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 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? 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. 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.

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.

How to Practice the Giant Steps Cycle: Video Tutorial and Supplementary Material

My preoccupation with John Coltrane's tune "Giant Steps" now ebbs, now flows, but always continues. I'm not the most fabulous alto sax man who has ever played the changes, certainly not in the league of Kenny Garrett, but I have my own approach, which I strive to make less digital and more lyrical. I've even had the temerity to write a book of licks and patterns on "Giant Steps" titled The Giant Steps Scratch Pad, available for instruments of every key. In the following video tutorial, I share a couple approaches to practicing the Giant Steps cycle that I have found profitable in my own practice sessions. The video begins with a bit of theory; however, the theory behind "Giant Steps" is more than adequately covered elsewhere in greater depth, as in this excellent article by Dan Adler, and it isn't the thrust of the tutorial. Rather, I address a more pragmatic concern: How do you wrap your fingers around the Giant Steps cycle? The tips I share in the tutorial certainly aren't the only way you can or should tackle the cycle, but I think you'll find them helpful. Briefly, I explain how to run both a one-bar pattern and a more extensive two-bar lick through the cycle. The two patterns used in the video were taken from The Giant Steps Scratch Pad. For your convenience, I'm supplying them for you here. Note that these excerpts are from the Eb edition, suitable for alto and baritone saxophonists; if you play a C, Bb, or bass clef instrument, you'll need to transpose (though editions of my book are available in your key). Click on the images to enlarge them. One-bar pattern: 002     One-bar pattern through the cycle: 003     Two-bar lick: 004     Two-bar lick through all three keys of the cycle: GS 1-Bar Pattern       And now, here is the video. It's obviously a homespun effort, so please bear with its flaws. I haven't figured out how to read from my PowerPoint notes and still look directly at the camera, and as for that stupid deer fly that lands on my forehead while I'm signing off and roams around like an astronaut exploring the lunar surface, I wasn't aware of it till I got home and viewed the clip. You think I'm going to do a redo just for that? It's part of filming outdoors: mosquitoes setting up drilling operations on my nice, pink flesh, deer flies exploring my noggin—I deal with it and you can too. Go ahead and chuckle. But if you're a jazz improviser who's tackling "Giant Steps," then I think you'll nevertheless find this tutorial worth your while.  

Rob Dale on Free Learning Resources for the Prerequisites of Meteorology

I owe the following content to meteorologist and Ingham County, Michigan, emergency manager Rob Dale. With his permission, I'm duplicating it here from Rob's Facebook post, as I think some of my weatherhead readers may find it relevant and useful. That has been my experience; thanks to Rob, I've actually begun to look into tackling high school algebra--a subject I did horribly at back in my teen years--with an eye on laying the groundwork for calculus, and thence, meteorology. One is never too old to learn, right? Perhaps the free resources Rob has listed below will inspire you too to expand your learning horizons. In any case, the legwork Rob has done is too valuable to be buried beneath the Facebook landslide. Here's Rob. -------------------------- Let's say you're interested in REALLY learning about meteorology? You have NO idea how many resources are available today compared to just 5-10 years ago! You can take most of the core courses that currently cost thousands of dollars at a university for free at your own pace... For example, a met degree requires Calculus, Physics, and Chemisty off the top. Once you have that background, you can start reading intermediate (and maybe advanced) textbooks and actually learn how to forecast. You still won't be a full fledged met, but I guarantee you will make better forecasts than now and you will feel better knowing your knowledge is the reason why. You can find them elsewhere, but many of these from MIT have full video lectures which makes the process easier. 18.01, 18.02, 18.03 8.01, 8.02 5.04, 5.60 Now you've got the basics! You can get meteorology books, will understand what you're reading, and actually start to make sense of the "why" behind the process. Some of those books can be expensive, but buy one at a time and you'll be able to sell them for about 80% of what you paid (if not more.) Does this sound hard? Yup. Necessary if you want to really know meteorology? Yup. Impossible? Nope. Just think how much time you are wasting drawing lines on Microsoft Paint and how those hours could actually help you learn! If you really wanted to be a guitar player would you be better off spending time on Guitar Hero or learning chords on a real guitar? One of them is fun in the short term but offers no advantage towards your goal. Same story here. So there you go. If this is REALLY your passion, make it something valuable. If you end up going to college, think of how much easier those classes will be since you've already invested ahead of time! If you don't go to school, imagine how much more interactive your conversations can be with meteorologists and how much of a service your posts will be to followers. -------------------------- Now, if you, like me, totally sucked at any form of math back in your high school daze (daze being a fully appropriate word for a child of the 1970s), Rob has also provided a link to KhanAcademy, which provides a blizzard of tutorials on the prerequisites for college-level courses. And yes, they too are free, free, free. Considering the education you can get online today without paying a dime, the only thing that can cost a person is to remain ignorant. Learn at your own pace for your own enrichment and satisfaction. What's to stop you? Hey, Rob--thanks! You rock, Pilgrim.  

