Travel

Explorer-in-Residence George Kourounis discusses his career as a storm chaser

The global explorer, adventurer, and TV host highlights his most dangerous experiences, regrets, what he has learned, and more

  • Dec 08, 2022
  • 1,871 words
  • 8 minutes
George Kourounis inside Benbow Volcano, Ambrym Island, Vanuatu. (Photo courtesy George Kourounis)
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Canadian Geographic readers should be familiar with our Explorer-in-Residence, storm chaser, lava enthusiast, Can Geo Travel Ambassador and all-around swell guy, George Kourounis. It takes a special kind of individual to fly into hurricanes, abseil into erupting volcanoes, or chase tornadoes worldwide. As the host of Angry Planet, George has led expeditions into the world’s most hostile environments and won all sorts of awards for his contribution to scientific research, including holding a Guinness World Record for the first person insane enough to descend into Turkmenistan’s 69-metre-deep Darvaza gas crater (it’s one of my kids’ favourite YouTube clips.) George and I first crossed paths with our respective television shows on OLN (his was way better than mine, for the record). I thought I’d ask him some of the questions he often gets and some of the ones that seldom come his way.

George Kourounis at the summit of Semeru volcano on the island of Java. (Photo courtesy Peter Rowe)
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On what his family thinks about his adventures 

Never once has anyone in my family ever said, ‘no, you can’t do this.” They’re totally supportive. My wife and I actually got married on an exploding volcano crater in Vanuatu, so she knew what she was getting into, and we dated for nine years before we got married. I started chasing storms and doing these crazy expeditions at the same time we started going out. That evolution of our relationship and my life path have been parallel. I’ve never had any resistance at all.  When I went to North Korea, she didn’t bat an eyelash. And unlike you, we don’t have kids, so that’s not an aspect of life that we have to deal with, with all of its pros and cons.

On his most dangerous experience 

I usually answer with: ‘do you want the whole list, or just the top ten?’ I’ve witnessed the Guinness World Record for the largest tornado ever documented, it was 4.3 kilometres wide. I was in the middle of Hurricane Katrina, and for about 12 hours, it was the most dangerous place on Earth, which was terrifying. I’ve been bitten by a bat in a cave in Kenya, which is home to Marburg hemorrhagic fever, a first cousin to the Ebola virus, and I didn’t know if I was going to all my internal organs liquify and bleed out of every orifice in five days. Of all the crazy stuff I’ve been through, it was the scariest for the longest, because I could have died a horrible death. We were filming an episode of Angry Planet, and because our budgets were tight, we were going straight after to Uzbekistan, so I was thinking: what’s the quality of hospitals in Uzbekistan? The answer is not great. Fun times. If I get struck by lightning, it’s over in a millisecond. If it’s a tornado, it’s over in a few minutes, a hurricane a few hours. This was an entire week, so this one wins for fear x time. I have all these formulas, for example: danger = proximity x time. In this particular case, it was fear x time, which equals to tremendous dread that makes for good stories later.

Travel with us

Explore Bolivia with George Kourounis

Swap travel stories from around the globe with RCGS Explorer-in-Residence George Kourounis as you discover the landscapes and culture of Bolivia, including the incredible salt flats of Salar de Uyuni and the Pre-Columbian UNESCO World Heritage Site of El Fuerte. 

A volcano selfie taken at Marum Volcano on Ambrym Island, Vanuatu. (Photo: George Kourounis)
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On how he gets insurance 

It’s a simple two-step process: ask and pay. When I did a big National Geographic expedition into the firepit Doorway to Hell in Turkmenistan, I had to have insurance as a requirement. It cost me one-third of my entire expedition budget, it was through Lloyds of London. I was shocked when I got the quote, and thankfully, I didn’t have to use it. I’ve had some interesting conversations with insurance companies, sometimes great, sometimes not so great. The best was doing a Burger King commercial inside a volcano in Guatemala back in 2016. The insurance person was amazing, they were so knowledgeable.

On how he started his career

I’ve got a job you can’t go to school for, it’s something you have to create for yourself. I grew up in Quebec and always had an interest in science and nature. My hero was Jacques Cousteau, I wanted to be a marine biologist. As I got older, I got into music because I thought that’s how you meet girls, then I got into sound engineering. I used to build, design and maintain some of the biggest recording studios in North America. I had a big career doing that. Then in my late twenties, I got back into my love of nature. I wanted to travel more and get into photography. I started taking pictures of the CN Tower getting struck by lightning, which was the gateway drug to start chasing tornadoes. I teamed up with storm chasers who showed me the ropes. I learned how to forecast and navigate storms, it became a big hook for me. I was able to negotiate extra time off and save up over time, so I could chase hurricanes, tornadoes and volcanoes and still keep a full-time job. In 2006, I got Angry Planet, quit my job, and the rest is history.

