Sunday, June 07, 2009

TORNADO CHASE: Week 2;day 6

On our second to last day on the tornado chase, we head back through Colorado and to the 14th state I have visited this year, Nebraska. We were in Nebraska for about 5 minutes, and then back in Colorado where we went through Wray, gassed up in Holyoke, and ended up in Sterling for a pit stop. For some reasons, towns in Colorado don't list population on their "Welcome to" city signs, they list elevation.

While enjoying the nice breeze and sunny day in the park, the weather models updated and we had to hightail it back to the Nebraska panhandle. During our travels, some douchebag in a new car decided to wedge himself right in the middle of our caravan and prevent us from passing him to keep together. The weather was about to bump, and we didn't have time to mess around with him, but he was either totally oblivious to the fact that we were together, trying to follow us to the weather, or just being an asshole.

We discussed him on radio, and worked to get back together. Finally, he let us pass. We figured that he finally realized we were together. But one of the drivers figured he was trying to follow us to weather. Over the radio, we arranged for all the vehicles in the caravan to put on our right turn signals even though we were going left to see if put his turn signal on. Sure enough, he signaled he was going to turn right. We avoided the right turn, and so did he, turning off his signal. We then made our left, and he didn't try to follow. This confused us greatly until he passed us and flipped us the bird and we realized he must have been listening to us talk about him on the radio.

The road to Nebraska was peppered with storm chasers, government agencies such as the National Severe Storms Laboratory, and student meteorologists. But they were a far cry from what we witnessed when we got to our destination, on 17 Mile Road, south of Harrisburg, Nebraska.

The old dirt road was lined with chasers of every variety. Local storm spotters, tornado charter companies like ours, F5 Tornado Chasing Safari's, hobbyists, documentarians, students, military, government, news, and finally, an assembled team from Vortex II with all their obscene gear. They had a mobile Doppler radar with them ffs. This quiet farm road looked like some bizarre geek tailgate party with dozens, if not hundreds of people and no less than 30 different chase vehicles, and with good reason.

Churning, swirling, rotating, there it was, a huge and very powerful supercell. Fingers dipped from it and twisted about, trying to gather enough strength and organize enough to try to drop down into a funnel. It was very slow moving, only 15 MPH according to Noaa, who were busy telling everyone to take emergency precautions and how to protect oneself. This was a storm with a tornado warning. Not a watch, but a warning meaning that a tornado had been seen or it had enough rotation that a tornado was a good likelihood. And there it was, close enough to feel her breath.

This was a very powerful cell with plenty of upper level support and decent organization, and one could easily see the rotation in it with the naked eye. The cloud wall was very low and bubbled with energy. The wind picked up and was going from behind us into the cell. The inflow was sucking the wind into the cell and the volatile atmosphere was complying in the form of a rather strong "breeze." Despite the limited roads, we were in a great position, off to the side of the storm watching it approach and eventually move on by.

Excitement showered the group as fingers dropped down within what looked like a meager couple hundred feet from the ground, twisted and then dissipated. A whole section of the cloud wall disappeared making us think the storm broke up, only to reform into a more organized monster. As it passed us, we picked up and moved down 17 Mile Road to a better position. As it was only moving 15 miles per hour, we didn't have far to go.

Like a geek parade, all the other weather chasers eventually followed us down the road. A few parked next to us and one asked if we saw it drop. We did not, but apparently some folks from Vortex II caught the very same storm drop a tornado in Wyoming, a mere 15 miles or so from our location.

Later that night, I saw part of their video on the weather channel. Gregg said that we were most likely watching the storm when it dropped and we came on it as the cloud wall appeared to extend almost to the ground, but our vantage point prohibited us from seeing it.

The storm was still being temperamental and despite the constant finger formations, was refusing to touch the ground in front of us. It began to speak and we heard and felt the rumble of the thunder.

Since our roads were limited... we decided to make a bold move to get to a road on the other side of the storm. We hopped off 17 Mile Road onto the smaller, twistier, dirtier Hackberry Road. A few vehicles decided to follow us and pretty soon, we were leading a parade on an obscure and primitive dirt road in the plateaus of Nebraska. I guess this would be a good time to mention that the phrase "Flat as Nebraska" means nothing to me s the twists and turns of Hackberry Road tore through a mountainous and plateau filled countryside that was anything but flat.

Almost as soon as pulling on this road, we passed the infamous chase vehicle, the TIV. Its driver waved cheerfully as we passed, and then jumped in on the back of our parade. We continued down the Hackberry Road, which had gotten wet in the days storms and was now a mish mash of red mud. As our vehicle carefully made our way down the wet and slippery twisty mud road, we wondered if the TIV would be too heavy to complete this sticky course.

We finally emerged onto a real road and soon made a very abrupt right turn onto Highway 88. We noticed the TIV had gotten out of the road in fine shape. We also noticed that we were the only group to make this turn. Even though they wanted to get into better position to see the storm, no one else wanted to follow us and take the path we were about to; right into the bear cage.

