Watching: Storm Chasing Provides Dose of Excitement
Gerrish shoots a couple of funnel clouds. Photo courtesy of Anything
John Gerrish, Sales Manager, certified meteorologist
of the first tornado chasers was Pecos Bill. The legend tells that
he lassoed and rode a Kansas twister all the way to Texas. My experiences
haven't been quite that exciting, but modern-day tornado chasing
is big business.
is this? Why do people risk danger to experience these potentially
deadly storms? For some, it's the adrenaline rush. For others, it's
encountering the awesome forces of nature up close, and sometimes
very personal. For me, it's a little of both.
see weather through different eyes than most. Sure, we see clouds,
rain, thunder, and lightning, but we also see the atmospheric dynamics
- nature's physics in perpetual motion - and the awesome power of
Mother Nature in mathematical terms. We also speak our own language
- jargon such as mesoscale cyclones (or Meso for short), Super Cells,
Helicity, Vorticity, CAPE (Convective Atmospheric Potential Energy),
and Vertical Velocities are all part of our vernacular. We salivate
when a Hook Echoes, Line Echo Wave Patterns (LEWPs), or Outflow
Boundaries develop. We get excited when Squall Lines trigger massive
thunderstorms that generate funnels and tornadoes. It's in the blood.
96 percent of the world's tornadoes occur in the American Midwest.
Springtime brings warm subtropical breezes from the Gulf of Mexico.
These southerly winds sometimes become a strong gale, transporting
Gulf warmth and moisture to the northern-most Plains. While winter
has not totally relinquished its grip over the Midwest, hot dry
air masses from the desert Southwest expand and extend into the
Plains to set the stage for some of the most violent weather on
the face of the planet.
chase with F5 Tornado Chasing Safaris. Our guide Gregg Potter is
the senior meteorologist and an experienced storm chaser. Our chase
tours start in Oklahoma City. The number of chase vehicles depends
on the number of clients for any particular week.
regular passenger is Geoff Mackley, a well-renowned free-lance photographer/videographer
who documents our chase season. Geoff's work has been shown on the
Discovery, National Geographic, and Travel Channels. Geoff is a
weather junkie, like the rest of us, only with an eye for the spectacular.
(To see his work visit www.rambocam.com.)
mornings start with a conference call to meteorologists in the forecast
office. Logging onto several weather websites, we discuss the day's
potential and possibilities for severe weather. After arriving at
a consensus "target-city" where the potential is the greatest, the
meteorologists discuss the day's game plan with the clients, and
we set out on the road.
days have little to no potential, and so become either tour days
or travel days to position ourselves for predicted storms. Other
days, the game is on and travel could be as short as 30 minutes
to several hours. Travel time is used to conduct mini-Weather 101
classes, discuss atmospheric conditions, familiarize clients with
weather jargon, and answer questions.
on-board laptop computer utilizes an XM-Satellite weather program
called Baron'sT, which provides realtime weather radar, GPS tracking,
wind profiles, satellite imagery, time-lapse looping, and "on-the-fly"
severe thunderstorm/tornado warnings and advisories - all in the
vehicle and at 70mph! Baron's radar dissects a storm both horizontally
and vertically, to help us position ourselves close to the most
severe weather and be in place to observe pure, raw nature at it's
worst, er uh, best.
season, we caught up with a series of severe storms in the Texas
panhandle. We'd driven south from Nebraska and engaged the thunderstorms
near Quitaque, TX, a small village east of Plainview. As we positioned
ourselves near Caprock Canyons State Park, we came across other
tornado-chasers, including a large radar truck from the University
of Oklahoma. We were watching storms in the distance develop funnels,
but nothing became noteworthy. The storm was known as an "HP" storm
(High Precipitation), which are not typically good storms to chase.
