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.

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* 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.

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.

My Father’s Horn: A Grown Son Reflects on a Priceless Musical Legacy

Most of my music posts share technical exercises or theoretical information. This post is different. I want to share with you something very personal. It is the story of the saxophone that I play: my beloved Conn 6M Ladyface. When I was a small boy living with my family in Niles, Michigan, my dad kept his alto sax in its original black case up against the wall by his bed. He had bought the horn back when he was a young man, and was learning to play it until service in WWII interrupted his musical aspirations and a bout of tuberculosis finished them off entirely. He met my mother in the TB sanatorium, where she worked as a nurse. Dates followed, letters, a ring, marriage, and then me. My parents moved from Chicago to Niles when I was a year old. The sax sat quietly in its case, all but forgotten. Once in a great while, though, Dad would take that case and open it up, and it was on one such occasion that I got my first glimpse of the horn. There it lay, cradled in the case's rich, purple velvet lining: a shining complexity of rods, springs, pearl buttons, pads, and palm keys, all neatly arranged on that deeply golden, sensuously curving body. It was beautiful, fascinating, and to me, impossibly complicated. How could anybody take something so bewilderingly engineered and make music with it? Ever after that first glimpse of my father's horn, I wanted to see more of it. From its aureate luster, to the resonant sound of its bell pads thumping against the tone holes, to its mysterious, brittle reeds, that saxophone captivated me. I was far too young to play it, but it was already beginning to play me. In the summer after my sixth grade year, my family--which had grown to include my brothers Pat, Terry, and Brian, and my sister, Diane--moved to Grand Rapids. Junior high school loomed on the horizon. No longer would I be attending a private Catholic school; the Forest Hills public school system awaited me in the fall, including its band program. Band? I was going to be in band? Yes, that was the plan. In September, when I climbed aboard the school bus for the first day of school, that black case containing my father's horn was in my hands. Private lessons with my band director, Richard Streng, commenced soon after. And I took to my dad's alto sax as naturally as if I had been born for it--which, of course, was the case. The first note I learned to play was A. The second was D. After that came G, and then, I think, C; after that, I don't recall the order. What I do remember is stopping between each note and carefully inspecting my fingers to make sure they were positioned properly. It seems amazing that the fluidity with which I get around on my instrument today got its start with such painstaking deliberateness. But I didn't mind. I was learning to play music, learning to play my dad's saxophone, and I was absolutely thrilled. I could do this! No one needed to tell me to practice; I couldn't wait to get in my daily time on the sax. Mr. Streng seemed to enjoy my private lessons with him as much as I did. He recognized in me a genuine desire to excel. I came to my lessons prepared and ready to play, so he consistently had something he could work with. I still remember his baritone voice after every lesson: "Bob, as always, it has been a pleasure." From Mr. Streng, I learned a life lesson every bit as important as those first music lessons, and that was the power of praise. Never underestimate what a good word can accomplish in a person's heart. A child's heart, a young adult's heart, a heart of many years' experience ... it doesn't matter. Praise empowers; praise instills vision; praise nurtures an inner voice that says, "Yes, I can!" (To be continued)

Changes on the Way for Stormhorn.com!

A new look is coming to this blogsite in the near future. You may have already noticed one of its precursors in the movement of advertisements to the top of the sidebar. But more is on the way. My beautiful, geek-to-the-Nth-power lady friend, Lisa, is working on an update to my theme that will improve it both cosmetically and functionally. This is just a heads-up. I don't know precisely when Lis will have the new version of Stormhorn finished, and I'm not pushing her--this is her labor of love on my behalf, and she gets all the space she needs. But she has been beavering away in a spirit of excellence. I just got a look a little while ago at a new feature she has in mind for me, and I was extremely impressed. Good things are worth waiting for, but I don't think the wait will be very long. So this is your heads-up: Look for a fresh wind to blow through Stormhorn.com sometime soon. I know you're gonna like the results!