Storm Chase 04/14/2012

Chase Log for 04/14/2012 by Ed Aldrine II

This day by far was the pinnacle of the 2012 Spring Severe Weather Season for us, and a horrible day for everyone affected. A few days before the 14th, many of us in the storm chasing and weather community could tell from the weather models that a historic outbreak of severe weather and tornados looked very probable on the 14th. When weather models show this amount of intensity when dealing with instability, shear, and other variables, it definitely makes us perk up. For many of the days that we have chased, we don’t make our decision to chase until the day of the weather event. So many things can change in just a few hours. For example, there have been several instances where things have looked really good the day before severe weather is to take place. But when we wake up the next day ready to chase, we check the models before we head out, and everything has fallen apart and we only get a few rain showers.
Anyway, April 14th looked to be a very turbulent and possibly dangerous day for the people of Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. The Storm Prediction Center (SPC) at the National Weather Service (NWS) campus in Norman, Oklahoma, were picking up on the severity of the situation for the coming Saturday. On the Day 3 outlook (April 12th) from the SPC, a moderate risk was issued for areas of Kansas and Oklahoma. A moderate risk on a Day 3 outlook has only happened one time before this day, back in the 40s I believe. So, with this outlook being this rare, it was definitely catching the attention of many people. National media outlets were also getting the word out to the general public who might not be aware of the possible outbreak on the 14th. This, in the end, saved many lives that day. Shown below is the Day 3 Outlook from the SPC.

04/14/2012 Day 3 Outlook

Because of what I had seen in the weather models the night before, I checked out the new Day 2 outlook right away when I woke up on the 13th, Friday the 13th. Things had certainly changed for the worse. At 0600z (1AM Central), the SPC issued a new outlook for the 14th. The moderate risk area had been enlarged, with a high risk area added to the outlook in south central Kansas and north central Oklahoma. High risk areas are only issued a handful of times, sometimes once or twice a year. Obviously the meteorologists in Norman were seeing something that showed them that the 14th was going to be horrible for the citizens of Kansas and Oklahoma. In the convective outlook issued by the SPC, a dire warning was given as to what was potentially going to happen the next day. “A HIGH RISK WILL BE ISSUED DUE TO THE POTENTIAL FOR A HIGH-END LIFE THREATENING EVENT ACROSS THE SRN AND CNTRL PLAINS.” The weather forecasting offices in Wichita, Norman, Dodge City, Topeka, and Tulsa were all in agreement that this statement needed to be added to the convective outlook for the 14th. After the Joplin tornado of 2011, many felt that wording from the NWS concerning these life threatening events was needed to hammer the message home that there could be a high amount of loss of life in the respective days being spoken about. Shown below is the Day 2 06z outlook from the SPC.

04/14/2012 Day 2 Outlook 06z

Later in the day, the SPC decided that things were going to be even worse than they had forecasted in the 06z run. In the 1730z (12:30PM Central) outlook, the moderate risk area had been enlarged even more to the north almost to the Souix City, IA area. There was also another high risk area added in eastern Nebraska for the 14th due to the instability, shear, and boundaries. Shown below is the Day 2 1730z outlook.

04/14/2012 Day 2 Outlook 1730z

The severe probabilities map also showed that the chance of severe weather was very high. The two high risk areas showed a 60% chance of severe weather in them. To meteorologists and storm chasers, this is almost a 100% chance of severe weather. Many times, the highest probability we see is 45%, which is still pretty incredible to us weather nuts. This made up our mind to chase this setup for Saturday; it looked too good for us to pass up. Shown below is the Day 2 Severe Probabilities outlook.

