Sunday, June 05, 2011

Storm Chasing 2011

Last Christmas, my wife gave me a storm chasing trip. How awesome is that? The trip was with Silver Lining Tours and I just got back from a fantastic week. Here’s the lowdown on what we did. It’s kinda long, but a lot can happen during a week of storm chasing!

Silver Lining Tours - Tour 4 - May 29-June 3

Sunday May 29 – Denver Colorado (356.4 miles)

The first day of the tour showed little promise for storWems. There was a possibility of some storms rising off of the upslope to the Rocky Mountains and that was the possibility that we chased. left Denver and had lunch at Fort Morgan, CO, then drove to the tiny town of Grover, Colorado to watch the radar and see how the storms develop.

While we were waiting in Grover, the Weather Channel’s “Great Tornado Hunt” crew showed up and spent the next few days following us. Mike Bettes is a meteorologist for TWC and was spending a month chasing tornadoes in a three car caravan – a Chevy Suburban from which Mike would occasionally broadcast while on the road, a minivan which toted most of their gear and a mobile satellite uplink truck that was purpose-built by NBC for Operation Desert Storm to allow satellite uplink while on the move. The uplink truck looked like a giant golf ball on the back of a flatbed truck (though much more impressive) while the other two vehicles were wrapped with the Weather Channel’s Great Tornado Hunt, as well as sponsorship by Radio Shack.

Mike and the Weather Channel crew provided a very useful distraction for the afternoon while we all took pictures of, and got our pictures taken in, their vehicles and with Mike himself. Mike is a really nice guy and was more than willing to hang out and chat with the chasers in our group.

The storms on the upslope of the Rocky Mountains, though, were not to be so we left Grover with just a sunburn and headed on to North Platte, Nebraska for the night. Once we arrived in North Platte, we had dinner at Applebees an oversharing waitress (she doesn’t like working Sundays but her boyfriend has an infection) and a busboy named Maximilian who was polishing his standup routine – it still needs a lot of polishing. Though we didn’t know it at the time, this would be our last sit down dinner until Friday.

Monday May 30 – North Platte, Nebraska (473.1 miles)
Even before we had left Denver, we knew that Monday May 30th (Memorial Day) was showing a lot of promise for storm chasing. I woke up early and was craving Starbucks, which I had seen about ½ mile away across I-80 so I walked to Starbucks and had a chai for the last time on the trip. Being only ½ mile away was quite lucky given that the next closest Starbucks was almost 200 miles away. Starbucks density is much lower in the plains states.

This morning was our weather 101 class where Roger Hill explained the basics of how storms form and the required ingredients for a storm to turn into a supercell thunderstorm capable of spawning tornadoes. The four key ingredients could be remembered with the SLIM acronym –
Shear: You need winds coming from different directions to start the necessary rotation
Lift: Lift is required to make the warm, moist air ride to create the towers of cumulonimbus clouds that lead to tornadoes. If there isn’t lift, then that moist air stays close to the ground and won’t create the necessary convection.
Instability: This is measured in CAPE (convective available potential energy) which is how much energy there is in the air. Generally speaking, if the air is more unstable, it will make it easier for the air to rise. Higher cape values indicate a better opportunity for a severe storm
Moisture: Moisture is the key element in clouds – no moisture -> no clouds -> no storms.

As Roger says – if you don’t have SLIM, your chances of seeing a storm are slim. Today’s weather looked like a perfect opportunity for storms as warm, wet air was coming up from the south and cold, dry air was coming down from the northwest.

The standard pattern for storm chasing is to get close to where you think the storms will be, then wait for the cumulonimbus towers to form, climbing up to between 50,000 and 60,000 feet. Then, put yourself near the path of the storm and watch the magic happen. The tough part is both knowing where the storms will be, and getting there at the right time.

The National Weather Service and NOAA publish computer models of what they think the atmosphere is going to do over the next few hours and days. Those models are updated constantly as new data from what is actually happening is added. We left North Platte for Broken Bow, Neb where we started our waiting. When we arrived, there were no clouds at all in the direction where we were expecting storms but after an hour or so, we started to see the towers of puffy clouds forming. It is really quite impressive to go somewhere with clear skies, knowing that a storm will form there in a few hours and then watching the clouds form from nowhere just as anticipated. What follows, though, is tougher to know.

