Andy Cole's Stormchase blog

Back on the plains in 2019 to share in nature's spectacle

Chris’ Blog: Day 2 – “You gotta roll the dice to be in the game..”

Firstly, I apologise for this essay, it was a great day that really deserves talking about and I’ve also included some lernign points..!

The first success of the day came when the scrambled egg moisture content had been upgraded to ‘Rich Tea’ status, the second came in the form of the 4G wireless dongle that the previous nights hotel managed to lose – we had our final tool to go hunting. Today’s radar was showing a line of storms hugging a cold front a 6 hour drive North East in Wichita, Kansas but tomorrows forecast was a 5 hour drive South West towards New Mexico, decisions..

After 210 miles and 3.5 hours of driving we get to Oklahoma City in basking sunshine – just over halfway to where the annoying google lady was directing us, Wichita in Kansas. Just before this, stopping off for beef jerky, a trip to the gents and some gasoline, Andy saw the three essential ingredients for thunderstorms to form 180 miles west of Oklahoma towards Amarillo;

  1. Unstable air. Measured by CAPE, ‘Convective Available Potential Energy’. This showed there was ‘fuel’ for a storm to breath as there is convective energy to transport heat and moisture vertically.
  2. High atmospheric moisture content near the surface as shown by high Dew Points on the radar. A Dew Point is the temperature that air must be cooled too to reach saturation. Ie.,the higher the Dew Point, the higher the moisture content. If ‘Dew Point = Temperature’ then you have 100% humidity.
  3. Uplift forces. The above conditions were developing on a cold front – cold fronts force themselves under warmer air (and in this case also moist) forcing it up, combined with high cape mean this air will carry on rising uncontrollably after the initial nudge.
  1. To top of the perfect storm, pun intended, there was what is called ‘Wind Shear’. This means the wind changes direction with altitude and helps create conditions for a tornado to form.

Sounds good, right? Amarillo it is.

“Is this the way to Amarillo?” I ask google lady to no response but Andy replies, “I was just waiting for that”. 120 miles later I’m still driving into pristine blue skies as far as the eye can see, except for signs of storm clouds where we were originally heading, temperature guage sitting pretty at 84 degrees F and Peter Kay renditions ringing through my head. I started to doubt Andy’s decision until a sight that pleased the eye greater than a Page 3 model – a single flume of cumulus cloud. You know the puffy ones with bobbly tops towering high into the sky? This is moist air being forced upwards uncontrollably and saturating – the first sign of a potential storm developing. This sounds sarcastic, but it coincided with readings on the radar and marked the start of the chase…

Fast forward 100 miles and what started out as a flume of cloud had now taken on classic features of a thunderstorm; an anvil, rain free base, cumulonimbus section, overshooting top and flanking line. Basically, we’d found our first thunderstorm of the trip, my first ‘Super Cell’, and what happens next I will never forget..

Andy, like a lion stalking a gazelle, got us in a safe position behind the eastward moving storm ready to pounce with the cameras.

This was a ‘normal’ easterly / north easterly travelling storm – the rain free base (where air is sucked in, the inflow where visibility is great) is trailing the anvil where the air that has been sucked in has been cooled, saturated and / or frozen is spat out in torrential rain and treacherous hail and thus the visibility is almost zero. This meant we could hang around and watch the storm in all its glory move away from us without the threat of being tossed around like a stone at the bottom of rapids. This particular storm was spitting modest hail stones measuring 2 inches across.

My' first supercell

My’ first supercell

Drive drive drive! Behind us, c.5 smaller storms had combined into one monster Super Cell. This storm was different to the previous – the rain free base was leading ahead of the anvil. The warm moist air in the inflow was choking the storm in front that we were watching and it slowly petered out. Ie, the storm we were now heading towards us was stealing the Red Bull from the storm we were watching. We stopped the car ahead of the storm and felt strong warm moist inflow winds buffeting our back, followed by rain cooled outflow winds pounding my wind burn prone ginger face. It was fascinating to see how the power of these beasts is transferred through its structure and I managed to get a decent panoramic picture of the front edge of the SuperCell heading towards us – if we’d stayed in this spot for another 30 mins we would have had 4 inch hail stones crunching our craniums like egg shells!

