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.

July 22 West Michigan Supercell and Lightning Fest

I haven’t seen a storm like last night’s storm in Michigan in a long, long time. Man, what a beauty!

Non-stop lightning, much of it appearing to be positive strokes that lasted for seconds at a time, along with a veritable feast of anvil crawlers, made for a photographic smorgasbord. Plus, the storm structure–as much of it as I could make out at night, illuminated by the incessant lightning–was truly impressive. If only the storm had arrived an hour earlier, when there was enough light to really see the thing!

I had just finished doing a couple of interviews down in Dunlap, Indiana, for the book I’m writing on the 1965 Palm Sunday Tornadoes. My meetings

required me to forgo chasing a supercell that moved through the Battle Creek area as the warm front lifted northward, and I was curious to find out what had happened with it. Pulling into a parking lot, I fired up my computer, opened GR3, and gaped. A line of supercells was advancing across Lake Michigan from Wisconsin. The first one in the line looked great–SRV showed definite rotation–and, headed on an ESE trajectory, the storm was poised to make landfall around Saugatuck. Winds there were almost straight easterly, and they were beautifully backed across most of lower Michigan. Hmmm…what did the VAD wind profile look like at Grand Rapids? Dang, sweet! How the heck did that kind of setup wind up in Michigan?

The storms weren’t moving terribly fast, around 25 knots. Could I make it in time? I was bloody well going to try. There was no denying the rush of adrenaline now galvanizing me, thrusting me into chase mode. I hit US 20 and headed west past South Bend, where the highway merged into US 31 north.

I still had a good 40 miles to go by the time I connected with I-196 near Benton Harbor. I wasn’t sure whether I’d catch the storm by the time it made landfall. Maybe I’d be better off playing more to the east. But I decided to take my chances, and that turned out to be the right move. I couldn’t have timed it better.

As I approached M-89, the eastern part of the storm had made landfall, but the radar showed the rotation still out over Lake Michigan. It wouldn’t be there for long, though, and, having shifted its trajectory south of Douglas, it was now heading straight at me.

Bingo! This was exactly what I’d been hoping for. Leaving the Interstate, I headed east along M-89 and found a nice, open field a mile down the road, just west of 66th Street, 4 miles south of Douglas and 4 miles west of Fennville. Then, turning my car around to face the incoming storm, I parked and grabbed my camera out of the back seat.

The lightning in this beast requires superlatives to describe it. There seemed to be a never-ending supply of high-voltage CGs, delivered with the unbridled, over-the-top enthusiasm of a 4th of July fireworks finale and accompanied by the incessant grumbling of thunder. There were times, as the lightning cells moved past me and surrounded me, when I felt like I was sitting inside an immense flashbulb–a flashbulb that kept firing again, and again, and again. Oh, man, what an extravaganza of pure, searing power and beauty! I’ve done my best to capture it, but my skills as a lightning photographer fall far short of what this storm had to offer. Now, my buddy Kurt Hulst, he’s Da Man when it comes to getting fantastic lightning shots, and I know he got some last night. Me, I seem to have a problem getting a good, crisp focus at night, but I try.

By and by, the flickerings began to illuminate a cloud feature I’d been looking for: a hint of a beavertail off to my northwest. It’s location confirmed what the radar was telling me: the storm’s mesocyclone was moving straight at me. I was in a perfect location–and all this time, standing out in the field near my car, I had yet to feel so much as a drop of rain.

The mosquitoes were thick and nasty, and I was getting eaten alive, but viewing at my position was excellent. Farther east, I’d be getting into thick woods, and since the storm wasn’t exactly rocketing along, I stayed put until the meso got too close for me to be able to distinguish its features. Then I moseyed east a few miles.

I parked again for a few minutes at 63rd Street and noted that what had begun as a stubby beavertail had rapidly grown into an enormous inflow stinger. To my northwest, I could see what appeared to be a large, low wall cloud–hard to determine exactly what it was or what it was doing at night, but it looked convincing enough that I called it in to KGRR.

