My Great 1,600 Mile Chase Bust

Monday and Tuesday this week were the storm chase from hell. It you're looking for a nice, upbeat post about chasing, you'd best skip this one. My feelings about my fiasco in Nebraska may have mellowed down enough for me not to unleash a full-bore rant anymore, but I've still got enough gunpowder left to blow off a few firecrackers. That's the result when impediment piles upon impediment and frustration upon frustration. With my sights Sunday night fixed on western Iowa and eastern Nebraska the next evening, I set my alarm clock for 4:30 a.m. and hit the sack. I was awakened by early morning light filtering through the window. Light? I glanced at the clock. It said 6:30. My alarm hadn't sounded and I was running late. Nuts. But okay, no problem. After a fast shower, I kissed Lisa good-bye, threw my gear into the car, and hit the road. I still had plenty of time to make eastern Nebraska, and that was a good thing because the SPC had bumped the focal point for tornadoes west. No time to analyze models--I just had to trust the Norman weather pros and hope for the best. Off I went. Thirty miles down the road in Zeeland I made a delightful discovery: I had left my debit card in my other pants pocket. This was the beginning of woes. Self-possessed person that I am, I responded calmly and maturely by protruding my eyeballs, depressurizing my feelings constructively using the special vocabulary that I reserve for just such occasions, and, a cat of nine tails not being handy, by rapidly banging my fist on the steering wheel in lieu of self-flagellation. Retrieving my debit card meant losing over an hour. I now was pushing the envelope, but I could still make eastern Nebraska by late afternoon. This being probably my last crack at a good setup in a record storm season during which I've been miserably sidelined, I was determined to try. So off I went again. I wasn't far south of Holland, Michigan, when the disquiet in my stomach became a bubbling, and the bubbling escalated into the kind of tar-pit-like seething that tells you a quick trip to a bathroom will be required in the near future. Between southern Michigan and east of Chicago, I made three pit stops. Another 45 minutes, literally gone down the toilet before I finally popped some Immodium and put an end to the rumblings. By the time I drew near to Omaha, the show was underway. A tornadic supercell was moving up out of Kansas into Nebraska toward the center of the surface low. My friend and long-time chase partner Bill Oosterbaan, who had called me as we both were initially approaching Zeeland and just as my debit card fiasco was commencing, was now far ahead of me and positioning himself for the next storm down. That storm went spectacularly tornadic and Bill got some great footage, probably the best he's gotten so far. But there was no way I could make it that far west in time to catch tornadoes. My show was clearly going to be the pair of cells to my southwest that were heading toward Lincoln. They were my one chance. But they were south of the warm front, and while surface winds were southeasterly, the storms were moving north-northeast. The low-level helicity required for tornadoes was lacking. My hope was that as the storms headed north they would tap into increasingly backed winds. But all they did was backbuild and congeal into a nasty squall line. My hopes were still up as I approached Lincoln; however, as I finally drew near to the northernmost cell along US 77 west of Roca, I could see that I was screwed. The cells had congealed into a pile of linear junk. I had driven over 750 miles to chase a shelf cloud, and it wasn't even a particularly photogenic shelf cloud. True, it had the local media in Omaha screaming about 75 mph winds and flash flooding, but I've seen plenty better right here in Michigan. Linear mess-oscale convective systems are our state storm. No point in prolonging the pain. I started heading home, my idea being to get far enough east that I'd have time to chew on the system's leftovers back in Michigan the next day. Bill had business in Iowa and was overnighting at the Hilton in Marshalltown, so I bunked with him there. He'd gotten four tornadoes in Polk County, and we reviewed his footage. Very nice stuff! He'd gotten close enough to a large tornado to capture the roar. Here's his YouTube clip. Sigh. So near and yet so far. An arcus cloud isn't much of a compensation prize compared to a tornado. Of course there was still tomorrow back home. A warm front looked poised to drape right across Grand Rapids with SBCAPE in the order of 4,500 J/kg--an optimal setup for Michigan, except that the models consistently depicted the 500 mb jet hanging back just to the west in northern Illinois and Wisconsin. Bill and I in fact hooked up again the next day after his business meeting and briefly discussed chasing the low in Wisconsin. But that area is some of the worst chase terrain imaginable, so we scrapped the idea and went our ways. Somewhere around Davenport, out of idle curiosity, I checked out the SPC's mesoanalysis graphics and noticed that the mid-level energy appeared to be nudging eastward toward Michigan. Hmmm...maybe there might be a bit of a show after all. I gave Kurt Hulst a call. He had hung back in town and was planning to chase today, not expecting much but thinking that the big CAPE could compensate somewhat for poor upper air support. I agreed, particularly now that it looked like 500 mb and higher winds might reach the threshold for storm organization. Later VAD wind profiles at GRR showed nice veering with height along with 30 kt winds at 18,000 feet. Not a setup to die for, but it might just work. And it did. A beautiful supercell fired up along the warm front, and Kurt was on it in a heartbeat. He got in some nice chasing on several storms, witnessed rotating wall clouds and a funnel extending halfway down, and did some call-ins for WOOD TV8. Good work, Kurt! As for me, I got delayed by a traffic bottleneck in Joliet, Illinois, and attempting to find a detour proved to be a huge, time-consuming mistake. I finally arrived in Michigan in time to chase storms, but not the ones on the warm front. Once again I had to settle for what I could get as I belted east down I-94 and punched through the line near Marshall. By then the mid-level winds had backed off and I was left with the usual, disorganized Michigan crap-ola. There was a lot of that, though. The warm sector was remarkably juicy, and more storms kept popping up behind the main line. Heading back through Battle Creek, I parked in a lot across from the old Kellogg Museum and watched a couple of cells south and west of me detonate their munitions. I'll say this: The lightning this day was intense, lots of brilliant, high-voltage positive strokes, many of which struck close by. It was an impressive, beautiful, and exciting pyrotechnic display. But now that it's all behind me, my tornado tally for this year remains zero. Between Monday and Tuesday I drove over 1,600 miles and blew through around $200 worth of gas to see nothing that I couldn't have seen by simply sitting in my apartment and looking out the window. It's frankly a bit humiliating, considering what a benchmark season this has been for storm chasers. Family comes first, though, and tight finances in a rotten economy have been a potent regulator. Sometimes all a body can do is choose his attitude. I confess that mine wasn't all that great these last couple of days, but I talk with the Lord about such things. It's the best I can do: put my feelings before Him honestly, then do what I can to adopt a more positive spirit and move on. Still...it sure would be nice to see a tornado yet this year. Just one. I don't think that's too much to hope for. Sigh. Maybe this fall.

