Stormhorn.com Returns: A Modest But Happy Summary of The Year’s Storm Chases

Wow! More than a year has passed since I've posted in this blog. So much has happened, some of which amounts to a veritable sea change in my life. But I'm not going to get into that here. Relevant for Stormhorn.com is this: the site's URLs, which acquired an unwarranted and unwanted prefix when I was forced to switch from my superb but now defunct former webhost to Bluehost, are now fixed, and this blog is properly searchable and functional again.* Already, in just a couple days, I've seen three sales of my book The Giant Steps Scratchpad, and hopefully this site can once again gain some traction as both a jazz saxophone resource and a chronicle of my obsession with storm chasing.

As the dust began to settle from a painful but beneficial transition, I found myself with the wherewithal to finally chase a bit more productively and independently than I have in a long time. It felt wonderful—wonderful!—to hit the Great Plains again in a vehicle that is trustworthy, economical, and comfortable for driving long distances. Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota—hello, old friends. It was so good to see you again at last, such a gift to drive your highways and take in your far-reaching landscapes . . . and yes, to exult in your storms, your wild convection that transforms your skies into battlegrounds of formidable beauty.

It is a long drive from Michigan to tornado alley, eight hundred miles or more just to get to the front door. Ironically, I could have spared myself most of my first trip. It landed me in Wichita overnight, then on to chase the next day in southwest Kansas and northeastward almost to Salina. No tornadoes, though. They were there, all right, but I was out of position and uninclined to punch through a bunch of high-precip, megahail crud along the warm front in order to intercept potent-looking (on the radar) but low-visibility mesocyclones. Two days later, though, on May 20 in northwest Indiana on my way back home, the warm front was exactly the place to be, and I filmed a small but beautiful tornado south of Wolcott. It was my one confirmed tornado of the year.

A few weeks later I hit the northern plains with my friend Jim Daniels, a retired meteorologist from Grand Junction, Colorado. It was his first chase, and for me, one of the blessings, besides the good fellowship and opportunity to build our new friendship, was introducing someone to chasing who already had his conceptual toolkit assembled. No need to explain how a thunderstorm works or how to interpret radar—Jim's a pro; I just handed him my laptop, let him explore the tools, and we were ready to rumble.

Except—no tornadoes.

Then came August and a shot at severe weather right here in Michigan. I tagged along with a slow-moving, cyclic, lowtop supercell with classic features through the western thumb area of the state. It was nicely positioned as tail-end Charlie, sucking in the good energy unimpeded. A little more instability and it could have been a bruiser. As it was, it cycled down to the point where I thought it was toast, just a green blob on GR3, at which point, faced with a long drive home, I gave up the chase. Naturally the green blob powered back up and then spun up a weak twister ten or fifteen minutes later.

I didn't mind missing the tornado. Well, not much. I had chased about fifty miles from Chesaning to south of Mayville, about two and a quarter hours, and gotten plenty of show for my money—rapidly rotating wall clouds, a funnel or two, and some really sweet structure of the kind you rarely see in Michigan. Then on the way back, as a cold front swept in, the sunset sky was spectacular.

Waterspout season has also come and gone, and I hit the lakeshore a number of times. One of those times was fruitful, and I captured some images of a couple picturesque waterspouts out at Holland Beach. They were all the more interesting because they occurred southwest of a clearly defined mesocyclone. But I'll save that and a pic or two for a different post. It deserves a more detailed account, don't you agree?

Stormhorn.com is about jazz saxophone and improvisation as well as storm chasing. So if jazz is your preferred topic, stay tuned. It'll be comin' at ya. Got a few patterns and licks to throw at you that I think you'll enjoy.

That's all for now. Stormhorn.com is back in the race.

  ____________________

* The one exception is the photo gallery. Photos in individual posts work fine, but the links on the photos page don't work.

Also, formatting is messed up in the text of a lot of older posts. So I still have some issues to work through with BlueHost. I'll probably have to pay to get the image gallery working right again; hopefully not so with the formatting stuff.