May 28, 2013, Tornadic Supercell by Grand Ledge, Michigan

Tornado season is now long past, and the sting of missing great storms either through bad targeting or having to head home one and two days before two major events has eased. Maybe next year will be better. Besides, the show's not over till the snows fly. Meanwhile, I'm looking back to my most interesting chase of the year, documented by the video at the bottom of this post. Ironically, I logged around 6,000 miles to and from Oklahoma and Kansas with little to show for it, while my humble backyard of Michigan gave me an enjoyable and productive bit of action. On May 28, a warm front lifted up through lower Michigan, ushering in decent moisture and instability along with a good boundary for them to work their mojo with. The thing that seemed to be missing was adequate shear for storm organization--but I ignored conditions farther east of me. I just didn't take the setup seriously enough, and when Kyle Underwood, the WOOD TV8 meteorologist, inquired which of the TV8 chasers planned to head out, I said that I didn't see much potential. If something came my way, I would grab it, but otherwise, I didn't want to waste gas. That was understandable: money was tight, and I planned to chase in Kansas the next day. Still, geeze, what an idiot (me, not Kyle). Let us pause momentarily while I give myself a retroactive dope slap. I have come to a conclusion: in Michigan, when a warm front shows up with good CAPE present and any kind of bulk shear to speak of, even anemic bulk shear, chase the front. Never mind what the models have to say about storm-relative helicity; helicity will take care of itself if a storm manages to organize in the vicinity of the frontal boundary. Just get out there and chase the stupid front. Particularly farther to the east. Storms in Michigan often have a way of intensifying and organizing near and east of I-69 and, north of Lansing, US-127. That was the case on this day. My first clue was when I glanced at the radar later and noticed that Kurt Hulst was on a storm off to the southeast. Kurt knows what he's doing, and the storm looked decent--in fact, it was tornado-warned. Okay, I thought, I missed that one. Probably it'll be the only one. So I sat tight and watched the radar as other storms formed. They looked like a convective mess to my west, but they clearly were moving into a better environment as they progressed east. Finally, I'd had enough. I grabbed my laptop and cameras and headed out. I locked onto the most intense-looking cell in my vicinity and tracked with it toward Portland. But another was following on its heels, and given the way that the storms were behaving, I thought I'd be better off dropping the one I was on and letting the new one come to me. Presumably, it would get its crap together on the way, and that is what happened. As it approached Grand Ledge just west of Lansing, this storm developed a most amazing streamer of scud sucking into its updraft base from the east. It appeared to originate near ground level--hard to tell with trees constantly interrupting the view--and rocketed toward the storm, leaving no doubt that this storm had impressive inflow. Driving into Grand Ledge, I found myself under the area of rotation, with crazy, low cloud motions. Turning around, I headed back north and parked by the airport, then watched and filmed as the storm headed east into Lansing. It looked very close to spinning up a tornado; in the video, you can see it trying hard, and eventually it succeeded. But I had to drop the chase. My friend Steve Barclift and I planned to chase the next day in Kansas, and I had to meet him so we could hit the road for the long drive west. As it turned out, the storm I was on provided a better show than anything we saw along the dryline. My buddy Rob Forry managed to catch this storm at its tornadic phase and got some nice video. My original hi-def shows the motion of the inflow streamer nicely as I enter Grand Ledge. Regrettable, this YouTube clip doesn't render the details as well, but you'll at least get a feel for the motion. The storm was an interesting one and fun to chase. It would be nice to get another one like it. It's only August, so the door is far from closed.

