April 13-14 Oklahoma-Kansas Chase

This post is long overdue, but there has been no helping the time lapse between my first Great Plains chase of the year on April 13-14 and tonight, when I'm finally setting the highlights of those days briefly in print. The reason is that, upon my return home, I immediately succumbed to the worst case of acute bronchitis I've ever experienced. It was characterized by constant, deep, wrenching, non-productive coughing; a chronic sore throat; a fever that topped 102 degrees; an ear infection; laryngitis; plugged-up sinuses; and if I've missed anything else, let me just sum it all up by saying that I was in neither the condition nor the mood to do any film editing or writing, or much of anything except to attach my face to a vaporizer and to suck down Jell-O, chicken soup, sports drinks, ginger tea, and enough fluids overall to qualify me as a human aquarium. Today, though, I am definitely on the mend, and it's high time I got this report written. Tomorrow looks to be another big day in eastern Kansas, so I need to write before anything I have to say about an event from two weeks ago gets swallowed up in the latest round of wedges. And it does look there could be some wedges. Look at this NAM skew-T and hodograph for Chanute, Kansas, at 00Z. (Thanks, Ben Holcomb, for tipping me off to Chanute!) With 1km and 3km SRH at 290 and 461 m2/s2 respectively and a nice, fat low-level CAPE, that's the broth for some violent tornadoes. I expect that part of the area that the SPC has categorized as a light risk for tomorrow will be upgraded. But I'm chasing rabbits. Getting back to the topic of this post: With conditions coming together for two or three days of severe weather in tornado alley from April 13-15, Bill Oosterbaan and I headed for Oklahoma in company with two new chaser friends. Rob Forry is a fellow chaser from the other side of Michigan who had yet to experience a Great Plains chase; and Steve Barclift is an editor friend of mine who, I discovered, shares my keen interest in severe weather and had been wanting to get a feel for storm chasing. We arrived in Norman, Oklahoma, late in the morning on Friday the 13th. Dropping off our travel bags at the apartment of Ben Holcomb, who was graciously putting us up for the night later on, we promptly headed out for the chase. We encountered our first storm of the day not far from Chickasha. Not being the superstitious type, I have no qualms about chasing storms on Friday the 13th; still, this storm gave us a shake when it led us back to Norman and spun a tornado within a mile of Ben's apartment. We pulled out of chase mode long enough to make sure that Ben's place was okay. Then we headed southwest a second time, this time plunging beyond Chickasha toward Boone and Meers, and thence into the heart of the Wichita Mountains. There, we positioned ourselves on the southeast flank of a tornadic supercell as it advanced slowly over the ragged landscape. We may have witnessed a tornado at this point, but my video provides no conclusive evidence, just strong suggestions. Tornado or not, though, to stand in the inflow of that massive, beautifully crafted supercell and watch it spew lightning from its charcoal interior as it dragged across those prehistoric peaks was reward enough. No more need be said, nor shall be, since Friday was simply a scenic prelude to the action up in Kansas the following day. Saturday, April 14, dawned on a large high-risk region that ranged from most of central and eastern Nebraska south through central Kansas and down into much of central Oklahoma. With impressive upper- and mid-level jets overlaying the region, bulk shear was beyond adequate, as was instability. The ingredients were all there. Today, it seemed, would be one of those days when anyone who chased--and there were lots of chasers prowling the prairies on this day--would see a tornado. In practice, though, it wasn't quite that easy. Our plan was to drift up I-35 and then head west toward a likely looking storm. Not a very sophisticated approach, but it seemed likely to work, and in fact it did. We weren't far across the Kansas border when we decided to turn west, and in a while we encountered our first supercell of the day, and with it, our first tornado. The cone spun at a good distance, probably five miles or more away. Looking at my video clip, I'm satisfied that it was indeed a tornado--even at that distance, the outline is distinct and separate from the storm's rain shaft. We stuck with our storm as it sailed north-northeastward, but