One with the weather

Alex Sahlberg's fascination with weather started while he was still in diapers. Neighbor Jan Olson remembers the little boy sitting on the beach near his home on Park Point, tossing around sand until it looked like the tornadoes he had seen on th...

Alex Sahlberg's fascination with weather started while he was still in diapers.

Neighbor Jan Olson remembers the little boy sitting on the beach near his home on Park Point, tossing around sand until it looked like the tornadoes he had seen on the Weather Channel.

And, yes, as a toddler he was a willing viewer of the Weather Channel.

"He liked his cartoons, but if you turned on the Weather Channel he would watch it all day," said his older brother, Ben Chadwick. "He really was just enamored with the weather since the day he was born."

As a preteen he took his family's video camera and starting filming the wonders created by weather. He spent weeks tracking storms until they reached Duluth, and then stood for hours in the rain with lightning tearing across the sky to make sure every minute was captured on film. His alert, interested eyes led him to a job serving as a weather watcher for local weather stations.


Two years ago, Vortex Alex, as he called himself, died suddenly from respiratory distress after fainting in the shower and aspirating. He was 18 years old.

A billboard with a picture of the weather enthusiast along with a message about Severe Weather Awareness Week went up in Hermantown at the beginning of April. Severe Weather Awareness week began Monday and ends Friday, the anniversary of Alex's death.

"It's kind of weird that it falls on that day," Chadwick said. "But it's kind of perfect for Alex. He always seemed to be in the right place at the right time, especially when it came to the weather."

A life of passion

Family and friends use one word to describe Alex: passionate.

His mother, Kathy, remembers neighbors calling in the middle of the night to report that Alex was at it again.

"It would be 2 or 3 in the morning and my 7-year-old was out of bed watching some storm over the bay," she said. "Of course I was terrified at first, but I eventually just let him go. He had plans and nothing was going to stop him. He had that kind of passion from the day he was born."

He was 11 when he picked up a video camera. He rarely put it down from that point forward. He filmed waves crashing along the shoreline, ice caves, clouds, sunsets; but his favorites were the storms.


"The minute the weather started to change and the wind started to blow, he'd be out there with his video camera," Olson said. "Whenever we get that kind of fast-moving weather it reminds me of him. That was an Alex kind of day."

By the time he was 17, he had compiled countless hours of footage taken between 1998 and 2003 onto his first edited DVD, "Real Weather Extreme Northland." The video is testimony that his passion went beyond awe; he knew the terms to describe what he was seeing, such as gust fronts, wall clouds or snow devils.

His knowledge made an impression on the professional community. He became a SKYWARN spotter for the National Weather Service and an official Minnesota Storm Chaser. He served as a Park Point weather watcher for KBJR News Channel 6 for several years and eventually became an intern at the station a few months before he died.

Sven Sundgaard, the former chief meteorologist for KBJR, remembers Alex fondly. Sundgaard is now a meteorologist at KARE-TV in the Twin Cities.

"I never saw someone with such a collection of videos and information at such a young age," Sundgaard said. "Alex had the most spectacular events in Duluth's modern record all on video; it was amazing. ... Certainly his work was well-respected in the profession by all who saw it."

Alex had intentions of turning his passion into a career. After graduating from Harbor City International, he planned to hop into his truck with his equipment and chase weather across the country. He wanted to upload the footage onto his Web site, . He died about a month and a half before graduation.

His death left a gaping hole in the school community he helped foster as a member of the first class to enroll in Harbor City.

"It was an emotional time for us," said Chris Hazleton, director of Harbor City International. "He had this infectious passion that somehow subtly looped other kids in. He had done more with what he loved than most people get done in a lifetime."


Angela Brannan, a musician and classmate, gave a tribute to Alex at the graduation ceremony. She also dedicated three songs to him on one of her CDs.

"Alex inspired," she said. "He was just so passionate and knew what he was passionate about and planned on following it. It's what everyone wanted to do, but either we didn't know what we wanted or we were scared of trying. I think of him when the wind is blowing, every time there is a storm."

Alex's impact reached beyond the city limits of Duluth. After he died, his family received hundreds of e-mails from people across the country that he met online through his weather reporting. Swarms of people showed up at his funeral -- or life celebration, as Kathy calls it -- on the beach at Park Point.

Kathy is doing her best to pick up where Alex left off. She took footage he was hoping to compile for his senior project at Harbor City and had it edited into his second DVD, Lake Superior's Winter Fury. Both DVDs can be purchased at local stores, including Bay Side Market, Northern Lights Bookstore, Electric Fetus and Barnes & Nobles Bookstore.

She tirelessly works to get his work the recognition she believes it deserves.

"I just get up every morning and trust that God has a plan for my day," she said. "I have this overwhelming passion now because of the way he was. His dreams and his life were precious, and I have to do what he can't do."

Traces of Alex still can be seen in Duluth from time to time. Every year near the anniversary of his death, a sign is put up on Park Point to honor Alex's memory. Last year it read, "Thunder in an April Sky, that's just Alex saying hi."

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