Sunday, June 11, 2006

Marathon drive back home


Today was the beginning of our marathon drive back home. Not something that all of us were looking forward to. We have a good foot to travel on the Streets & Trips map! “Oh dear” were Scott’s words. All of us woke up at 5 am MST. Ron and Scott grabbed some coffee from the hotel lobby. Apparently it was awful tasting. Ron tossed his out in the parking lot. Maybe it wasn’t even coffee?

We headed south to get to I90. There was a ton of ground level fog in the fields off to the east, which made for a nice picture.

On our way eastward on I90 in South Dakota, we decided to check out Mount Rushmore. We saw some TCU starting to build. It looked like another day of convection! Ron joked “If we’re lucky, we’ll get a lightning bolt hitting Mount Rushmore.” Then, 2 minutes later, once we entered the national monument, what happened? A lightning bolt hit one of the mountains ahead of us. Okay this is getting retarded, LOL. Ron was starting to scare himself from his precise forecasting. There just had to be a thunderstorm when we arrived. Just because. We took some pictures of Mount Rushmore then continued our trek eastward.

Later on in South Dakota, a vehicle ahead of us got hit by a large bird. Their windshield was smashed from side to side. I am glad that it was not us. We ate at Al’s Oasis in Chamberlain and continued to head east. We saw a developing supercell north of Sioux City near I29. Ron wanted to take I29 down towards Omaha, NE to see what the supercell was doing. We had strong surface winds coming from the north. So strong that it was rattling the van and dust was blowing in the field. A severe thunderstorm watch had been issued for the area.

Around 7:30 pm CST, the storm was beginning to fall apart. It was trying to organized but as soon as it started to cross I29, it started losing its punch. We could see the flanking line of the storm.

We continued on our journey. Later at night, we started to follow an MCS into the Great Lakes region. At 5 am June 10th, we saw a shelf cloud from the MCS west of the Chicago area. A rather large MCS the size of South Dakota was slowly traveling southeast, drenching the Chicago area. Parts of I80 had some pooling water from the rain. It just rained and rained. We exited out of the big blob of rain in Michigan and became homebound.

In these last two weeks, I have had the time of my life. Would I do it again? YES!


Dates: May 27 to June 10 2006

Crew: Ron Gravelle (forecaster), Scott Keddie (driver), Laura Duchesne (sky reader)

Total trip distance: ~16,000 km

States chased: IL, SD, NE, KS, OK, IA, CO, NM, MT

Tornadoes: 5

Funnel clouds: 3

Wall clouds: 8

Largest hail: 2 inches


Many many huge thanks to Ron Gravelle for giving me this opportunity. And many many thanks to Scott Keddie for being the driver and also to his better half for letting us use the family van for 2 weeks. It was truly much appreciated. I just can’t thank them enough.

I’ve learned a lot about forecasting and reading the skies in tornado alley. Ron is truly an excellent friend and forecaster. He always got us into the target area on time to witness some of mother nature’s spectacles. His number one priority was for us to see good storms but to stay safe so we could get back home all in one piece. If we were not chasing, we were doing some sight seeing and eating. And yes, there was plenty of humor on this trip (Want some more chocolate cake, Ron?). I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard.

If you are unable to go to tornado alley on your own and you want to do some real storm chasing, visit Ron’s website . He’s an honest guy and is not in it to make profit, especially if the weather pattern does not look promising. He will teach you some of his forecasting techniques, and he will try his best to make sure you see real storms. He will guarantee you will have a great time.

Montana Supercell


Today we were headed off to southeastern Montana. It was going to be quite a bit of a drive. Ron was certain that there would be a supercell near Billings, MT. CAPE was 3000 with a lifted index of -9. A triple point low was setting up in the target area.