it seemed to be having a hard time establishing itself beyond its first tornadic salvo. Still we stayed with it, hoping it would organize into a rumbling monster. But it continued to attenuate into a skinny, sorry-looking mongrel, so we finally dropped it for a more promising-looking storm to its south. I remember saying at the time, "Dropping this storm [which I was in favor of doing] could be a really good decision. Then again, the storm could reorganize in half an hour and start putting down hoses." Of course, the latter is what happened. Half an hour or forty-five minutes later, the storm we had put behind us had morphed into a supercell that, from the looks of it on radar, clearly wasn't fooling around, and it went on to produce a string of tornadoes. But by then we were committed to the storm to its south, a deceptively imposing-looking beast that washed out on us as we tangled with it and ultimately disappeared completely from the radar screen. Long before that happened, we wisely abandoned it for the next storm down the line, and as the saying goes, the third time was a charm. Just drawing closer to the storm environment, we could tell that this storm was of a different caliber. There was more lightning. The inflow was strong. The thing just felt tornadic. And it was. From here on, I'll let my video clip tell the story. It chronicles our chase from near Pretty Prairie, where we encountered our first tornado with this storm at close range with rain bands wrapping toward us, on north-northeastward toward Lost Springs and Delavan. The latter, night-time portion of the video is best viewed in dim light. On a side note, the SPC did a great job of forecasting this widespread outbreak, as you can see from this verification of the outlooked areas with confirmed tornadoes. One thing that puzzles me is why they showed a 45 percent hatched area for Nebraska, when from what I recall, the NAM and RUC didn't appear at all bullish for a northern play. At the time, I figured that those SPC guys must have known something that the models weren't revealing, but in fact the majority of tornadoes occurred southward in Kansas. If anyone from the SPC happens to read this, I'd welcome your comments on the thinking behind the enhanced focus on Nebraska over regions southward. We overnighted east of Kansas City, and the following day found us chasing a warm-front scenario in south central Minnesota. The setup this day was utterly unlike the previous day. In fact, with the surface low nearly collocated with a closed 500 mb low to our west, we were dealing with what seemed like a quasi-cold-core setup. The storms, low-topped supercells, formed in convective "streets" that moved nearly straight northward, each street progressively kicking off new convection to its east where outflow presumably converged with strong southeasterly surface winds. Tornado reports occurred to the north, along or just past the warm front, where winds backed strongly. The setup was an interesting one particularly in that tornadoes were reported on the cold side of the front, which cooled markedly within a matter of a few miles. This seemed counterintuitive: what kind of surface instability was available in such an environment? I recalled my chase with Kurt Hulst and Dave Diehl back in February, 2006, when we watched a storm on the far eastern side of a cold core drop a tornado several miles to our south. Where we stood, the air was so cold that I could see my breath; yet across the distant treeline, an unmistakable tornado was spinning and doing damage in a small town east of Kansas City. As for this present date, while the four of us didn't see a tornado on April 15, we did see the most wildly circulating wall cloud I've ever laid eyes on. The motion in the thing was unreal, something I attribute to the storm's crossing the warm front and encountering a radical backing of winds. Inevitably, we found ourselves in Minneapolis, at which point we left chase mode and headed for home. The first few coughs that would rapidly blossom into the debilitating bronchitis I mentioned at the start of this post were just getting hold of me. The following day would mark the beginning of a miserable two weeks. I'm just glad the virus held off till I got home. Now I'm almost recovered--not in enough time for what looks to be a lively day in Kansas tomorrow, but certainly for the next round after. For another perspective and some absolutely stunning videos of the Kansas outbreak of April 14, visit my friend Kurt Hulst's blogsite, Midwest Chasers.