We left Broken Bow for the chase, entering “Code Red” which really just means that there won’t be any bathroom or food stops until there’s nothing interesting left to chase. We got up to Brewster, Neb for the first storm to break. We stood under the storm as the anvil passed over and it got very dark even though it was still the middle of the afternoon. Soon, a shelf cloud came towards us showing amazing structure and we could see rotation in the cloud – this is something that you just can’t really capture in photos or on video. Incredibly dark clouds, swirling overhead and moving at remarkable speeds just needs to be seen and this is really the source of the popularity of storm chasing.

I was standing near the vans next to a bluff, photographing the clouds when Roger yelled “Get back in the vans, we’re about to get cored!” Sure enough, just seconds after we got back in the vans, we were inundated with rain and high winds. The temperatures outside had dropped from 82 to 62 over a period of about 15 minutes.

We drove north to get out of the rain to see some more and drove into a line of quarter-sized hail. Let me say this about hail – it is LOUD when it is pounding on the top of the van. When the hail passed, we stopped to take a look at the hailstones left on the ground. Hail is really just ice that is passed up and down in the cloud on the convection currents until it gets too big for the updrafts and it falls to the ground. The bigger the storm, the stronger the updrafts and the more time the hail has to form, thus larger hail. Smaller hailstones gain size either by picking up more moisture, or by colliding and merging with other hailstones. The hail that we were picking up was slightly larger than a quarter and it was delicious. Yes- we ate it. I only wished that we had some bourbon because it was the perfect size and shape for cocktails.

After our hail snack, we drove down past Taylor and started chasing the tail end of the line of storms that was developing. From the place where that first cloud went up, new storm cells were developing along a line as the older storms moved to the northeast, newer storms developed along a line to the southwest. Eventually, this line of storms would form a squall line stretching from the Kansas border to North Dakota.

Over the next few hours, we would speed from place to place, trying to avoid hitting the hail core of the bigger storms (which risk breaking windshields and windows) while trying to find the storm that was most likely to drop a tornado. Working our way south along US-183 and eventually other smaller roads towards Kearney, Neb. Along this route, the storms were intensifying and we started getting very strong straight-line winds. The airport at Lexington reported winds of 90 MPH. The storm’s outflow was kicking up big clouds of dust which would rotate into the air, looking like small tornadoes though without the requisite rotation in the clouds above these are not tornadoes. Instead, these are referred to as “dustnadoes”. There were several reports of tornadoes on the ground as we drove through a tornado warned area but they were really just dustnadoes.

Arriving at I-80 just south of Kearney, we pulled into the parking lot of a hotel to let the storm go over us. As a wall cloud approached, the tornado sirens started sounding and the wind kicked up. The temperature around us dropped again from 85 to 62 in less than a minute as the front passed over us. The winds kept pushing me back and the sky was an amazing yellowy-orange color as the setting sun tried to shine through the clouds and rain but could only provide some color. The NWS was reporting straight line winds of over 100 MPH with this storm and softball sized hail so, once again, just before it hit us, we jumped in the van and started racing east on I-80.

We were driving around 70 MPH on the highway and the storm was keeping up with us. Just overhead, as we were driving down the highway, we saw very strong rotation which twisted from horizontal to vertical rotation right in front of us. A cloud of dust kicked up right in front of us and lasted for a few seconds. This was a very small tornado that formed just above and in front of us and died soon afterwards, before developing the traditional shape of a tornado, but it was one nonetheless. I was trying to video tape it with my camera, but the resulting video is tough to see anything. Technically, though, we saw a tornado. It would be the only one we saw all week.

We raced the storm all the way to Lincoln, Nebraska – wind buffeting us the entire way. We pulled in to the hotel about 20 minutes before it hit at around 11:30 pm. A couple of us made a quick trip to Wendy’s to get a burger to take back for the show. Around 11:50, the high winds and horizontal rain pounded our hotel and lightning flashes were all around us but the winds had slowed down from back in Lexington and Kearney to about 40-50 MPH. Nonetheless, it was quite a storm to watch while going to bed.

Tuesday May 31 – Lincoln, Nebraska (82.5 miles)
The storm from Monday ended up removing most of the moisture from the air and the resulting high-pressure zone was pretty stable. Missing at least 2 of the key ingredients for storms, there was nothing to chase on Tuesday so it was a down day. We hung around the hotel for most of the day. The crew from the Weather Channel was also at our hotel, having chased with us the previous day and they interviewed a few of us for a segment they were doing on Silver Lining Tours. This was actually the second time they interviewed me and I did my best to explain what we had seen and experienced the night before. My segment aired on Wednesday morning though it happened just as we were loading the van so I missed it. Apparently, I said something about how complex tornado formation actually is, pulling from the information we learned the day before. I’m sure I looked great with my sunburned face.