On our way north, we saw the mountains off to the west. It was a nice view. We continued on northwest. We were getting into hilly country. Once we arrived in the town of Hardin, MT, we saw a developing storm to the west. We headed west towards Billings. Off in the distance, we could see a wall cloud forming around 2:50 pm MST. Then, once some hills cleared, we noticed a wedge-shaped feature coming down from the wall cloud. It had good solid sides, and was more than three quarters to the ground, with a fuzzy looking bottom. Ron is certain it was a tornado. It could have been a weak one. I guess that brings our tube count on this trip to 5. Not too bad for such a quiet storm season I must say! Baron did happen to pick up the brief rotation cuplet during this time.

The supercell’s structure wasn’t looking too bad. In fact at one point it almost looked like it was starting to corkscrew. We took some back roads to get closer to the wall cloud. We pulled over to snap some pictures and take video, then we continued on. The wall cloud then started to dissipate.

We wanted to get ahead of the storm again, but unfortunately Montana does not offer very many good road options, so we had to do a big loop around on some back roads with lots of big hills. We got into the RFD region. Ahead of us, one of the trees got blown down by the force of the winds. We had to be pretty careful around here with all the trees.

By now it was looking like the supercell was beginning to go linear. Ron expected the storm to head eastward and meet up with the converging winds coming from the east, which should make the storm more organized once again. The Baron was indicating that the storm’s height was 55,000 feet high. When we were on the back roads, it looked like the storm was becoming a bit more outflow dominant. We also saw some cattle, dogs and bunnies on the back road. Everything just seems to be on the road in Montana. We finally got back on the interstate to get ahead of the storm. I looked back, and noticed a small shelf cloud beginning to form. I was expecting the shelf cloud would get bigger.

At 6 pm, we went to get some ice cream at a Dairy Queen in Forsyth. We were hoping that the storm would head eastward and cross the interstate ahead of us. When we were done chewing and swallowing our grub, Ron looked at the Baron. Dang it! The storm was becoming a right mover. That kinda screwed up our plans. So, we headed back southwest to go back to Hardin and get a hotel for the night. Off to the west, a nice outflow boundary was setting up. TCU was forming along it at a good pace. We saw a partial rainbow in the rain curtains from the storm.

Once we got to the hotel in Hardin, I snapped some pics of the storm’s anvil off in the distance.

The stupid heat


Today seemed to be a little more promising. We would be playing the dryline from Wyoming into Nebraska. By lunch time, cumulus was already beginning to build along the dryline. We headed more north from Cheyenne and by around 4 pm, we decided to cut more eastward towards Mitchell, NE and head north. The dryline was advancing into central NE and a convergence zone was setting up in the area.

And son of a… was it ever hot! We saw a temperature sign in Mitchell that read 105 deg F. This was retarded heat. Gimme my ice cold water!

We headed more west and saw some towers building. We pulled off the road to wait around for a bit. Ron was expecting the cap to give away and the storms would explode. We waited. And waited. Unfortunately it was getting late in the afternoon and we had still a haul to do to get set up for the next day near Montana. Today was so hot that the heat rose and created an inversion layer, hence the storms would not explode.

Later on, we saw a really really long train. Scott measured one and it turned out to be about 2 km long. We thought that was retarded but then later on, we saw a much longer train. It had to have been about 5 km long. Now THAT was retarded. That was the longest train I ever saw in my life. We stayed in Gillette overnight.

Travel day


Today was a travel day into eastern Colorado. We headed towards the Denver area. On our way we saw several small dust devils in the fields.

We were hoping to get a LP supercell if we were lucky. Storms did happen to fire from Denver down towards Raton but they were not that severe and it was getting later on in the day. We preferred to head more north to get set up for the next day in Wyoming.

We stayed overnight in Cheyenne.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Tornadoes near Huron, South Dakota!


Today was promising to be an interesting one. Ron and I had good feelings in our gut. We left Sioux Falls and headed slightly west towards highway 81. The SPC had issued a moderate risk for southeast South Dakota, eastern Nebraska and northwest Kansas. There was plenty of ACCAS around, indicating that the atmosphere was pretty unstable. What was also a good thing was that the surface moisture had returned for the first time in several days, with a southerly surface flow.