day 2 outlook 1730z svr prob

Saturday was an early day for us all, including our three passengers, Tony and Gavin Palbicke, and Ann Williamson. Tony was a professor of mine who was a transplant from Chicago, so I really wanted to get him on a chase where he could see a tornado. He brought along his son, Gavin, for the ride. All spring long, I had been in contact with the Topeka Capital Journal concerning a piece that they wanted to do about us in their newspaper. The reporter given that task was Ann Williamson. We all met at my apartment around 10am so that we could get an early jump on travelling just in case storms fired early out west. Our initial target was Hastings Nebraska because the tornado probabilities were higher in that area than they were in south central Kansas. The Day 1 06z tornado probabilities showed a 45% probability area from just west of Falls City, Nebraska, to North Platte, Nebraska. There was a lower probability of 30% from the Hutchinson/McPherson, Kansas area down to just west of Oklahoma City. Several of the parameters that we look for in deciding where to chase just looked much better up north. Shown below are the 06z tornado probabilities map and the Continental US weather map for the day.

Right before we left Topeka, I checked the SPC’s website to see if a new convective outlook had been posted yet, and there was a new one up. The SPC had connected both high risk areas and the 30% area in Nebraska and the southern area to make one large 30% area down through central Oklahoma. This was a good sight for us, we had more room to play with, and it could possibly cut down on our travel time. Shown below are the Day 1 13z (8AM Central) outlook and 13z tornado probabilities maps.

As we headed west on I-70 towards Salina, we had to stop and meet up with our buddy Dustin Hessman so that Curtis’ girlfriend, Lara, could ride with him as they followed my Jeep towards the target area. We had to refuel in Junction City, so we made a pit stop just west of town at the A&W restaurant/gas station. With our laptops in tow, I started having reservations about going to Hastings. Storms were already starting to fire up there, and it was only 11AM. By the time we got up there, we would have had to drive further into Nebraska than had planned just to catch up to the storms. Also, the storms were looking pretty unorganized, and was just a mess making it difficult for us to chase if we caught up to them. When chasing, ideally you want single discrete cells to chase, not a line of storms or a group of storms hanging out together. An example of this is shown below. If you look in Nebraska, you can tell the storms aren’t very well organized, and look like a mess. Visibility in this type of storm mode can be terrible, so chasers generally like to leave this kind of storms alone. What us chasers would rather have are the type of storms you see southwest of that conglomeration in southwest Kansas.

A Mesoscale Discussion (MD), another tool for us storm chasers, was issued at 11:44AM on the morning of the 14th. There were two different areas of concern in the MD, one in north central Kansas, and the other in the eastern part of southwest Kansas. There was also a Tornado Watch issued an hour before for most of central and western Kansas until 9PM Central Time. After talking it over with Curtis, we made the choice to stick with our original decision of going for the northern storms. We came to this conclusion because the northern storms were going to fire first. Then if they didn’t pan out, we could dip south for the south region. The bad thing about this decision was that the storms were going to be elevated (bad for tornados), and they’d have a higher amount of precipitation cutting down our visibility. We met up with some storms north of Ellsworth, Kansas, and tried to keep up with them the best we could. With visibility from the torrential rains, I decided that we should probably go for the storms that were starting to blow up north and east of the Dodge City area. This ended up being a very good decision that paid off a few hours later.

At 1620z (1120AM Central) the SPC updated their outlook for the day. They made the 45% larger to include areas of north central Kansas and south central Kansas down to the Pratt, Kansas area. This would give us more motivation to head south and leave the northern storms in the dust. I wanted to head towards Hoisington, and recalculate if we should go further west and south to meet up with the cells coming up from Dodge City. We made pretty good time down to Hoisington, and by this time there was a supercell coming up from just southwest of Timken, Kansas. Shown below is the location of the Timken cell we decided to chase.

This cell was showing signs of rotation in it, but nothing to get excited about. As we got closer to the storm, we could see a defined rotating wall cloud on the base of the cell. The rotation on radar was intensifying as I drove down the county roads east of Timken trying to find a high spot so that we could park and keep an eye on the wall cloud. We finally found a spot just two miles east of Timken situated on a hill overlooking the town. As I parked my Jeep, we could see a funnel starting to form off of the wall cloud just southwest of Timken. I called the local 911 dispatch center to report the funnel, and the sirens were sounded. It was pretty eerie to hear the sirens wailing from the vantage point we were at. A few seconds later, the funnel had fully condensed down to the ground to form a tornado. At this point the tornado on the ground was less than a quarter mile outside of Timken. This surely raised our hopes that it would spare the community. As the tornado moved closer to Timken, we could see that it was moving the west of the city limits, and then in the end, moved just to the northwest of the town. You can see a picture of this tornado below.

