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Oregon to Oklahoma

June 2003

Part 7: Storm-Chasing--Getting Started

Was dreading running into rush hour traffic in OK City but there was none, hallelujah!! Found the hotel and settled in in anticipation of the actual storm-chasing tour to begin on Saturday. Used Friday to do laundry and get Jip’s oil changed; instead of cleaning out the e-mail, I was really pooped so decided just to read the rest of the afternoon and headed down to the Director’s Suite at the appointed time where I met David Gold (who was leading this particular Silver Lining tour; he had called me a couple of times to welcome me, but the first time his cell phone cut out and he told me later that he got to laughing because while I couldn’t hear him, he could still hear me and knew the connection had been cut cuz I said, "Oh, well…") and Stu Robinson from England, who had taken a tour just previously! Evidently many people do just that: met Ed Shoenborn shortly after that, who by his own admission had a "terrible" sense of humor (one of those pun-lovers ☺), but he’s one of those that has taken several tours, and last year he took every one! Eventually the other participants dribbled in: Dave Thomas from the Newport Beach area, and Lisa Linehan (not sure I got her last name right), a young teacher from Ohio. I think we all headed out to dinner after that, but somewhere along the line we all ended up in David’s room where his co-leader Bill Gargan showed up, a big teddy bear of a guy also from Michigan (around Ann Arbor), but in the course of relating tornado stories I found out he was the voice behind the camera shooting the Dimmitt, Texas tornado voicing his concern (in a relatively level-headed tone) that it was gonna "max out"!

Now here’s when I’m hoping my memory served me well because I hadn’t had a chance to write any trip reports since Quivira: the general routine was to analyze data and do some forecasting in the morning, and while at first it was confusing, as we went through the handout ("Crash Course in Convective Forecasting") it began to make more sense to me. David has a myriad of programs and websites to help him with this, and the trick is to analyze as much data as you possibly can: surface "obs" (which include temperature, dew point, and winds), upper level winds, water vapor images (those pictures are truly beautiful, artistically: a flow of sculptured grayscale showing in visual terms how the ridges and troughs are moving across the planet), and CAPE, which stands for Convective Available Potential Energy, and is simply the amount of energy available for a potential storm to feed on. While the current data is of course the most accurate, we would look at various models that would take us well down the road to see how things would hopefully pan out in the days to come, and while he said it was unwise to place all your hope in long-range models, it still gives you a good idea of what could be coming down the pike, and you watch it carefully as you analyze the data day by day to see if it "verifies".

So that first day, while there was stuff going on in Texas and New Mexico, it looked as though the upper plains (the Dakotas and Montana) were going to be more promising, because an actual system was due to hit there towards the end of the week that had more potential for severe storms than the little "popcorn storms" popping up over Texas. So we headed north (after picking up a Mississippi Kite in the parking lot of the Holiday Inn) and spent the night in Valentine, Nebraska. David surprised me by taking my joke seriously: on down days the tradition is to go "sightseeing" at National Parks or wherever, and I said, "Well, if things get really boring I can take you guys on a bird walk!" to which he said, "I may take you up on that!" It also turns out that Stu’s "significant other" Allison is a birder (he even called her the proper British name: "twitcher"), so he understands my obsession perfectly and has even shown enough of an interest that I decided to drag my Sibley’s along (and promptly left in the van at the end of the trip…thankfully David found it and sent it back)! And indeed, on the drives I’ve been pointing out things that I felt might be of general interest, like Pronghorn and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, and an Upland Sandpiper was cooperative as well!

Some distant developing supercells, showing the "anvil" on the right, caused when the rising moisture hits the atmospheric "ceiling" and flattens out


Dave Thomas (from Newport Beach, CA) with our van outside a convenience store (we made many such stops...)


Heading north into the Dakotas (where the storms are likely this time of year) we saw beautiful scenery and cloud formations!

The next morning (we don’t meet to analyze data till nine, which is half the day gone to a birder) I took a quick walk down the highway, and when traffic wasn’t roaring by was able to pick up Horned Lark, Blue Grosbeak, Western Meadowlark, Orchard Oriole, and even another Uppy Sand singing! After the analysis session we drove on up into South Dakota, picking up a Burrowing Owl on a post, White Pelicans in a lake, and a Lark Bunting here and there. We ended up spending the night in Spearfish, but as it turned out some pretty intense stuff started forming right along the North Dakota/Montana border near Bowman, so we went storm-chasing for the first time on the trip! It was really great because while we were well out of harm’s way (until the lightning started getting too close for David’s comfort), we could easily see the structure of the storm and identify various parts of it, like the shelf cloud and what they called a "rolling arcus" cloud (which I think may even be a type of shelf cloud) which looked like this big white sausage creeping slowly along the base of the storm, low to the ground (or relatively speaking, anyway). That’s one thing I observed right away: the cloud base of a tornadic storm is very close to the ground, as opposed to these little scattered thunderstorms whose bases are way up there. And while this was a nasty-looking storm, it still wasn’t tornadic because it didn’t have the vertical wind shear (simply put, high-speed, higher altitude winds feeding into a storm from a different direction than the warm surface winds feeding into it near ground level) needed to create the tornado itself. I pointed out a cruising Harrier and a crowing Pheasant to Stu while all this was going on (he says they get pheasants in their back yard), and when the cold gust front (winds blowing out of the leading edge of the storm) hit us in the face we decided to head around and view the storm from another angle. When we found another road Dave jumped out to take time lapse photos; I got distracted by a couple of Chestnut-collared Longspurs chasing each other down the opposite fence line, so I crossed the road and listened, but only heard the longspurs and meadowlarks; no Baird’s Sparrows, shucky darn! (Someone wrote me later and told me that Baird’s Sparrows are very picky as to what type of grasslands they like…) But we were shortly treated to a rainbow starting to form underneath a cloud of mamma (round, balloon-like clouds hanging from the cloud base; the name should give you a clue as to what it looks like…), and was that a beautiful sight with the contrasting shades cast by the setting sun! A Nighthawk batted overhead as a fitting end to the day!

Non-tornadic supercell near Bowman, ND Same storm from a different angle; notice the rotating base of the updraft (looks like a dark disc on the right)

Tour leaders David Gold (center) and Bill Gargan (in the back) keep us out of harm’s way and explain the storms to us while veteran chaser Stu Robinson from England (left) listens in


Admiring the storm (L-R: Bill, Stu, Lisa, Ed Schoenborn, and David)


Catching the lightning is a trick! (Stu is smart and just sets his video cam rolling...)


David tries for some video himself while Ed and Lisa look on (notice the long "arcus cloud" underneath the base of the storm)


The look of the storm can change in a matter of seconds!


As the storm bears down on us, we rush around to view it from a better angle


(Happened to be great Chestnut-collared Longspur habitat, too!)  The setting sun provided some spectacular effects...

         this rainbow surrounded by "mamma" clouds!

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