The Historic 2011 Tornado Season in Review: A Video Interview with Storm Chaser Bill Oosterbaan, Part 1

Just about any way you look at it, the 2011 tornado season has been exceptional, disastrous, spectacular, and heartbreaking. On April 25–28, the largest tornado outbreak in United States history claimed over 340 lives over a span of 78 1/2 hours. Hardest hit was northern Alabama, where 239 of the fatalities occurred. Of the 335 confirmed tornadoes that drilled across 21 states from Texas and Oklahoma to as far north as upstate New York, four received an EF-5 rating, a figure surpassed only by the 1974 Super Outbreak. In other ways, what is now known as the 2011 Super Outbreak rivaled its infamous predecessor of 37 years ago. There were more tornadoes. And, in an age when warning technology and communications far outstrips what existed on April 3–4, 1974, there were nevertheless more deaths. The 2011 Super Outbreak alone would have set the year apart as a mile marker in weather history. But less than a month later, on May 22, another longstanding record got broken--and tornado records are rarely anything one hopes to see beaten. In this case, a mile-wide EF-5 wedge that leveled Joplin, Missouri, became not only the first single tornado since the 1953 Flint–Beecher, Michigan, tornado to kill over 100 people, but also, with a death toll of 153, the deadliest US tornado since the Woodward, Oklahoma, tornado of 1943. This has been a year when large cities have gotten smeared, churned into toothpicks and spit out at 200 mph. Tusacaloosa, Birmingham, Huntsville, Joplin...if you survived the storms that trashed these towns, you were blessed. And chances are, you know people who weren't so fortunate. Rarely has the dark side of the storms that storm chasers so passionately pursue been on such grim and devastating display. This has been an awful tornado season, and that's the truth. It has also been a spectacular one, and if many of the storms were man eaters, yet many others spun out their violent beauty harmlessly out on the open plains. Chasers this year have witnessed the full gamut, from April's deadly monsters that raced across Dixie Alley to slow-moving, late-season funnels that meandered grandly over the grasslands. For me, the season has largely been a washout. Family and economic constraints kept me mostly benched this spring, and the few times when I made it out west to chase were unproductive. Not so, however, with my friend and chase partner of 15 years, Bill Oosterbaan. Bill has had a spectacular and a sobering season--and in this first-ever Stormhorn.com video interview, he's here to talk about it. The 40-minute length of this video requires that it be broken into four sections in order to fit YouTube requirements. It's a lengthy process, and me being a novice at video editing--particularly with high definition--it has taken me a while to figure out how to make it work. This evening I finally had a breakthrough, and now I'm pleased to say that Part 1 is available for viewing. I will be working on the remaining three parts tomorrow, and I hope to have them available in their entirety on YouTube by Wednesday. [UPDATE: Parts 2–4 are now available for viewing.] For now, by way of a teaser with some substance to it, here is the first part.