Timken KS tornado

A tornado touches down near Timken, KS at 4:01PM on 04/14/2012

After the Timken tornado had roped out, I noticed on radar that the next cell to the south of ours could be moving into position to cut off the soupy Gulf moisture to our storm, killing it in the process. Check out the radar scan showing the second cell growing with the Timken cell dying in the process below. I wanted to shoot east out of our position to get on the eastern edge of this new storm, and then head south to get into position to intercept a tornado if one was going to form. I pointed the Jeep towards Hoisington on HWY K-4 to get through Redwing and Claflin to HWY K-14 south to Lyons, KS. This would put us in perfect position to get to the southeast portion of the cell where the tornado would form if there was enough rotation in the storm.

We drove through Lyons to get to US-56 HWY to take west out of town to improve our visibility away from buildings. We parked on the side of the road west of town across the highway from the Lyons Rice County Municipal Airport. There definitely wasn’t any air traffic today! From our vantage point, we noticed a gust front out ahead of the storm, with a little rotation behind it showing on radar. This gust front was screaming east across the sky, so I wanted to head east out of town to stay ahead of it. We sped east on US-56 HWY out of Lyons towards Little River, KS to head north again and link up with the storm. As we were heading east, our base velocity radar was starting to show more rotation in the storm. We were just outside of Mitchell, KS when I decided we better head north off of 56 to latch onto the storm. Judging from the radar, I was certain there had to be at least a wall cloud on this sucker, so we turned north just east of Mitchell. The skies were looking extremely dark from our location so we headed a few miles northwest of Mitchell, and we couldn’t believe what we saw. Only a half mile to our northwest was a tightly wrapped, low hanging wall cloud, with the birth of a tornado spawning from its base.

We parked to get a few pictures for everyone, and then hopped back in to chase after this massive tornado. After a few minutes of this tornado maturing, it became a HUGE wedge tornado. We really couldn’t believe the size of this thing. It was definitely the biggest tornado that Curtis and I have bagged in our several years of storm chasing. We followed this tornado on the ground for almost an hour as it tracked northeast towards Salina.

Lyons, KS tornado

Lyons, KS tornado

As we neared Salina north of Lindsborg, we lost sight of the tornado due to the hilly landscape. When we rounded the last hill, we could see that the tornado had dissipated back into the wall cloud. This was definitely a good thing for the City of Salina; this EF-4 tornado would have been devastating to the community. The Jeep’s fuel gauge was pretty close to empty so we stopped for fuel on the south side of Salina as the storm moved across the sky above Salina. This definitely made us get behind of the storm a little bit, so we raced north on I-135 to head east on I-70 . But once we were on our way we caught up to it quickly due to the slow storm motion. You can see our new storm cell in the scan below, with our first cell fizzling out to the northwest.

When we caught up to the storm again, it was just northwest of Solomon, due east of Salina. While we were going down I-70, we could see that another wall cloud was present on our storm. Shortly before we exited I-70 north of Solomon, we could see a funnel appearing to lower out of the wall cloud. Seconds later, the funnel condensed all of the way to the ground to give us our third tornado for the day. The sight of this tornado was surreal; it was just like any stereotypical elephant trunk tornado. With the sun setting and the light precipitation between us and the tornado, it was an awesome sight!

We headed north of Solomon on Solomon road and the traffic was insane. It seemed as if all of the locals were out in full force trying to chase this tornado that we were on. This created tons of headaches for us professional storm chasers and emergency crews. It was definitely a zoo out there that day. You probably heard about the local emergency manager calling us storm chasers “idiots and morons” that day, when it was really mostly the local population creating the congestion on that road. At this point the tornado had lifted briefly, and then set back down again giving us our fourth tornado for the day. Shortly after it set back down on the ground, the tornado roped out and dissipated.