That evening, we headed to Omaha to see the Omaha Storm Chasers play the New Orleans Zephyrs in a Class AAA minor league baseball game. Mike Bettes from the Weather Channel was throwing out the first pitch though Dora the Explorer, who threw out another first pitch just after him, may have upstaged him.

The best part of the game was the opportunity to buy Omaha Storm Chasers clothes and caps. The Storm Chasers won the game 15-10 and we headed back to our hotel in Lincoln. It was great to stay in the same room for two nights in a row!

Wednesday June 1 – Lincoln Nebraska (741.5 miles)
The chase area today was north-central Kansas so we left early from Lincoln and drove for several hours to around Colby, Kansas. The Weather Channel guys were chasing around us again today though they started to take their own route, which in the end would be a bit less than ideal for them.

In the middle of the afternoon, the towers started climbing and we went to code red. We drove up towards Norton and watched a supercell form just ahead of us. This first storm looked beautiful and it developed a wall cloud that tried really hard to drop a tornado. We raced east to stay ahead of the core and to keep an eye on the wall cloud that produced a funnel cloud that came about halfway down to the ground but then dissipated before it turned into a tornado. As the front storm started to weaken, we followed the storms that formed behind it.

The storms were increasing in strength and the radar was showing baseball sized hail up in the cloud. Continuing to stay ahead of the storm, we searched for roads that would take us in closer to the core so we could watch for more funnel clouds. We went down one gravel road which was surprisingly robust and got some great shots of the storm coming towards us but we turned around before the rain hit and turned that road into a muddy mess. Mike Bettes went down the same road just after us near Alton, Kansas but didn’t get out before the rains came and all three of their vehicles got stuck in the mud and they had to wait a couple of hours for some locals to help get them out of the mud. We had since moved on south so we didn’t hear about them getting stuck until much later on their twitter feed.

Since this was the best storm front to be watching, there were a lot of other storm chasers in the area. One group from Sweden had a device they called a “Tornado Killer” which, they claimed, would fire 10,000 volts of electricity into the air to change the electrical field that the tornadoes used when they are formed. The main problem with this device is that tornadoes don’t use an electrical field to form. The second one is that taking a device into a storm that is hooked up to 10,000 volts of electricity is quite dangerous. We first saw these folks and their device while we were waiting for the storms to form and Roger’s wife Caryn started asking them how it worked. When it was clear they had no idea what they were talking about, she started quizzing them on how storms form and when they had no answers, they just walked away. We saw them on the side of the road a few times that evening during the chase and, while no tornadoes formed while we were out, I’m reasonably confident that their device played no part in that.

We pulled up to a large radio antenna and parked underneath to get some more shots of the storm approaching. At this point, the lowering looked like a snow plow coming towards us with the sunset starting to shine through on the west side and the east side being very dark. Our next stop was near Paradise, Kansas where we watched the cloud approach and heard warnings of softball sized hail falling in its core. Roger, once again, got us out of there just in time and we passed a pickup truck being driven by a storm spotter for the local fire department heading past us towards Paradise. Just a couple of minutes later, we heard him on the radio reporting that he was getting pounded with softball-sized hail and that he had lost is windshield.
At this point, it was getting quite late and we had a very long drive ahead of us to get in position for the next day’s chase up in the Dakotas so we started north. The problem was that there was about a half dozen supercells between us and Nebraska so we drove carefully, avoiding the hail-laden storm cores.

We stopped for gas and watched as huge purple-tinted storm clouds around us started getting very active with lightning. Our drive for the next couple of hours was between sets of storms that were firing off lightning at a rate of about 5-10 flashes per second. Some of it was cloud-to-cloud and some was cloud-to-ground. This was perhaps the most amazing light show I have ever seen. As we drove by radio antenna arrays, we were hoping for a direct hit but no such luck. We did have several strikes very nearby, where the lightning bolt seared a line in my retina such that I would see it for about 30 seconds afterwards no matter where I looked. The thunder came within a second and I could feel it through my whole body. After a few hours of driving through this, we made our way up through Nebraska and got to our hotel in Valentine at around 2:00 am.

Thursday June 2 – Valentine, Nebraska (575.2 miles)
The weather models were indicating that a few isolated thunderstorms would be developing north of the Black Hills of South Dakota and would head northwest into North Dakota. The storms would develop pretty late – around 6:00 pm but the sun would be out until closer to 10pm because we were so far north so there would be plenty of time for chasing. The only problem was, there were absolutely no clouds on the radar.