Storm Chasing for TV 8: Taking It to the Next Level

I met this afternoon with WOOD TV 8 meteorologists Kyle Underwood and Matt Kirkwood to discuss chasing storms for TV 8. I'm excited about the prospect of taking what has hitherto been a longstanding hobby of mine, albeit one of passionate focus, and upgrading it to the semi-professional level. When Ben Holcomb left Michigan last year for the grand storm chaser's Mecca of Oklahoma, he offered to hook up several of his Troll compatriots with TV 8 to fill his vacancy. One of those chasers was me. At the time, gracious as Ben's offer was, I nevertheless felt I had to decline due to a pathetic lack of equipment. But the thought of the opportunity kept nagging at me, so I finally decided to take a chance and purchase some stuff I really can't afford out of the sense that I can't afford NOT to do so. My gut instinct, which I hope is right, is that my investment will pay for itself over the storm season. Thus, motivated by the possibility of having my avocation become self-sustaining, with tax writeoffs on mileage and expenses as an added incentive, I dropped a healthy chunk of cash on the following items:
  • ♦ Panasonic HDC-TM700 video camera with 32 gig internal memory
  • ♦ 32 gig HDSC memory card
  • ♦ Logitech Pro 9000 webcam for live streaming video
The cash outlay is not one I take lightly at a time when my money is tight. It's a good barometer of how seriously I take storm chasing. But after speaking with Kyle, I'm impressed that WOOD TV appears, on its part, to be equally serious about developing a topnotch crew of local chasers. Commitment matched with commitment is a good thing. Besides my purchase of equipment, over the past few weeks I've also invested a good amount of my time and a bit more cash studying for my HAM radio test, which I took and passed last Friday. Today I finally found my new call letters in the FCC list, so I'm now officially good to go as a HAM operator. Additionally, per Lisa's recommendation, I've registered with Vimeo, and after giving it an introductory look-over, I feel good about that resource as an online video repository. Vimeo should allow me to start embedding my footage in future Stormhorn.com blog posts, and it may also serve as an easy way to make my material accessible to WOOD TV. All that now remains to be done is to sign up with Chaser TV and start getting familiar with the live streaming video. That and familiarize myself with Vimeo and its capabilities. I've got a bit of a learning curve ahead of me between now and April 1, when WOOD TV hopes to begin tapping into its chaser pool. Since all the chasers in that pool know each other--it's a small, connected community, as I'm sure storm chasers anywhere will understand--there's the potential for some decent synergy on a chase day. What one man misses, another is likely to catch. So...a new experience lies ahead for 2011. No way am I missing big weather when it shapes up out west in Tornado Alley. But if statistics mean anything, this year's La Nina could bring a bonanza of severe weather closer to home, even to my back door of West Michigan. When it does, I'll be on it, dashcam streaming and camcorder a-blazin'.

“Tornado Alley” Chaser Party

Saturday in Chicago was possibly the best inauguration of a new chase season that I've experienced. A little time to take in some of the Museum of Science and Industry; then watch Sean Casey's long-awaited new Imax film, Tornado Alley; then head over to Skip Talbot's place and hang out with fellow chasers and watch storm chasing videos...what could be better? It was good to reconnect with Michigan native Ben Holcomb, whom I hadn't seen since he moved to Oklahoma City last year; with fellow Michiganites Nick Nolte and B. B. and L. B. LaForce; and with Scott Bennet, Adam Lucio, and Danny Neal, comrades in arms along with Ben from the infamous Field Fiasco of May 22 in South Dakota. Plus, it was a pleasure to finally be able to meet some people whom I've known of for a long time, including Skip Talbot, who hosted the fete. My buddy Bill Oosterbaan and I left Grand Rapids for Chicago around 10 a.m. Saturday and arrived at the museum with time to spare. Fifty or sixty miles down the road, I realized that I had left behind a couple 4-packs of barley wine which I had bought exclusively for the occasion. It was a minor downside to a great trip. Drat! Now I guess it's up to Lisa and me to drink all that barley wine--an onerous task, to be sure, but we'll manage it. In fact, we've already whittled away the workload by half, and I'm contemplating a bottle tonight after I've finished writing this post. Watching tornado videos and hanging out with chasers has got me hankering to see some storms. It won't be much longer now! And this year I've got everything I need to kick things up a notch or two with a great new camcorder and live streaming video. Wednesday I meet with one of the Channel 8 meteorologists to discuss doing some media chasing--connection courtesy of Ben Holcomb. Thanks, Ben! But back to the party, here are a few photos. If you were there and don't see yourself here, sorry--I didn't intentionally leave you out. I just didn't get everyone, and these shots are merely representative. Skip, thanks to you and Jenny for opening your home to us. To everyone else: great seeing you, and I look forward to crossing paths with you again at the edge of the meso.

