March 15, 2012, Dexter and Lapeer, Michigan, Tornadoes

Thursday’s tornadic supercells in eastern Michigan took a lot of people by surprise–NWS and media meteorologists, the SPC, storm chasers, and certainly me. Nothing about those anemic mid- and upper-level winds suggested the potential for even weak tornadoes, let alone significant ones. But there’s no arguing with Nick Nolte’s fabulous footage of the Dexter tornado, and certainly not with the damage that storm did as it swept through the town. It has been rated an EF-3, the most damaging of the three tornadoes reported on March 15, 2012. Second in impact was a tornado that struck farther north in Lapeer, causing EF-2 damage; and finally, an EF-1 tornado in Ida.

Like every other chaser in Michigan whom I know, I had no plans for chasing storms Thursday. True, temps were in the 70s and dewpoints in the 60s; MLCAPE was in the order of 3,000–3,500 J/kg; and the hodograph looked curvy.

But curvy alone isn’t supposed to cut it, not when the dynamics are as puny as they were: winds around 20 kts at 850 mbs; 20–25 kts at 700 mbs; and 25–30 kts from 500 mbs on up to around 26,000 feet, where they finally began to make incremental but hardly impressive gains. The storms that formed should have been popcorn cells that quickly choked on their own precipitation. But they didn’t. At least some of them became classic supercells that lumbered across eastern Michigan at around 15 miles an hour, spinning up strong tornadoes.

I was sitting in my living room editing a book manuscript shortly after 5:00 when I happened to glance out the window and saw some impressive, well-formed towers to my southeast. “Dang!” I thought. “Those look nice!” My second thought was to grab my camera and snap a few photos. After all, thunderstorms just aren’t something you normally see on March 15 in Michigan, let alone such muscular-looking ones. You can view one of the three shots I took–the last one, time-stamped 5:22 p.m.–at the top of the page. (Click on the image to enlarge it.)

Curious, I took a look at GR3. I’d been glancing at it off and on as the afternoon progressed, watching a small squadron of cells pop up across southern and eastern Michigan. They resembled something I might normally see in July or August. But now, one of them looked different–so unexpectedly different that I had a hard time believing what I was seeing. South of Howell and northwest of Ann Arbor, the most vigorous-looking storm of the bunch had transformed into an unmistakable supercell–a regular flying eagle with a little pinhole BWER in the hook.

Where the heck did that come from, and why on earth was it there? Pinch me, I must be dreaming. I switched to SRV, and sure enough, there was a couplet, and not just a weak one, either. A pronounced couplet.

A scan or two later, the storm was continuing to develop. The pinhole had disappeared, and the supercell now had a classic hook. On radar, it looked as nice as anything you could hope to see out West in May–only this was Michigan in mid-March.

Surely the winds had to be better than I had been led to believe. One way to find out. I pulled up the VAD wind profiler at DTX. Ummm … well, okay. Nothing at all remarkable there. Maybe, given the curviness, enough bulk shear to organize the storm. Obviously that had to be the case; the evidence was staring me in the face, along with a couplet which hinted at the tornadic action that was presently occurring. The last screen capture, just below and to your right, shows both the couplet and the VAD. Enlarge the image, zoom in on it, and you can see for yourself just how meager the winds were and why one would expect storms forming in that environment to drown themselves in their own tears.

While I was glued to my radar in Caledonia, across the state storm chaser Nick Nolte was hot on the storm and videotaping the tornado that eventually hit Dexter. After getting out of work for the day, Nick had noticed the storm popping near where he lives. Grabbing his gear, he took off on what turned out to be one of the most serendipitous chases any chaser could hope for.

Nick got some fantastic footage of the Dexter tornado. Congrats, Nick–you really nailed it! Rather than steal Nick’s thunder by embedding his YouTube video here, I’m going to simply redirect you to his site and let you hunt it up there.

I’ve viewed some other footage beside Nick’s that demonstrates a particularly noteworthy aspect of the Dexter tornado, and that is its breakdown into helical vortices. I’ve seen only one other video that demonstrates this helical structure so clearly, and that is the famous KARE TV helicopter video of the July 18, 1986, Minneapolis tornado. The Dexter footage isn’t as dramatic, but it nevertheless depicts the helical effect with stunning and captivating clarity. Nick’s video captures it as well toward the end of his clip. It’s really amazing to see.

Unfortunately, the Dexter and Lapeer storms did considerable damage. If there’s a bright side to their human impact, it’s that no one was killed or seriously injured.