Storms and Jazz: A Late Summer Update for 2015

A few months have elapsed since my last post, which covered the Great Galesburg Earthquake.* I've been quite busy with book editing and copywriting and with a move in June from Caledonia to Hastings. So storm chasing this year has once again been mostly theoretical. If there's anything good about that, it's that missing out on yet another chase season hasn't bothered me as much this year as it has in the past. There's a lot to be said for loving what one does but not being owned by it. That's not to say, though, that there weren't times this spring when memories of past chases washed over me, and thoughts of towers punching up into the troposphere, of gorgeous storm structure, and of the smell and feel of Gulf-moistened inflow whisking across the prairie grasses toward an updraft base, made me wish like anything that I was out on the Plains once again. Well, one takes life as it comes, and part of its lesson is to look for and appreciate the good one has rather than bemoan the good one is missing. Lack of chasing has been compensated, at least somewhat, by an increase in musical opportunities. And at this time in my life, I think it is important that I take those opportunities, which are rewarding aesthetically and which augment my finances and pave the way to more gigs, more musical involvements, and a broader future doing the other thing besides storm chasing that I love. Don't misconstrue this to mean that I've died to chasing. That's not likely to happen; once chasing is in your blood, it becomes a part of you, and it has been in my blood for many years. No, it's simply to recognize times and seasons, and to refuse to be shaped by the obsessiveness that is a very real aspect of storm chasing culture. I'm too old not to know better by now, and I'd be a fool not to live by the wisdom I've gained. One of what Paul the apostle called the "fruits of the Spirit" is self-control. Restraint. The ability to judiciously govern one's impulses—not squelching them, but rather, choosing not to let them run roughshod over other very important things in life. With that little preamble . . . severe storms are in the forecast for later today, and playing my saxophone has been very much in the foreground of my life lately, and this post will cover a little bit about both storms and jazz. Weatherly Speaking Yesterday evening I gave a presentation on storm chasing at the William P. Faust Public Library in Westland, Michigan. It was a great time with a small but engaged audience of roughly twenty people. My presentation runs around an hour-and-a-half, including time for questions at the end. However, I encourage my listeners to ask questions during the presentation as well, as I think an interactive format makes things more interesting and develops a connection with my audience. This presentation was my second at this library and my fourth in all, and in my opinion, it was my best. With each one, I feel more familiar with my material and more at ease and spontaneous as a public speaker. Once I share the ten-minute clip of my March 2, 2012, chase of the Henryville, Indiana, tornado, I've got a captive crowd, and I can then move on to basic storm forecasting, supercell structure, and tornado safety, with a strong emphasis on safety. In the process, I make a point of advocating for NWS forecasters, explaining why weather professionals in Michigan have a particularly tough job protecting the public; and of debunking the largely mythical mantra of "We had no warning," strongly insisting that the responsibility for safety rests in people's own hands. My sister, Diane, came with me and in fact did the driving, and it was a blessing to spend time with her. She's a busy gal these days, and I'm a busy guy, and we just don't get to spend much quality time together. So the chance to get away with her for an afternoon and evening was a gift. Plus, now she knows what my presentation is like, and how it can be adapted if the school where she teaches, Forest Hills Northern, wants to bring me in sometime. All in all, yesterday went beautifully. And now today the potential exists for severe storms this afternoon and evening, contingent upon sufficient CAPE and adequate shear. The SPC even indicates a 2 percent tornado risk, but that's Michigan for you—just enough to tease, and maybe there'll be a spinup or two on the east side of the state. As I write, noon is at hand, a brisk southerly surface wind is playing through the tree branches in the backyard, and breaks in the clouds and a dry slot moving in from the west suggest a buildup in instability. Time will tell, but I anticipate some kind of local chase and am ready to roll. Music These past few weeks have been filled with more music than I've seen in I don't know when. I played my first gig as a strolling saxophonist for the VIP pre-grand opening of Tanger Outlets here in Grand Rapids. That was fun, and a nice piece of change, and it was all the more enjoyable thanks to a chance to sit in with Mark Kahny and Bobby Thompson, who were performing onstage at a different location in the outdoor mall. Then two days later came the first of two Saturday evening gigs with My Thin Place, a collective led by bassist Dave DeVos and featuring Mike Dodge on guitar, Dave Martin on vibraphone, and Ric Troll and Fritz von Valtier alternating in the drum chair. The venue for both dates was the outdoor patio at Sandy Point Beach House, a restaurant right by the lakeshore between Grand Haven and Holland. It's as idyllic a setting as you can imagine for a jazz gig, and the music this combo performs—a mix of ECM-style tunes, original compositions, and American songbook charts—was the perfect complement to outdoor dining. After the gig at Tanger Outlets, Mark Kahny contacted me about joining him and Bobby for a gig at the What Not Inn in Fennville. I was delighted! These guys are superb, not only musically but also as entertainers who know how to engage their audience, and we gelled beautifully in that small but popular setting. The result was musical magic. Guys, if you read this, please bring me aboard again real soon. I love making music with you! Now let's talk about Big Band Nouveau. Whew! Three major gigs in a week in Grand Rapids, starting with the West Michigan Jazz Society's Monday evening Jazz in the Park concert at Ah-Nab-a-Wen Park on the riverside; then Thursday night at Bobarino's at The B.O.B., with a wonderfully supportive audience; and concluding with a Sunday afternoon encore performance at the GRand Jazz Fest on the Rosa Parks Circle stage. What can I say about this band? The charts are contemporary, challenging, and tasty, giving soloists plenty of room to stretch; and the musicians are outstanding—a bevy of strong soloists with individual voices. No wonder this band gets standing ovations! Its star is rapidly—and deservedly—rising, and I am privileged to be a part of it. To top it all off, later Sunday afternoon I attended Mark Kahny's annual music bash at his house in northeast Grand Rapids. This was my first time there, and I had an absolute blast. Mark clearly designed his outdoor deck with the idea that it would serve as a stage for performances, and I joined him and Bobby to provide music for a legion of Mark's fans. He's been doing music for a long time, and people love him because he loves them. The party is for them, and they come, and it's a beautiful thing. My old friend Freddy DeGennaro was also there with his guitar, as were several vocalists, and the music just flowed. I left Sunday evening feeling both tired and elated, appropriately depleted yet also energized. It was a great time, and an inspiring ending to a hot, humid, sweaty, and totally fantastic August day. Speaking of which, another such high-humidity August afternoon is unfolding, and it's time for me to unfold with it. Dewpoints are ranging from 68 to 72 degrees and the first line of storms has organized east of I-69/US 27. I bid you sayonara, dear reader. I've got a shower to take, a book to edit, and, in a few hours, storms to enjoy. ________ * Update: reports of prehistoric reptiles released from magma-spewing fissures remain unverified and should be viewed as suspect.