This storm still had a strong rotating wall cloud present in its base, so we decided to keep chasing this storm just in case it were to develop another tornado or funnel. We followed it all of the way through Wakefield, Milford Lake, then to Riley, Kansas. As we were rolling through Riley, it was pitch black outside. So due to the limited visibility that we had of the storm, I called the chase and decided to head home back to Topeka. Shown below is the NEXRAD scan of our storm at this point.

This storm still kept its intensity even as it passed through Randolph, over the Tuttle Creek Reservoir, and into Olsburg dropping hail the size of baseballs to the size of softballs. Good thing we decided to stop chasing this storm cell huh?! We had dinner at Vista Burger in Manhattan to come down from our daylong adrenaline rush, and then headed home so that I could make it to work by midnight. What a chase!!!!
End of Report.

Storm Chase 02/28/2012

Chase Log for 02/28/2012 by Ed Aldrine II

I started looking at the models a few weeks ago, and started seeing that a large and powerful weather system was going to be in the area sometime around the middle of this week. As the system got closer to Kansas, it appeared that the most severe weather was going to be down in Arkansas, eastern Oklahoma, extreme southeast Kansas, and southern Missouri with a closed low and cold core setup (to find out what a cold core setup is click here) in western Nebraska for this day.

The night before the 28th I made my decision that I was going to chase the next day, but I was unsure that conditions were going to be good enough to see something decent. I chose to chase the cold core in western Nebraska since the storms in Arkansas were going to fire late at night. Along with the light issue, the terrain and road network were going to be pretty tough to chase in. The chances of seeing anything with these conditions were minimal, and the safety factor was definitely large.

The forecast for today was that a closed low was going to be hanging out around west central Nebraska, moving up from eastern Colorado earlier this morning. Off of the low, a warm front stretched across the Midwest, through the Ohio River Valley, to the East Coast. There was also a strong cold front stretching from the low down through central Kansas, western Oklahoma, and western Texas. Just before the cold front was a dry line, where there was large change in dew points on either side of it. In the map, you can see the forecast setup for today below.

Weather Map 02/28/2012

I decided to leave town around 10AM with my initial staging position being Hastings, Nebraska to chase the cold core. I had to stop in Manhattan on the way to pick up a couple friends who wanted to join me on the chase for the day. I wanted to check the weather models and the surface observations map again in Manhattan to see how things still looked just in case I’d have to change my game plan. After looking at the maps, I decided that we didn’t need to run as far north as I thought I was going to have to. We changed our plan to set up in Concordia, and move further west if we needed to. We were pretty much up to Mother Nature’s plans now.

We first stopped in Salina to grab some lunch and more gas to fill up the Jeep. We met other chaser friends of ours who were in town and decided to roll north up to Concordia on Highway 81 from Salina. Our friends ended up wanting to go west on Highway 36, we chose to stop just south of Concordia by a windfarm so that our live stream viewers had something to watch while we waited for the storms to initiate. Conditions weren’t very favorable for storms to build, it was cloudy with temps in the lower 50s with a strong wind out of the south. The time was 1:30 in the afternoon. Below is the surface observations map where you can see the positions of the low, warm front, cold front, and dry line.

Surface Observations 02/28/2012

We waited around for an hour thinking that the clouds weren’t going to lift, but I had a feeling that the skies were going to start clearing. While looking at the visible satellite, we could see that the skies out west were starting to clear with warmer temps and higher dew points. I wanted to give it another our to see if we could get anything to happen in our favor. This ended up being a good decision!

Around 2:30PM, we could start to see blue skies on the horizon to our southwest which was definitely a good sign. We could see that the towns to our west that were cloudy but now sunny had better conditions for severe weather, so we were definitely happy to see that. Around 3PM we could see that a few showers were starting to fire on radar, so we decided to drive west to set up in a location where we could intercept the showers if they became severe storms.