RAOB and Other Weather Widgets

Some storm chasers pride themselves in being minimalists who have a knack for intercepting tornadoes without much in the way of gadgetry. Others are techies whose vehicles are tricked out with mobile weather stations and light bars. It's all part of the culture of storm chasing, but the bottom line remains getting to the storms. To my surprise, while I draw the line at gaudy externals, I've discovered that I lean toward the techie side. For me, storm chasing is a lot like fishing. Once you've bought your first rod and reel and gotten yourself a tackle box, you find that there's no such thing as having enough lures, widgets, and whizbangs. You can take the parallels as deep as you want to. Radar software is your fish finder. F5 Data, Digital Atmosphere, and all the gazillion free, online weather maps from NOAA, UCAR, COD, TwisterData, and other sources are your topos. And so it goes. A couple years ago I spent $300 on a Kestrel 4500 weather meter. It's a compact little unit that I wear on a lanyard when I'm chasing. It weighs maybe twice as much as a bluebird feather, but it will give me temperature, dewpoint, wind speed, headwinds, crosswinds, wind direction, relative humidity, wet bulb temperature, barometric pressure, heat index, wind chill, altitude, and more, and will record trends of all of the above. I use it mostly to measure the dewpoint and temperature. Could I have gotten a different Kestrel model that would give me that same basic information for a third of the cost, minus all the other features that I rarely or never use? Heck yes. Nevertheless, I need to have the rest of that data handy. Why? Never mind. I just do, okay? I need it for the same reason that an elderly, retired CEO needs a Ferrari in order to drive 55 miles an hour for thirty miles in the passing lane of an interstate highway. I just never know when I might need the extra informational muscle--when, for instance, knowing the speed of crosswinds might become crucial for pinpointing storm initiation. If I lived on the Great Plains, with Tornado Alley as my backyard, I might feel differently. But here in Michigan, I can't afford to head out after every slight-risk day in Oklahoma. Selectivity is important. I guess that's my rationale for my preoccupation with weather forecasting tools, along with a certain vicarious impulse that wants to at least be involved with the weather three states away even when I can't chase it. Maybe I can't always learn directly from the environment, but I can sharpen my skills in other ways. Does having all this stuff make me a better storm chaser? No, of course not. Knowledge and experience are what make a good storm chaser, and no amount of technology can replace them. Put a $300 Loomis rod in the hands of a novice fisherman and chances are he'll still come home empty-handed; put a cane pole in the hands of a bass master and he'll return with a stringer full of fish. On the other hand, there's something to be said for that same Loomis rod in the hands of a pro, and it's not going to damage a beginner, even if he's not capable of understanding and harnessing its full potential. Moreover, somewhere along the learning curve between rookie and veteran, the powers of the Loomis begin to become apparent and increasingly useful. Now, I said all of that so I can brag to you about my latest addition to my forecasting tackle box: RAOB (RAwinsonde OBservation program). This neat little piece of software is to atmospheric soundings what LASIK is to eye glasses. The only thing I've seen that approaches it is the venerable BUFKIT, and in fact, the basic RAOB program is able to process BUFKIT data. But I find BUFKIT difficult to use to the point of impracticality, while RAOB is much easier in application, and, once you start adding on its various modules, it offers so much more.
RAOB is the world's most powerful and innovative sounding software. Automatically decodes data from 35 different formats and plots data on 10 interactive displays including skew-Ts, hodographs, & cross-sections. Produces displays of over 100 atmospheric parameters including icing, turbulence, wind shear, clouds, inversions and much more. Its modular design permits tailored functionality to customers from 60 countries. Vista compatible. --From the RAOB home page
The basic RAOB software arrived in my box a couple weeks ago courtesy of Weather Graphics. It cost me $99.95 and included everything needed to customize a graphic display of sounding data from all over the world. I quickly realized, though, that in order to get the kind of information I want for storm chasing, I would also need to purchase the analytic module. Another $50 bought me the file, sent via email directly from RAOB. I downloaded it last night, and I have to say, I am absolutely thrilled with the information that is now at my disposal. Here is an example of the RAOB display, including skew-T/log-P diagram with lifted parcel, cloud layers, hodograph, and tables containing ancillary information. Click on the image to enlarge it. The display shown is the severe weather mode, with the graphs on the left depicting storm character, dry microburst potential, and storm category. (UPDATE: Also see the more recent example at the end of this article.) The sounding shown is the October 13, 2009, 12Z for Miami, Florida--a place that's not exactly the Zion of storm chasing, but it will do for an example. Note that the negative area--that is, the CIN--is shaded in dark blue. The light blue shading depicts the region most conducive to hail formation. Both are among the many available functions of the analytic module. The black background was my choice. RAOB is hugely customizable, and its impressive suite of modules lets you tailor-make a sounding program that will fit your needs beautifully. Storm chasers will want to start with the basic and analytic modules. With that setup, your $150 gets you a wealth of sounding data on an easy-to-use graphic interface. It's probably all you'll ever need and more--though if you're like me, at some point you'll no doubt want to add on the interactive and hodo module. And the special data decoders module. Oh yeah, and the turbulence and mountain wave module. Gotta have that one. Why? Never mind. You just do, okay? ADDENDUM: With a couple storm seasons gone by since I wrote the above review, I thought I'd update it with this more timely image. If you're a storm chaser, you'll probably find that what the atmosphere looked like in May in Enid, Oklahoma, is more relevant to your interest than what it looked like in Miami in October.