We drove up to Pierre (pronounced ‘peer’) South Dakota for lunch and to see how the models would evolve. Pierre is right on the Missouri River, which was seeing record high levels due to heavy rains and snow melt from the Rocky Mountains. The water in the lake just above the city was so high that the Army Corps of Engineers were going to open the spillways the next day and flood parts of downtown Pierre so there were lots of volunteers around us building levees close to the river and sandbagging their homes and businesses that were close to the water. There was an evacuation order for parts of the city that were going into effect that night and the residents were told they would likely need to be gone for two months before the river would returns to its normal levels.

We finished lunch and headed further north towards Mobridge, SD to get into better position for the storms. Two lines of storms started to appear to our southwest – one was just north of the Black Hills, as expected and the other was just to our west. We watched both to see which one would be better. There was a strong cap in place which kept the storms from being able to go as high as they needed to create the most severe supercells but as the afternoon went on, they continued to build until the storm to the west of us started to break through the cap and we got some amazing shots as it suddenly rose from 40,000 to 55,000 feet in just a few minutes.

We raced north to get ahead of the storms that was starting to form along this line and crossed over into North Dakota. The terrain in North Dakota is beautiful; wide grasslands over rolling hills with occasional small farms. We saw dozens of very old, abandoned homes sitting in the middle of nowhere on the prairie and the storm started looming over these homes. We stopped several times to take pictures of the anvil of the storm creeping over the plains and our vans. It started to get dark as the sun was blocked by the clouds that were now more than 10 miles high but outside of this storm, you could still see the blue sky ahead of it which made for some stunning photos.

As the sun started to set, it passed behind the clouds and created rays of sunlight erupting from the storm and beautifully backlit the precipitation falling from the bottom. The top of the tower was so high that it was creating mammatus clouds which look like bubbles on the bottom of the anvil that was racing overhead 30 miles ahead of the storm. We stopped to let the core of this storm pass over us and we were pounded for a few minutes with heavy rain and hail. Just to the east of us, a huge double rainbow formed and we all waited anxiously for the precipitation to stop so we could jump out and take pictures of it.

The sun was now started to sink below the remaining clouds from the dying storm and it cast a golden glow over the remaining clouds while the wet road reflected the clouds and blue sky that was coming in behind the storm. The light was absolutely fantastic and I was giddy as I could look in any direction and see stunning photo opportunities. None of the storms could break off from the developing line of storms and build enough energy to create a tornado, but the combination of the clouds, terrain and sunset were so awesome that I was more than happy with the results of this chase.

There were a few more storms developing to the south but they were much higher so there wasn’t a chance of tornadoes from them, but we did get another great light show as we headed south out of North Dakota and towards Spearfish South Dakota, near Rapids City and Mount Rushmore. It was another very long drive and we arrived at our hotel around 1 am.

Friday June 3 – Spearfish, South Dakota (458.2 miles)
With all of the storms that had passed through over the previous couple of days, there didn’t look to be much of a chance for chasing on our last full day of the trip. We were also about 450 miles from Denver so we headed south, keeping an eye on a potential target in southern Colorado. That target ended up looking very weak so we decided to not chase it and instead headed to Denver. We arrived around 7:30 pm and had our first dinner as a group since the previous Sunday night.

The primary topic of discussion for the last half of the trip and dinner was when everyone was planning on coming back next year to do it again. Storm chasing is remarkably addictive because no two days, let alone trips, are alike. Some of the people from this group had been chasing the previous week and had been in Joplin just minutes before the EF-5 tornado came through and destroyed much of the city. They were minutes away from being blown away by that storm and saw a number of people in that town walking or driving straight into what would be the path of the tornado. A woman at the gas station where they were trying to refuel probably saved the groups lives by telling them that they can’t pump gas during a tornado warning and that they should get moving. Some people in the group briefly considered taking shelter in the nearby Home Depot but they decided it was better to keep moving and to get out of town. This was a particularly good call as the Home Depot was flattened a few minutes later and there were no survivors in that building.

Seeing tornadoes is not the goal for a storm chasing trip. It can’t be because they are so unpredictable and the odds of seeing one in any given week, particularly in a place where it is not rain wrapped or too dark to see it, are very low. Roger says that the storms themselves are the cake and seeing a tornado is just the frosting on top. While I was a little dubious of that when I arrived on Saturday, I am a strong believer in this now. Watching these supercells develop and getting just a taste of the immense power in these storms is the real payoff. The storms themselves are immensely beautiful with towering anvils, swirling mesocyclones and intense precipitation. The inflow tails can stretch for dozens of miles while the winds turn the grasslands into seas of green flowing like water. The real excitement is in watching how the storms are developing and trying to get into the best position to watch it unleash massive amounts of energy – tornadic or not.