By the 3:15PM we were just a few miles south of Beloit stopped on the side of the road, watching the shower which was now a severe storm over the Ellsworth area moving northeast toward our location. The sun was really starting to break through the clouds pretty well, and the temps were in the mid 60s with strong winds still out of the south. Looking at our radar, we could see that the storm was starting to contain some rotation while the storm was still to our southwest.

By 4PM, the storm had reached us and was showing some strong rotation. We drove up to the south end of Beloit at a winter wheat field that had some great visibility to our west and southwest. With the storm to our west, I could see some lowerings in the clouds, but nothing that got me too excited. As the storm got closer, the storm was taking on some awesome severe attributes, and had a strong rotation couplet on our radar inside the Jeep. I decided to run west out of Beloit, but then decided that the storm had really picked up some speed. Because of that we ran east of Beloit with a huge wall cloud to our north. We found a nice road that we could take north to keep up with this storm east of Beloit. Since the storm was moving northeast at a good clip, we had to keep jogging east, then back north, and east again, over and over many times. In the visible satellite map below you can see the storm we were:

Visible Satellite and position 02/28/2012

Storms to the south were starting to fire along the dry line moving to the northeast. These were the storms that ended up spawning the tornadoes in south central Kansas near Hutchinson.

Visible Satellite 02/28/2012

Radar 02/28/2012

We couldn’t keep out ahead of the storm so we called it a night, and headed south towards Salina. On the way to Salina, we found another storm around the Minneapolis area that showed some rotation, but it wasn’t too strong. Because the sun had already set, the only light that we could use to see into the storm was coming from the lightning. We tried looking for any lowering in the clouds, but could not see any. We set up for a time lapse, and then headed home.

On the way home, we could see the storms to our south as they were hitting the western edges of Wichita. The closer we got to Topeka, the tornado warned cells that moved through Morris County which is about an hour southwest of Topeka. These storms moved northeast into Wabaunsee County and spawned an EF-2 tornado that killed one man, and injured around a dozen people. I ran into this storm on I-70 as I was just coming into Topeka on the west side, luckily it was not tornado warned at that time! I arrived home around 9:30PM. End of report.

Winter Precipitation

by Ed Aldrine II

During the winter we see some rain, but sometimes we see other forms of precipitation, too. Winter precipitation also includes snow, sleet, and freezing rain. The type of precipitation we get depends on the temperature inside the clouds and the temperature between the clouds and the ground. In clouds that are cold enough for ice crystals to form, we can get snow. Those cold clouds aren’t hard to find. Even in the summer, most of our rain actually starts out high in the clouds as snow. But in winter, the temperature of the air is sometimes cold enough all the way from the clouds to the ground, so snowflakes don’t melt into raindrops. They stay in crystal form and we see snow pile up and schools close.

In the first line of precipitation, we see the evolution of rain. High up in the clouds, rain usually starts as snow. Then while the snow is falling through the cloud as a snowflake, the warmer air above 32 degrees Fahrenheit melts the snowflake into rain. From this point until it reaches the ground, the air is above 32 degrees, so the melted snowflake stays melted in the form of rain.

The second line of precipitation in the graphic shows the evolution of freezing rain. High in the clouds, the precipitation is in the form of a snowflake due to temperatures below freezing. As the flake falls through the cloud it reaches warmer air above 32 degrees, and completely melts. Then as the rain drop gets close to the ground, a small amount of cold (under 32 degrees) air moves between the ground and the warmer air parcel, making the rain refreeze as it comes in contact with an object. This is when we see freezing rain.

In the third line of winter precipitation show below, the life cycle of sleet is shown. When sleet occurs, a snowflake in the cloud partially melts as is moves through warmer air above 32 degrees. Since the piece of precipitation doesn’t completely melt, it forms into a ice pellet that looks more like a frozen rain drop as it reaches another parcel of air below freezing, and refreezes completely.

Winter Precipitation

When we get snow, the snowflake starts as a snowflake high up in the clouds. As the flake falls through the cloud, it never comes into contact with a parcel of air that is above freezing. Because of this, the snow flake stays in a frozen form until it reaches the ground.