When the Apartment Shakes: The May 2, 2015, Michigan Earthquake

About twenty minutes after noon yesterday, as I was sitting in my couch, unperturbed as a turtle on tranquilizers, suddenly my apartment began to shake and rattle, and an indescribable sound filled my ears. My first thought was "What the . . . ? What the devil is my downstairs neighbor doing?" If he was rearranging furniture, then he was doing it with an earthmover. The shaking continued for ten seconds, maybe fifteen. Then it quit, just like that. It took me a few seconds to grasp the obvious: I think we've just had an earthquake. That's what it was: a 4.2-magnitude earthquake centered 3.5 miles below the earth's surface about forty miles south of me near Galesburg, Michigan. If a 4.2 quake doesn't sound impressive to those of you on the West Coast, it nevertheless was enough to generate interest around these parts. I myself was mildly surprised, or so I surmised from the fact that my eyeballs had protruded three inches from their sockets and required repositioning. Somewhere in my reading on the event yesterday (I can't relocate the source), I learned that, due to geological differences between the West Coast and the Midwest, quakes in this region tend to be shallower, but the energy they expend is often felt more intensely across a larger area. Yesterday's quake might have rattled a few coffee cups in San Francisco, but here in West Michigan, it actually caused isolated instances of light structural damage: fractures in the outer walls of a few buildings, cracks in an asphalt parking lot, and fissures in the earth spewing magma as prehistoric reptiles emerged from subterranean caverns.* Michigan is hardly the nation's earthquake capitol. This isn't a region thick with active faults. Still, we do get the very occasional rumble. The largest in Lower Michigan's recent history was a 4.6-magnitude quake that occurred on August 10, 1947. Rated VI on the Modified Mercali Intensity scale (MMI), that one, also centered in roughly the same area as yesterday's, brought down a few chimneys and did some other notable damage. By comparison, yesterday's quake merited a V on the scale. The MMI scale describes a V thus: "Felt by nearly everyone; many awakened. Some dishes, windows broken. Unstable objects overturned. Pendulum clocks may stop." Yeah, that sounds about right. People felt this quake all across Lower Michigan, from Holland to Grand Rapids to Saginaw, and as far west as Chicago and as far east as northern Ohio. In other words, it was no small deal. Amazingly, it still escaped some people's notice. Not mine, though. I've walked through a number of smaller quakes without ever knowing about them till later in the news, when I'd hear reports of so-and-so noticing the china rattling in their cabinet. I always felt a bit disappointed, robbed of an experience through failure to have a china cabinet on hand when I needed one. But as of yesterday, I can finally say that I've lived through an earthquake—the Great Galesburg Earthquake of 2015. "Great" is of course a relative term. If you live near the San Andreas Fault, yesterday's episode would have seemed like a gnat fart. But it was pretty great for West Michigan. It caused no real harm, but it left plenty to talk about and a cool memory.
* Parts of this statement may require verification.  

Thoughts on the I-94 Pileup near Kalamazoo

By now, the whole nation has viewed a blizzard of video clips of the massive and deadly 193-car/truck pileup on I-94 in Galesburg, Michigan, between Kalamazoo and Battle Creek. The incident occurred just forty miles straight south of where I live. Since I'm well-acquainted with both that highway and what yesterday's weather was like, I'll share a few thoughts. First, winter storm warnings were in effect, and people were cautioned not to venture out if they didn't have to. No one can say they weren't warned; the NWS and media did their jobs. Moreover, some sections of highway were closed due to extreme driving conditions, something that just doesn't happen in this state. Second, and significantly, I-94 is a major east-west truck artery. Whenever I'm on it, I'm struck by the number of semis I see. There are a lot of them, considerably more than on I-196, I-96, and US-131. Of course, there are plenty of big rigs on those highways as well; there just seem to be more on I-94, to the point where I feel like truckers own that particular interstate. This is nothing against truckers and not some kind of moral issue; it's just my observation. If an accident happens on that road, then if it doesn't initiate with a semi, it can easily and almost immediately involve one . Third, roads yesterday were extremely icy. On my drive to and from Caledonia to my part-time job in Hastings down M-37, a major secondary route, I averaged around 35 mph and often less. In open areas, the blowing wind created "road smoke," and on the way back, trucks coming from the opposite direction blew up massive clouds of snow, creating temporary whiteouts. Trucks are really good at doing this, particularly during weather like yesterday's, when extremely cold temperatures makes for fine snow rather than big, chunky flakes. If the conditions on I-94 were anything like what I encountered on M-37, where people were driving at an appropriate speed for conditions, then I have to wonder what on earth folks were thinking to be clipping along at much faster speeds. It's rarely the weather conditions that get people in trouble; it's how people respond to them—or more exactly, fail to respond. Unfortunately, responsible drivers suffer as well. You can be driving 30 mph, putting plenty of distance between yourself and the guy ahead of you so you can stop in time to avoid either rear-ending that person or going off the road, only to have the idiot behind you slam into you at 60 mph. I'm sure that scenario repeated itself multiple times yesterday. Road conditions can change fast and catch you and other drivers unaware. Yesterday, M-37 through Caledonia wasn't bad; a combination of road salt and local traffic had rendered much of the pavement wet rather than icy. But on the south end of town, beginning at 100th St., conditions changed abruptly from driveable to treacherous. One fatality is a tragedy, but after watching video of the pileup as it occurred, I'm amazed and glad that more people didn't die. In addition, twenty-three were injured, and again, that figure could easily have been higher. The bottom line is simple: Don't drive too fast for road conditions, and sometimes don't drive at all. I would add, avoid routes with heavy truck traffic such as I-94, as trucks can create whiteouts in their wake. For outstanding, well-researched  insights and safety tips on winter driving, visit Dan Robinson's website, Icy Road Safety.

