Yes, today we finally found a tornado – and what a tornado!
Everything looked pretty good in the morning, the first storm we were going for to seemed to have all the attributes we want: a low wall cloud, strong rotation and large hail.
We come out just in time to bring out our cameras. The storm, shortly thereafter, starts to create a funnel cloud. The funnel, however, retreats back into the cloud. At the second attempt it reaches all the way down – it is now a tornado. The tornado grows rapidly and soon becomes a few hundred meter wide beast. After a short while we end up in the path of pea-sized hail and start to regroup ourselves.
During our repositioning the hail storm grew to the order of golf balls. The car was then actually under a rain of ice balls as big as golf balls! The noise inside the car was crazy, when the hail hit the roof, windows and wind shield.
We set off to the next point where the tornado had more of a rain cloud around it which slowly rotated and simultaneously made the tornado a little bit difficult to see. We drove further out on a road that was bordered by dozens of storm watcher cars. By then the tornado was heading straight at us from the right. I wanted to stop but did not really get an approval from the tour guide :).
Finally, we positioned ourselves on a small plateau where we had a great view of how the tornado roped out – the last stage. We were lucky enough to have the sun in our backs which made the tornado completely white. A fantastic sight!
I’m just about to leave our hotel in North Platte, Nebraska, so I do not have time to write or upload any photos. One thing is for sure though – the shit hit the fan yesterday and it was a fantastic day!
It all started here with this photo. I will return with the rest of story during the day or the evening:
On Day 3, we learned how storms work. Today we learned that storms are not always reliable.
In the morning we hurried up early from Colby, KS, to go to the Colorado plains. These plains seemed the most likely to create storms today, which basically means:
The air needs to be moist so that clouds are shaped. This is usually supported by winds from the Gulf of Mexico
A strong wind in the upper atmospheric layers that kind of stretches out the cloud so it doesn’t “choke itself”.
A strong surface wind at the ground blowing at an angle to the upper winds. This “puts a spin” on the winds.
Probably a lot more, but this is what I have learned this far 🙂
The air started bubbling pretty early in the afternoon (as it usually does near the Rockies) so we went out to some very promising and beautiful clouds.The sun was shining brightly upon them and with the Rocky Mountains in the background, it was a fantastic sight! The storm started growing some but quickly dissipated as a hissing balloon so we went back to our base camp in the area – a small shopping center.
We waited a while in the shopping center and later went out to some new promising objects. That storm split up into a northern and southern cloud and we bet on the south one – which typically is the best choice – but it also died out. Instead we saw, to our frustration, on the radar that the northern one blew up instead. It was going 30 mph and was already at some distance so there was no chance to catch up with it. We went after another cloud a bit half-heartedly, but then gave up and went back to our base camp again.
It really is not easy to chase storms. The conditions can be there but still not be optimal. This year, the weather conditions have been generally poor, but improved bit-by-bit since the beginning of our tour. Even if the conditions are good, not all storms mature into a supercell / tornadic state.
Another problem when you chase storms – and something that requires a lot of experience – is positioning yourself for the storm. You want to be positioned a bit on the front edge of the storm but driving there is not always as easy. A basic problem is that the storms like to go southeast and the roads either south or east!
In rural areas you can sometimes be driving north, north and further north when all you want to do is take a turn westward over the fields! Another problem, especially evident in Colorado, is that even if the Midwest is flat, there’s always some hills and if you are in the valley between the hills you don’t see very much of the storms.
Well, in anticipation of possibly going out again late in the afternoon, we gave up a bit and sat in the rear of the best-equipped van, bought some local beer and looked at the movie Attack of the killer tomatoes.
Two boring days in a row now, and it shows in the group where some are starting to get a little bit frustrated.
On a storm chasing tour you spend many long hours in the van. I was fully aware of this and it was also a bit of one of the things I really looked forward too. This spring, I have been busy with something from the moment I woke up to the second I had fallen asleep in the evening, so to be bored is quite nice and a sign that you are starting to reduce your stress levels.
When you get bored you start to come up with a lot of ideas and find a lot of stupid stuff to talk about. I was lucky to end up in a tour with a very fun group and everyone is really doing their best to make things happen. Basically, at each gas stop someone purchases some sort of toy or the likes of it, in order to kill some time in the van…
These are a few examples of what we have done in order to kill time:
Soap bubble-clay pigeon shooting with…I have no idea what it’s called in English 🙂
Water fights (!)
Teach Australians how to sing / kill the Swedish national anthem – especially this was hysterically funny
Playing with all kinds of toys
Taking stupid photos
Visit a bunch of weird “sights” you run into on the way, like that Big Ball of Twine.
Talk, talk, talk…
Day 4 was a pure Travel Day. We were moving up from Texas to western Kansas (Colby). When we arrived we once again bumped into a large crowd from the Vortex 2-project (known from The Weather Channel). We pretty much run into about the same bunch of storm chasers all the time. We have, however, only seen the armoured car from the Discovery Channel once.
In the evening we decided to try the nightlife in Colby, KS. Suitably, the bar was called Twisters, and it had pictures of tornados and storms on the walls. The people in the bar were basically some dozen local guys who all had:
Light blue jeans
White t-shirt / short sleeved shirt
A baseball cap. And I mean Everyone!
Just like most people in the Midwest they were really nice and fun to talk to, farmers who had lived in Colby all of their lives. In addition, there were also a couple from the local research / TV Team Vortex 2 in the bar (not wearing the “Colby uniform”).
On the big TV screen on the wall they were first showing UFC but later on the Weather News was on the rest of the night. In a bar 🙂 Talk about sub-culture!