What turned yesterday’s anemic setup into a significant tornado-breeder? A weak upper-level impulse provided the needed lift to spark the storms, but it doesn’t explain why some of them developed into tornadic supercells, given the lackluster mid- and upper-level winds. I’m no expert, but I’m guessing that the unseasonably high CAPE is what did the trick. I suspect it took what was present in terms of shear and helicity and amplified it, in effect creating the Dexter, Lapeer, and Ida storms’ own mesoscale environments–ones conducive to tornadoes.

Of course, similar scenarios typically provide no more than single-cell and multicell severe storms. But then, yesterday was an anomaly in some significant ways. After all, this is Michigan, and it’s only mid-March. When CAPE of that magnitude shows up in the midst of unseasonably high dewpoints, it appears that all bets are off.

ADDENDUM: Lest you should miss reading the comments, check out this satellite loop from Thursday. You can see the storms exploding along an outflow boundary pushing west-northwest from Ohio, and other storms firing along a cold front dropping southeast. Two boundaries, and they actually appear to collide around Saginaw. The OFB accounts nicely for convergence and low-level helicity. Thanks to Rob Dewey for sending me the link.

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.

Fall Meeting of the Michigan Storm Chasing Contingent

Last Thursday, October 27, the Michigan Storm Chasing Contingent convened at its favorite meeting place, the Walldorff Brewpub in Hastings. Present were L. B. LaForce, Ben Holcomb, Bill Oosterbaan, Tom Oosterbaan, Nick Nolte, and I, the unofficial recorder. The meeting was called to order, or at least something approaching order, and it was immediately moved that beer should be purchased. The motion was passed by five out of six, with one member abstaining. The recorder found himself in possession of a 24-ounce schooner of Cobain’s Double Dark IPA, which easily balanced out the abstention.

Truthfully, there is no official Michigan Storm Chasing Contingent. I made up the name. Membership dues have not been levied and cards have not been issued. The whole notion of a Michigan Storm Chasing Contingent is something of an oxymoron to begin with. Nevertheless, most of these guys have had a pretty impressive year, with plenty of miles logged and tornadoes observed. The sorriest mug in the lot was me, but I won’t go into that; 2011 is almost over now, and I’m done whining. The big thing is, Ben Holcomb was visiting from Oklahoma, and that seemed like a good reason for all of us to get together and hang out for the evening.

The Walldorff is becoming a tradition for us, and it’s not a bad one. The place has award-winning craft brew. The cuisine, made from scratch using local produce, meats, and dairy products, is also fabulous, but the beer is the main draw. Not that this is a hard-drinking bunch; they’re actually pretty conservative. But they do enjoy the Bee Sting Ale, one of the many superb craft brews turned out by Sam, the Dorff’s world-class brewmeister.

As for me, I opted for the Cobain IPA with its double-bitter blast of mega-hops and roast malt. It was the first beer I had ordered at the place since I joined its pub club a couple months ago, and I figured that it was time I finally took advantage of my member’s discount. I expected a nice price break. What I didn’t anticipate was the 24-ounce mug that the waitress set in front of me. It was big enough to generate its own lake breeze, and I could see surf breaking against the brim. Good grief. At 8.5 ABV, the Cobain is a potent brew, and all I wanted was a modest glass. I just can’t knock off such stuff with impunity anymore like I used to. Out of shape, out of practice, and getting older. Oh, well.

It was great to see all the guys, though we missed Kurt Hulst, who had to work. There’s nothing more interesting than storm chasers talking shop, at least as far as other chasers are concerned, and this year

afforded plenty of notes to compare. Ben, Bill, and Tom had been on the May 24 Chickasha tornado, a particularly violent beast that may be upgraded to EF-5. Seems that it pitched a Ford F-150 pickup truck 800 yards–nearly half a mile. It’s hard to fathom that kind of power.

But enough. It’s late, this recorder is tired, and it’s time I put this post to rest. Till next time, gents: L’chaim!

My July 27 Michigan Tornado Video, for What It’s Worth

Michigan is not Oklahoma. It is not even Illinois. If you’re a storm chaser who has any life experience with this state, as a few of you do besides me, you know exactly what I mean. Had Dorothy and Toto lived here instead of in Kansas, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz would never have been written. That or else author L. Frank Baum would have had to find a dfferent means of lofting his main character and her little dog somewhere over the rainbow.

Sure, Michigan gets its annual tally of tornadoes. It’s just that most of them are something less than what you’ll encounter west of the Mississippi or down south in Dixie Alley. That’s not a bad thing, given our population density. But it does require Michigan-based chasers to either travel long distances out of state or else languish from convective malnutrition.