Video Tutorial #3: Circular Breathing

Circular breathing has something of a sensationalist aura about it, but its mystique exceeds its mystery. There's no secret to acquiring the skill other than to learn how it's done and then work at it till you own it. And it's worth the effort, because circular breathing is a useful tool to have. When you find yourself playing an extended passage and need to come up for air, circular breathing will let you replenish your lungs without having to break up the flow of music. This video tutorial piggybacks on a post I wrote a couple years ago on how to circular breathe. I highly recommend that in addition to watching this video, you read that post as well. Either may provide that flash of insight that you might not get with the other. By the way, contrary to what all my fidgeting may lead you to believe, I do not suffer from Tourette's syndrome. I shot the video at a nearby park in the evening, and mosquitoes as big as fruit bats kept trying to establish fracking operations on my skin. Between swatting constantly at the little blighters and puffing my cheeks out like a blowfish and then thrusting my face into the camera, I will probably not secure my reputation as a suave, cool kinda dude. But that's okay as long as this video achieves my goal of helping you to learn circular breathing. If you find the tutorial helpful, drop me a note and let me know. It helps to know that my efforts are making a difference, and supportive comments are like bars of gold in my emotional Fort Knox.

Mini-Tornadoes: Defining a Microscale Mystery

In Europe they have mini-tornadoes. There was a time in my callow, formative years as a storm chaser when I was unaware that there was such a thing, but one learns. Besides, even veteran American chasers could make the same mistake as I, and probably have done so many times. From the reports, photos, and videos I've seen, a mini-tornado so closely resembles a standard-issue tornado in appearance and effect that here in the United States, most chasers would find it impossible to tell the difference. However, Europeans--newscasters and reporters in particular, who are largely responsible for disseminating the mini-terminology--are more discriminating and not easily impressed. In Europe, it seems that anything less than a Great Plains-style wedge isn't considered a full-fledged tornado. Not that wedges are a common occurrence across the pond. The perspective I've described appears to be based not on great familiarity with tornadoes, but rather, on a paucity of experience with them other than what is gleaned through viewing videos of the mile-wide monsters that stalk the American prairies. Now those are tornadoes! Compared to them, a trifling, block-wide vortex is ... eh. Small change. Plenty of U.S. chasers would take exception. The problem is, no mini-tornado criteria have been established that could provide a basis for arguing that probably 99.9 percent of mini-tornadoes are simply tornadoes. Not that at least one attempt hasn't been made to provide such criteria. Back in 2006, in a thread on Stormtrack, I myself presented a plausible set of determinants for mini-tornadoes, complete with a damage-rating scale, and I'm surprised that the NWS never adopted it. Follow my logic and you'll see for yourself that true mini-tornadoes are a phenomenon few Europeans, let alone Americans, ever encounter. Mini-Tornado Criteria A true mini-tornado must meet the following standards: . •  It is five feet tall or less. Of course, this implies an extremely low cloud base. You'd have to squat in order to get a decent photo. •  Width: Two feet or less. •  Human response: You feel a strong urge to say, "Awww, ain't that cute!" You want to pet it and maybe even take it home with you and give it a nice bowl of debris. •  The synoptic conditions can be contained within five city blocks. •  Overshooting tops can be viewed from above by taking an elevator to the ninth floor. •  Damage (introducing the M Scale):
  • M0: Damage?
  • M1: No noticeable damage.
  • M2: No, there's no stinking damage. Now go away.
  • M3: Okay, some damage now. Card houses knocked over unless securely glued together. Hair ruffled. That sort of thing.
  • M4: Now we're talking damage. Well-built card houses scattered into a lawn-size version of 52-Card Pickup. Ill-fitting toupes snatched away. Nasty things happen when you spit into the wind.
  • M5: Inconceivable inconvenience. Securely glued card houses swept entirely away and lofted across the lawn. Well-gelled hair twisted into impressive new designs. You want to get out of the way of this baby.
I hope this helps. Of course, according to these criteria, I suppose the UK has yet to experience a true mini-tornado. Someone should probably inform the press. And none of us should hold our breaths waiting for such an occurrence, because, truth be told, mini-tornadoes are extremely rare. But not utterly non-existent. The late, talented storm chaser Andy Gabrielson managed to capture on video his personal encounter with a good mini-tornado candidate on May 24, 2010, in South Dakota.* Check out his YouTube video at 1:56, and like me, you too can say to yourself, "What the heck was that?" --------------- * The footage up to 1:56 is not a mini-tornado.