On our way west, we decided to check out the aftermath of the Manchester F4 tornado that occured on June 24, 2004. It was almost the 2-year mark of this devastating storm that whipped out the entire town. When we arrived, I was speechless. There was an erie calm. Just 2 years ago, there was a town there. Now all that remains are twisted trees. Nothing is left. Nothing was rebuilt. The only thing new was the rail road crossing signs. A feeling of saddness overcame me. This was definately a reminder that we need to respect Mother Nature's raw power.

We grabbed some lunch at a Dairy Queen in the nearest town. We continued westward. Ron's first target was near Madisson, SD. His second choice was Neal, NE. The NWS in Sioux Falls put out a severe thunderstorm watch around 2 pm for the area we were going to be targeting.

A little while later, the Baron was showing a supercell that quickly developed near Wessington around 3:15. This was the first storm that had shear on it, and the only storm in South Dakota. It had 50k feet echo tops. I spotted a developing wall cloud, that was close to the ground. As we neared the storm we took a gravel road to get closer. Unfortunately there was a river and no bridge was there. So much for that option. So we took another road, and pulled over. The wall cloud was really beginning to crank. A multi vortex rain-wrapped tornado occured behind some trees, but it was very poor contrast. Finally, the NWS issued a tornado warning for Sanborn county. The Baron was showing a 126 mph shear cuplet on the storm.

We hauled southward because the wall cloud was catching up to us. When we were further south in a better position near Huron, we watched the wall cloud really beginning to crank around. The RFD had kicked in. Then we saw it. A tornado quickly spun up. Our first visible tornado! It did not last very long, and shortly after, another larger tornado formed. This one had more of a thick cone-shaped/stovepipe look. Two tornadoes within minutes from the same storm ain't too shabby at all! Although they did not last very long, we did get video and still pictures. They occured near highway 281 (and probably crossed it too).

After the tornadoes dissipated, the supercell's core was getting closer to us. We saw a bright green core which looked pretty wild. We decided to cut through the core... not something I recommend if you don't have a good eye, a good driver and a Baron Wx Worx system. The core was insane! We were literally in 0 visibility deluge, with winds, rain and half inch hail. I kept my eye out for any sudden changes in the direction of the wind.

Finally we arrived in the RFD/outflow area. We made it out of the core alive! A bunch of dust was getting kicked up and the outflow actually felt kind of nice since I was hot and sweaty before. Whew!

The storm was beginning to weaken and the threat of tornadoes seemed to dimminish. It eventually rained itself out. We left the storm to spend the night in Valentine, NE. We had a celebration steak and beer dinner at the Peppermill Steakhouse. Was it ever good! Our catch of the day was a pretty good one, considering we targeted outside of the SPC moderate risk area.

Tomorrow we are planning for eastern Colorado, but it won't be near as good as today's setup.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

A Hope for Monday


Today we decided to cut east a bit more. Ron had decided to issue his own slight risk area for today’s storms in eastern South Dakota and western Iowa. SPC had a slight risk area for the Montana area, but that would screw us up for tomorrow’s setup in Nebraska if we were to target that area. We targeted the town of Aberdeen. On our way, we stopped to get gas. Ron pointed out to me a surface boundary to the north and another one to the east. He wanted to target where these two boundaries met. He figured these would fire in the afternoon sometime. We continued more eastward and noticed that the cumulus along these boundaries were getting bigger. Once we reached Aberdeen, we ate a KFC buffet lunch/dinner. By now it was almost late afternoon and we had to get ourselves in position for tomorrow. On our way to Sioux Falls, storms did happen to fire in Ron’s target area. The Baron was detecting 2 inch hail on one of the southern storms.

We stayed in Sioux Falls overnight and planned to target the Nebraska/Kansas border for a potential supercell setup, after Scott gets the van’s oil change done and to get it fixed because it has been making a weird clanking vibrating noise when he would do turns.

Tomorrow the surface moisture would finally make a return, after several days of elevated storms after the large haboob in eastern Colorado.

