Saturday 27th May 2017
There’s been some debate about whether we would chase today or not.
It’s a long drive back to Winnipeg and some people need to be back to work on Monday morning. I don’t fly home until Tuesday evening but I’m not interested in making that journey back to Canada later by myself.
The problem is that the models are good… they are ridiculously good. It’s as if you took all the ingredients for explosive thunderstorms and pushed the dial to 11 on each of them. And with that comes problems.
There was a good chance that if we saw tornadoes today that they’ve be massive violent ones. As you’ve probably seen from the vlog0020, we try to get ahead of the storm to get the best pictures and video.
Aside from the obvious of possibly being in the path of the storm (we try to be just south of it but storms can make right turns), there’s problems with this. The original target was Oklahoma City on a weekend. It seems that this is when everyone tries to storm chase.
Like any group, there’s a snobbery and heirarchy, and storm chasers can be amongst the worst for this, but there’s a serious point to this.
Our group went on tours for a number of years before going chasing on our own. I’ve made an effort to learn the science and get some real practical experience under my belt before attempting to chase. It’s very easy these days to look at the SPC website for warnings, drive to a location and then just follow the red spotter dots on an app like Radarscope. We call those people Chaser chasers.
Yes, there is some snobbery involved but there’s also a safety aspect. These storms can be very dangerous. You only need to look at the loss of life they regularly cause. El Reno, the largest tornado ever recorded, caught out one of the safest chasers out there and killed them.
There’s also the problem of chaser jams. Chaser convergence, it’s known as. You basically get a traffic jam caused by the huge number of chasers on the road. They don’t always pull off the road safely, they get distracted by the storms, and they give the press a field day for accusing chasers to be a menace rather than a vital part of the warning system.
Of course, there’s a huge debate about this and no right answers. People should be free to chase if they want to. But there’s a nightmare scenario that everyone fears will one day happen where chasers will be killed because those out in front of the storm will get caught in a jam, or those without experience won’t know when they are in a dangerous situation.
And it’s this reason that made us nervous about today. This was likely to be the most dangerous storm any of us had chased, and there were likely to be a lot of distracted and inexperienced chasers on the road. Plus, we were in Kansas, when all the action looked to be in Oklahoma & Missouri. That’s a long drive.
It only occurred to me this morning that we’ve not actually seen a tornado on this trip. This will be the first time I’ve not seen one on a trip. And you know what… I’m fine with that. I’d expected our chasecation to be a little less successful than it has been, and it’s not like we missed tornadoes… it’s just there hasn’t been any.
But David’s never seen one, so I think that’s why we finally decided that our plan for Friday was to go to Oklahoma and chase, then literally go straight from there back up to Canada, driving in shifts through the night.
My internet has been patchy the last few days so I’ve only been able to look at forecast models on my phone, but my target area for the storms was Tulsa, Oklahoma. And as we drove south our initial target area swapped from Oklahoma City to East of Tulsa. I’ve been surprised this trip at how good my target area forecasting has been. There are ways to cheat it (as chaser chasers do), but I’ve actually been looking at models. There’s still plenty I don’t understand (I really couldn’t see how Colorado was a target area yesterday, for example) but I continue to learn and improve.
I also had a gut feeling that today was either going to be an outbreak or it was going to be so volatile and have so much instability that it wouldn’t allow things to organise. I likened it to a puppy that was so excited about his walk that he tired himself out before he got to it.
So we left Oakley, Kansas this morning for Oklahoma aware that this could be a massive end to our chasecation.
One thing I’ve noticed improve over the course of these last few weeks is our timing. At the start of our trip we seemed to be trying to catch storms up whereas today we got to get into position near Vinita, Oklahoma and just wait for the storms to fire. It’s that fine point pinpointing I need to finesse, but Shannon seems to have now perfected it.
Everyone had been warning of explosive supercells today. That’s when storms fire and become tornado producing beasts in minutes rather than hours. I’ve seen this once before and you can literally see the clouds exploding upwards as if it was some sort of volcanic eruption. It’s amazing to see.
And it happened today. We saw the tops shooting up, and by the time we’d driven 10 miles up the road, these things were already creating wall clouds. If this wasn’t a sign that things could be extremely fast moving and volatile today then nothing was.
Luckily, the warning area for storms was large enough that despite Radarscope showing more chasers than I’ve ever seen online, they were spread out from Texas to Missouri.
Normally you’ll see one cell feed off the other cells to become a tornado generating monsters, but within minutes we were surrounded by wall clouds. Some were created so fast, that if you had your back to them for a minute you would miss their creation.
Shannon has done a great job of keeping us in a perfect southern position from the storm. This is perfect viewing position but also the safest area as storms normally move North East. But they can turn, and you can have, as we did today, a new wall cloud form on another cell right above you.
We had a hairy moment when we went to outrun a newly formed wall cloud that was rotating violently above us, only to find out route blocked by a passing train. Thankfully we kept enough distance that if it had produced we’d be just outside the circulation, and the train passed quickly, but it was a reminder to us (if ever we needed it) that you need to respect these storms and not take stupid risks.
We deliberately kept a little further back today, which given the situation, I was totally fine with. This year storm chasing for me has been about not getting addicted to the adrenaline. Chasing with ETT over the last couple of years has got me ridiculously close to tornadoes, and I wanted this year to be more about structure and improving my forecasting.
But just like yesterday, the storms continued to tease us. They formed wall clouds, they formed brief funnels but they never did it. There were a couple of brief tornadoes elsewhere but given the magnitude of all the parameters, it was pretty much a bust… which is good for people who live in that area, but means this is the first year storm chasing that I haven’t seen a tornado.
But you know what? I’m totally fine with that. I came out here to timelapse amazing structure and learn and I’ve done just that. This year has been really quiet in terms of tornadoes so it’s not as if we missed them.
What we’ve got instead is amazing structure, which is what I was after.
I’ve also had a lot of validation in my ability to chase to the extent that whether Shannon and Kim go again next year or not (these trips are expensive even when you do it yourself), I feel confident that I could get myself into a good position and stay safe chasing. I could probably do with more experience in finesssing my target area but that comes with experience. Likewise, I’m not comfortable driving down dirt roads in an automatic, especially when they so often turn to mud over the duration of a chase. But I plan to do some off-road driving courses over the next year.
Next year’s chase is still a long way off, and a lot can change. This time last year, chasing on our own was just an idea. I’m glad it happened but the crew we originally had planned to go, changed over the course of the year.
So I know it won’t be until early next year when I know what the plans are. Either I will be chasing with Shannon and Kim, or I’ll get my own crew together. But whichever it is, I don’t think the plains have seen the last of me. As we start our journey back to Winnipeg, there’s lots to reflect on.
The year ahead could prove very interesting, but today marks the end of another chapter. I’ve still got a couple of days in Winnipeg before flying home, but our chase is now over. And it’s been the best one yet.
If you want to follow more of my journey, then be sure to check me on my social channels. Likewise, if you’d like me to expand on any point mentioned above, please say so in the comments.
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