People were generally very excited because all the data suggest that the shit is about to hit the fan. It might start to become interesting already today (i.e. Day 5), but especially this weekend. Keep your fingers crossed!
Today was quite a classic day of Storm Chasing. We woke up, had breakfast / brunch at Ihop and by then our guides Charles had made a plan for today’s trip. They look at their radar images, listen to weather reports, look at their gadgets and make estimates where it is most likely that the super-cells and tornadoes will be created.
Today, it seemed to be western Oklahoma and north-western Texas, so we started moving in that direction. Charles has access to local radar images on his laptop that enables him to analyze the storm clouds around. On it he will look for emerging clouds that show the right features.
Today we passed a number of smaller cells on the way down through Kansas, but none looked really interesting. Instead, we focused on a double cell being formed in north-western Texas and sped on southwards. On the way down there we drove past another cell which at first did not seem interesting at all, but began shaping up really quickly.
What happens when a storm cloud begins to mature is that it is rising up quickly and starts to spread at high altitude. If the rotation is strong enough this can be seen on the radar. When you then start to see a “wall cloud”, that’s when it starts to get really interesting.
This very day outside Canadian, Texas, it was just like this. A wall cloud began to emerge from the cloud and created formations of small clouds down toward the ground. If a wall cloud starts to rotate, it can produce tornadoes.
A really large storm cell is called super-cell and is a magnificent sight. Our storm cell developed into one and we drove through it at the small village of Canadian, TX. Rain and hail poured down, and the clouds seemed like they were just some 100 meters above. When you also know that the roof basically can start to spin into a tornado at any time, your pulse really goes up a few notches!
We went out on the other side of the base and then kept ourselves just outside this low wall cloud. The storm created quite frequent lightning and when the wall cloud silently floats in and over you, it is just plain powerful. It looks very much like when the mother ship in Independence Day floats over the sky!
We have been jumping back and forth between Kansas and Nebraska during the day and practically seen nothing. We had a quick stop by a local attraction – The World’s Largest Ball of Twine (!). It felt like we had given up on the hope of seeing some storm when we suddenly picked up something on the radar, that grew more and more interesting. The whole crowd, that had been loud and laughing all day, got silent and the the excitement was tangible.
We went up a small gravel road that went all the way to the horizon, ending up with a church. Behind it, the sun was beginning to set and a so called wall cloud was hovering underneath a storm cloud. Wall clouds can, under favorable conditions, produce a tornado but this one was not in the mood today unfortunately. Despite this, the week has started off really well, better than Tour #2 were doing for its two weeks, so we are happy.
Now, we have just had some Pizza Hut in a restaurant in the middle of nowhere and we are off to look at some lightning in the night.
Well, I was not too smart before going on this trip. I was up until 2 a.m. the night before, having drinks with a couple of friends. At 5 a.m. I went to Arlanda airport (Stockholm). Wise from this experience, the first thing I did when arriving was of course to hang out with a couple of the other travelers on their hotel room, drinking beer.
With jet lag added to this and it may be easy to understand that I was a bit of a wreck on our first chase day. I believe I had some 8-9 slumbers in the car during the day.
During that day we drove over four different states and ended up under a promising storm in Iowa. The weather never got as angry as we hoped for but it was pretty and, according to my Swedish standards, quite a cool storm.
Today (it”s Day #2, when I write this) things looked quite promising but the winds turned, as well as us. Let”s see where the day will take us, at least now I have had my sleep!
We have just passed by the old Swedish colonies I visited back in 2003 – Lindsborg and Falun, KS. I am quite nostalgic to be back in Kansas again after 5 years! Last time I was here was when I was studying at K-State as an exchange student and where I got my first interest in storms.
I recognize the unbelievable heat (33 degrees Celsius), the big plains and the small farms. Really nice to see it all again!
I am now sitting in a van from Oklahoma city going to northwestern Nebraska. The trip has finally started!
I left Stockholm at around 9 a.m. this Saturday and flew into Oklahoma city through NYC, just in time for dinner. The dinner was the last day of Tour #2 and the first day of Tour #3 with Cloud 9 Tours that I was about to participate in.
The dinner company was approximately 30 people and both confirmed and threw away all my guesses and expectations of the people that go on these tours. There were young couples, some single travelers, a group of middle-aged Dutch men that were just as childish as you might expect from people spending two weeks in a small van together 🙂
Tour #3, that is the tour after Tour #2 has quite a different composition of people. In my van (that has WiFi!) right now we have Charles Edwards, (our tour leader), a 50 year old woman from Canada, a 21 year old Australian girl (on her first trip abroad) and a group of three female prison guards from Australia.
In the other van there is a young guy from Belgium and an English couple. Practically everyone is non-american and for pretty much all of us this is our first Storm Chasing tour. Most of us do it for the adventure itself and not so much for a specific weather interest (which Tour #2 had a bit more of).
Tour #2, by the way, were very unlucky with their trip and had so much sunshine that they actually got a sun tan! They only found two real storms and not a single tornado. That, however, didn”t seem to have dampened their spirit too much since most of them (at least the Dutch guys) seemed just as happy anyway.
We, on the other hand, seem to be a bit more lucky with the weather. The Jet Winds that have been lying over Canada lately have started to move southwards, which is a necessity for some really nice bad weather.
Today is a pure “Travel Day” but tomorrow might become a “Chase Day”. We will most likely spend it around Nebraska and Iowa.
The Cloud 9 crew seem to be a really cool crowd of weather geeks, exactly the type of guys you would like to lead you into some severe weather! I have no doubt that this is going to be an amazing adventure!