Pano of the front edge of the monster SuperCell

Pano of the front edge of the monster SuperCell

We moved further east along the south facing front edge of the storm – Andy caught a great snap of a gustnado (not a tornado!) which is dust kicked up where the inflow and outflow meet. From this angle it was amazing to see scud rising into the storm showing a strong inflow and shear within the storm as clouds moved in multiple directions. We also got quite close to some lightening as seen below.

Lightening getting closer..

Lightening getting closer..

A gustnado churning up the dirt on the southern edge

A gustnado churning up the dirt on the southern edge

We were minutes from feeling the full force of this beast but our options to move were cut off by the Red River which had few crossings. We (I!) probably broke a few speeding laws to head further east before going south to get back infront of this moving behemoth. And WOW! A sight that literally blew my mind – like a scene from apocalypse I honestly could have been staring death in the face. This gargantuan force of nature had wrapped around the inflow, causing what is called a horseshoe. I’ll stop blabbering and show pictures but these really don’t do this scene any justice.

Staring up at the rain free base - like Independence Day!

Staring up at the rain free base – like Independence Day!

Andy spotted what he thought was a funnel cloud – this is a formation of a tornado but doesn’t reach the ground, well, not that we could see anyway as visibility was reduced. Was this the first tornado of the trip? We will never know..

rope funnel emerges behind the rain

rope funnel emerges behind the rain

We popped a nugget in this spot, put pedal to the metal and quickly scurried like a pair of rats up a pipe before being unleased upon with the full force of this storm that made Independence Day look like a Sunday afternoon stroll.

Heading further south for fuel we notice the storm start to break up. 19.30 without a place to stay for the night we book a Super 8 Motel in a town called Childress – the only town close by that actually had inhabitants. The storm now only had ½ inch hail so we decide to drive through this en route to Childress – pretty cool driving through it pelting the windscreen.

A battering from 1/2 inch hail

A battering from 1/2 inch hail

We check in and headed to a small local restaurant called Pizza Hut. Heading to the gents, confused which toilet is for which gender I wait in the middle of the gents and ladies when a thick Texan accent obnoxiously intrudes my personal space, “Ya ain’t getting’ no luck there – I know that cos’ ma kids in there an’ ma boy jus’ dun a crap an’ stink the place out’ ..charmed, thank you for articulating to delightfully. I leave the gents, her, her mate and their respective broods are sharing pictures with Andy and telling their tales of storms – a smack of realisation that these things we are chasing really are dangerous and effect so many peoples’ lives.

During our Pizza scoffing session, we were treated to the below beautiful sights – this is where the sun creeps beneath the anvil and illuminates it from below.

Andy enjoying the beautiful colours as the sun illuminates the underside of the anvil

Andy enjoying the beautiful colours as the sun illuminates the underside of the anvil

Stunning mammatus cloud

Stunning mammatus cloud

In a whole town there is not a single bar to enjoy a hard earned masculine Bud Light. We stop into a gasoline pump shop, more intuitive than a petrol station I guess, and stock up on a six pack to enjoy in the room. Priorities in place, first thing we do is open the fridge in our room to chill the beers and are treated to a half eaten fried chicken in a soggy Popeyes box that almost disintegrated as we shifted it to the bottom shelf to make it the next tenants problem.

What an amazing day – the adrenalin and buzz of trying to see these storms without being rocked by their power was something I didn’t expect to feel and being that close to my first Super Cell was a truly incredible experience. Today we rolled the dice and got 11 – a perfect 12 will come another day in the form of a tornado…

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1 Comment

  1. Timmy Tornado May 23, 2016

    Wow man what a way to roll the dice….the dice of life. Way to abandon the 9-5 lifestyle.

    Anyhow comeback to me when you’ve scaled Mt. Vousiveious and put a cork in it.

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