The rain began slowly at first, but rapidly picked up within seconds into a violent frenzy. It wasn't dropping as much as being hurled into us. This moisture was coming from within the very hearth of the rotation. All that wind and moisture sucked into the inflow was supercooled at high altitude and thrust down with tremendous force. It emerged as continuous sheets of rain, mist, and the very dangerous hail, between pea and gumball sized. It didn't come straight down, it was hurled at us from awkward angles.

The noise of the rain and hail beating on the vehicle was deafening, but it wasn't nearly as disquieting as the fact that visibility was less than 30 feet and we had lost visual contact with the other vehicles. The day was now as dark as night and the cloud wall emerged from the darkness, electrified with lightning, a mere two miles or so from our very position. We had survived a core punch on a storm that had dropped a tornado earlier in the day.

Our adrenaline was rushing as we emerged on the other side of the storm, but we had to wait to proceed on as a slow moving coal train was passing. We gathered our thoughts for a second as we contemplated the fury we had just endured. I radioed Gregg to ask him if the storm was staying organized. He said it had just merged with another storm and not only became more powerful, but more organized. The Doppler radar now not only showed the clear rotation, but also a very pronounced hook.

After the train passed, we proceeded out of the perimeter of the storm into a clearer viewing area. And what we saw was amazing. The fickle beast still hadn't dropped a funnel, but it's structure was almost textbook. The anvil extended miles and miles across the sky. The cloud wall was smooth and vertical, almost a perfect example of a supercell, with extreme rotation visible to the naked eye. It looked like a huge flying saucer, a spinning top, or Moses from the Jewbilee episode of Southpark (the Tron thing). The beaver tail was fluffy and in the right place. The conditions appeared perfect to drop a tornado, and a very powerful one. It was getting dark, however, and we don't chase at night for 2 reasons; safety and we wouldn't see anything anyway.

We continued to jockey for viewing position but we were getting rained on due to us being positioned between 2 large super cells. The one to our right continued to amaze us with it's beautiful tight formation, while the one to our left, while larger, lacked the organization and any visible kind of structure.

As the sun set, we made our last stop to view what was truly an awesome behemoth super cell. The excitement at viewing such a perfect looking and formed storm excited the meteorologists, which was contagious enough to rile up the rest of us. One of the meteorologists, who was on his 3rd year, declared that even though we didn't witness this storm drop a twister, this storm was the reason he signed up for chasing and was in his mind, the best super cell he had ever seen.

Resigned to the fact that we wouldn't be able to see a tornado drop tonight, we loaded up and began our 90 or so mile run to North Platte, NE, where we would be staying for the night. But this would hardly be the end of what was in store for us that night.

Storms were on the same path as we were going down the highway, so as we head east, there was lightning storms to our north, east, and south. There were also super cells to the north and east, also traveling east.

The lighting was intense and persistent, at times seeming to last several seconds each bolt, with less time between strikes than during. It reminded me a lot of videos from "Shock and Awe."

A green highway sign laying in the middle of the fast lane alerted the laymen that something was amiss. We convinced ourselves that we saw a funnel cutting through the darkness up ahead as the lightning illuminated the sky. Were we imagining it? We couldn't get a focus on it because it was only being lit up shortly from the lightning strikes, from a myriad of different angles. We just couldn't be sure... until...

We heard a report of a tornado touching down in Paxton, a town we were 10 miles away from. We figured it would be a good time to stop for food. We moved on after eating, but a new report had come in: "Tornado Sirens were blaring in North Platte," the town where our hotel was booked!

We decided to let the storm move on, and we ended up parking in Paxton and waiting it out. Many storm chasers had the same idea, as there were probably 2 dozen or more chase vehicles hanging around the town. We saw no damage in Paxton, but we did see the TIV once again. And another mobile Doppler radar.

One of the vehicles radioed us and told us to roll down our windows. We did and I heard my first tornado siren. It was eerie, phasing in and out, I believe it was rotating. It pierced the night sky like a stiletto. Soon, Gregg advised that it was safe to proceed to North Platte, so we did.

When asked, the proprietor of the hotel in North Platte said she did indeed hear the sirens, but they had no shelter and she never worried when they went off. She also said the guests became alarmed and wondered what to do. She advised them to ignore it and go to bed...

In my room, I turned on the weather channel before reviewing my own footage to see what Vortex II had. I saw a brief clip of the twister that our storm dropped in Wyoming, and it was small. They also said they had lost one windshield to 4.25 inch hail, AKA baseball sized hail.

I watched my own footage, and while we didn't get any tornadoes, I was very proud that my footage looked much better and crisper than the Weather Channel's did, despite using a Canon GL2 when most people have switched to HD. I grabbed a couple beers as I enjoyed the end of my adrenaline buzz and after two weeks of almost perfect weather, finally feeling the rush and divine joy of storm chasing.


Anonymous said...

Jus sayin' ;-)


Search This Blog


Special thanks to for hosting my photos.

copyright © 2005-2011 The Artist Known as Mulch 

There was an error in this gadget

Thanks for Stopping By!