June 12 Chase in Northwest Indiana and Michigan

There’s nothing fancy about these pics. They are what they are. But after a tremendously frustrating May–a rant I won’t even bother to get into right now–it is nice to have at least something to show.

The setup was a warm front strung from Iowa eastward across northern Indiana, typical of the south-central Great Lakes region. While the NWS was talking of a derecho, forecast soundings a couple days in advance seemed to point to tornadic potential. And indeed, on the day-of, the SPC issued a high risk across the area, with a 10 percent hatched tornado risk in the area where Kurt Hulst and I chased and a 15 percent hatch farther to the west.

6122013 Meso NW INThe photos show what we came up with in northwest Indiana south of Koontz Lake. The first blurry shot is of a small mesocyclone on a storm which, on the radar, gave only small hints that it could harbor one. Sometimes, given the right environment, what base reflectivity renders as amorphous blobs can provide surprises where you find a little sorta-kinda-almost hooky-looking little notch, and that was the case here.

For a minute, it actually looked like it might give us a tornado, but the lack of surface winds was a good clue that wasn’t gonna happen. Structurally, though, this little storm offered an interesting opportunity to try and read clues in the clouds as to what it was doing or planned to do. I’m not sure I ever did figure that out, but it was fun to watch.

6122013 Meso S of Koontz Lake INAfter watching it for several minutes, we dropped it to intercept the larger, more robust cell advancing behind it. This storm had displayed prolonged rotation on radar, and as we repositioned near a broad stretch of field that gave us a good view, we could see a stubby tail cloud feeding into a large, flange-shaped meso. The storm was clearly HP, with a linear look to it that suggests a shelf cloud, but there was no mistaking the broad rotary motion, and you can make out some inflow bands in the picture. At one point, a well-defined funnel formed just north of the juncture with the tail cloud (or whatever you want to call it) and the  rain core, drifting behind the core and into obscurity.

We played tag with this storm for a while, but it was toward sunset and getting darker and darker, and eventually we decided to call it quits and head back. The storms where we were just lacked the low-level helicity to go tornadic. There was ample surface-based CAPE–somewhere in the order of 3,000 J/kg, methinks– but whatever inflow was feeding them appeared to be streaming in above ground level.

So we headed back into Michigan, and as we drove north on US-31 near Saint Joseph, things got interesting fast. Green and orange power flashes suggested that a high wind was moving through nearby. A glance at the radar and, sure enough, there it was: a bow echo. It didn’t look terribly dramatic on radar, but looks can be deceiving.

Heading east on I-94, we attempted to catch up with the belly of the bow as it rocketed toward Paw Paw and Kalamazoo. The next fifty or sixty miles was a millrace of frequently shifting high winds and torrential rain punctuated by power flashes. At one point, we narrowly missed running into a highway sign that blew across the road in front of us. At another, we passed an inferno where a falling tree had evidently gotten entangled in a power line.

North of us on the radar, we could see a supercell moving over the town of Wayland. But it was a little ways beyond reach, particularly given the kind of backwoods territory that lay to its east.

The high winds and driving rain ended, ironically, as we entered Kent County. My little hometown of Caledonia got just a relative dusting of rain and maybe a zephyr of outflow. It was hard to believe how much drama was playing out just a few miles to the south.

Big thanks to Kurt for taking me out with him when I didn’t have the gas or the money to chase on my own. I needed to get out and chase, and the sneering irony of having a robust setup dropped in my backyard and not being able to do anything about it was really eating me yesterday. I got to go out after all, and it felt wonderful.


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.