George Kourounis documenting a Wildfire. (Photo courtesy Mark Rees)
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On how often he gets sick

Interestingly, I’ve never been injured or had an overnight stay in hospital. But I’ve gotten sick a lot, from crazy viruses to Dengue fever to brutal, brutal sea sickness, That’s my Achilles heel: sea sickness. I’ve been sick in more countries than most people have been to countries. 

On what he has learned on his adventures 

You can’t do what I’ve done for so many years and not pick up a few lessons. One of the things I’ve learned is how much we take a stable planet for granted. You live 99.9 per cent of your life in a world where nothing is trying to kill you. But then, something comes along – whether it’s a hurricane, tornado or flood –  and it can completely destroy everything you’ve worked for in your entire life in a minute. We don’t think about that so much. And maybe we should, in terms of disaster planning and protecting what is important to us. I’ve also learned that we’re screwing over our planet in a huge way. No surprise there. We’re on a very precarious course in so many ways, and I think the trick to altering that course is to make saving the Earth profitable. There’s a lot of pressure put on individual people, but the big changes are made by governments and corporations. A lot of these corporations have tricked people that it’s up to the individual. Yes, many individuals together are a mighty force, but people are less politically active than maybe they should be. If we don’t change our course soon, we’re going to leave an awful place for generations to come. You have to be pretty blind not to see what’s happening in terms of droughts, floods, sea level rise, pollution, greenhouse gases etc.

Being on the front lines with our conflict with nature, I feel like I’m a war correspondent.  Nature is gloriously indifferent. She doesn’t care if you have plans. She doesn’t care at all. Nature wants equilibrium. High pressure, low pressure, tectonic stresses, building up and releasing… we just get in the way. When you see the things I’ve seen, it makes you feel pretty small. But we all need to experience the feeling of awe more often, that sensation that there’s something bigger. How many times in most people’s life do they experience the emotion of awe? I’ve been so fortunate to make a career out of going to places – fire pits and ice caves and hurricanes – experiencing the awe, and then I get to share it. Maybe you don’t want to go there yourself, so I’ll absorb the risk on your behalf to document and show you what’s going on. I thrive in that, and people love seeing it.   If I can get a 10-year-old kid excited about the natural world, then I’ve done my job. The only person in the world I try to impress is 10-year-old me.

George Kourounis chasing Tornadoes. (Photo courtesy Charles Edwards)
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On his belief in superstition and lucky charms 

I am not superstitious at all. There’s nothing I use for luck, although there are some funny traditions we’ve built up over the years. For example, when I’m with the crew that chase hurricanes, we have a tradition that if we’re in the eye of a hurricane, we’re going to eat a chicken stir fry. But I’m not a superstitious kind of guy.

On the worst thing about his career

The unpredictability, the inconsistency of it, especially when you’re trying to make a living. Mother Nature doesn’t always cooperate, so there are times of feast and famine. Even with 25 years of experience, it’s hard and dangerous, and there’s a reason not many people make a living doing it. You have to go from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm, as they say. You can spend a tremendous amount of time and resources, and then nothing happens. The fact is [my career] is all nature-based, at the intersection of place and time. If you’re not in the right time and place, you get nothing to show for your efforts. And if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, you end up dead. Touch wood. Doh, I just did something superstitious!

On if he has any regrets

Any event that I choose not to go to, or can’t get to for whatever reason, I regret. I’ve done a lot of trips and expeditions where the results were not fantastic, but I don’t regret those. It’s cliché, I know, but I regret the things I didn’t do. I was not at Hurricane Ian because of scheduling conflicts. I also missed the last big eruption in Iceland. I’m experiencing chest pains just thinking about it. And social media makes it worse because you see what other people are capturing, you see what you’re missing. I’m not impervious to envy and jealousy. 

On what people should know about the weather

People always joke about how meteorologists get paid to be wrong most of the time, but they are right most of the time. Weather forecasting over the last 50 years has gotten so much better. Stop making fun of the meteorologists, they do know what they’re doing, they’re doing a good job, you’re just not paying attention. And when they say evacuate, don’t throw a hurricane party! People should also understand the difference between weather and climate, as they often confuse those two a lot. “Oh look, it’s snowing,  global warming is fake!” No, you don’t know the difference between weather and climate! Climate is what you expect, weather is what you get. People really mess that up a lot on both sides. I hate politicizing weather, but we have climate change deniers holding up snowballs and people saying a tornado was caused by climate change. It’s not that simple. It’s difficult to pin a single weather event on climate change.   

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