I tracked just ahead of this storm all the way to Plainwell. M-89 proved to be a perfect route, angling southeast along roughly the same path that the storm was taking. On the outskirts of Allegan, I stopped long enough to grab a few radar images. On this page, you can see a nice vault on the base reflectivity, and pronounced rotation on the storm relative velocity. (The circle just southeast of the town center marks my location. Ignore the marker with my name farther to the southwest on SRV; it’s old, an archive from when I dropped off of Spotter Network.)

A little farther down the road, I pulled aside again where a large, open stretch afforded good viewing. The mesocyclone was clearly visible, with a formidable-looking flange on the north side, nice striations, and an impressive inflow band circling in overhead. I hung out at that location until the lightning drew too close for comfort, then hopped back into my car and continued east.

At Plainwell, I dropped south on US 131 past the Kalamazoo exit, caught M-43 west for a mile or so, then parked in a parking lot and let the storm’s southernmost edge blow past me. The storm was still tornado-warned, but the radar indicated that it was weakening–cloud tops lower, VIL not as robust. North of me, just on the other side of M-43, a sheet of rain cascaded out of the wind-blown darkness into the luminous orange domain of the street lamps. Within half a minute, it was upon me, and for a short while, I sat and enjoyed the blast of downdraft and deluge. The rain that I had managed to elude all night had finally caught up with me.

Finally, as the storm bowed out on its journey eastward, I drove back to US 131 and headed for home. I stopped again for a while at the Martin exit, long enough to see what would become of another supercell that was moving inland from the Lake. It, too, quickly bowed out, but, in keeping with the tone of the day, it lit the after-midnight sky with a bombardment of lightning.

It was good to finally pull into my parking lot, climb the stairs to my apartment, and step inside. It had been one heck of a day, and I was ready to call it a good one and hit the sack.

As nasty a storm as it was, why didn’t the Allegan County supercell drop tornadoes? The storm earlier in the afternoon had produced at least one tornado near the Battle Creek airport; why not this one too? After all, it and

its compatriots had peppered Wisconsin with tornadoes prior to crossing the Lake and heading for West Michigan. All I can surmise is, CAPE was an issue. Winds certainly appeared favorable for tornadoes, and F5 mesoanalysis indicated 1 km helicities ranging from 150-250 across the area as late as 1:00 a.m. The RUC model sounding for KGRR maybe overdoes helicity, but it’s interesting to see what it says about instability. All I can think is that daytime CAPE–whatever it may have been; I never took the time to find out–petered out after sundown, and the shear alone wasn’t enough to spin up tornadoes. That’s my guess as a non-meteorologist, and I’m ready to get other insights and opinions from more knowledgeable heads than mine.

Whatever the case, last night’s was one heckuva storm, and the kind of chase I don’t get to enjoy too often in Michigan. It was nice to finally get such a great opportunity.

Back Yard Chase with Possible Wall Cloud

I hadn’t planned to chase storms today, but Kurt Hulst made me an offer too good to turn down, and off we went. For all the hoopla, with a tornado watch covering most of Indiana and Ohio and a 10 percent tornado risk outlined in exactly the same area south of the Michigan border as last week, the storms nevertheless turned out to be pretty garden variety.

In fact, nothing materialized south of us where we expected it to. Instead, Kurt and I got pleasantly surprised when a couple of cells fired up to our west near Plainwell and almost immediately took on supercellular characteristics. A southwest-northeast-oriented outflow boundary was working its way east, and it provided convergence that fired up a slowly growing line of storms in the weakly unstable warm sector.

We locked onto a promising-looking cell in central Michigan whose top, at between 40-45,000 feet, was the highest of the day. Base level SRV showed on-again/off-again weak circulation for this storm, and reflectivity had it

hooking nicely at different times. It was no monster supercell, but it had its moments. I took photos of a nice lowering while parked just south of the intersection of R Drive and 23 Mile Road 12 miles south of Charlotte. I’d call the feature a wall cloud. While I couldn’t verify rotation, the vertical motion and the position of the lowering just south of the rain shaft under the updraft base were pretty suggestive.

