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 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? 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. is back in the race.


* 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.

Worst of the Michigan Heat Wave

This has got to be the crest of the heat wave that is assaulting the nation, at least as far as the western Great Lakes is concerned. Here at my apartment in Caledonia, Michigan, I just took a read with my Kestrel 4500 weather meter of 98 degrees F temperature and a dewpoint of 81. Eighty-one freaking degrees! And a heat index of 122 F. I couldn't believe my eyes. Then I thought, okay, I logged that data on my third-floor balcony, where I keep my well-watered collection of carnivorous plants. Sensitive as the Kestrel is, it may have picked up on the moisture from the planters. So I scooted downstairs and took another read, and this one produced more modest results of 91/76/102. Not as bad as out on my balcony, but still just downright nasty. A weak cold front is forecast to move through here sometime this afternoon and lower the dewpoints a few degrees. I hope it happens; I'm all for taking five or so degrees of dewpoint temperature and shipping them off somewhere where they're needed. As things stand, I don't even want to venture outside. But I'm afraid I've got to. Once this post is published, it'll be time for me to hop into my oven-like Buick Century and head over to my mother's house, there to perform my weekly ritual of vacuuming the carpet. Whatever would we do without air conditioning on days like this? I don't know how people manage who don't have it.

Here Comes the Heat

The ridge that is setting up over the central and eastern CONUS looks like it's intent on sticking around for a while. The GFS and Euro differ in the details, with the Euro painting a more meridional pattern farther out, but either way, high pressure not only is paying us a visit, but seems intent on securing long-term lodging. Lacking access to the full range of the ECMWF, I can't compare it and the GFS beyond 168 hours. Beyond that time frame, though, the GFS doesn't look pretty. Today's 6Z run shows the ridge expanding and flattening out before ultimately retrograding and bringing in a cool-off in the Great Lakes sometime the week after next. Until then, it looks like we're in for some prolonged sweltering. With temperatures moving up into the nineties and dewpoints hitting the low to mid seventies, there are going to be a lot of air conditioners going full-tilt from the South through the heartland and eastward. If you've got a boat or easy access to the beach, you're in business. Otherwise, with heat indices around 100 degrees forecast here in West Michigan for this coming week and probably on into the next, being outdoors is not going to be a pleasant experience unless sweating like a sprinkler system is your passion. So much for my humble forecast. I'll leave it to the NWS forecasters to paint in the daily details and will be glad for whatever popcorn cells bring a welcome shadow, a spate of rain, and brief coolness to the area. Today looks to be the first day of the warmup. From here on, things get nasty and tank tops will be de rigueur.

Sax at the Park

Yesterday was gorgeous though a bit chilly--what can you expect in Michigan in mid-March, after all?--and I was anxious to put my new camcorder through its paces. So off to Fallasburg Park I went. Located north of Lowell on the Flat River, the park is a beautiful location adjacent to a historical village complete with a functional and well-trafficked covered bridge. I had meant to use my tripod, but when I got to Fallasburg I discovered that I had left behind the plate that screws into the bottom of my camcorder so it can engage with the tripod's quick release. Fortunately, I was able to induce a young guy who was at the park with his wife and little boy to film me. The result: not too shabby for a whimsical production using an on-the-spot cameraman! Just a little free-form saxophone improvisation--nothing fancy, just fun. Start with a note and then see where it takes you. Pardon the wind noise about halfway through--it was pretty breezy out there. This is my first attempt at embedding a video in WordPress. Let's see how it goes.

First Day of Meteorological Winter

Some of you will greet the news with glee, others with a groan, but either way, today is the first day of meteorological winter. Right, we've still got another three weeks before the winter solstice, when the year's shortest period between sunrise and sunset marks the arrival of astronomical winter in the northern hemisphere. But it sure looks like winter right now to me, and that's what matters to meteorologists. For them, winter begins December 1, just as each of the other three seasons commences on the first day of its three-month block. Why? Because that arrangement corresponds better with how we experience seasonal weather in real life. Here in Michigan, we often get a pretty good hammering of snow in November, and by winter solstice on December 21 (or sometimes 22), we're already usually pretty well socked in. It seems almost laughable when someone announces on solstice that it's the first day of winter. Really? Could'a fooled us. We thought it began a month ago. I woke up this morning to be greeted, very appropriately, by the year's first snow accumulation. Yesterday temperatures opened in the low fifties, but they began dropping and the afternoon grew downright chilly. Today snow is falling, and out in the parking lot a woman is brushing the white stuff off of her car. It's almost like winter has been consulting its watch, waiting in the wings and then entering the stage exactly on cue with a bucketload of lake effect. The snow will be with us for a few days, now, and the radar will continue to look a lot like the image on this page. Click on it to enlarge it, and get used to it, because you'll be seeing a lot of similar pictures from now until meteorological spring arrives on March 1, 2011.

