Day 11 – Caught in a mesocyclone

I was talking about broken expectations yesterday. I do not know what the opposite would be called, but it was certainly what happened today.

In the morning two girls dropped out of Tour. They have had a bit different expectations about Storm Chasing (more party, less waiting – more shopping, less driving). They were quite nice but the extra room in the vans was appreciated as well!

Today was a Travel Day again i.e. when the objective is to only get from one place to another in order to position yourself for the day after. The relatively negative mood in the van that had lasted a few days has started to dissipate again. The tour is coming to an end and we have been quite lucky to see so much. We just hope for one more tornado or something new!

Somewhere during my third nap of the day, we stopped at a village that promotes itself for having the world’s largest hand dug well. Surely that was a bit impressive but not as impressive as the fact that the village was more or less wiped out on May 4th, 2007 by, you guessed it, a tornado.

The tornado that swept through Greensburg, KS, was about 2 km in diameter! They had a small museum (200 square feet), which was for the well, but which served as a temporary museum for the tornado event as well. We saw photos of the enormous devastation the tornado had made. In a tree, I found a piece of metal still was wrapped around a tree…

A little bit later we stopped at a gas station where a seemingly harmless storm piled up a few miles ahead. Since we had nothing better to do we decided to chase it. It showed no “good” signs, and didn’t have a severe storm warning or anything.

A sure sign that absurdly often prove to be a good sign is when the tour van happens to kill a bird with the wind shield on the way into a storm. This happened before the tornado in Wyoming and also happened now. Apparently, the combination killed bird / tornado is very common for Cloud 9 for some reason.

We, however, did not see any tornado today but what we experienced was just as cool.

Entering the storm we thought we saw a funnel, but it is so often wishful thinking and easy to confuse with scud that one rarely reflects very much about it. Photo Evidence later showed, however, that it actually had been a funnel (a “tornado” that does not reach the ground). A little further into the storm everything came at once. The storm got a Severe Storm Warning and then got the status Tornado Warned. A bit later, we received information that a tornado had been reported from the storm. Of this, we saw very little since we once again ended up in the middle of the rain and had a hard time getting out of it.

Early on, we had taken the decision to do a core punch for fun because the chance that the storm could produce a tornado was minimal. Otherwise it would have been a better idea to stay outside in order to see it better. We realized, with hindsight, that it was probably a bad decision to make a core punch. We officially gave up and started to drive out of the storm again. What happened then made this whole day.

The visibility decreased rapidly while the wind and the rain intensified. In the end, the visibility so poor that we could not even see 15 feet ahead. The visibility on the sides was slightly better – maybe 20-30 feet. The wind continued to pick up and eventually we found ourselves in ridiculously strong winds. Our guides who have been doing storm chasing and hurricane chasing hurricane in about 20 years estimated gusts of wind to 80 mph!

E i g h t y  mph ! !

This is equal to the power of being in the middle of an F1 tornado or a Category 1 hurricane. The difference, I believe, between being at 80 mph in a tornado and being in the same eind speed without a tornado is that in a tornado the winds are more concentrated in a certain point. If I understood my guide Charles correctly, we were in a “mesocyclone”, i.e. an undefined rotating air mass during a storm. An air mass that at any time can produce a tornado as well, even directly above you! We were quite happy that there were no hail for in that case our wind shields would have been smashed to pieces. I mean imagine the hail you seen in my photos earlier. In 80 mph. Coming from the side.

The most exciting thing about this was that you knew you were in the middle of the danger zone, in a storm with tornado warnings. This, with a view of 60 feet. I looked out the window and was just waiting for the rounded shape of a tornado to break out at the line of visibility. The scary thing was maybe that I was actually hoping for it! Sometimes, in the excitement, the logical thinking is not quite there! If it would have been ok’d by the tour guides, I would have jumped out of the van to feel the wind. Probably not the best idea either…

This was probably the most thrilling on the whole trip, including the tornado, and it came as a pure bonus. It felt like a bit of a revenge for the previous day where we expected everything but did not experience anything special. Today, I expecting nothing and was caught in the middle of a raging storm.

greensburg aftermath basketball
Basketball ring in Greensburg, KS, which was hit by an F5 tornado two years ago
metal tree
A piece of metal wrapped around an tree by the Greensburg tornado
basement
A house where only the basement is left. Greensburg, KS.

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