Waterspouts on Lake Michigan

Saturday, September 22, was the first day of autumn 2012. It was also my first-ever time seeing waterspouts. I've chased them a few times (if chased is the right word) previously within the past two years, but not successfully. This time made up in spades for those occasions. I don't know how many waterspouts I saw, but "lots" ought to cover them, including one that made landfall about a hundred yards north of me at Tunnel Park. I managed to capture that one on video. But I'm getting ahead of myself. I woke up at 5:15 a.m., showered up, and headed for the lakeshore. The ICWR waterspout forecast indicated a high probability of waterspouts all along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, and the main concern seemed to be simply finding adequate near-shore convection. That didn't seem to be a problem, since a line of thunderstorms was moving across the lake from Wisconsin and heading east almost straight at me. Based on the line's slightly southern component, I decided to head for Holland Beach. A nice cumulus field had overspread West Michigan as I pulled into the state park. At the entrance, a ranger informed me of restricted parking due to a marathon that was being routed through the park by the beach. The racers hadn't yet arrived; in fact, very few people were present, and having the parking lot mostly to myself, I chose an optimal spot where I had an unimpeded view of Lake Michigan. The stiff lake breeze concerned me. Westerly surface winds--and strong ones at that--didn't seem to me to bode well for waterspouts. How would the convergence necessary for spout formation occur over the water with unidirectional winds? Still, the waterspout index was maxed out, and here I was, so I guessed I would find out. After a while, the western sky began to darken. The storms were moving in, but they would take a while to arrive. Meanwhile, a green blob of convection on GR3 corresponded with a cloud bank stretching perpendicularly from the waters to the shore about ten miles to my south. It seemed worth checking out, so I grabbed my camera and headed across the beach toward the pier near the lighthouse. From that vantage point, I finally got a good, complete view of the convective band. A slim, well-defined gray tube hung from the distant cloud base. Bingo! My first waterspout! I began snapping pictures. The salmon run was on, and all along the channel, fishermen were having a heyday. Focused on fish, they seemed oblivious to the elegant spectacle unfolding over the water. How could they not see it? I pointed it out to one fisherman. "Wow! A waterspout!" he said. Then he went back to his fishing. To each his own, though I suppose he could fish and watch the spout at the same time. I don't know how much time passed--fifteen minutes, maybe twenty. By and by, the spout dissipated, and I returned to my car. I didn't need to look at my radar to know that the storm was closing in. I could see the lowering clouds and rain shafts over the water. What the radar did tell me, however, was that heavier convection was heading toward the Saugatuck/South Haven area. So, as the first of the marathoners began to trickle into the park, I decided to drop south toward where chasers Skip Talbot, Jennifer Ubyl, and Jonathan Williamston were located. I got as far as US 31 before realizing that I had made a tactical error. Heavier convection was beginning to fire in a line that promised to train in directly over Holland Beach. Nuts. I had just compromised myself by fifteen minutes, and in the meantime, a marathon had gotten underway. I turned around and headed back toward my old location, but now the road was filled with runners and closed to traffic. I decided to head for Tunnel Park just a few mile north of Holland Beach. But Lakeshore Drive was also clogged with marathoners. Thus began a frustrating quarter-hour of driving down sideroads and through neighborhoods, trying to gain access to the lakeshore. Ultimately, I wound up pulling over kitty-corner across the road from the park entrance, watching morosely as runners ran by. But there was a cop standing next to his car, shepherding the crowd, and ... what the heck. I walked up to him and asked him if I could cross into the park. Sure, he said. The race ended officially right at this point. Just look for an opening, the cop told me, and then I could nudge my car across the road. Free! The