What you see was as good as it got. I reported the lowering to KGRR after taking the photos, but the storm began to crap out on us even as I was talking with the meteorologist. We dropped it a few minutes later and headed south to catch a new, developing cell. We’d probably have done better to stick with what we had, as it appeared to strengthen again briefly on radar while the new one went linear right away.

Chases in Michigan more often than not prove to be just entertaining diversions–fun, but it ain’t Kansas, Toto. This one fit that description. It was good to get out with Kurt, and also good to get home without having spent too many miles chasing nothing of any consequence.

Cool-Weather Wall Clouds

So there I was, driving down I-96 toward my mother and sister’s house in Grand Rapids this afternoon, when I saw what at first glance looked like a wall cloud. It looked like one at second glance, too, and third, hanging off of a cumulus tower in the distance.

Severe weather wasn’t in the outlook today, and in fact, the afternoon was coolish and not particularly moist, with spotty showers but no thunder or lightning. I was unaware of any reason to be on the lookout for abnormal weather, though the extent of the vertical development in the cumulus clouds coupled with their nicely sheared look would have been a tip-off under more propitious circumstances.

Anyway, I was intrigued by the cloud formation, but not quite prepared to call it anything more than a lowering at that point. It was falling apart over Grand Rapids by the time I turned north onto the East Beltline. But the show was far from over. Another large towering cumulus several miles to my northwest was exhibiting an even larger, blocky lowering which wasn’t showing any signs of dissipating.

That did it. It was time to get close enough to this thing to see just exactly what it was. This was a simple matter. The cloud was drifting quite slowly, and intercepting it involved nothing more elaborate than continuing north up the Beltline past 7 Mile Road, then pulling into a small turn-in, where I had an unobstructed view from maybe half a mile away.

The cloud was indeed a wall cloud. I could see a weak updraft dragging scud up into it, and even a hint of an RFD. More important, the cloud was circulating–very slowly, to be sure, but unmistakably. As it moved closer, I even observed a small, anticyclonic vortex spinning almost directly overhead. There was obviously enough shear and helicity in the atmosphere to create some interest, and I had a nice front-row seat. Just wish I’d had my camera with me, but as I said, I wasn’t expecting anything weatherwise today that would have made me think to grab it.

What I was seeing struck me as more fascinating than threatening, but I decided to call KGRR and report it anyway, just for the record. The met who took my information said he wasn’t surprised. He told me that the office had already received several reports of waterspouts out on Lake Michigan, plus other reports of funnel clouds. Sounded like a cold air funnel outbreak.

My buddy Kurt Hulst called later to tell me that he, too, had seen a wall cloud over Caledonia from where he lives in Kentwood. If I’d been home, it would have been a front door delivery, but of course I wasn’t. Seems to me, though, that Kurt said he got some photos. I hope so, because I’d like to see what I missed.

Days like today just go to show that the weather does what it wants, when it wants. Maybe the local WFO will offer an analysis of today’s conditions. That would be cool.

Lesson learned: take my camera with me wherever I go.

June 19 Central Illinois and Indiana Storm Chase

Approaching our storm from the north near Normal, Illinois.

Approaching the storm of the day south of Normal, Illinois.

After Iowa’s blue-sky bust on June 18, yesterday provided some welcome and much-needed activity. Between illness and May’s ridge of steel, my chase expeditions this year have been limited. The Edina, Missouri, tornado of May 13 has been my only tornado to date for 2009. Yesterday did nothing to improve that statistic, but it did offer a vigorous, classic supercell with some great structure that ensured my 1,650-mile, two-day chase with my buddy Bill Oosterbaan wasn’t a complete washout.

For that matter, storms did finally fire in eastern Iowa, and while Bill and I were too late to catch the big mutha that slammed Prairie du Chien (Ben Holcomb, if you happen to read this, great job on tracking that beast into the hills and jungles of Wisconsin!), we did manage to latch onto the one that followed in its footsteps. But I’m no fan of night time chasing and neither is Bill, and knowing the kind of topography that lay to our east once we crossed the river, we dropped our chase at Prairie du Chien and found ourselves a hotel.