August Tornado in Macomb: A Lake Breeze Landspout

Monroe TornadoOn Wednesday afternoon, August 20, 2014, a small tornado spun up beneath a seemingly garden-variety summer thunderstorm and did EF0 damage in Lennox Township on the eastern side of the state. I first became aware of it courtesy of a Facebook post by fellow Michigan-based storm chaser C. J. Postal. He wrote, "I give up. You win, Michigan." Underneath was a photo of  an unmistakable, nicely shaped funnel cruising over the treeline. My first thought was, What does he mean? The photo couldn't have been taken in Michigan. No way. It simply wasn't tornado weather--no ripping jets, no curved hodographs, just weak westerly winds and, here on the west side of the state, beautiful, cloudless skies. Over on the east side, the radar showed just a scattering of small red zits around the thumb and down by Ann Arbor: bland, pulse-type storms capable of squeezing out a few bolts but certainly not a tornado. Yet as you can see from the photo,* one of them did spin up a tube. The National Weather Service logged the following report.
A BRIEF EF0 TORNADO TOUCHED DOWN AROUND 204 PM ON PLACE ROAD BETWEEN 29 MILE AND 30 MILE ROAD IN LENOX TOWNSHIP. PATH LENGTH WAS ESTIMATED TO BE 0.25 MILES WITH A PATH
WIDTH OF 100 YARDS. WIND SPEEDS WERE ESTIMATED TO BE 75 MPH. FIRE OFFICIALS REPORTED SEVERAL TRAILERS BEING BLOWN OVER AS WELL AS A ROOF TO A GARAGE BEING TORN OFF.
What the heck happened? Michigan happened. Seriously. Not only does this state not get tornadoes when conditions look ripe for them, but it does get them when no one expects them. It happened a couple years ago in Dexter. It happened last month just a few miles from me in Cutlerville. And now, two days ago, it happened over near Macomb. Wind profiles were unimpressive. Bulk shear was negligible. About the only things in place, as I recall, were adequate surface-based CAPE and moisture, but this was by no means supercell weather. "Severe" just wasn't in the picture. However, one easily overlooked element unique to the Great Lakes probably was present and might well have been the culprit. That ingredient? The onshore breeze blowing off of Lake St. Clair. Twenty-six miles long and twenty-four miles wide, with 430 square miles of surface area, the lake is the largest body of water in the Great Lakes region after the Great Lakes themselves. It is easily large enough to generate its own lake breeze. On its western shore, that breeze is an easterly breeze which, backing against an overall westerly wind regime, can enhance low-level helicity or even produce it when none would otherwise exist. That's my theory, anyway, and I think it holds true not just for Lake St. Clare but even moreso for the western sides of Lakes Huron, Erie, and Michigan, where the lake breezes blow inland from the east. Storms moving into such an environment may, under the right conditions, get just the added low-level twist they need to turn an ordinary updraft into a tornado. That, I believe, is what happened last Wednesday. The mechanism was probably that of a landspout. It certainly wasn't that of a supercell thunderstorm. None of the storms I saw on the radar that day looked capable of producing a mesocyclone; they were non-severe little blips on the radar. But they were surface-based. And that combination of an updraft with preexisting vertical vorticity evidently did the trick. I've seen enough other examples of storms in this state that went tornadic, or at least developed rotation, as they approached the eastern coastline to think that the lake breeze plays a role in a good percentage of cases. No doubt the same holds true for the northern Chicago area north up into Wisconsin inland from Lake Michigan. What I'm saying may be nothing new to NWS meteorologists, but I don't recall ever seeing it discussed. Then again, I rarely read KDTX's forecast discussions, so maybe that's why. I'm a KGRR man, but here in West Michigan, while our westerly lake breeze creates convergence, I doubt it contributes to helicity in the same way as the easterly breezes coming off of Lakes Huron, Erie, and St. Clare. I've never seen the lake breeze's possible role in storm rotation and tornadogenesis discussed to any great extent, and I think it merits recognition as a uniquely Great Lakes phenomenon. So I'm throwing it out here, with the caveat that I'm just an amateur forecaster, not a trained meteorologist. It would be great to get the thoughts of professional forecasters as well as other Great Lakes storm chasers who have considered how the easterly lake breeze may sometimes enhance storm severity. ---------------------- * I would like to credit the photographer, but having exercised due diligence, I'm unable to locate that person. If you took the picture, or if you know who did and how I can reach them, please contact me.

July 6, 2014, Cutlerville Tornado

IMG_2742

Tornado damage southwest of Division and 54th St.

It is a weird feeling when a tornado strikes the neighborhood where you used to live, particularly when you weren't expecting tornadoes at all that day. That's how it was two-and-a-half weeks ago on Sunday, July 6. No one saw it coming--not anyone who lived in the stricken area, not the National Weather Service, not any Michigan-based storm chasers I know of, and certainly not me. All I thought was, "Dang, that's some crazy lightning coming out of that cell to my northwest!" even as an after-dark tornado chugged its way from Byron Center across Cutlerville and Kentwood toward its last gasp near Breton Road south of 28th Street.
Turning onto Andover St. from Eastern Ave.

Turning onto Andover St. from Eastern Ave.