Elevated storms in South Dakota


We left North Platte to target central South Dakota. On our way north, we ran into Tim Marshall who was with Silver Lining Tours at a gas station in some very small town in Cherry county, which is literally in the middle of nowhere. Off to our northeast, some towers were building along a surface boundary so we decided to go for that. We headed northeast past Pierre, South Dakota. As we got closer to the storms, we could tell they were elevated. We watched a microburst occur, then decided to drive more north behind the storms. There really wasn’t any storm structure features going on, so we cut through the line of storms to get ahead of them to see if there was a decent shelf cloud. Unfortunately there really wasn’t much going on ahead of the storms either. It was getting pretty windy, and we saw a little bit of hail shafts.

We decided to call it quits for the day as seeing that this was all that would happen today. On our way back to Pierre, we saw a dust devil off in the distance, and several road runner birds near the road. At first, Ron and I thought Scott was actually going to hit one, but he slowed down so it could finish crossing the road. Off to our west, I noticed an outflow boundary forming. Thunderstorm cells were starting to grow fast along the outflow boundary, so by the time we reached Pierre, we had a small thunderstorm to our north, with some mammatus. In the motel parking lot, I attempted lightning photography but it was quite difficult with the in-cloud lightning and city lights. We had a severe thunderstorm watch until 4 am.

I got to see the Rockies!


Today was a down day. We decided to travel a bit more north through Denver. The Rockies were in full view, so it was a nice drive. We ate some Mexican lunch in Greeley. Ron’s face looked “kinda red” from the heat of the food.

We were hoping we would catch a cell or two that would produce some hail. We were in the 2% tornado risk area before the SPC even issued the 2%. Unfortunately it was already mid afternoon and nothing has popped up in the area yet, and we still had quite a haul to do to get to Nebraska for tomorrow.

On our way east, we saw the DOW 3 ahead of us by a couple cars on the same interstate as us heading in the same direction. Perhaps a good sign for tomorrow? We’ll see. As we headed more northwest, cumulus clouds were starting to build up. Ron could have sworn he saw a fairly good sized funnel cloud under the knuckles of a towering cumulus. There was a sign of wind shear in the area, as the clouds were tilting as they grew taller. By now we were starting to see some cells with small anvils. Since today was a travel day, we just continued east to North Platte, Nebraska to spend the night there.

There was a severe thunderstorm to our north around midnight. Ron said there was a TVS on the storm, and that if the sirens went off, to go in his room. Luckily, all I saw was lightning off in the distance and the storm had dissipated before it reached us.

Mammatus in New Mexico


The day started off beautifully. It wasn’t too hot or too cold. The atmosphere seemed to be a little capped today. We left Oakley, KS and headed west into Colorado near the New Mexico stateline.

Finally around 1 pm CST, a cumulus field was beginning to develop. Shortly after 2 pm MST, we went west towards La Junta. There were some storms starting to form to the south just slightly west of Raton, New Mexico. Off in the distance, I could see the storms and a couple anvils. We continued southwest towards Trinidad. The atmosphere was slowing becoming more unstable. The cells were growing and were stationary. A cumulus field could be seen ahead of the cells.

Around 4:50, a small supercell formed west of Raton, New Mexico. We decided to continue south west to target this storm. The scenery around here was amazing. We could see the mountains and rolling hills, with the supercell ahead of us. We saw a beaver tail trying to attach to the core of the storm. After a few minutes, the supercell started moving southwest, away from us. We went through Trinidad and the mountains were just beautiful. We continued south towards Raton. A flanking line was building and started to corkscrew in the updraft. We stopped in Raton at a Sonic to eat something. Just off to the west between some trees and mountains, I watched the LP supercell trying to organize its meso together, but it didn’t amount to much. We decided to head north of the interstate. Just outside of Trinidad, we saw some nice mammatus. On the way to Pueblo, Colorado, we saw a colourful sunset behind the mountains, with more cb’s forming. The scenery made for a pretty picture.

