Day 8: Driving through beautiful Montana

Beautiful Montana

Although Minnesota looked like a better target for Sunday we had to leave for Wyoming to pick up the newest member of our team: Akos from Hungary. To get there we had to drive through Montana, which really was an experience. Green hills, mountains with snow caps in the background and great plains. It was stunning most of the time!

the stormtrooper
Took some new photos of The Stormtrooper. I am not so sure “The Stormtrooper” is such a good name though, as the one thing stormtroopers are famous for is missing everything!

 

roosevelt national park
Theodore Roosevelt national park in North Dakota

Five day tour with PDS Storm Tours

This blog entry was originally written on my personal blog and directed (simplified) to my friends (who don’t know anything about storm chasing). I have translated it as it was and left it with no major editing. This was my second trip and I didn’t know that much about storm chasing at the time.

I recently came home from my second storm chasing-trips. The first trip I made back in 2009 was probably the best trip I have made (all categories) since we were lucky enough to experience lots of weather phenomena, for example a giant tornado in Wyoming. I tried to keep my expectations low for this trip with PDS Storm Tours (Gene and Barbara Robertson), since it was much shorter (5 days as opposed to 14 days on my last one).

It turned out to be a trip that started off really, really slow but with a great finale! In the end, the last few hours of this tour turned out to be some of the most intensive moments I have ever experienced in my life!

I landed in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on the Saturday and had a quite funny conversation with the immigration officer:

– So, Mr Bejorkenwall, are you coming to the US for business or pleasure, sir?

– Pleasure

– Visiting family in Oklahoma then, sir?

– No, I am here as a tourist

– ???…touristing in Tulsa? *thinking: bring him in boys*

– Eh…Yes, storm chasing

– Oh, you are one of them crazy people. Well have fun then.

 

Severe storm risk according to SPC

The setup for this week, at first, looked quite good but later on turned out really bad. Basically, you can get an idea of the risk of severe storms on this map at Storm Prediction Center. You can have a few different variations in terms of: No severe risk, Slight Risk, Moderate Risk and High Risk.

If you are facing a non-existing risk it is quite likely you will not be able to find any severe storms at all. With a Moderate Risk, most who have storm chasing as a hobby are likely to hit the roads if they can. At a Slight Risk you may only go chasing if the risk area is nearby. For this week it looked like Slight Risk would be the highest risk we would face.

 

Stockholm – Bombay

Storm chasing involves miles and miles in the car, for which I was well prepared. This trip, however, was exceptional since the risk areas were so few and so spread out. We were in New Mexico (which borders to Mexico) on Monday afternoon and we touched North Dakota (which borders to Canada) on the Tuesday afternoon! We literally drove over the entire country in one day! After summing up the miles driven during these five days it turned out we had gone over 4.000 miles. This is compared to driving from Stockholm to Bombay. In five days!

First four days of finding nothing

Even if we got to chase some sort of storm setup every day we didn’t really find anything to write home about, since nothing really superseded anything I saw on my previous trip. The most interesting that happened of the first four days was that we ended up 45 minutes from Rochester, Minnesota, where I lived for a month in August 2011.

It was in the corner of Minnesota and Wisconsin where we had our last planned chase day, since our last day (Friday) looked completely dry with a non-existing risk of severe storms. At this time I wasn’t exactly bitter but really wasn’t happy either. I mean, it’s fun to road trip in the USA and the Midwest has a special place in my hear after my year at K-State – but it’s not thaaaat much fun to experience disappointment after disappointment every day!

These are some of the best and most interesting photos from my first four days, which says quite a lot:

mammatus
Beautiful mammatus clouds

 

sunset storm
A nice storm at sunset

 

shelf cloud from a mcs
Shelf cloud from a linear storm in Iowa

 

Our great change of luck

When I woke up on the Friday morning my greatest expectation was to be able to drive by Manhattan, KS, and visit my old university town. I checked the SPC outlook in the morning and was positively surprised to see that they had changed the non-existing risk to Slight Risk in Kansas that day. This was perfect since Kansas was on our way home. So, we got a bonus chase day on our last day after all!

manhattan kansas
My old house when I went to K-State

At the same time as we were driving around in Manhattan, the weather forecasts were becoming better and better (from a storm chaser’s perspective) and central Kansas suddenly appeared really interesting! So we finished up quickly in Manhattan and continued through the beautiful, flat plains of Kansas and even managed to pass by the old Swedish settlement of Lindsborg, KS (just south of Salina) before arriving to the show just in time.

anvil
Anvil of the Storm of the Day. The cap was broken!

So, basically and quite simplified, what you do when you chase storms is pretty much you:

  1. Find your target area of the day, based upon your weather forecast
  2. Drive to that target, and wait for the afternoon (where storms usually start).
  3. Keep track of your weather radar to see where storm cloud start to tower up and visually you look for large towers of storm clouds, with anvils spreading out and position yourself in front of them.
  4. You observe and move around the storm cloud to avoid high risk areas of it, such as straight underneath the so called wall cloud, which may produce tornadoes. You also try to avoid the core which produces a lot of rain and dangerous hail. The constant re-positioning is to always keep you out of danger’s path and to get the best possible view of the storm
dust below storm cloud
Our storm is kicking up a lot of dust from winds coming down from the storm.