I'm writing about it only now because I've had my hands full with other things. It's no longer news, but it certainly deserves some kind of writeup in this blog. After all, it was the most significant tornado to hit the Grand Rapids area in years, it caught the NWS by surprise, and it missed my old apartment by only a block. (Come to think of it, another tornado in 2006 also missed my present apartment by only a block, but I wasn't around to see it. I was heading home from my previous day's chase in Illinois. Lots of irony there, but I'll leave it alone and stay on topic.) The Storm
IMG_2743

Tree uprooted along Division Ave. south of 54th St.

It was evening, and I was parked by the railroad tracks out near Elmdale, practicing my saxophone--which, if you know me, you understand is a regular habit of mine. The heat and humidity of the day had built to a slow boil beneath a capped atmosphere, but it appeared that the cap was breaking. Through the haze, I could see what looked like mushy towers off to my north. Right around sunset, I saw lightning streak through a cloud bank moving in from the west and thought, Nice. Bring it on. With mid-level winds forecast to be weak, I wasn't expecting more than garden-variety storms, but given this year's largely stormless storm season here in Michigan, any kind of flash and boom would be welcome. With my practice session not feeling particularly inspired, I decided to call it and head home. The storm didn't appear to be moving fast--not surprising, given the weak steering winds--but just north of my path . . . wow, that lightning was ramping up something fierce. I contemplated intercepting the cell, which clearly was quite active, but I had neither my laptop and radar with me nor my camera, nor, frankly, much desire. Sometimes it's nice to just sit at home and let a storm rumble overhead. By the time I arrived in Caledonia, the cell was flickering like a strobe light, and for half a minute, with more lightning advancing from the west, I thought I would sit in the church parking lot on the west end of town and let myself get eaten. Then I thought, Nah. Slow-moving storm with a lot of precipitable water--I just wasn't into getting drenched during the mad dash from my car to my apartment. Besides, something in me really wanted to take a gander at the radar.
Meso Kentwoo

Mesocyclone over Kentwood, Michigan.

Once inside, I fired up GR3. Base reflectivity showed an amorphous clump of cells surrounded by lots of green: pretty much the disorganized, high-precipitation mess I expected. Then, out of pure force of habit, I switched to storm-relative velocity. Hmmm . . . what was that? Weak rotation just west of the airport radar seven miles north of me? That seemed odd. Curious, I back up a scan, which showed that the rotation had been stronger over Kentwood a few minutes earlier (see image.) Time for a look at the VAD wind profile. Well, now: mid-level winds were stronger than I had expected, around 40 knots, with southerly winds veering nearly 90 degrees through the lowest 4,000 feet. That would explain that. Going by reflectivity only, I'd never have suspected, but there it was, a definite mesocylonic signature. What did the previous scan show? Yikes. Really? There over South Division Street, sitting on top of Cutlerville--that was one potent-looking couplet.* Kind of scary, really. Surface-based CAPE was something like 2,000, and forecast low-level helicity was more than adequate, over 200 m2/s2 in the lowest kilometer. Still, reflectivity looked like crap, the storm was wrapped in rain and not even severe-warned, and besides, this was Michigan. And that was two scans ago; the rotation had weakened considerably as it approached the airport. That would be the end of things.
Supercell organizing near Ionia.

Supercell organizing near Ionia.

But it wasn't. As the storms moved east, the low-level jet spiked considerably, and even the 500 mb wind got a brief burst of 50 kt. Over by Ionia, a cell began to organize, and this time there was no mistaking the telltale look of a supercell in the reflectivity product. KGRR issued a severe thunderstorm warning with mention of the possibility of a tornado.
A scan later, storm-relative velocity shows pronounced rotation. Base reflectivity (not shown) also showed a well-defined hook.

A scan later, storm-relative velocity shows pronounced rotation. Base reflectivity (not shown) also showed a well-defined hook.

There were in fact four tornadoes according to the SPC's final tally. The last three off to the east were brief EF0s, but the first one, which had initially caught my attention, did high-end EF1 damage in Cutlerville and injured six people. Damage in My Old Neighborhood
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This used to be a warehouse on the west side of Division Street.

After doing its worst damage on the west side of Division Street, the tornado moved northeast through my old neighborhood, Leisure Acres. The second photo at the top shows the view that greeted me as I turned off of Eastern Avenue onto Andover Street. Halfway down Andover, my old apartment was untouched, but just a block east (and no doubt to the south, though I didn't look) was a trash heap: trees snapped and uprooted, big branches torn off, here and there part of a roof missing--all the signs of a weak tornado. But of course, weak is a relative word; a wind that can do that kind of damage is anything but weak, as those in its path would be quick to point out. Nevertheless, there's a significant difference between a 100 mph wind that does mostly minor structural damage and a 180 mph wind that levels homes completely.
House on Andover St. with its roof and side ripped off.

House on Andover St. with its roof and side ripped off.

Half of the photos in this post were taken in the Leisure Acres neighborhood along my old street, Andover; the rest were taken on the west side of Division south of Fifty-Fourth Street. The damage on Andover was primarily tree damage, though that was obviously significant, and as you can see, homes didn't escape unscathed. The worst appeared to have been the house shown to the right with part of its roof and side ripped out out by the wind. I was told that much worse damage occurred to the west along Clay Avenue, and while I didn't try to enter that area, a brief jaunt down Division Street revealed places where the damage was more intense. The most significant was what appeared to have been a large warehouse building that got completely destroyed--just a pile of blocks and steel beams, as you can see in the photos.
One good egg. He just showed up with his chainsaw, ready to help.

One good egg. He just showed up with his chainsaw, ready to help.