We stayed in Pueblo overnight and planned to head back to Nebraska the next day to get in position for the potential severe storm set up on Saturday.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Eastern CO Haboob

MAY 31 DAY 5

Our target today was eastern Colorado. We left Amarillo just before 10 am, and headed north. On our way up, we saw lots of transverse rolls (low level horizontal vorticity), which was a pretty good sign for today’s setup. We also saw some ACCAS, and some vorticity in cumulus clouds. Around noon, we stopped at an Allsup’s in Dumas to fill up on gas, and have one of their famous burritos. There were lots of good signs of low level vorticity in the sky. We saw a pretty nice horseshoe vortex off to our east. The cumulus field was looking pretty nice. We continued north to Lamar, Colorado and ate some lunch at a pizza hut. As it got closer to 4 pm Mountain time, the Baron was showing a nice supercell over Limon. The storm was splitting and becoming a right mover. We continued northwest on I40. The supercell was headed right for us. The Baron was picking up strong shear on the storm, going at 103 mph (165 km/h). Closer to 5 pm, the shear had increased to 200 km/h. That was a pretty good sign. We could see a very dark sky off to the west. The sun beating down on the wheatfields made for a pretty nice contrast. As we neared the storm, we saw a brief funnel cloud forming just south of the main core. It dissipated, then scud started forming and rising to form a wall cloud. It was trying pretty hard, but it seemed it was lacking the low level moisture needed for the scud to form. We continued more west. The rain shafts made for a pretty nice picture. We pulled into a truck stop and took video of the strong outflow winds and rain curtains.

Afterwards, we went a little bit more south on a dirt road. We got out of the van and the cold outflow just hit us. Scott pointed out something white over the hill, so Ron and I went up on the hill. Cactus was poking into my legs. We reached the top and saw that the white thing was some scud that was trying to rotate. We decided to pull more west to get ahead of the storm before we got more into the rain core. At this point we were getting a bit disappointed. It appeared the storm was beginning to become outflow dominated. We saw lots of dust being kicked up in the fields. We also saw the odd dust devil form. At one point, zero visibility dust was crossing the interstate. We continued more eastwards and started to see parts of a beaver tail near the shelf cloud. Where the two met, there was a meso trying to get its act together. The rear flank downdraft started to punch through and it kicked up some more dust. By now, the storm was getting more organized. As we got more ahead of the storm, we saw the big shelf cloud. It was multi-tiered and just plain gorgeous. This thing was huge! There was tons of dust everywhere. We pulled off the interstate and grabbed some great images of a large wall cloud and the shelf cloud, with lots of “greenage” in behind. This thing was really trying to drop a tornado. The colours were pretty amazing. The outflow was also very strong. We continued to follow the storm eastward into Kansas before the rain core came to overtake us. It was starting to get dark out, so we called it a day. This was a very exciting storm chase!

We pulled into a gas station and met Steve Miller from Texas, and his friend. We stayed in Oakley, Kansas overnight.

Western Oklahoma Supercell

MAY 30 DAY 4

Today started off to be a beautiful day in beautiful Kansas. We left Salina shortly after 7 am CST and had an early lunch in Wichita. We picked the northwest Oklahoma panhandle so far as our target. The RUC and NAM models were showing some pretty good parameters for today’s setup. The front has stalled, which was pretty promising and we had our outflow boundaries from last night’s activity. Since we had some time to kill, we decided to stop at the Twister Museum in Wakita, OK.

Afterwards, we headed west towards the OK panhandle. So far things were looking good. We could see small towers starting to go up on the dryline. The slow moving thunderstorm activity ahead of the dryline should produce an outflow boundary that will kick up the cu on the dryline. For the first time in my life, I was going to be seeing some real dryline supercells from start to finish. ACCAS formed ahead of the dryline, a sign of good instability. We watched a distant supercell over Kansas as we headed westward towards Woodward, OK. A stationary supercell was just starting to form near Woodward. It was only 2:40 pm and we were already in a good spot.

On our way down, we neared a railroad crossing. We thought a train was going to go through but we noticed that someone had broken off the crossing gate and it was laying right across the tracks, setting off the crossing lights and sound. Ron and Scott did a great job removing the gate off the railroad.