HP storms usually have low ceilings, heavy rain-shields, and/or
hail-shafts that obscure visibility and often hide tornadoes.
repositioned ourselves about half a mile south of Quitaque to pick
the storms up from a different perspective. This put us on the storm's
right-rear quadrant and in prime position to observe any severe
weather. A warm humid southerly wind was blowing at our back as
the storm grew. The black sky smelled pungent with rain as the clouds
swirled overhead. Occasionally the sun shone through to illuminate
a brilliant foreground on the ominous sky. We could hear the tornado
sirens wailing in the distance as we watched and waited. Nothing.
boundaries formed and swirled dust and dirt into the air. Rain started
and stopped. Golf-ball-sized hail sprinkled around us, but nothing
more. As the sun set, the sky drew dark quickly. Continuous lightning
filled the air, but no tornadoes. The wind shifted from a warm breeze
to a cold northwest wind, an indicator that the storm cell was collapsing
and then regenerating.
the sirens subsided, we headed towards our next town, staging ourselves
for the next day's chase. In this remote section of Texas, paved
roads are at a premium. Our only route was through the storm we
had been chasing, so we ducked our heads and headed through the
belly of the storm. Golf-ball-sized hail pounded the vehicle so
hard it made our ears ring. It was quiet inside the Suburban as
we drove through the hail and rain, except the bleating from the
XM satellite radar, "You are approaching a twisting storm, please
one point, five "twisting storms" on the radar surrounded us. Rain
fell so hard we couldn't see the road and had to slow to a crawl.
Large hail littered the highway. Nonstop lightning lit the sky and
several bolts hit telephone poles and trees very near us. We finally
made it to Childress and got to our hotel. It was late and we were
exhausted, but we were still riding the adrenaline rush from what
we just experienced.
field on the ground!
next morning, our target city was Paducah, TX - about 30 minutes
south. It was noon and the storms were already building. The day
promised to be explosive. We headed east of town and ran into the
usual crowd of storm chasers and tour vehicles. Most had entrenched
themselves and were waiting for the fireworks to begin. Our radar
indicated that some of the cells were "right-movers" - a clear sign
of potentially severe storms.
repositioned south of town on a lonely rural county road. We spotted
a Super Cell, with its signature rotating cloud base. Strong storms
such as Super Cells rotate counterclockwise throughout the entire
storm column. As the storm rotates, the dynamics spawning tornadoes
are already in motion and are manifested in the rotating structure.
appeared, then retracted, then developed again. Debris field on
the ground! One of the funnels had touched down. Tornadoes are often
transparent until the debris field sucks dirt and debris up into
the funnel cone, giving it the classic dark shape.
were less than a mile away and the only chase team around. We called
911 and reported the twister, which immediately set off the National
Weather Service's Tornado Warning alert system for the county. The
funnel was only on the ground for a minute or two before it rescinded
and disappeared. A TV crew from Dallas was out filming the storms
and stopped to talk with us as we watched this storm collapse.
close for comfort
repositioned ourselves on the storm's right-rear quadrant and picked
up Super Cell developing and spawning "fingers" - or multiple funnel
clouds. We stopped about a half-mile away and watched as a strong
funnel developed about halfway to the ground. Cameras were rolling.
Debris field on the ground, but it was much closer than the funnel
appeared. The debris field quickly expanded and we had a tornado
on the ground within several hundred yards of us!
grabbed our gear and scampered toward the Suburban. The wind hit,
wrenching the door and sucking everything loose right out of the
vehicle. As we took off, the tornado passed behind us, right where
we'd been. That was close, but what a rush!
miles down the road, we stopped to regroup and inventory our maps
and papers when another funnel dropped about a quarter-mile in front
of us. An ominous black sky as the backdrop, the bright-green countryside
with red plowed dirt backlit by the sun, and a magnificent red tornado
looming in front of us! What a spectacular site!
is what we chase for - to stand in awe of Mother Nature where words
can hardly describe what our eyes see. We watched in silence as
the twister meandered away from us, then quietly vanished back into
the clouds. We savored the vision.
had been up close and very personal with Mother Nature, and we had
more info: www.F5TornadoSafaris.com