In the aftermath of severe weather events, communities tend to pull together and ordinary heroes emerge from outlying areas, bringing with them such skills as they possess and the desire to make life a little easier for those dealing with the destruction of their property. This man with the chainsaw was wandering along the street from house to house, inquiring whether anyone needed help sawing up downed trees. Giving what he had to offer. I asked his name and wrote it down, and now I've lost it. In the very slim chance that he should happen to read this article: Bravo, sir! Generously played. "We Had No Warning": The NWS's Dilemma Of course the NWS got hammered. "We had no warning," storm victims said--and while most of the time that's untrue, in this case they really had no warning. But before anyone makes the usual foolish comments about the NWS's ineptitude and how they never get anything right--which is simply not the case--it would pay to understand a few things about tornadoes in Michigan. Let's start with this fact: The typical tornado-breeding systems of the kind that produce significant (EF2 and higher) tornadoes get forecast quite effectively here in West Michigan, as elsewhere in the country. Meteorologists are on top of such setups; they watch these systems develop days in advance and are most certainly monitoring each one closely as it arrives, with varying degrees of concern depending on its characteristics.
Nothing left but a pile of cement blocks, wood, and steel.

Nothing left but a pile of cement blocks, wood, and steel.

That leaves the atypical tornado-breeders: systems whose features wouldn't automatically trigger alarm, whose storms may occasionally produce brief, weak tornadoes that spin up with little or no advance notice. Storms like these--often squall lines and sometimes, as in the case of July 6, unremarkable-looking rainy blobs--produce no persistent, telltale circulation in a storm's mid-levels that a radar can detect twenty minutes before a tornado forms. Such storms are difficult to impossible to warn. In the case of a squall line, small circulations can hop around from scan to scan on the radar, now here and now there, and most of them never produce. The rare tornado that does occur can materialize between radar scans, which until very recently have taken four-and-a-half minutes to complete in severe weather mode. A lot can happen in that time, and on July 6, it did. Without going into details that most of my readers are no doubt familiar with, the lads at KGRR deal with proportionately more of these atypical scenarios than forecasters west of the Mississippi. The difference between a Great Plains supercell and the kind of stuff we normally get in Michigan is substantial, and for forecasters here, that means fewer opportunities to look like heroes and plenty more situations in which they're damned if they do and damned if they don't. When they issue a warning and nothing happens--which is frequently the case with squall lines--the public accuses them of crying wolf; when they don't issue a warning and a tornado pops up out of nowhere, the public thinks they're idiots.
Debris festoons a tree and litters a yard on Andover St. a block from my old apartment.

Debris festoons a tree and litters a yard on Andover St. a block from my old apartment.

They are far from idiots. They are experts who deal with factors in the warning process that most people know nothing of. Their job is not an easy one, and anyone who believes he or she could do better is woefully ignorant of the complexities of severe weather and warnings. Think otherwise? Fine. Go ahead and spend a few weeks at the peak of severe storm season, trying to nail that volatile blob of Jell-O called the atmosphere to the wall. It'll be an eye-opening experience as, equipped with state-of-the-art technology, you discover the difference between forecasting and fortune-telling. Ironically, the Cutlerville tornado occurred shortly before KGRR was slated to implement the new SAILS update to their radar software. It's amazing to see how drastically this software reduces scan times in severe mode--I now get level 3 downloads in as little as a minute and always substantially less than the nearly five minutes of pre-SAILS days. Had SAILS been operative on July 6, the tornado might well have been detected in enough time to issue a warning. Or not. Microscale conditions can change so rapidly that some tornadoes will still slip through the cracks. But the odds of detection have just improved significantly. ------------------ * The image shows the meso over Kentwood. I have tried unsuccessfully to render the more vigorous Cutlerville scan on both level 2 and level 3 data from NCDC archives on GR2AE and GR3. After several hours of fiddling with the data files and consulting with chasers who are more technically gifted than I, I've concluded that I need to get some hands-on help figuring out how to use NCDC's archived data. Sorry--I've done my best.