storm was arriving as I pulled into the park, and rain had begun to fall. I grabbed my cameras and raced toward the tunnel. The other end opened out onto the beach, affording a sheltered location where I could watch for spouts without getting wet. It was a perfect setup. The only other people there at the park were a young ethnic couple with a baby and a small child. I greeted them and talked with them about waterspouts as we watched a shelf cloud advance over the storm-driven surf. After a few minutes, the guy pointed toward the lake and said, "Is that one?" I looked, figuring it was a false alarm, some turbulent scrap of scud ascending along the shelf cloud. But no, he was pointing at the water, where a rotating patch of spray was clearly visible. It was only a couple hundred yards away, small but unmistakable. Waterspout! And now another, larger one was organizing to my northwest. I could see no funnel, but then, the shelf cloud was now almost directly overhead, and features that might have been obvious at a distance were lost in the jumble of clouds. Regardless, the rotating cascade looked intense. I grabbed my camcorder. There was no time to set up the tripod; I would have to manage the best I could with hand-held. I hit "record" and began shooting the waterspout as it progressed toward the shoreline. At first, it appeared to be heading toward us, which didn't concern me. The waterspout was non-tornadic, and while it obviously packed some strong winds, I felt that the greatest threat it posed was a nasty sand-blasting. We could retreat into the tunnel if necessary. But the spout made landfall about one hundred yards to my north. I ran out onto the beach to try to capture more of it as it progressed up over the foredune, but I was too late, and that section of my footage turned out pretty wobbly. Still, I had about forty-five seconds of shaky but ultra-cool footage of a Lake Michigan waterspout hitting the shore at close range. The first thirty seconds is the best, but I've chosen to show the whole shebang because I think there are some points of interest in the latter part, flawed though it is. Back at my car, the radar indicated more intense convection headed toward Grand Haven. After sending a report to Spotter Network, I got onto Lakeshore Drive and began heading north. The stream of runners had thinned out, and the road was open, though still patrolled by the police. A little ways north of the park entrance, I noticed a "damage path" of tree trash--clusters of leaves and large twigs--scattered across the pavement. The road was only a quarter-mile from the shore, and I have no idea how far inland the waterspout made it before dissipating, but I suspected that a few runners had gotten quite a surprise. Up at Grand Haven, a cloud bank to my northwest put down a series of spouts. These were much farther offshore and not particularly impressive at the time I viewed them, though I've seen some stunning photos by another spout chaser from the same location. After a while, the waterspout activity dwindled off, but I'd gotten my fill and was glad to head back east. Back in Grand Rapids, I processed my video of the spout at Tunnel Park and attempted to send it to WOOD TV8. But the ftp upload failed, so rather than waste more time, I stopped by the station and let their tech handle things. The footage got aired on the evening news. After that, I somehow wound up in Lowell. It was a lovely, moody day, perfect for the first day of fall, and I guess I just felt like a drive. Anyway, I found myself on the waterfront, watching ragged cumulus clouds drift over the broad, windblown face of the Flat River. To the north, a small, low-top storm billowed up above its less successful convective comrades and spread its cirrus anvil eastward. It was a beautiful sight, as was the entire sky, and I couldn't resist taking a few more pictures. The last view on this page looks to the south, where the Lowell Showboat rests at its dock just upstream from the Flat River Grill and the dam beneath the startlingly blue September sky. And that is that. Two days later, the same intensely azure sky prevails and this chill wind testifies that autumn is indeed at hand. The trees are still mostly green, but change is in the air. My hunch is, we won't be getting a "second season" for storm chasing. If not, Saturday was wonderful compensation and will see me through to next spring.

