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Oregon to Oklahoma

June 2003

Part 12:  The Aurora Storm

But like I said, the real show was the next day: a big line of storms was supposed to form in east-central Nebraska north of Grand Island, so down we went. (At another "data stop" by the side of the road, had another nice Uppy Sand that stayed put for pictures!) This was one of those days where the models promised conditions that could produce giant tornados, but the trick was zeroing in on the exact storm that would produce them: when you have a whole line of miles of potentially eruptive storms, where do you go? When you look at the big picture, a tornado is really a very very small part of a huge, huge entity, and on top of that you need even more precise parameters to produce a tornado than you do a supercell, so targeting that exact spot where you think it’s gonna drop can be really tricky. In general, the "tail end storm" is always a good one to target when you have a line of storms, because the storms ahead of it tend to "suck the life" out of the storms behind it, whereas the last one in line can still be next to those boundaries and atmospheric conditions that you need to produce a tornado. So that’s where we headed, and unfortunately it was getting dark by the time we reached the target area: often time storms would start to "explode" without warning, and they could easily be 60 miles away, and that’s when you started burning rubber!


While David once again downloads radar data, we watch the clouds and Upland Sandpipers!

The particular storm we were targeting was near Aurora, so we headed south on US81, and in order to intercept it, unfortunately we had to "punch the core" because there was no other road we could use to get there in time. David was rightly concerned because this storm was producing softball-sized hail according to the reports, and if he felt it was too dangerous to proceed, that was the end of the chase (hail-smashed windshields are a common occupational hazard for storm-chasers…) But fortunately (with a little bit of prayer) the core tightened and all we experienced was mostly rain with just a little hail, and we made it to the other side without incident! Then we headed west on US34 towards Aurora, where the sky was lowering and becoming more ominous by the minute! As we approached the town what David warned us about came to pass: every other chaser in the state (and a few "yahoos" as well) had descended upon the spot, causing what he calls a "chaser convergence"! (Kinda like what happens when a good vagrant shows up… J) We didn’t have time to socialize, however, as a gigantic wall cloud was lowering right in from of us! Again we all tumbled out of the van, practically being blown away by the inflow, and again David went ballistic assuring us that this thing was gonna produce a large tornado any minute! The entire base was rotating rapidly, and sure enough, little fingers of scud started dancing around the lowered wall cloud in circles, getting lower and lower, until they eventually consolidated into a thick blob of funnel! We were beside ourselves, cheering the thing on, when just as quickly the thing changed its mind, retreated back into the wall cloud, and the show was over. We were watching other areas closely, though, because evidently funnels can reform just as quickly, and that’s often what happens before a bona fide tornado gets going: the scud will dance and the funnel will think about forming several times before deciding to finally touch down, but this time it wasn’t meant to be. We enjoyed the structure until it got too dark to see anything, then headed for York where the tornado warnings had gone off and forced everyone in the Applebee’s at the Holiday Inn where we were staying into hiding!

But that wasn’t the end of the story: the next morning we found out that an hour south of us near Deshler, not one, not two, but three tornadoes had touched down out of a storm that had exploded while we were chasing the Aurora storm, and everyone had missed the show; there wasn’t a chaser anywhere to be found near there because they were all at Aurora! David grimaced when he heard the news (someone in our group had gotten a newspaper and I was reading the account aloud to everyone) while low-key Teddy-bear Bill just kinda shrugged and said, "oops!" Evidently some of David’s chasing buddies didn’t take it as well, however; it’s just like missing the state’s first Ivory Gull cuz you didn’t hear about it in time!


Another wall cloud forms near Aurora!  They did issue a tornado warning on this one, based solely on the Doppler radar image, even though a tornado never touched down.  (Unfortunately it got too dark and wet to photograph the actual funnel descending, which changed its mind anyway...)

Again, the models promised another great day right in the same area, so we spent the night in York and headed towards North Platte the next morning, ready to go in two different directions that the models suggested could produce tornadic supercells. The problem this day was the so-called "Death Cap": simply put, "CAP" is the dry air aloft that basically prohibits storms from forming, but ironically you need a little bit of it to produce supercells; otherwise, without any CAP at all, storms would just shoot up lickety split and there wouldn’t be the organization and structure necessary to produce tornadic storms. This day there seemed to be a lot of CAP (i.e., blue sky with little flat, puffy clouds) and it appeared visually that there would be no hope of supercells forming, yet the trusted models seemed to stubbornly hold to their predictions that the CAP was gonna "break" and those storms would pop up. We were kinda wandering around the Stapleton area waiting for something to happen (picked up the first Dickcissel in awhile during yet another "data break") and in Arnold (I think it was) ran into David’s side kick Roger Hill leading another Silver Lining Tour, plus Gene Rhoden, who I finally got to meet! (Some of the other participants chatted with us, and quite a few knew Ed from past tours. David had been on the phone almost constantly with Roger and Gene, finding out what they had been observing and passing on observations they had made, and frankly, it was heading on to 7:30 and we were ready to give up on this system that didn’t look like it was gonna do anything. So we decided to call it quits and head on to OK City. It wasn’t too long after that that Roger called back and was apparently screaming over the phone that huge supercells were exploding to the southeast, right where we had originally come from!  Again, David was going nuts, promising a huge tornado from this thing, saying that he would be shocked if the thing fell apart (he had decided to target this particular storm apart from some others that were exploding all around us because the Grand Island dew points were ideal for tornadoes to develop, and we had to go that way, anyway). But this storm was about 80 miles away and unfortunately we weren’t gonna be able to intercept it before dark. Still, as we bore down on this thing it just exploded before our very eyes! Ed made the comment from the back that it looked too high-based to him, and sure enough, as we finally caught up with it, that turned out to be the case, and it was simply too high to get any of that juicy moisture the ground had to offer. As it got dark, however, it gave us a terrific lightning show! As it slunk away to the northeast it did indeed appear to be lowering, and David was still convinced that, sooner or later, it was gonna produce a tornado, as these storms were apt to do in Nebraska in June (i.e., "drop the hose" after dark, which to me is pretty scary). At any rate, we called it a night and made the long drive to OK City. David slept in the back, but he was still too groggy to drive all the way back to Nebraska the next day (where another big line of tornadic storms was threatening to develop), so we all crashed, I made arrangements to stay an extra night to get laundry done, and thankfully Jip was still in one piece! I wanted to try and find some of these websites and try my own hand at minor chasing since I had a few extra days before I had to be back.


We run into Gene Rhoden (left) and Roger Hill (in the yellow shirt), who’s leading another Silver Lining Tour, in the little town of Ashton (shown here with David and Bill)

While the leaders figure out which developing storm system to chase, Roger’s participants pass the time by intently studying the paddleball...


Since we have to head for Oklahoma City, we decide to chase a supercell exploding near York.  Unfortunately it’s an hour and a half drive away, and keeps getting bigger as we race towards it! (If it’s too far away, a tornado can come and go before you even get there...)


The storm turned out to be too high-based for tornadoes, but we got a great lightning show instead!



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