The Day Before Groundhog Day: Yet Another Winter Storm–and More on the Way

Today is February 1, and let's just say it: This winter is getting reeeaaaally old. Incursion after incursion of Arctic air. Snow, snow, snow. Cold, cold, cold--and I do mean cold. After Monday and Tuesday's bitter, subzero bite, these mid-twenties temperatures that have moved in feel practically tropical. Winter_Storm_02012014We're presently under a winter weather advisory, with 3 to 5 inches of snow forecast through 10:00 p.m. around here and an inch more to the south and southeast along the I-94 corridor. And it's wet snow--not as bad as initially expected, according to the latest KGRR forecast discussion, but still watery enough--and therefore heavy enough--to put added stress on flat roofs. Here's a radar image from a few scans back. Look at all that gray! I hardly ever see returns that hit 40 dBZ with a winter storm, but a bit of interrogation revealed 49.5 dBZ over US-131 with this particular scan. And it appears to be all snow too, not a wintry mix. So yeah, I'd call that wet snow. Snow Depth Feb 1 2014The thing is, this stuff just keeps coming. We all know that by now. I haven't seen a winter this snowy since 2009, maybe even before that, since . . . since . . . well, I don't know when. As you can see from today's snow depth map, there's a strip running through my area along the western side of Michigan where the snow depth reportedly exceeds 20 inches. We're not talking about how much snow has actually fallen this winter, just how much of it is presently sitting on the ground. Twenty inches. I can testify that around here, it's not hard to find places where it's nearly up to my knees. Heck, just along the sidewalk outside my apartment, the snowblower has neatly carved a minor canyon along the edge of the featureless white expanse which, if my memory is accurate, used to be what is called a "lawn." Feb 1 GFS 132-hr fcstHow about one more image? Look and groan, because all this glorious wintry nastiness doesn't look to be retreating anytime soon. You're looking at the 132-hour forecast for the surface temperature. Doesn't that look inviting, so full of hope and promise? Tomorrow is Groundhog Day, and I'm telling you right now, that little cretin had better not show his face anywhere in my vicinity or I will send him into permanent hibernation. If there's one good thing about this winter from a personal perspective, it's that it has inspired me to learn about winter forecasting. There's certainly every opportunity to do so, and plenty of incentive. So I've learned a few new terms. Try this one on for size: heterogeneous nucleation. I like that one. Or how about this: DGZ, which stands for dendritic growth zone, the temperature range between -12 and -18 degrees Celsius wherein a saturated layer produces snowflakes. Got that? I'm starting to, along with a deeper appreciation for my RAOB software program. But I'd still be glad to see all this snow and cold go bye-bye, and I'll bet I'm not the only one. Well, well . . . buck up, ladies and gentlemen: meteorological spring is on the way. I just have a hunch it won't be here March 1. It's arrival time may be delayed by snow. What about you? Are you a winter lover or a winter Grinch--or has this winter turned you from one into the other? How do you think this crazy-cold, uber-snowy weather might affect the spring storm season? Drop a comment and share your thoughts.

Winter Solstice 2013: Tornadoes (or Not) in Dixie Alley and Ice Storms North and West

It has finally arrived: Winter. Astronomical winter, that is. Meteorological winter has already been with us for three weeks, beginning December 1, and in my book, that is the more climatologically accurate date. Particularly this year. For the first time since 2009, we in Michigan have been experiencing a good, old-fashioned Great Lakes winter. Here in Caledonia, the snowfall has exceeded a foot, and Lisa, who arrived here from Missouri five years ago hating winter and now loves it, dotes on it, rejoices in it, has been having a high good time during her two daily walks, equipped with brand-new winter hiking boots and a warm, warm, waaarm and dry, dry, dry waterproof down coat. I am not so enthusiastic about all this white stuff as Lis is. My interaction with winter consists largely of sitting indoors at my work station, gazing out through the sliding door, watching the finches argue at the feeders and the woodpeckers whack away at the suet, and watching snowflakes pirouette gracefully out of the sky, and thinking, "Can we get this over with?" Yes we can, in a few more months. Because today at last we tip the scale, and from here on, daylight will be on the upswing. Two weeks ago, on December 8, the sun set in my town at 5:08 p.m. EST, just as it had been doing for the preceding four days, hovering within the eight-minutes-past-the-hour range but setting just a few seconds earlier each day. The 8th was the earliest sunset date of the year. From then on, sunset time would arrive incrementally later. For the next five days, through December 13, it would remain at 5:08, but instead of losing seconds, now it would begin to add them back until, on December 9, the sun would set at 5:09. The converse does not, however, hold true for the day's first light. The sun will continue to rise later and later until January 3 of the new year. By then, the sun will have been rising at 8:14 a.m. for five days until finally, on that date, the sunrise will, like the sunset, hit its own tipping point. From thenceforth, losing a few seconds each day, it will begin its slow march toward an earlier and earlier hour. On January 8, it will rise at 8:13 a.m.; on January 12, at 8:12; on the 14th, at 8:11; and so it will go, until on the 31st, it will rise at 7:59. By then, the sun will be rising approximately a minute earlier each day, and we will have gained fifteen minutes of sunrise time. Why, then,  is today, winter solstice, so special? Because today marks our shortest period of overall daylight, the narrowest space between sunrise and sunset. From tomorrow on, even though the sun will continue to rise later and later for a while, the sunset time will begin to outpace it and the gap between sunrise and sunset will broaden--slowly at first, then with increasing swiftness. By the end of December, we Grand Rapidians will have gained 41 seconds of daylight for a total of 9 hours, 14 minutes, and 16 seconds on December 31. By March 18, we'll be adding daylight at 2 minutes and 15 second per day, at which point we'll have maxed out and the gains, while still continuing up to the summer solstice, will become gradually less. You now know more about the winter solstice than you probably ever cared to. What makes this particular solstice even more interesting is the weather that's shaping up for it, which shows promise of making it a headliner with tornadoes in the deep South and ice storms to the north and west. Day 1 Winter Solstice 1630 Mod Risk 2013Here is the 1630Z convective outlook for today, depicting a moderate risk stretching from western Kentucky and Tennessee southwestward into Louisiana, with a 15 percent hatched area for tornadoes. Given the brevity of daylight, I find this situation interesting but not particularly appealing.  A look at forecast soundings suggests a crapload of rain, low CAPE, and high helicity, all driven by massive shear and Jackson MS 19Z RAP_Skew-Trocketing along through formidable terrain. A lot of chasers are out there, and I'm sure that if I lived in that area, I'd be among them, but looking at the Shreveport radar, I don't feel like I'm missing out on something. I got my fill of chasing fast-moving, rain-wrapped storms last November in optimal territory, and considering how that chase turned out, I think I'll be a lot more selective about such scenarios in the future. That said, I wish those who are out there good success. And safety. Drive carefully, mates and matesses. No storm is worth jeopardizing your safety over. As for me, I'm sitting well on the other side of the cold front, and freezing rain is in the forecast, though my local WFO has backed off on it in their forecast discussion. Lots of areas in the Midwest are getting hit with icy conditions, making for hazardous driving, power outages, downed tree limbs, and the like. The day grows later, and so far, glancing at the radar down south, I just don't see anything very exciting--just a messy-looking MCS with one cell south of Memphis showing a hint of rotation. Only wind reports so far, and I suspect that's how this thing will continue to play out. Tough for anyone who drove down there hoping for more; good for denizens of the region. And so enters the winter of 2013–14. Time to wrap up this post and get on with the rest of this afternoon.