After a decent breakfast yesterday morning, we were on the road by noon and headed south. The SPC showed a moderate risk for a large area extending from Iowa and Missouri east across the corn belt and Great Lakes. With a continuation of yesterday’s huge CAPE and good bulk shear, a widespread severe weather outbreak seemed like a sure bet. However, veering surface winds and unidirectional flow seemed to put the kibosh on chances for tornadoes in all but a few areas to the east, where helicities improved, particularly around 21Z.

As we approached Davenport, Iowa, heading south, we could see towers muscling up along an east-west boundary that transected Illinois south of the I-80 corridor. Catching I-80 east, we could see new cells firing up farther to the south on GR3. With a Kankakee target in the back of our minds, we decided to drop toward Normal on I-39.

By the time we drew near the town, the northernmost storm was showing rotation on the radar. The tower was just to our west, and as we proceeded down the highway, the updraft base came into view, dominated by a well-developed wall cloud.

Wall cloud on northernmost storm.

Wall cloud on northernmost storm.

We headed for an intercept, tracking with the storm until it began to degrade. Meanwhile, another cell to the south was strengthening and beginning to exhibit distinct rotation on SRV, so with the storm we were on mushing out, we abandoned it in favor of the second, rapidly intensifying supercell.

One heckuva hail shaft or what?

One heckuva hail shaft or what?

This bad boy had an impressive hail shaft, if hail is what we were actually seeing. Maybe it was just plain old rain with a bit of hail mixed in. The reason I wonder is because of the paucity of hail reports. We got tapped a bit as we closed in, but mostly we just encountered buckets of rain. Whatever the case, the updraft tower with the sunlit precip column was a beautiful sight.

Second storm showing hail shaft and updraft tower.

Second storm showing sunlit precip core and updraft tower.

After working our way south of the storm’s rear flank, we proceeded east and finally gained some good, clear views of the business end. Tracking with it from near Urbana through Homer, Fairmount, and Westville toward the Indiana border, we were in a good position to enjoy the structure as the storm went through several cycles.

Rotating wall cloud.

Rotating wall cloud.

Just east of Homer, the wall cloud tightened and I could see rapidly circulating cloud tags descending toward the ground. We pulled over to watch. The rotation wasn’t far away–maybe a quarter of a mile–and it appeared to be moving toward us. This was strange as we were southwest of the wall cloud, but you can’t argue with a developing tornado. With the updraft approaching to within a couple hundred yards of us, Bill seemed intent on analyzing why the storm was acting so peculiarly, while I favored beating a hasty retreat and working out the behavioral aspects of storm circulation from a somewhat greater distance. Storm chasing sure has its interesting moments.

No tornado materialized, the storm headed east, and we continued on with it. I noticed a couple of tornado reports from around Fairmount and Westville, but while I suppose it’s possible that there was a brief spinup or two, Bill and I never saw an actual tornado. We did witness a few times when the wall cloud began to torque  pretty intensely, and I sure wouldn’t have wanted to be directly below it.

The whitish wall cloud is half a mile from us and rotating vigorously.

The whitish wall cloud is half a mile from us and rotating vigorously.

Possibly a funnel cloud at this point.

Possibly a funnel cloud at this point.

But from the time we first intercepted it to the point where it finally began to fizzle 120 miles later west of Crawfordsville, Indiana, the storm was outflow-dominant. Never once did we enounter surface inflow, though above ground level, I’m sure inflow was strong. In Bill’s words, the circulation kept reaching toward the ground, looking for something to grab onto, but it never could manage to root and produce a tornado. If we’d had backing winds…if the helicities had been there…I’m sure the storm would have been a potent tornado breeder. It never got its act together in that regard, but I doubt the communities in its path felt terribly disappointed, and from my perspective, the storm provided an interesting chase with some very nice moments.

