As host of the Pivot series "Angry Planet," explorer George Kourounis seeks out the most treacherous and forbidding places on Earth, heading into volcanoes, wildfires, tornadoes and hurricanes. But the daredevil storm chaser is not doing it just for the thrill. He's on a mission to discover how catastrophic natural phenomena and increasingly extreme weather relate to global warming and impact our ecosystems.
In the fifth season of the series, which premieres on April 17, Kourounis embeds with firefighters battling bushfires in Australia, returns to the belly of Vanuatu's Ambrym volcano to test for greenhouse gases, and navigates the Amazon in Brazil following Teddy Roosevelt's expedition route to examine deforestation. What drives him? He shares his experiences — good, bad and ugly — in this interview with MNN.
How did you get into storm chasing and extreme weather? What fascinated you about it?
George Kourounis: As a kid, I was always interested in science and nature. I guess I just expanded on that as an adult. When I moved to Toronto, I got into photography and spent many nights attempting to photograph the CN Tower getting struck by lightning. I eventually teamed up with some experienced storm chasers in Oklahoma in 1998 and witnessed my first tornado. They taught me the ropes, and I studied like mad to learn as much as I could. It's been an obsession ever since, not just storms, but all forces of nature: volcanoes, avalanches, glaciers, fires, you name it. The power of nature is overwhelming, especially nature's extremes. There's something almost primordial about witnessing a tornado, feeling a hurricane's wind or seeing molten lava spewing into the sky. No two storms are alike, and there's always something new to see or experience.
How did you turn it into a career? And did your family think you were nuts?
Years ago, I decided that the purpose of my life was going to be to travel the world, documenting the most extreme forces of nature, then share what I've discovered with as many people as possible. Most people will never get the chance (or want) to see some of the places I've been. I absorb the risk, so that others might enjoy the wonderful spectacles of nature from the safety of their homes. There's always going to be some level of concern from my family. My mom worries more about the driving in some of the countries I visit. I think she's right!
Were environmental and global warming issues always important to you?
For sure. There is no "Planet B" for us to fall back on. This spaceship we all share is the only one we have, so it just makes sense to take care of it. It's really that simple.
How did "Angry Planet" come about?
I was already doing a lot of storm chasing, and visiting some volcanoes well before "Angry Planet" came along. The producer, Peter Rowe read about me in a newspaper after Hurricane Katrina. We met up and pitched the idea. The next thing I know, I'm crossing off bucket list items like crazy. It has really been a dream come true to be able to pursue what I'm passionate about and share it with the world. "Angry Planet" has been a tremendous vehicle for that passion.
What have been the highlights of your experiences making the show, for better and worse?
There are so many stories. The good: Setting foot inside the Naica Crystal Cave is a highlight for me. 30-foot crystals that look like somewhere Superman might live. Getting married on an exploding, South Pacific volcano…What a blast! Literally. Getting to fly into the eye of Hurricane Ike with USAF Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunters. Those guys are amazing!
The bad: Getting our tents shredded by a storm on top of a volcano. Imagine a hurricane of gravel and acidic gas. Having all our filming gear held by customs in Russia. Being away from home and my wife for so many weeks at a time. I forget what my house looks like sometimes.
The ugly: Catching Dengue fever from a mosquito bite in the Caribbean. Getting sick from a massive immune system reaction that seemed like chicken pox. I still have scars from that one. Having terrible food poisoning in the middle of the eye of a hurricane. At least it was calm in the eye!
What were your biggest challenges in shooting the episodes?
Even though we had permissions from the mayor of Portella Village in Cape Verde, the local police got scared, and demanded that we leave the volcano. It was putting on an amazing display of explosions and huge booms. We were totally safe, I've done this many times before, but they almost arrested us.
When dealing with Mother Nature, we have to be ready to expect anything, pretty much any conditions imaginable. I intentionally put myself into places where most people are fleeing from, so being prepared is a must. We carry a lot of safety gear, along with the cameras, because you just never know what's going to happen.
What's new or different about the show this time around? Where are you headed?
We're focusing a lot more on environmental and climate-change related topics. The action and adventure is still there, but we're digging a little deeper into the "why is this happening?" question. We've been filming in Cape Verde Islands. When the Fogo volcano started to erupt and a river of lava started heading for one of the villages, I hopped onto the first plane I could, and got up a little too close! In Australia, some parts are already nearly inhospitable due to heat and dry desert conditions. We managed to get inside the largest bushfire in the past 30 years! Intense is an understatement. Being in the middle of a raging forest fire, while totally blinded by smoke, and being almost unable to see or breathe is a bit scary! The Adelaide Hills fire in Australia did a lot of damage, and was more spectacular than any forest fire I've witnessed.
Tuvalu, the tiny island nation is already threatened by rising sea levels, and when we arrived, they had a day of record-breaking rainfall. I had already been to Ambrym Island in Vanuatu, and rappelled down inside the crater to the lava lake. The video went viral back in September, and I wanted to go back and bring a proper TV crew with me, as well as a geologist to help me learn more about its emissions.
What are the most urgent global warming issues right now?
Sustainability seems to be the big issue. We have over seven billion people, and there's plenty of space for everyone, but we're going to get tight on resources. Becoming more sustainable will release a lot of societal pressure, while at the same time, help keep our carbon emissions in check.
What statistics scare you most?
Every time I see a 'hockey stick' graph of CO2 in the atmosphere it scares me. That sharp jump at the right side of the graph that clearly shows the post-Industrial Revolution carbon levels. Couple that with the projections of up to 11 billion people before the population is expected to level off. I worry about future generations. They are going to have a lot of work to do. We need to start making sweeping changes.
Are the problems reversible?
Yes, I believe so. I'm optimistic. I have to be. I have hope for the future, but each day it gets harder and harder to imagine what the work will be like in 100 years.
What do we need to do to make that happen?
Massive education, sweeping changes, and serious drop in carbon emissions are just part of it. We need to make sustainability more profitable. Economics is important. They say money makes the world go round, so let's find a way to make saving the world profitable.
What are you proudest of so far?
I'm proud that I've been able to take my passion and turn it into something that has been seen around the world. I love meeting other, like-minded people who care about nature, science and the Earth. "Angry Planet" has allowed me to travel around the world, to places I’ve only imagined.
What's on your to-do list now?
So much! We still have several episodes left to shoot, so I'll be busy all through the summer. Some places I'd love to go to include: Mount Erebus, the southernmost active volcano in the world. Japan, because I've never been there. There's a cave in Mexico that is dripping with sulphuric acid, which sounds like a charming place to visit. My bucket list is long, and I'm always adding to it, especially after I strike an item off of it.
What's the takeaway message for viewers?
Have a good time, all the time, and be kind to the planet. It's the only one we have. Be respectful of nature, but also get out there. Get out of the house, take a trip. See something new. Do something you've never done before, that's the only way to get things you've never had before. Get out of your comfort zone!
Related on MNN:
- 30 of the most beautiful places in the world
- 7 places transformed by natural disasters
- Earth's most weather-resistent cultures