There were nice turkey towers firing up along the dryline. Storms started firing up in the Texas panhandle. We decided to head south towards the caprock. There was a smaller storm that formed ahead of the larger supercell. The larger supercell started to show mesos on the Baron, with a hook beginning to form. There was also a small v-notch. We decided to head towards Elk City and go west from there. This thing was indeed a slow moving, clocking a whopping 17 mph travel speed.

Shortly after 6, I noticed a small lowering to the north. As we got closer, the meso was visible. It was barrel shaped, and it was really trying to get its act together. A wall cloud became more organized and produced a brief funnel cloud. Unfortunately it wouldn’t reach the ground. The wall cloud dissipated and then a new one formed to the south of the core. There were also some pretty good staccato strikes. Afterwards, we decided to head towards Amarillo to spend the night. On our way westward, we got into the heavy rain core, with some good outflow winds. The storms were starting to bow out around 7:30. We saw a nice shelf cloud. All of a sudden, a truck ahead of us was having a hard time staying straight… the back end of the truck kept swaying in the wind. Just outside of Amarillo, the rain was clearing, with the sun setting in the west. This made for perfect double rainbow photo opportunities closer to 9 pm.

We had a nice meal at the Big Texan to finish off our day. Ron decided to show off and eat a huge freaking slab of chocolate cake. Oh boy was he hurtin’! Those bull’s balls were also pretty good. You should try some!

Nightime Kansas Fun

MAY 29 DAY 3

We had two targets to choose from today. One in Iowa, and the other in northeast Kansas. The cap was much cooler today, increasing our chances of seeing something interesting. The first thunderstorm watch box had been issued near the Canadian border, Minnesota. We were guessing the convection will start north and work its way south in Texas later on. We headed towards Omaha, Nebraska to decide which route to take. A storm in Kansas City was producing a good outflow boundary. Already, a field of cumulus was forming in the convergence zone, in eastern Kansas.

We intercepted two small cells near Omaha on the way down, but they were dying off. A supercell was starting to develop in Iowa and it was only 2 pm. It appears that eastern Kansas will be our target so far for this afternoon as we had hoped that the activity would start in the north and work its way down south later in the day. We stopped in Lincoln for a pit stop to chew on some lunch. By now, a lunch of storms was firing in Minnesota, with the first thunderstorm watch box issued. There was also a line of storms in Kansas City. We figured those would generate an outflow boundary that would help initiate some storms in eastern Kansas and western Iowa. Unfortunately as time went on and we headed towards Des Moines, things were less promising. Our boundary had some cu on it but it just wouldn’t get any higher. It appeared that the Kansas City storm had drawn in all the moisture from the area into itself. When we arrived back in Lincoln, NE we stopped at a Phillips 66 gas station. A small storm was just to our south. I took some pics of sunset-lit mammatus. At this point, we decided to head south to Kansas to intercept a line of supercells to catch some lightning and get closer to tomorrow’s target. We went through the small storm. It had some good CGs but that was only the beginning. As we were heading south, the northern supercell on the line was showing some strong windshear on the Baron wx worx system. Several mesos had popped up. We figured a tornado had to be on the ground now. As we neared the storm in Kansas, lots of lightning was illuminating the supercell. I could tell this thing was huge. We decided to pull off the interstate to take some lightning pics. I got a few good ones. I couldn’t believe I was finally in beautiful Kansas watching a big storm. I breathed in the fresh air. I already felt a warm welcome to Tornado Alley. After, we decided to continue south. By now the storms were starting to turn into a bow echo. There were tons of nice anvil crawlers and nearby CGs. Unfortunately I had to “go” real bad. Here I was in the middle of nowhere at midnight in a severe storm and not a single pit stop was opened. So what do I do? Mark my territory on the side of the road. Welcome to real storm chasing, folks!

Somewhere between Beatrice and Salina, small hail covered the road. We arrived at a Motel 6 in Salina after 1 am to catch some much needed rest. We anticipate the storm’s outflow boundary will help tomorrow’s set up in the panhandle.