April 13-14 Oklahoma-Kansas Chase

This post is long overdue, but there has been no helping the time lapse between my first Great Plains chase of the year on April 13-14 and tonight, when I'm finally setting the highlights of those days briefly in print. The reason is that, upon my return home, I immediately succumbed to the worst case of acute bronchitis I've ever experienced. It was characterized by constant, deep, wrenching, non-productive coughing; a chronic sore throat; a fever that topped 102 degrees; an ear infection; laryngitis; plugged-up sinuses; and if I've missed anything else, let me just sum it all up by saying that I was in neither the condition nor the mood to do any film editing or writing, or much of anything except to attach my face to a vaporizer and to suck down Jell-O, chicken soup, sports drinks, ginger tea, and enough fluids overall to qualify me as a human aquarium. Today, though, I am definitely on the mend, and it's high time I got this report written. Tomorrow looks to be another big day in eastern Kansas, so I need to write before anything I have to say about an event from two weeks ago gets swallowed up in the latest round of wedges. And it does look there could be some wedges. Look at this NAM skew-T and hodograph for Chanute, Kansas, at 00Z. (Thanks, Ben Holcomb, for tipping me off to Chanute!) With 1km and 3km SRH at 290 and 461 m2/s2 respectively and a nice, fat low-level CAPE, that's the broth for some violent tornadoes. I expect that part of the area that the SPC has categorized as a light risk for tomorrow will be upgraded. But I'm chasing rabbits. Getting back to the topic of this post: With conditions coming together for two or three days of severe weather in tornado alley from April 13-15, Bill Oosterbaan and I headed for Oklahoma in company with two new chaser friends. Rob Forry is a fellow chaser from the other side of Michigan who had yet to experience a Great Plains chase; and Steve Barclift is an editor friend of mine who, I discovered, shares my keen interest in severe weather and had been wanting to get a feel for storm chasing. We arrived in Norman, Oklahoma, late in the morning on Friday the 13th. Dropping off our travel bags at the apartment of Ben Holcomb, who was graciously putting us up for the night later on, we promptly headed out for the chase. We encountered our first storm of the day not far from Chickasha. Not being the superstitious type, I have no qualms about chasing storms on Friday the 13th; still, this storm gave us a shake when it led us back to Norman and spun a tornado within a mile of Ben's apartment. We pulled out of chase mode long enough to make sure that Ben's place was okay. Then we headed southwest a second time, this time plunging beyond Chickasha toward Boone and Meers, and thence into the heart of the Wichita Mountains. There, we positioned ourselves on the southeast flank of a tornadic supercell as it advanced slowly over the ragged landscape. We may have witnessed a tornado at this point, but my video provides no conclusive evidence, just strong suggestions. Tornado or not, though, to stand in the inflow of that massive, beautifully crafted supercell and watch it spew lightning from its charcoal interior as it dragged across those prehistoric peaks was reward enough. No more need be said, nor shall be, since Friday was simply a scenic prelude to the action up in Kansas the following day. Saturday, April 14, dawned on a large high-risk region that ranged from most of central and eastern Nebraska south through central Kansas and down into much of central Oklahoma. With impressive upper- and mid-level jets overlaying the region, bulk shear was beyond adequate, as was instability. The ingredients were all there. Today, it seemed, would be one of those days when anyone who chased--and there were lots of chasers prowling the prairies on this day--would see a tornado. In practice, though, it wasn't quite that easy. Our plan was to drift up I-35 and then head west toward a likely looking storm. Not a very sophisticated approach, but it seemed likely to work, and in fact it did. We weren't far across the Kansas border when we decided to turn west, and in a while we encountered our first supercell of the day, and with it, our first tornado. The cone spun at a good distance, probably five miles or more away. Looking at my video clip, I'm satisfied that it was indeed a tornado--even at that distance, the outline is distinct and separate from the storm's rain shaft. We stuck with our storm as it sailed north-northeastward, but