The 2009 Storm Season: A Good One or a Bad One?

Reading a thread in Stormtrack, I came upon a comment in which the poster briefly griped about how the 2009 storm chasing season had been a lousy one for him. In the post that followed, another member mentioned that it wasn't fair to blame the weather for one's personal lack of scalps when the season itself had been pretty solid. The context was lighthearted, though I read enough pointedness to the second comment that it made me stop and think. The first commenter never said there weren't plenty of tornadoes; he just said that he'd had a lousy season. My own season hasn't been that hot either. For the thousands of miles I've driven, I've only got one tornado to show for it--at least, one that I'm certain of. Sure, I've witnessed some beautiful structure and gotten beaned by some big hail in northwest Missouri, but this year has been nothing like 2008. Am I blaming the weather? No. Those who were in a position to chase all the slight risk day in the Great Plains, from the southern plains to the Canadian border, had plenty of opportunities and did great. But me, I live in Michigan. Much as I'd like to be out there chasing slight risk days in Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, and the Dakotas, logistically it's just not feasible for me to do so. I've got a livelihood to earn, and gas and lodging cost money. Add to that the fact that I made at least one poor judgment call that took me and my buddy south when we should have gone north, and I've had what amounts to a mediocre to poor storm chasing season. If I lived in the heart of Tornado Alley, I think I'd have enjoyed a much better one. But where I live, I have things to factor into my chase/don't chase decisions that wouldn't be as much of a concern if I lived in, say, Oklahoma City or Topeka, Kansas. That's not the weather's fault. It's just a matter of geography and personal circumstances. If I were to blame the weather for anything, it would be for putting in a substandard performance so far in the central Great Lakes, an area that never fares as well as the plains states to begin with. But of course, it's pointless to blame the weather for anything, period. Weather isn't an ethical entity--it just does what it does, and those of us who chase after it have to make our judgment calls the best we know how. Living in Michigan, I'd be a fool to go after synoptic setups that I'd be an equal fool to pass up if I lived in Kansas instead. That's the reality, at least for me, though I think I'm by no means alone. So no, this hasn't been a bad season for chase weather, not at all. But if you're me, it hasn't been a very good season for getting to much of the action. Maybe the secondary season this fall will create a few more opportunities. I hope so. Give me another setup like October 18, 2007, and I'll be a happy man.

