Saturday, May 24, 2008

A bit older, a bit wiser, and quite alive

Well, I took an extra week off work so that Jenna and I could get the shots we needed for her redesigned website. Her upcoming book on storm chasing needs graphics. What better than to go out and get them yourself?

The first installment of many late nights are in the gallery. I couldn't resist. We crashed at 4 am this morning. This post will ramble. I beg for your forbearance.

SHORT: Jenna and I cut our teeth on the business end of a triple point.

I must stop here first as even in my mental haze I have to say that having a driver with nerves of steel is crucial for any storm chaser. She bravely backed an SUV up on mounded dirt roads in rural Kansas with steeply falling edges, freshly soaked with rain, listening only to her chase partners about clearances. She bravely took the austere lecture from Kinney about the dangers of chasing on an outbreak day, where mere seconds can make of break you. She bravely drove on a quarter inch spike in the rear tire for hours, and then bravely looked for a safe place to pull off when we blew a tire. She bravely fishtailed in the gravel and mud, and bravely kept driving when the anticipated paved highway refused to meet us as promised. She bravely drove between storms on a grid like a human game of Frogger. If your driver doesn't chicken out on you, freak out, panic, or all of the above, in stressful situations, you have a keeper.

This was the first chase where the conversations in the vehicle took on a serious tone. This was the first chase where the reality of chasing on one's own without good maps, no GPS, no radar and no experience sunk in. But it was the first chase where I finally found my "sea legs", so to speak.

We started out Friday saying goodbye to the tourists who had to be in OKC for their pre=arranged flights. We stopped off in Wichita, KS at 11 am for fuel, lunch, a data stop at the library, and a new tire for our now-punctured spare (just in case). We then headed to Pratt, KS, to call the guys and find out if they had moved their target from Dodge City. They advised us to keep going since it looked good. They were heading up from OKC with a few of the guests who had managed to move their flights around another good chase day and who were willing to chip in just to get another day of chasing in "unofficially". We approached Dodge City at about 2:30 or 3 just as a cell was moving NNE just over Cimmaron. We took 23 north out of town upon the advice of Rich (the now caster) who said it looked healthy on radar. I advised Jenna to stay on the back of the storm even though we couldn't see anything for the rain and haze. As we got closer, we began to see rotation more clearly toward the back side. It was mostly a north mover, but had the most eastward component to it of any of the storms in Kansas at the time, so I knew we'd need an EW option soon if we wanted to catch it without losing it. I advised a paved road that soon turned to dirt (they all do that sooner or later) and led us back north through a veal farm and across the path of a pheasant. I advised continuing north through it to a paved highway another 12 miles or so to the north. But it never materialized. We were not moving fast enough to keep up with the storm with the hailstones and wet gravel, and another storm was forming to our SW and approaching with (what I assumed had the fronts not moved) a mostly NWD component. So we stood at the intersection of dirt road and dirt road and let it pass in front of us. But it was there that I realized what was going on. We were standing at the boundary of the two air masses. The cell looked incredible benign, with high enough bases to rule out tornadoes, mostly because of the low humidity present in their atmosphere of origin. But about a mile in front of us (which, at few hundred feet overhead, looks deceptively close) they began to morph as the rapid shear interacted with the increased humidity level and created monster supercells right in front of our eyes. Literally. All of a sudden, the forward flank downdraft (FFD) began to grow darker, and the rear flank downdraft (RFD) began to form as the rotation of the storm pulled a curtain of newly created rain around the tail end of the storm in front of our eyes. This is called "occlusion" and is an indication that a lowering wall cloud may begin to form. A fully occluded storm may have a tornado embedded in it, but these storms cycled rapidly with partial occlusion, and the rotation re-forming just south of the occlusion and then another RFD forming behind it with another lowering. It was like a carousel, as Jenna, my incredibly verbally gifted partner, likened it to a day before. This was the moment the conversation grew serious as we contemplated ditches and the homestead behind us on the road as the land around us was flat in all directions with no structures within sight. All roads had been previously soaked by large rain and hail cores, and no one had any desire to push. But the storm maintained its northward movement and left us to stare in awe at its lowerings and funnels before we moved back west to 23, only a mile away. We raced back south past law enforcement, stopping briefly to examine hailstones on the ground and talk with the locals about the weather. I wondered if they ever get nervous about seeing large convoys of SUVs with antennae and weather instruments on them.

The rest of the evening was like playing a game of chess many counties wide, and at 45 miles per hour. Storm cells would be there only 15 minutes where previously there had been only sunny bright skies. once the cells hit the warm air, they exploded with anvils that hovered over to the next town. But we had been trained well enough to know where to drive, when to stop, and what to look for. And it payed off. We saw cells growing too close to another healthy cell, and the healthy cell sucking the smaller cell up into itself. One cell had incredibly rotation to it, and even as its final life was being eroded, the bottom had a space-ship look to it. We watched this from the Santa Fe Trails marker before heading to Dodge City for a bathroom break and food.

I am very glad I'm not writing the book. Right now, I am at a loss for words to describe our first chase day out on our own in unfamiliar territory on an outbreak day. We did not see the tornado that our first cell produced, though it did go on to put down something near Ness City. But we have a bit more experience that will help us next year. We have a minimum equipment list. We have a third partner.

I am going to go to bed now and think of how to describe this, but I think it will only be best explained with the pictures which are forthcoming.

Sleep, however, is imminent.


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