Do I want to go back? You bet I do! These types of tours may be the best way to see the beauty of the heartland of America and the awesome storms that pop up here more than any other place in the world.

The chasers
The storms themselves are a relatively small part of the time spent on a chasing tour. The rest of the time is spent in vans with a group of like-minded people who just love watching severe weather. The leader at Silver Lining Tours is Roger Hill who has been chasing for 25 years. Roger has immense knowledge of how storms develop and what will make a storm develop into a weak, high precipitation snooze fest or a towering monster. By watching the real-time Doppler radar on his laptop and examining the most up to date weather models, he can quickly determine which of the cells are going to get stronger and which ones are going to collapse and die. He has seen well over 500 tornadoes and is one of the most effective storm chasing leaders in the business. Furthermore, he is a respected authority on severe weather and, during our trip alone, he appeared on the weather channel to talk about the developing conditions at least a half dozen times.

The drivers of the vans on our tour are the real heroes. They are the ones who get us into position and through the storms safely and help explain what is going on during the chase. They put in long hours behind the wheel driving hundreds of miles each day (our longest was about 750 miles though they have driven over 1000 miles in a single day) and are excited to get up the next morning to do it again. The combination of our driver’s skill and Roger’s knowledge made me feel quite safe even as we were being chased by 100 MPH winds and having dustnado debris pummel us while we’re driving at 75 MPH. These guys just love to chase and are excited to be there day after day.

The chasers on our tour were from all over the world – New Zealand, Canada, Australia, England, Germany were represented as were at least a dozen states from New Hampshire to California and Washington to Georgia. They are always ready to trade stories about their previous encounters as well as the event that got them “hooked” on severe storms. Some have been on dozens of tours though many were on their first chase. Roger’s wife Caryn, who was driving one of the vans, talked about how she sees the moment when attendees become addicts – when they see their first huge storm from right underneath it, perhaps dropping a tornado right before their eyes, and just start giggling or shedding a tear (of joy, presumably).
Some of the attendees were total characters. The foremost among them on our trip was Raymond, originally from the Netherlands but living in New Zealand and working as an electrician. Raymond collects power meters and glass insulators that are on the electrical poles. He would whip out his video camera and film power substations as we drove by, or interesting arrangements of power lines and poles as we zipped by them. He spent the first couple of days chasing in bright green Mountain Dew pajama bottoms and a bright purple tee shirt – you couldn’t miss Raymond even in the biggest wind. When we stopped to see the hail, he harvested a huge handful of them and was popping them in his mouth and crunching them like cheese pops. His enthusiasm was infectious and I learned more about the different types of power lines than I ever thought I would. I will definitely never look at them he same way again.

We had a crew from the Discovery Channel who are working on a new series on America from the same people who created the Planet Earth series. They were there to get shots of huge storms coming across the plains and were probably hoping to get wide open shots of tornadoes as well. I had a few discussions with them and it was fascinating to see how they create those shows. On average, they said, it takes about a week to get the right footage for about one minute of the actual show. This particular series is schedule to be released next year.

The rest of the crew ran the gamut from software engineers to dentists to students (I’m not sure that is actually a continuum, suffice to say that it was a broad set of day-jobs). Spending much of the time in the vans heading to the next storm, there is plenty of time to get to know the other chasers and their interests. There was also a broad range of cameras on the tour; little point and shoot cameras to high end SLRs, flip video camera to insanely high end HD video camera (ok, maybe the Discovery Channel’s crew shouldn’t count – but it was there). The one thing I missed was the opportunity to share the photos that people had taken to see how they saw it differently from me, and perhaps to pick up a few new techniques for shooting storms. Silver Lining Tours offers special photography tours where they stay a bit further back from the storm to get the wider shots and perhaps on those trips there is more discussion of how to get the best shots.

In summary
In all, we drove 2,686.9 miles over the six days of the chase, which was about average for their tours. The folks at Silver Lining Tours were fantastic from booking through the final dinner and I would absolutely recommend them for anyone looking to get up close and personal with severe storms across the middle of America. I’m not sure if it will be next year, or the following, but I definitely intend to go again and perhaps then I will get to complete my chasing photo collection with a nice, white tornado underneath the angry wall cloud. Either way, I’m sure it will be great.