Chicken Soup for the Solo

The meds that the doc prescribed for me seem to finally be working their mojo. I'm still coughing, but it's no longer a painful cough, and yesterday's feverishness has passed. Today I went out and bought a bunch of Amish chicken and a whole passel of assorted veggies and rice, and I made up a huge potful of chicken soup. I've heard more than one person tell me that the old wive's tale is true: homemade chicken soup has a wholesome, curative property. I believe it. People breathing their last gasp have been known to revive at a mere whiff of my chicken soup. Anyway, it's been a week since I've played my horn, and in the interrim, I've felt so lousy that I haven't even thought about it. As for storm chasing, ha. Good thing I didn't go down to Tornado Alley last weekend with Bill and Tom--not only would I have been miserable, but by now they would be, too. Storms have been lighting up the Plains pretty much all week. My friend Kurt Hulst was out in Oklahoma yesterday with his pal Nick, and he posted some nice pics on his blog. I'm assuming he caught the supercells in northern Texas earlier today as well. Can't wait to see those photos. Of course, I've been out of the action. Out of practice on my sax, out of the picture for chasing storms. In another couple of days, though, I should be ready to rumble. I just hope the weather feels the same way. My head is finally back on my shoulders only barely enough that I might start giving a rip about the forecast models, and maybe even be able to make some sense out of them again. Enough for now. Tornadoes can wait. Right now, a bowlful of chicken soup is calling my name. If I eat enough, I might find myself in good enough shape by tomorrow to blow a few notes on my saxophone. Chicken soup for the solo. I like that idea.

The Tornado Fest That Wasn’t

Now that Sunday's brouhaha in Tornado Alley is over and done, the big question seems to be, where were all the tornadoes? The turnout was there, the fans were waiting, but besides the rope and the wedge/multivortex/stovepipe that my buddies Bill and Tom witnessed near Crawford, Oklahoma, in company with a multitude of other chasers, there just wasn't anything to make postcards out of. The big show never showed. Even the lone supercell that wandered north out of Texas into Oklahoma's higher helicities never produced, despite its lack of competition. Oh, there were a couple of twisters in Kansas, and with a tally of four, Iowa had the most reports of all. Ironically,  it wasn't even in the PDS high risk area. This is by no means to criticize the crew at the SPC; those are some highly adept meteorological minds, the finest in the world. No, it's just to muse at the vagaries of the weather. Rudimentary as my own forecasting skills are, I've nevertheless come to realize that no matter how good a forecaster one becomes, the weather is still the weather. Capricious. Subject to subtleties that no one gives weight to until after the fact. The butterfly beats its wings and a tornado fires up in Texas--or a seemingly volatile setup falls apart. Judging from the YouTube videos and the photos posted on Stormtrack, a lot of people managed to be in the right place at the right time for the one storm in Oklahoma that did produce a couple very photogenic tornadoes. But the event was a far cry from high-risk mayhem. Guess I can't feel bad about that, since I was sitting at home nursing a chest cold while my mates were out there roaming the Plains. The cold now seems finally poised to start breaking up, and hopefully in another day or two I'll feel halfway human again. It's just as well that I get this nonsense out of the way now, so I'm up to snuff physically in a couple weeks when my buds and I head out to the Alley for an extended tour. I hope that by then, there won't be any lack of the right ingredients in the atmospheric brew to make the trip worthwhile.