You want to see a Michigan tornado? Okay, I’ll show you a Michigan tornado. But be forewarned, it’s not a pretty sight. It’s barely any kind of a sight at all. When I first spotted it, I wasn’t even certain it was a tornado, though after reviewing my HD clip and getting a couple of other reliable opinions, I’m now convinced. Good thing, too, because it’s all I’ve got to show for this year in terms of actually seeing a tornado. That’s pretty pathetic, considering the chase opportunities that circum 2011 has presented. But you can’t chase when your 85-year-old mother is having a knee replacement, as mine did on April 27, the day of the 2011 Super Outbreak; or when you just don’t have the money to go gallivanting freely across Tornado Alley, a reality that has badly limited me this year.

Given such circumstances, you grab what you can, where you can, when you can. July 27 was an example. Although a light risk tapped on the very westernmost edge of Michigan, my state was for the most part outlooked for nothing more than general thunderstorms. Severe weather wasn’t a concern. So imagine my surprise when I spotted distinct rotation on GR3 in a cell just to my southwest, heading ESE toward Hastings.

Grabbing my gear, I hopped in my car and headed east, setting up my laptop on the way. And what do you know! The radar didn’t lie. The storm had a large, well-defined wall cloud that I caught up with as I approached Hastings on State Road.

Since my video clip doesn’t show much in the way of structure, let me assure those of you who care about such things that this storm had good visual clues: impressive wall cloud, crisp updraft tower, and a warm RFD cascading off the back end. As I’ve already mentioned, storm motion was ESE, which corroborates my recollection of a northwest flow regime and explains why the rotation was more on the northwest part of the cell than the southwest. Also, as I recall, surface winds were from the SSW, though I can’t say how they were behaving ahead of the updraft area as I never managed to outpace the storm.

With all that said, here’s what happens in the video: Heading south behind the storm, I first spot the tornado out of my side window, which is covered with raindrops. Those somewhat obscure the funnel, but you can still make it out as a small, faint, whitish blotch connecting the cloud base to the treeline a little ways to the right of center. At this point I’m debating with myself and conclude that the feature is just scud. I park the car, zoom in on the storm and lose focus, then roll down the window and zoom back out. You’ll then see a small sapling mid-screen, and the tornado still barely visible to its right as a tiny strand of light gray condensation set against the darker background. It, translates almost imperceptibly to the right for a handful of seconds before vanishing. In my HD clip, I can make out something of an actual rope-out, but you can’t tell with YouTube.

Nevertheless, even though YouTube isn’t great for detail, I think you’ll see what I’m talking about overall. I promise you, it’s there; you just have to look closely. And use your imagination. And be highly suggestible. And believe in the Tooth Fairy. (I’ve also got some clips of Sasquatch and the Loch Ness monster that you may take an interest in, but those are for another time.)

The tornado doesn’t appear in the day’s storm reports, and I don’t believe the supercell that produced it ever got severe-warned. I think I was the only chaser on the darn thing, at least from my side of the state. I did report the wall cloud to GRR. I never bothered with the tornado because it was there and gone before I’d made up my mind what it was. It certainly was an anemic little puke, and I’m not sure whether to feel grateful that I scored at least one tube this year or to feel mortified about even claiming it. I almost felt sorry for the poor thing, and if I could have, I’d have taken it home and cared for it until it was healthy, and then released it under some nice, beefy updraft tower while strains of “Born Free” played in the background.

Go ahead and laugh, but I’m probably the only chaser in Michigan who got video of this tornado. Then again, that’s nothing to brag about, particularly in a year when so many chasers have captured videos of violent, mile-wide monsters. It’s just, like I said, all I’ve got to show. Yeah, I was there with my buddies right by the airport when the April 22 Saint Louis tornado hit, but none of us actually saw a funnel. I doubt anyone did after dark in all that rain. So July 27 is it for me, my sole visual record. Mine, all mine. Bob’s tornado. I’ve assigned it an F6 on the original Fujita scale, F6 being a hypothetical rating associated with “inconceivable damage.” That description fits perfectly, as this tornado was practically hypothetical, and it’s inconceivable to me that it could have damaged much of anything. Maybe snatched up an ill-fitting toupee, but that’s about it.

So there you have it: a genuine Michigan tornado. Now you know what storm chasing is like here in my state. It’s just another of the great perks that this supercell haven has to offer besides its economy.

I will say this: we do have fantastic craft beer.