Bow Echo at Elk Rapids, Michigan

Judging from the forecast soundings, it seemed that northern Michigan stood at least a chance of tornadoes yesterday evening. But the storms that first ignited in Wisconsin quickly congealed into a broken line as they crossed Lake Michigan, minimizing their tornadic potential and fulfilling the predictions of forecast models and the knowledgeable heads at the Storm Prediction Center. I made the trip north regardless of, from my standpoint as a storm chaser, the unpromising prognosis. I hadn't been upstate yet this year, I was itching for a bit of convective violence in any form, and the thought of simply watching a brooding shelf cloud blow in over the beautiful hills-and-water region around Traverse City appealed to me. Given ample low-level helicity between 200-300 m2/s2, I figured I stood at least a chance of getting  some rotation out of a tail-end cell or perhaps a hook-like protrusion. But I was willing to settle for less, which is what I expected and what I got. I headed north on US 131 as far as Kalkaska. Then, with storms to both my north and west, I decided I'd be better off heading west down SR 72 and meeting the southernmost cells moving in toward Traverse City. At Acme, I caught US 31 north, and from then on my goal was to find a good place to park and get some pics. That's easier said than done in a landscape filled with timber. Grand Traverse Bay was almost within spitting distance, and I could see glowering, lightning-laced clouds advancing to my northwest. But, blocked by trees, the clear view I envisioned of a shelf cloud bulldozing in over the bay kept eluding me. Finally I found myself in Elk Rapids. The town was right on the water; there had to be someplace to park with an open view. At a stop sign, I edged out prematurely, then tapped on the brakes as fellow chaser Nick Nolte turned off the main drag in front of me. Cool--Nick was here too. I figured I'd find a spot, then give him a call. As it turned out, Nick found me first a few minutes later in the parking lot of the local marina. "Hey, I just about ran into you at an intersection," I told him. "That was you?" he said. "Jerk!" Our location was probably as close to ideal as possible, given the lay of the land. The cell to our north blew past, but the radar indicated a bow echo making its way directly toward us. I'd never have guessed from the bland-looking sky to the west. But in a few minutes, storm features began to emerge from the nondescript grayness like an old Polaroid photograph developing. A shelf cloud was advancing across the bay, growing more distinct by the second. Nick hopped out of his car and tripoded his camera. I opted to go hand-held--not the best approach, but in this case a practical one. But my camera gave me grief; the shutter wouldn't operate, and by the time I remembered that I needed to turn off the auto-focus, the shelf cloud was overhead. Nuts. I snapped the five shots you see below, then got in my car as the rain and wind descended in earnest. The marina was right in the belly of the bow, and for a few minutes, I enjoyed a nice blast punctuated with lightning and commented on by thunder. Then the line moved off to the east. Nick and I decided to try and reposition in hopes of intercepting the southern end, but our attempt was futile. We ended the chase and grabbed dinner at a Big Boy restaurant in Kalkaska. This time of year, any storm is a good storm--not that I'll normally drive 175 miles just to see a bow echo, but I don't need a Great Plains tornado to make me happy. After multiplied days of remorselessly gorgeous weather, a boisterous round of lightning and thunder always gladdens my heart and gets a shout out of me. ADDENDUM: The tail-end cell, which had consistently displayed a hook-like appendage and shown an inclination to turn right, went on to produce an EF-1 tornado at a golf course near Roscommon, forty miles east-southeast of where Nick and I grabbed dinner in Kalkaska. The low-level helicity delivered after all. If the storms had been discrete, I suspect we'd have seen a few more tornado reports.