Last gasp: wall cloud at US 41 west of Crawfordsville, Indiana, shortly before the storm began to collapse.

Last gasp: wall cloud at US 41 west of Crawfordsville, Indiana, shortly before the storm began to collapse.

For sheer structure, the “Danville supercell” was interesting and photogenic, with some nice RFD slots wrapping in, and, toward the end of the storm’s career, with a classic, stack-of-plates mesocyclone that was as nice as anything I’ve ever seen. (Sorry, no photos–the ones I have didn’t turn out well.)

One downside to this chase–and it is a big one–is that somewhere between Homer and US 41, I lost my camcorder. It wasn’t a pricey camcorder; it was a used Sony that I bought from my friend and fellow storm chaser Kurt Hulst. But it has done me good service over the past year, and I hate to think that it is presently sitting out there by the side of some Illinois backroad. What’s even worse is, my video of this chase is in it.

The drive back to Grand Rapids was a long one. I arrived at my apartment around 2:30 a.m. and collapsed. The chase was fun and I think I needed it, but it’s good to be back home with the love of my life, Lisa, whose bright eyes and beautiful smile warm my heart wherever I travel.

June 8: Mini-Supercell in Northern Illinois and Severe Squall Line on the Lake Michigan Shoreline

This is really part two of the previous post. After chasing a potent, monster hailer of a supercell north of Saint Joseph, Missouri, I overnighted at a hotel outside of Des Moines, Iowa. When I stepped outside the next morning, the air was much cooler and drier, a stable atmosphere that wouldn’t produce so much as a sneeze, let alone a tornado.

But I knew that the SPC had outlooked the area to my east across northern Illinois, and for several days I myself had been eyeballing my home state of Michigan, where the NAM-WRF had been consistently indicating the possibility of tornadoes. With a little luck, I hoped to make it back in time to chase whatever convection might pop up along the warm front.

As I approached Davenport, I observed  towering cumulus muscling up through the troposphere. However, I didn’t pay them any attention–that is, until Bill Oosterbaan called to inform me that the SPC had just issued a mesoscale discussion for the area just east of me. Even as we talked, I noticed a lowering on a cumulus tower a mile or two to my northeast. When it continued to develop, I decided to investigate. Leaving I-80, I parked across from a truck stop at the Atkinson exit to watch.

The next cell to my west quickly grabbed my attention. It had a nice rain-free base, and as I watched, scud began to form and ascend in an obvious updraft, coalescing into a small, ragged wall cloud. Grabbing my camera and getting out of my car, I noticed right away that the air was very different from back in Des Moines–considerably warmer and with plenty of moisture. The wall cloud fell apart before I could get a pic, but the overall structure remained interesting.

A mini-supercell approaches Atkinson, Illinois, just north of I-80.

A mini-supercell approaches Atkinson, Illinois, just north of I-80.

More brief, non-rotating wall clouds formed and dissipated one by one, so I figured I’d head north of town and observe. With surface winds veering and the overall flow unidirectional, I had no expectation of seeing tornadoes, but the mini-supercell made for some fun and interesting viewing.

Ragged, non-rotating wall cloud.

Ragged, non-rotating wall cloud.

Distant wall cloud and back side of main updraft tower.

Distant wall cloud and glimpse of updraft tower.

I was tempted to follow the storm, but decided it was a red herring. If at all possible, I wanted to make it back to Michigan in enough time to chase the setup there, and that left me no time to play around on the western Illinois backroads. So I headed back to I-80 and busted east.

The first Michigan supercell fired up earlier than I’d hoped, and I bit my lip as I followed its progress on GR3 and watched it hit Lansing. If only I had driven east last night for two more hours, or left in the morning two hours earlier… But the previous day’s chase had left me exhausted. And you know, one of the downsides of being a Michigan-based storm chaser is, you just don’t have very high expectations when it comes to your home state. I mean, it’s Michigan. Home of convective table scraps, squall lines, and embedded supercells that don’t produce squat.

