phenomena. Sometimes they assume we are a 'film party'—we had one incident where they assumed that the male chasers in our group were villains trying to kidnap the ladies."

The Change In Weather Patterns

The group says they have noticed several changes in weather patterns over the years. "There's been a noticeable change in the weather patterns here. Recently, we saw how Cyclone Jawad formed over the Bay of Bengal and came close to the Puri coast. Its trajectory was a rare case during that time of the year. Also, we have seen that the kalboishakhis (nor'westers in Bengal) and localised storms are becoming more intense. The number of lightning strikes is increasing, and they are more deadly. The kalboishakhis tend to bypass Kolkata, precisely South Kolkata, and are taking the New Town route. The heat island effect and lack of water bodies are the main reasons.

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