May 29, 2011, Battle Creek Straight-Line Winds

The summary follow-up to  my previous post is, I busted with L. B. LaForce during last Wednesday's high-risk day in Illinois. Tornadoes occurred that day, but overall the scenario was a disappointing one for us. If anything, it was a lesson to trust my initial gut instinct, which told me to stick close to Indiana, where a moisture plume and 500 mb jet were moving in. Nice, discrete supercells eventually fired up south of Indianapolis while L. B. and I putzed around fruitlessly with the crapvection northeast of Saint Louis. And that's all I'll say about that--not that I couldn't say more, but I want to talk about yesterday's far more potent event in southern Michigan. You don't need a tornado in order to make a neighborhood look like one went through it. That axiom was amply demonstrated yesterday in Calhoun County, where straight-line winds wrought havoc the likes of which I don't recall having ever seen here in Michigan. We've had a couple doozey derechoes over the past few decades, but I don't think they created such intense damage on as widespread a scale as what I witnessed yesterday. Northeast of Helmer Brook Road and Columbia Avenue in Battle Creek, across from the airport, the neighborhood looked like it had been fed through a massive shredder. We're talking hundreds of large trees uprooted or simply snapped, roofs ripped off of buildings, walls caved in, road signs blown down, trees festooned with pink insulation and pieces of sheet metal, yards littered with debris, power lines down everywhere...it was just unbelievable. Not in the EF-3 or EF -4 league, maybe, but nothing to make light of. Yesterday was the first decent setup to visit Michigan so far this year. Of course I went chasing, not expecting to see tornadoes--although that possibility did exist--but hoping to catch whatever kind of action evolved out of the storms as they forged eastward. It being my first time doing live-streaming video and phone-ins for WOOD TV 8 made things all the more interesting. As it turns out, I was in the right place at the right time. When I first intercepted the storms by the Martin exit on US 131, I wasn't sure they would amount to much.  Huh, no worries there. As I drove east and south to reposition myself after my initial encounter, the storms intensified and a tornado warning went up for Kalamazoo County just to my south. Dropping down into Richland, I got slammed with heavy, driving rain. The leading edge of the storm had caught up with me. I wanted to get ahead of it and then proceed south toward the direction of the rotation that had been reported in Kalamazoo. Fortunately, M-89 was right at hand, and I belted east on it toward Battle Creek. On the west side of Battle Creek, I turned south on M-37, known locally as Helmer Brook Road. GR3 radar indicated that I was just grazing the northern edge of a couplet of intense winds. It didn't look to me like rotation; more likely divergence, a downburst. As I continued south down Helmer Brook toward the airport, the west winds intensified suddenly and dramatically, lashing a Niagara of rain and mist in front of me and rendering visibility near-zero. I wasn't frightened, but I probably should have been. Glancing at my laptop, I noticed that a TVS and meso marker had popped up on the radar--smack on top of my GPS marker. Great, just great. So that couplet I thought was a downburst had rotation in it of some kind. Well, there was nothing I could do but proceed slowly and cautiously and hope that the wind didn't suddenly shift. It didn't, and as I drew closer to the airport, it started to ease up, visibility improved and the storm moved off to the east. That was when I began to see damage. In the cemetery across from the airport, trees were down. Big trees, and lots of them. Blown down. Snapped off. I grabbed my camcorder and started videotaping. But the full effects of the wind didn't become apparent until I turned east onto Columbia Avenue near the Meijer store. My first thought was that a tornado had indeed gone through the area. But with most of the trees pointing consistently in a northeasterly direction, the most logical culprit was powerful straight-line winds. Parking near a newly roofless oil change business, I proceeded to shoot video and snap photos. I'll let the following images tell the rest of the story.

Getting Set for a Backyard Chase

Last night's bow echo certainly didn't disappoint. I first spotted it in Wisconsin when it was a supercell putting down tornadoes near Milwaukee and thought, "That sucker is headed straight at us." I watched as it hit Lake Michigan, maintaining rotation for a while but eventually morphing into a big bow echo. But what a bow echo! That northern book-end vortex really cranked as it moved inland and into the Kent County area. For a few scans of the radar, it looked like a small hurricane. Little wonder that it generated tornado warnings with a few reports of sightings by spotters and law enforcement. But nasty a storm as it was, last night's weather was probably just a prelude to what today, Wednesday, has in store. Veering surface winds taken into account, this could nevertheless be a tornado day for Michigan. The NAM shows a 70 knot 500 mb jet max blowing through the area, CAPE over 2,500, 70 degree dewpoints, and STPs to make a chaser happy. Looks like it'll be Kurt Hulst and me on this one. Bill is heading to Lansing to hang out with Ben Holcomb, and I think Mike Kovalchick is going to join them. That's a good place to start. I'm not sure that I want to play quite so far east early in the game tomorrow, but I'm sure we'll wind up well east of Lansing before the day is done. As of the 00Z run, it looks like the H5 will be nosing into West Michigan around 18Z, kissing an intensifying LLJ. Kurt and I had talked about setting up shop around I-96 and M-66. We'll see what the 6Z run has to show us and play it from there. At last, a Michigan chase with some real potential! And while I had guessed that storm motions would be in the neighborhood of 40 knots, the NAM decelerates them to a very manageable 25 knots. This could prove to be an interesting day, though I hope not a terribly impactful one. Southern Michigan has a lot of population centers, and I inevitably have mixed feelings whenever I see a big weather event shaping up for this area.