September Gilds the Fenlands

Upton Road Fen in northern Barry County, Michigan.

Upton Road Fen in northern Barry County, Michigan.

Three miles south of Middleville, Michigan, lies Upton Road Fen. That is the name I have given the place for convenience to provide some sense of location. In reality, the fen is nameless. Rarely do wetlands in Michigan have an actual place name, and in the case of this wetland, that is just as well, because the name "Upton Road" hardly does justice to either the magnificent sweep and diversity of the fen or the loveliness of the sandy forest trail that winds through archways of hardwood past the fen's northern border.
A feather tamarack stands sentinel at the fen's northern border.

A feather tamarack stands sentinel at the fen's northern border.

Prairie fens are a rare and unusual kind of alkaline wetland, rich in plant life, and Barry County is a bastion for these beautiful and fascinating ecosystems. Upton Road Fen may well be the largest of its kind in this part of the state. If not, it is certainly one of the larger ones, stretching three-quarters of a mile from corner to corner and encompassing a wide palette of fen habitats, from drier cinquefoil fields, to sedge meadows, to a wet, reedy seep, to a floating mat on the lowest, southeast end.  Pitcher plants grow here, and wild orchids, and blazing star, and deep blue fringed and bottle gentians. Tamaracks rub shoulders with red cedars, and here at the end of September, poison sumac shrubs dot the periphery of the fen, glowing incandescently like fiery rubies strung across a vast necklace where the wetland meets the woods.
Unidentified seed pod. Any guesses?

Unidentified seed pod. Any guesses?

I have come here on this bright, late afternoon in search of gentians, and I am not disappointed. They are here, fully open, batting their fetching blue lashes at the slanting September sun. Little coquettes! Gentle, sweet wildflowers, flirty yet shy, like teenage girls just discovering their charms. I have intended to get photographs, but my camera's battery is lower than I realized, and it dies on me after just a few landscape shots plus some odds-and-ends closeups. The latter include this old seed pod with one tufted seed still clinging gallantly to it. I don't know what the plant is--it's actually a shrub of some kind, and far be it from me to venture a guess as to its identity. I'm just not much of a shrub man. I walk cautiously, keeping an eye out for massasaugas. In the many times I have visited this fen, I have never seen one, but I am told they are here and actually plentiful. I would love to see one, but not today--I left my heavy boots at home, and I wouldn't care to have my first encounter with Michigan's only rattlesnake result from my stepping on one with these old, threadbare athletic shoes I'm wearing.
Looking south across the long reaches of the fen.

Looking south across the long reaches of the fen.

Fortunately, my snakeless record remains pristine as I head back to the car. It has been an all-too-short visit on this radiant afternoon, but I have things to do and it is time to go. I am grateful, though, for these few minutes here, beyond the grasp of the frenzied world, where time slows down and invites me to do likewise long enough to see the smile of my Father. He is a loving Creator who has much reason to look upon these works of his hands--these golden fields, this sun-gilded fen stretching luminously beneath the September sky--and call all of it good. Yes, very good indeed.

Waterspout Season Opens Today on Lake Michigan

When I saw the clouds this afternoon, I couldn't help but wonder. Lisa and I were catching a late lunch--or an early dinner, take your pick--at the Fire Rock Grille, and I was staring out the window over the golf course at low-topped convective towers to my northwest. The sky had that look about it that spoke of stripped-out moisture and cold mid-level temperatures, as you begin to expect around this time of year, and I thought, "If those towers were over Lake Michigan, there'd be a waterspout hanging from one of them." My first successful waterspout chase last year led me to believe that when conditions are right for spouts--when cold air moving over warm lake waters creates steep low-level lapse rates and enough vorticity is present to get stretched by an updraft--then the main thing to do is get one's butt down to the lakeshore and look for convective bands. Maybe I'm being overly simplistic; regardless, September 22, 2012, made me a believer in the feasibility of viewing Lake Michigan waterspouts. I even managed to get some shaky but very cool video that day of a spout making landfall about one hundred yards north of me. My instincts today proved right, but the action occurred on the other side of the pond, where some spectacular photos and video came from lucky beachcombers in Kenosha, Wisconsin. I normally avoid embedding YouTube videos in my posts because I never know how long one will remain viable, but I'm displaying this one by Jeff Magno because I find it particularly intriguing. Not only is the distant spout massive at this point, but look at how the mist rising off of the sidewalk in the foreground forms a tracer for the surface winds. The mist rushes southward, consistent with today's northerly flow, but where it rises, you can see it begin to move lakeward. It dissipates far too quickly to tell much of a story, but it leads me to speculate about the low-level vertical vorticity that may have been available to produce the spouts. But then, what do I know about these things? I'm just a happy observer when I get the chance to be one--which, as it turns out, may be tomorrow morning. Got a hot tip on that, so I'm setting my clock and planning to wake up early, and tonight I will dream of near-shore convection.