As it was, I watched several more storms fire up and develop rotation along the warm front that stretched across mid-Michigan. I was making decent progress and still had hopes of catching up with some of the southernmost cells. But by the time I crossed the state line, the action all had shifted well to the east, and it became clear that I wasn’t going to see any of it.

Instead, taking fellow chaser Mike Kovalchick’s suggestion, I headed toward the lakeshore at Allegan Beach to intercept a short but potent squall line. I’m glad I did. The backdrop of Lake Michigan and its dunescapes lends a breathtaking drama to incoming storms. The following photos depict the progress of the arcus cloud moving in across the waters. What these images can’t convey is the full, awe-inspiring sweep of cloud, big lake, and shoreline; of the solemn foreboding of some great event about to unleash itself upon a landscape cloaked in storm shadow; of the shelf cloud moving silently overhead like the furrowed eyebrow of a dark, scowling giant; and of sand spray blowing and trees thrashing in the wind as the gust front arrived.

I’ll let the photos tell their story as best they can, and leave the rest to your imagination.

An arcus cloud advances toward the Lake Michigan shoreline at Allegan Beach.

An arcus cloud advances toward the Lake Michigan shoreline at Allegan Beach.

View to the north.

View to the north.

Looking south...the storm closes in.

Looking south...the storm closes in.

Looking north...closer still.

Looking north...closer still.

Almost overhead.

Almost overhead.

One last shot to the north, then it's time to make a dash for the car.

One last shot to the north, then it's time to make a dash for the car.

June 7 Northwest Missouri Supercell

Now that I’ve had a chance to rest up and catch up after Sunday’s chase in northwest Missouri, it’s time to do a writeup. I’ll summarize by saying that there were no tornadoes, but there was some great structure along with hail the size and disposition of wild boars.

My plan was to hook up with Bill, Kurt, and Tom, who had headed west a day ahead of me in anticipation of chaseworthy storms. Unfortunately, a stout cap quashed an otherwise potent setup, and the guys–along with lots of other storm chasers–endured a blue sky bust. Like I told Bill, they needed me out there with them to erode the lid for them.

I left around 10:00 Saturday night and drove as far as Davenport, Iowa, where I overnighted. The next day, I hightailed it for Topeka, Kansas. Bad route choices delayed my arrival, and storms had already initiated by the time I got within the vicinity. But that actually simplified my choice. Rather than heading into Kansas, I worked my way north of Saint Joseph, Missouri, along I-29, then hit the backroads to intercept a supercell that was making its way across the border near Rulo, Kansas.

Parking my car outside of Big Lake, Missouri, I set up shop and got some nice photos as the storm moved in. The base was lowering and developing a rotating wall cloud. Here is what the storm looked like when I took my first shot.

Wall Cloud at Big Lake, Missouri, June 7, 2009

Wall cloud at Big Lake, Missouri, June 7, 2009.

The cloud was southwest of me and moving eastward, which meant that I could expect plenty of rain and probably a good clobbering by hail. In a little while, sure enough, golfballs began to fall all around me. No rain, just sizeable hail. The cloud at this point was directly to my south and looked like this:

Wall cloud passing to the south.

Wall cloud passing to the south.

It was time to vamoose, and none too soon. The advance guard of a veritable armada of storm chasers was driving by. I pulled in behind the DOW (Doppler On Wheels) and other Vortex 2 vehicles and followed them toward Forest City. By the time I reached SR111 and began heading south, I had pulled ahead of the circulation. I wanted a few photos of the wall cloud advancing directly toward me, so I found a place to pull aside. Opening the car door, I stepped out into some ripping inflow and snapped a few shots.

Wall cloud approaching SR 111 north of Forest City.

Wall cloud approaching SR 111 north of Forest City.

I missed the really big, gorilla hail that some chasers encounterd, but the occasional baseball size was big enough for me. Somehow I escaped getting hit by the larger chunks, though one of them hit my roof squarely with a loud whack. I still haven’t checked to see whether there’s a dent.