it seemed to be having a hard time establishing itself beyond its first tornadic salvo. Still we stayed with it, hoping it would organize into a rumbling monster. But it continued to attenuate into a skinny, sorry-looking mongrel, so we finally dropped it for a more promising-looking storm to its south. I remember saying at the time, "Dropping this storm [which I was in favor of doing] could be a really good decision. Then again, the storm could reorganize in half an hour and start putting down hoses." Of course, the latter is what happened. Half an hour or forty-five minutes later, the storm we had put behind us had morphed into a supercell that, from the looks of it on radar, clearly wasn't fooling around, and it went on to produce a string of tornadoes. But by then we were committed to the storm to its south, a deceptively imposing-looking beast that washed out on us as we tangled with it and ultimately disappeared completely from the radar screen. Long before that happened, we wisely abandoned it for the next storm down the line, and as the saying goes, the third time was a charm. Just drawing closer to the storm environment, we could tell that this storm was of a different caliber. There was more lightning. The inflow was strong. The thing just felt tornadic. And it was. From here on, I'll let my video clip tell the story. It chronicles our chase from near Pretty Prairie, where we encountered our first tornado with this storm at close range with rain bands wrapping toward us, on north-northeastward toward Lost Springs and Delavan. The latter, night-time portion of the video is best viewed in dim light. On a side note, the SPC did a great job of forecasting this widespread outbreak, as you can see from this verification of the outlooked areas with confirmed tornadoes. One thing that puzzles me is why they showed a 45 percent hatched area for Nebraska, when from what I recall, the NAM and RUC didn't appear at all bullish for a northern play. At the time, I figured that those SPC guys must have known something that the models weren't revealing, but in fact the majority of tornadoes occurred southward in Kansas. If anyone from the SPC happens to read this, I'd welcome your comments on the thinking behind the enhanced focus on Nebraska over regions southward. We overnighted east of Kansas City, and the following day found us chasing a warm-front scenario in south central Minnesota. The setup this day was utterly unlike the previous day. In fact, with the surface low nearly collocated with a closed 500 mb low to our west, we were dealing with what seemed like a quasi-cold-core setup. The storms, low-topped supercells, formed in convective "streets" that moved nearly straight northward, each street progressively kicking off new convection to its east where outflow presumably converged with strong southeasterly surface winds. Tornado reports occurred to the north, along or just past the warm front, where winds backed strongly. The setup was an interesting one particularly in that tornadoes were reported on the cold side of the front, which cooled markedly within a matter of a few miles. This seemed counterintuitive: what kind of surface instability was available in such an environment? I recalled my chase with Kurt Hulst and Dave Diehl back in February, 2006, when we watched a storm on the far eastern side of a cold core drop a tornado several miles to our south. Where we stood, the air was so cold that I could see my breath; yet across the distant treeline, an unmistakable tornado was spinning and doing damage in a small town east of Kansas City. As for this present date, while the four of us didn't see a tornado on April 15, we did see the most wildly circulating wall cloud I've ever laid eyes on. The motion in the thing was unreal, something I attribute to the storm's crossing the warm front and encountering a radical backing of winds. Inevitably, we found ourselves in Minneapolis, at which point we left chase mode and headed for home. The first few coughs that would rapidly blossom into the debilitating bronchitis I mentioned at the start of this post were just getting hold of me. The following day would mark the beginning of a miserable two weeks. I'm just glad the virus held off till I got home. Now I'm almost recovered--not in enough time for what looks to be a lively day in Kansas tomorrow, but certainly for the next round after. For another perspective and some absolutely stunning videos of the Kansas outbreak of April 14, visit my friend Kurt Hulst's blogsite, Midwest Chasers.