Tribute to a Storm Chasing Partner

Wild Bill Oosterbaan, Chase Partner Extraordinaire

Wild Bill Oosterbaan, Chase Partner Extraordinaire

I contemplated cropping the above image to achieve a better visual balance. Then I thought, nah. For one thing, what's the point of trying to balance the photo of a character who's as wildly off kilter as Bill. For another, and all kidding aside, I'd have to trim out a good portion of the storm clouds. And that would be like trimming out the very essence of Bill Oosterbaan. You see, clouds like those are Bill's passion. They're what first brought us together thirteen years ago, and they've been propelling us across the miles ever since in search of convective mayhem. Bill is my chase partner. Of course, I chase with some other great friends and storm chasers as well, but Bill...well, I've just covered more miles with him by far, paid more dues, experienced more busted chases, learned more about weather, and yes, seen more tornadoes and beautiful storms, than with anyone else. This post is my tribute to my fellow chaser, comrade in convection, and good friend of over a decade. Bill and I are very different temperaments. Conduct a Meyers-Briggs personality profile of each of us and your first conclusion probably wouldn't be that we ought to get in a car together and travel 1,000-plus miles at a stretch in search of intense, potentially lethal weather. But we've survived both the storms and each other, and learned quite a bit in the process. And, I might add, we've had a heckuva lot of fun. I first met Bill back in 1996. That was the year I also conducted my first successful storm chase right here in Michigan. I had already done a chase or two with Bill and his brother, Tom, but on that sticky August day, the two of them were out on the golf course. So when a supercell fired up and formed a wall cloud right outside the window where I worked, I drove solo across the Kent and Ionia County countryside and scored a slim, elegant tube tornado north of Saint Johns. On my chases since then, though, I've rarely been without Bill. So our development as storm chasers has followed a very similar track. I saw my first Great Plains tornado with Bill. In 2005 we chased the record-breaking Six State Supercell together from west of Columbia, Missouri, all the way back to Michigan. On two separate occasions, we've witnessed nighttime tornadoes strike large towns. Our technology has advanced from a miniature TV and stop-offs at airports  and libraries in order to access radar data, to laptops equipped with all the tools known and loved by storm chasers today. We've even figured out how to use most of the stuff. Our forecasting skills have grown from those early days of trying to decode the arcane language of SPC discussions, to making our own forecasts with increasing success. Lately my laptop of four years has been giving me fits. This is  nothing new, but it has gotten to the point where I've finally ordered a new one from Dell. It's a heavy-duty toughbook that's made to take punishment, perfect for the road. Bill sees  in it the end of an era. He says he's going to miss watching my eyes bulge and the veins pop out in my neck. I hate to deprive him of such a simple pleasure; it's a small thing, and it causes him so much joy. On the other hand, I think he'll agree that there's a lot to be said for having a computer that doesn't crash when we need it most. Typically that happens while we're in pursuit of some rain-wrapped meso with who knows what lurking in its interior. I look forward to tracking down plenty more mesos with my friend and long-time chase partner. Many more storms, countless more hours on the road, and yes, more arguments with the ornery cuss. Because the storms are what it's about for both of us, and I think we've learned--and will continue to learn--plenty from each other about chasing them. Our respect for one another is mutual, as is our love for the wild, untamed beauty of Big Weather. When Bill and I talk, it's mainly about storms. We never get bored. For us, talking about the weather is far from trivial conversation. There's always something new to learn, something fresh to discover. That's why I refuse to trim those storm clouds out of the picture up above. To lessen their presence would be to lessen the story they tell about the man standing in front of them. They're a vital part of Bill. So let the clouds remain and let the picture look a bit unbalanced. After all, Bill's a storm chaser. What kind of balance do you expect out of a guy who hunts tornadoes? Bill, mi amigo, it sure has been a blast. Here's to you. Here's to shared experiences, to the thousands of miles we've driven, and to the thousands we've yet to drive. Here's to the the Lord who has kept us safe and blessed us with success. And, as always, here's to the storms.