Eventually I caught up with the guys at the I-29 overpass, where a zillion other chasers were also parked. Seems like everybody and his dog’s first cousin was on this storm. If I ever get rich enough to purchase a dedicated chasemobile, it won’t be an SUV or a TIV-style monstrosity. It’ll be a concession van with a fold-out bar.

Anyway, Bill, Tom, and Kurt forged ahead and I followed them for a ways, but eventually opted for a more southern route when they headed north toward Union Star. I figured they’d be hitting heavy precip and probably some nasty hail, and I wanted to stay on the south edge of the updraft, which was heading east by southeast. Here are a couple photos from what was, from my vantage point, one of the more promising episodes in the life of the storm.

Wall cloud with clear slot wrapping in.

Wall cloud with clear slot wrapping in.

Possible funnel cloud trying to develop.

Possible funnel cloud trying to develop.

I believe the above shots were taken near Amity. From there, I headed east through Maysville and Weatherby, and across I-35 to just west of Altamont. There, I decided to end the chase and start heading home. The storm at that point was heading into Gallatin and was showing one of the best reflectivity echoes of its career on GR3.

Base reflectivity showing tornado-warned storm approaching Gallatin.

Base reflectivity showing tornado-warned storm approaching Gallatin.

But darkness was closing in, and I had no desire to chase this storm at night through the hinterlands of northwest Missouri. At that point, I was thinking about overnighting in Des Moines, and I had miles to go before I slept.

Remembering the Parkersburg/Hazleton Tornadoes

One year ago today, the second EF5 tornado in the history of the new Enhanced Fujita Scale rating system descended on Parkersburg, Iowa, and obliterated the southern third of the town. I and fellow storm chasers Bill and Tom Oosterbaan and Jason Harris could see the intense rotation moving over Parkersburg on GR3 as we stairstepped southeast from the northern edge of the cell, heading for an intercept. There’s a certain sense of disbelief when you see something like that, a feeling of, Naah, it can’t be as bad as it looks.

But it was. A few miles farther down the road, with the rotation still at least ten miles to our west, debris–some of it fairly large–began to fall from the sky. That was when we knew for sure. Something terrible had happened. Even with pieces of sheet metal clanging down onto the pavement in front of us, I had a hard time believing that a tornado disaster had just occurred, but I think we all felt a certain sober awareness that a community had been hit.

We intercepted the storm near Fairbank, where the NWS indicates that the Parkersburg tornado occluded. Parking on a sideroad, we watched as a large, new wall cloud formed and moved directly toward us. Warning an Amish family who was standing in their yard, watching, to take shelter, we scooted south and then east, watching as the wall cloud lowered and kicked up a ton of dust. A second, enormous tornado had formed, barely discernible through the haze. We tracked with it to the east as it headed on a collision course for Hazleton, mercifully grazing the southern edge of that town. Had it hit head-on, I suspect that the Hazleton tornado’s EF3 rating would have been higher.

It’s hard to believe that a whole year has passed since that event and the several days of Great Plains action that preceded it. What a difference between then and now, with a nasty ridge casting a pall on this May’s peak chase season.

In remembrance of the Parkersburg/Hazleton tornadoes, I’m including a couple visuals. The first is a radar grab of the supercell as it moved out of Parkersburg. The tornado icon is a storm report from the town, just minutes old. You can see our GPS position marked by a circle with a dot in the middle of it on the northeast edge of the storm

The Parkersburg, Iowa, tornadic supercell.

The Parkersburg, Iowa, tornadic supercell.

The second is this YouTube link to my video of the Hazleton tornado. My videography may not be the best in the world, but I think you’ll get a sense of the intensity this storm evoked. It was my first really big tornado, and it was close.

I doubt this year has anything in store for us  like what we saw that day. But who knows? I’m not ready to write off this chase season yet–though I certainly hope it doesn’t hold a catastrophe like the Parkersburg tornado.

May 13 Tornado in Northern Missouri

Updraft Base

Updraft Base

This is the view that met us as we pulled off the road a couple miles north of Edina, Missouri, yesterday evening. “We” were Bill Oosterbaan, Derek Mohr, and me, and what we were looking at was the only supercell in Missouri on Wednesday, May 13, to produce a tornado–this despite a sizeable moderate risk that swept across most of Illinois and Missouri all the way down to Kansas and Oklahoma.