March 12, 2012, West Michigan Supercell

Well, what do you know! My purely speculative ruminations a few days ago on some possible upcoming severe weather materialized. The NAM, which was odd-man-out among the various forecast models, proved in the end to have the best handle on today's setup in terms of moisture and instability. Those mid-50s dewpoints it kept promising actually showed up--I took a read of over 56 degrees in Portage on my Kestrel--and so did sufficient instability, courtesy of clearing that allowed the sun to work its mojo over West Michigan. Here was the setup, in brief: • A mid-level low over Wisconsin directing southwesterly upper flow over Michigan. • Diffluence overspreading the lower part of the state. • A 70-knot 500 mb jet max nuzzling into the area. • Below it, 45-knot 850 mb winds continuing to strengthen. • A clear slot moving in from Illinois, breaking up the overcast from earlier storms into a nice cumulus field with room for decent insolation. • From those same earlier storms, wet ground that contributed to the boundary-layer moisture. • Adequate instability. From the afternoon's SPC mesoscale graphics, it looks like we saw upwards of 500 J/kg MLCAPE--in the early spring, sufficient to get the job done. • Low-level helicity in the order of 200-250 m2/s2--easily enough for tornadoes, though none were reported. I expected to leave my place in Caledonia and head south toward Kalamazoo around 3:00 p.m. However, clearing was moving into southwest Michigan so rapidly, with an attendant, juicy-looking cumulus field, that at 1:30 I could no longer sit still. I grabbed my gear, gassed up and Rain-Xed up, and hit the road. At the Marathon station on US-131 and 100th Street, I snapped a couple photos of the clouds while I waited for Tom Oosterbaan to arrive. In the topmost image, you can see how much shear was messing with the enhanced cumuli. Once Tom arrived, we headed down US-131 toward Kalamazoo. On Center Avenue in Portage, south of I-94, we hooked up with Tom's brother, Bill, and Dave Diehl. The four of us sat and waited, watching little storms on the radar pop along the lakeshore and head northeast and larger ones march across Grand Rapids and farther north. Eventually, a vigorous cell that was moving in from around Benton Harbor continued to strengthen as it pulled closer to PawPaw. Cloud tops on this guy shot up rapidly as it moved toward us, and it began to take on that telltale supercellular look. This was our baby. Bill took off west to intercept it directly in PawPaw. Tom and I headed north back up US-131, then caught M-43 west toward Bangor. A few miles down, a turbulent updraft base came into view. It was moving our way fast, and we decided that the better approach would be to jet back to 131, head north, and catch the storm as it approached and crossed the highway. WOOD TV8 contacted me before we hit the exit ramp, and with my live stream going, a live phone-in underway, and an optimal view of a robust-looking wall cloud with a rather impressive tail cloud advancing from my west, pulling over onto the shoulder of the ramp seemed like my best move at that point. I did, and from what I hear, the live stream turned out really nicely on television. As the wall cloud drew nearer, I took off once again, and we drew near to its southern edge as it crossed the highway, attended by a precip-filled RFD notch starting to wrap around it. The storm was tearing along, and as it moved off to the northeast, I had a hunch that our day was over. We tried hard to catch up with the storm again, but it was moving too fast. Bill, on the other hand, had repositioned well off to the east and was in a prime location to intercept it. He did, and followed it a long way east. How he managed to keep up with it during its course through rural Barry County, which is some of the most unchaseable terrain imaginable, I'll never know. (Actually, I probably do know--I've been on a lot of chases with Bill--but I ain't divulging his secret, not me.) After flirting briefly with another cell that blew toward us from Plainwell, Tom and I headed back toward 100th Street, where I dropped him off at his vehicle and then headed home. This was a fun little local chase--less than 200 miles and nothing spectacular, but full of interest and a really nice way to kick off the spring storm season in West Michigan. Just for grins, here is a brief video clip of the wall cloud as it passed over US-131.