Jazz and Storm Chasing: Facing the Trade-Offs

And so it begins in earnest. The 2009 Tornado Alley storm chasing season, that is. Me droogs Bill and Tom left today to chase this weekend's opening action in Iowa, en route to the main play in the Oklahoma/Texas panhandle region. I couldn't join them as I've got a couple of commitments, including a gig with Francesca Amari tomorrow night plus a search for new living accommodations. Today's setup out in Iowa was such that I did't feel too much like I was missing out on something. The storms have turned out to be massive hail producers (LSR from five miles southwest of Greene: "All hail...very little rain falling"), but not a single tornado report have I seen, not in Iowa, not in Wisconsin, not in the entire CONUS. Tomorrow and Sunday look to be a different matter, though, and I wish like anything I could be out there with the guys watching tubes drop. But as I've said, I've got commitments. It's funny how my two great passions--playing jazz and chasing storms--can conflict. But that's how it is. You can't chase storms when you're on a gig, though ironically, sometimes the storms have come along and canceled the gig. Three years in a row, I got hailed out at the annual Grand Rapids Festival of the Arts. It doesn't seem to matter who I'm playing with. I'm a freeking hail magnet, and in June or July, you book me for an outdoor event at your peril. This year, I've actually adopted a policy of not accepting any gigs during the peak storm chasing months of May and June. That's the time of year when the storm chaser in me outweighs the jazz musician. Tornado weather is seasonal in a way that jazz isn't. Once those mid-levels heat up and the steep lapse rates of spring give way to summertime's Cap of Doom, that's all she wrote. I don't have the time or money to chase the Canadian prairies. So I've got to grab my storm action when it's prime time. This year, I hope to spend ten days or so in mid to late May out in Tornado Alley. I am looking forward to it so much I can practically taste it! Meanwhile, Bill and Tom are out there headed for Oklahoma without me. Sniff! Ah, well. I hope those dirty dogs get skunked. No, wait...what I mean is, I hope my buddies see some really great tornadoes and get all kinds of cool footage that they can show me when they get back, causing me to grin in maniacal delight while dying inside. Okay, let's try that one more time. The compensation for not chasing is getting to do a gig at One Trick Pony in downtown Grand Rapids with Francesca, Dave, Wright, and Tommie--some truly fine musicians whom I absolutely love to play with. A Saturday night spent playing my sax is a Saturday night well spent, and I can't wait to hit the stage with Francesca and Friends. If you happen to be in the vicinity, please drop on down to the Pony and give us a listen. You'll like what you hear. The show starts at 8:00 and continues till 11:00.  Hope to see you there!

Storm Chasing Selectivity (aka Impulse Control, aka Curbing the Impulse to Chase Any and Every Dumb System That Comes Down the Pike)

If the developmental curve of storm chasing is analogous to the seasons of life, then I think I've moved out of adolescence into young adulthood. Just as testosterone-driven impulses become tempered with knowledge and experience as callow youth transitions into maturity, so do idiotic, desperate, SDS-and-adrenaline-fueled urges to chase at the drop of a hat become balanced by an awareness of how stupid it is to waste time and gas driving hundreds of miles in pursuit of borderline scenarios. Living in Michigan carries a steeper price tag than living in Kansas or even Iowa when it comes to busted chases. I can't afford not to be selective, and I think I've finally internalized that lesson. As this year's convective weather season has begun to ramp up, so far my greatest attainment hasn't been successful chases, but rather, my refusal to get pulled into 2,000-mile excursions this early in the year. Dixie Alley has had its moments, but so far they've been nothing like 2008. Tornado Alley has also offered a few setups, even one or two moderate risks, but I've been content to follow them at home on the radar, and I've been glad I did. If I lived in Oklahoma, I'd have been on them in a heartbeat. But when the party's over and you live in Michigan--well, it had better have been a darned good party, because it's a long drive home. True, I chased at the beginning of this month in Kansas and Oklahoma. But I was already in the neighborhood, so to speak, and the chase opportunities were just frosting on the cake. I was happy with the Hutchinson, KS, action on March 7, but I probably wouldn't have gone after it if I'd had to travel 800 miles to see it instead of simply heading north up I-35 from Norman. Until last year, my chases have largely been event-driven. A system would move in and my buddy Bill, or Kurt, or Tom, and I would head out to Illinois, or Iowa, or Kansas, Nebraska, or Texas, or wherever, and chase it.  Last May was the first time I've spent more than three days out west. The logistics were different and definitely superior, and a change in my life circumstances--i.e. getting "restructured" with a decent severance, and starting my own business as a freelance writter--allowed me to tap into them. This year I hope to spend even more time out on the Great Plains. The nature of my profession allows me that flexibility, and I love it.  This may be the year when I finally take a ten-day chase vacation and conduct my business out on the road. I hope so. It's been a long winter, I've waited a long time, and I've been very patient. And now I'm itching to see some tornadoes.