The storm was showing strong rotation, and had already put down a damaging tornado twenty miles to our west in Kirksville. We lost Internet connection as we approached the storm, but our last scan showed what appeared to be a storm merger with two distinct areas of rotation. The radar didn’t lie, and the proof of it provided an interesting scenario.

Wall Cloud Forming

Wall Cloud Forming

In the second image, you can see a ragged patch of scud ascending to the right and in front of the lowering in the background. This is the beginnings of what became an impressive wall cloud. Within a couple of minutes, the scud had matured into this…

Wall Cloud

Wall Cloud

The tail cloud to the right continued to grow to an astonishing length, displaying vigorous motion, feathering in rapidly toward the updraft. Meanwhile, a rain curtain began to wrap in from the south behind the wall cloud. This suggested a second mesocyclone following in the wake of the first area of rotation. I commented on this in the video I took of the storm, and my hunch soon proved true.

As the storm drew nearer, another prominent lowering began to emerge. It was exhibiting rapid motion, moreso than the more visually interesting wall cloud in the foreground. A tornado appeared immanent within this broad rotation, and in another minute multiple vortices were square dancing in the distance. One vortex soon tightened up and became dominant, fattening up into a nice hose. But the rain bands were starting to conceal the tornadic activity, and in a bit it was hard to tell exactly what was happening.

The storm quickly evolved into a nasty high precipitation beast, and from then on any tornadoes were effectively cloaked in rain.

Sorry, no stills of a well-formed tornado–I had set my camera down in favor of my video recorder–but I did manage to capture what looks to have been the beginnings of the multiple vortex phase.

Multiple Vortex Tornado

Multiple Vortex Tornado

No, you can’t see any visible touchdown in the photo, so maybe the circulation wasn’t tornadic at that moment.  If not, it was shortly after. I sure wouldn’t have wanted to be standing underneath it.

After the chase, Bill dropped Derek and me off where we had left our cars at the K-Mart in Springfield, Illinois. Then the three of us headed off in our respective directions–Bill toward Corydon, Indiana; Derek toward northern Michigan; and I back toward Grand Rapids. On my way home, I picked up fellow Michigan chasers Mike Kovalchick and Mike Bishop. They had experienced an automotive failure that took them out of the chase, forcing them to ditch their vehicle in Lincoln–truly a bummer. It was great to reconnect with Mike Kovalchick, and to meet Mike Bishop for the first time. Having a couple fellow storm chasers in the car sure made the long trip home seem shorter.

The day out chasing did me a world of good, but I need a good night’s sleep, and I have work to do tomorrow. By the time the next round of weather arrives, though, I should be primed and ready to go.

First Storm Chase, 2009

What a memorable way to kick off storm season 2009! Yesterday, I chased supercells in Kansas with my buddy, Bill Oosterbaan, and today we attended Tim Vasquez’s severe weather forecasting workshop in Norman, Oklahoma. I’m writing this post from a Best Western Hotel maybe a mile north of where the 1999 Moore tornado crossed I-35. All in all, not a bad past couple of days for a lad from Michigan.

Yesterday’s chase began with a visit to Picher, Oklahoma. The southern portion of this tiny town got wiped out last spring by an EF-4 tornado. Today, a year later, that desolate landscape shows scant chance of recovery. It’s a sobering place to visit.

But that’s another story for a different post. Right now, I just want to share a couple images from yesterday’s chase. The moisture was marginal, with dewpoints averaging around 55 degrees up toward the warm front north of Wichita. That’s where we headed, in search of the better helicities. A lot of folks questioned the setup, but it produced. The storm we intercepted put out four tornadoes, though those occurred before we caught up with it. We still saw some nice structure, including a nice wall cloud and a funnel. Check ’em out.

Funnel Cloud

Funnel Cloud

Nice Structure!

Nice Structure!