Sandhill Cranes

The GFS continues to show hopeless ridging throughout most of October. I hardly pay any attention to the long-range forecast models these days, just mention this as a note of idle interest. A trough does finally seem to shape up around 300 hours out per the 6Z run, and it could make life interesting within reach of Great Lakes storm chasers on the 27th and/or 28th. But I don't have the heart to wishcast that far out; I just don't believe it'll happen.. As for the saxophone, I'm extremely pleased with my personal progress. But while I've been practicing a lot, my sessions have involved material I've already covered in previous posts, and I'd imagine the results interest me far more than they would you. Lacking anything of great import to write about concerning either jazz saxophone or storm chasing, my radar is scanning for a topic that's at least conceivably related to either of those two interests. Yesterday's earthquake in Norman, Oklahoma, would do well except I wasn't there. I hear it was a loud one, but I'll leave the reportage to those who actually experienced the shakeup. As for me, I need something closer to home. Like sandhill cranes. Here in Michigan, now into November is the time of year when the cranes congregate in great numbers in suitable locations that offer nearby sources of both food and cover. Sometime next month they'll take off for warmer climes in southeastern Georgia and Florida. Meanwhile, this ridging that has quashed the so-called "second season" for storm chasers has provided glorious weather for the sandhill cranes and sandhill crane watchers. The Baker Sanctuary northeast of Battle Creek and the Phyllis Haehnle Memorial Sanctuary near Jackson are well-known staging areas for massive numbers of the birds. However, I'm fortunate to have a location much closer by where over 100 cranes hang out, foraging in a field across the road from a marsh where they shelter for the evening. Mom and I went out there Sunday evening. It was a blessing to spend the time with my sweet 85-year-old mother, watching the sandhills feed; listening to their captivating, ratcheting calls; witnessing their sporadic, comical, hopping dances; and waiting for them to take off and fly overhead en-masse into the marsh at sundown. Here are a few photos for you to enjoy.

Jamming with the Guys

As the fall season progresses and the flow du jour remains northwesterly, I'm glad I've got music to keep me occupied. Ridging may be a storm chaser's nightmare, but here in Michigan it's a color tourist's dream as the slanting sun illuminates hillsides ablaze with scarlet, yellow, purple, orange, and the summer's last green. Now, in this poet's season, is when the musician in me comes alive. Thursday's gig with keyboard monster Paul Lesinski at The Seasonal Grille in Hastings, Michigan, went beautifully. It's amazing how much music a sax player can make with just a piano accompaniment when the pianist is as gifted as Paul. Of course, nothing can beat playing with a complete rhythm section of hugely competent players. That was the setting this morning into the early afternoon at Ric Troll's studio west of Grand Rapids. It's a privilege and a joy to make music with players the caliber of Ric, Randy Marsh, and Dave DeVos. Today, it was doubly nice to break away from the usual American songbook repertoire and work on some original material by Ric plus a couple of Pat Metheny tunes. Don't get me wrong, I love the old standards. But I really welcome the opportunity to explore fresh directions that call for a different approach, free from the cliches that are so easy to fall into with the traditional 32-bar song form. I had thought that today would be a recording session, but it didn't turn out that way. Some of the tunes are quite challenging--one, with it's three-against-four polymeter, took me a good while to digest--and I think Ric's goal for this session was for all of us to simply get a feel for the music. Can't fault him there, though there were some very nice moments that I'd have loved to listen to the replay of. Maybe next time. And I hope we can make that next time soon. I really like what came out of today's creative ferment, and once we've got the material down tight, I think we'll have the makings of a very nice recording.

No Second Season? Please Say It Ain’t So!

I'd been looking forward to the shift in weather with fall's arrival, but now that autumn is officially here,  I dunno, boys and girls. I'm beginning to suspect that the mythical "second season" may not materialize for storm chasers this year--not in the Great Lakes, anyway. You folks out west will no doubt get your little romp, but up here in the tundra land of Michigan instability appears to be a thing of the past. I have to remind myself that it's been only a week since one heck of a squall line blew through and caused extensive tree damage in my area. A couple of days later, though, as the system lifted out of the region, the moisture gave way to the relentlessly dry, crystal-blue skies of autumn, and I have the unsettling feeling that the die has been cast for the remainder of the year. Today's 4-8 day outlook from the SPC doesn't make me feel any better about our immediate prospects:
 VALID 021200Z - 071200Z



   ..JEWELL.. 09/29/2010
"Lack of instability..little chance of severe weather...meager moisture..."--mmmph, doesn't sound very promising, does it? I console myself with the thought that autumn has barely begun, and a nice fetch of moisture can still come chugging northward on the leading edge of some great dynamics to make life interesting. It happened as late as November 10, 2002, in Van Wert, Ohio. It happened just three years ago on October 18, 2007, across the Midwest, including here in Michigan. So my rule of thumb is, don't pack away the laptop until the snows fly. Still, as daytime temperatures retreat into the mid 60s and dewpoints drop to 50 degrees and below, it's kind of hard to believe that the end of the parade isn't long gone, and that last week's wind event wasn't just the cleanup crew. Good thing that this season's "Storm Chasers" series will be airing soon and letting us all relive the glory days of 2010. After that,, it sure is a long stretch from here to next March.

Troughy Weather for Next Week

Here on the back end of a 996 mb low, dry Canadian air has dropped the moisture along with the heat in Caledonia, Michigan. We're presently socked in with clouds, and temperatures are supposed to peak at just 65 degrees. It feels a lot like fall outside. This latest cold front has meant business, and to me it signifies the arrival of autumn's transitional weather pattern--a time when the upper atmosphere begins to cool and conditions become more conducive to bouts of severe storms. Our next round of stormy weather may be arriving by next weekend. Granted, it's pretty early to be looking so far ahead, but the SPC has been eyeballing the next trough in their long-range discussions with a good amount of confidence. Seems like a question not of whether something will happen, but when. Not having access to many of the SPC's forecasting tools, I have to go by what's available to me. The GFS and Euro both depict a pretty deep trough. The GFS, typically, wants to move it along faster than the Euro, but both models agree that there will be something there to move. Both also show a robust surface low developing and drawing in dewpoints in the mid 60s. The northern plains may get hammered later this coming week. By the weekend, Michigan may get a crack at some severe storms. Or not. The crystal ball is murky this far out, and as always, the caveat is, we'll find out when we find out. Whatever happens, it's nice to think that the weather machine may be lurching out of the summer doldrums and getting set to ramp up the action. September furnishes some nice opportunities for taking photos of squall lines blowing in at the lakeshore. Maybe this will be one such occasion. Maybe it'll be even better than that. It's not premature to cross our fingers.

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.