In our case, our first storm looked really promising with lots of dust being kicked up and strong winds. We were basically just waiting for it to produce a tornado but the storm never really got that far. The hours went on and even if it was an amazing storm with really cool features, we still lacked that extra icing on the cake. I was still quite satisfied since it was about 10 times better than anything we had seen during the entire week. Finally, the sun started to set and our longing to see a tornado from this great storm became a matter of time. Would we see anything before the sun set?

sunset
The sun was setting

Then, at last, something started to happen.

We placed ourselves at a field in the strong evening heat (+30 C) and watched the tornado warned storm while the sun, all too fast, were closing in on the horizon. The feeling was very much like watching the end of an exciting football game with one eye on the game clock. Then, just like a goal on overtime, the storm finally produced a tornado!

The tornado quickly stretched out like a rope over the horizon with the sunset behind it. The finale couldn’t have been better and we were all ecstatic!

Sunset tornado
Just like a last second touch-down, the tornado touched down just in front of the sunset.

 

sunset tornado rope out
This sight was just amazing. The tornado quickly roped out just in front of the sunset.

 

sunset tornado dissipating
The tornado dissipates and the sun has already set.

Ten minutes later the tornado dissipated (but it apparently demolished some houses during its lifespan). We drove a bit closer to the storm to photograph the magnificent lightning display and thought we had experienced the best of today, but there was more to come.

 

One does not chase storms at night, now I know why

Eventually, the dark settled and one does not chase storms in the dark. It is dangerous and relatively pointless since you can’t see anything anyway. We did however have to go south in order to get back to Oklahoma. Driving south also meant driving in between two tornado warned storms, i.e. storms that could spit out a tornado at any time – without us not being able to see it! We also had to drive quite close to the core, although not underneath the wall cloud (which is the part of the storm that usually produces a tornado).

With some curiosity I kept my eyes on this wall cloud that was a bout 1-2 km away to our right. The sun light was long gone but the frequent lightning lit up the sky once every second or so. At first I kept the window rolled down in order to be able to see, but doing so was quite noisy so I gave up my search and kept my eyes on the road instead.

 

I can’t believe what I see lit up by the lightning

Suddenly, we start to see wind gusts in front of our head-lights. The rain and the winds were acting strange. Something was definitely going on!

I roll down my passenger window again and stare out into the darkness, towards where the wall cloud used to be (2 km away). Lightning flashes a couple of times and I…wait a minute…What. Was. That!? Another double lightning lights up the sky and I turn my eyes from the field further away and look up. I see what I only thought I saw the first time: A white, cylinder shape is apparent on the sky, like an elephants trunk and it’s just above and beside us. I stutter to Gene and Barbara in the front seat:

Eh, I think there is a tornado to our right

Gene pulls down his window as well and the sky is lit up by another lightning again. It’s quite obvious that we have a tornado touching down just a few hundred meters to the right of our car. We cannot see the end of the tornado but when I follow the trunk I can see that its base is just above us! It stretches like a snake from the sky down and just like the head of the snake is the most dangerous part, that part of the tornado is fortunately not in our path, but rather to our right. The sight itself is boh deeply terrifying and amazing at the same time!

We, obviously, put the pedal to the metal and drive as fast as we can. A couple of lightnings later I can no longer see the tornado but that doesn’t really ease our minds.

When were back in safety again and my pulse has slowed down, the whole situation strikes me. This was probably one of the most intense moments of my life (and I have had the pleasure of experiencing a lot of cool things). I know we were in a very dangerous place and things could have gone really bad but despite that it was so intense I never feared for my life or anything.

I don’t want this to put PDS Storm Tours or Gene in any bad light for this incident. I trust him to have made good calls due to the circumstances and this was, as well, such an amazing event for me so if anything I feel gratitude! The effort they put in to make this a remarkable tour was incredible.

It is difficult to explain what it is with these spectacles of Mother Nature but the adrenalin, the uncertainty, the beauty, the dramatic weather phenomena is something that is something out of this world. Unreal is probably the word that best describes storm chasing and there is nothing that can compare these super storms with anything else, especially not the thunderstorms we get in Sweden.

Lastly, I would like to thank Gene, Barbara, Dennis & Jeanie Jones for this amazing trip. If there is something I bring with me from this tour, outside of these amazing events, is the incredible dedication of the team to really find some storms. We got up at 5 a.m. some mornings to drive over the entire country for only a meager risk of severe thunderstorms, and then back again. They really went above and beyond to find me some storms and for that I am forever grateful! “Walking that extra mile” is something they are purely dedicated to do and doing just that made us having this amazing experience in the end.