Apr 042014
 

Friday, 4 April 2014

 

It’s been a real battle up until the past couple days to bring about spring storm chasing setups to the southern plains. But at least the brutal cold winter pattern finally gave way to spring in a meaningful way. There were severe storms including supercells, which did produce a few tornadoes from Texas to Missouri in recent days. But I do believe this is only a small taste of what mother nature has in store for parts of the Great Plains as we head into mid and late April.

For months, tropical convection near and west of the international dateline has been a dominant feature. This has been primarily responsible for a persistent ridge over western North America and Alaska, promoting cold, arctic air intrusions into the central and eastern U.S. And through most of March, this cut off the rich, low level moisture supply from the Gulf of Mexico and can be at least partially blamed for a very slow start to the spring severe weather season across the central U.S. (namely the Great Plains).

Over the past few weeks new tropical convection has emerged over the Indian Ocean, whereas the dateline convection stubbornly remains in place. Over the past several days it’s becoming more and more clear that the Indian Ocean convection is growing and may be emerging into a new MJO wave. You can see the two areas of convection in the images below. The first is a satellite image centered on Indonesia, while the other shows outgoing longwave radiation anomalies over a 3 day period (March 31-April 2).

 

Infrared satellite image valid 02Z April 4, 2014. Notice the two areas of tropical convection. These may come together over the next few weeks as the main area over the eastern Indian Ocean moves east.


 

Outgoing longwave radiation (OLR) anomalies valid March 31-April 2. Areas of blue and purple indicate negative anomalies, or areas where tropical convection has occurred.


 

It’s probably going to be a slow and kinda messy process. But over the next few weeks the ‘blob’ of convection in the Indian Ocean should propagate eastward and slowly consolidate with the dateline convection in the form of a MJO wave moving into the western Pacific. And I use the word ‘messy’ because all throughout winter and early spring the dateline convection continued to fire and dominate the tropical Pacific, impacting the jet stream pattern. So it’s hard for me to imagine that dateline convection going away without a fight.

In a perfect world the MJO would make it out to the western Pacific in mid to late April. This in turn would drive deep troughs into the western states and yield severe storms/chase setups across the Great Plains. Although, given this is April and not May or even June, there would be intermittent western ridges developing between major western troughs (see computer model forecasts for next week, western ridging building ahead of Pacific troughs). That’s just a factor of the jet stream wavelengths still being short, a leftover from winter. Anyways, as the MJO moves further east and makes it out to the western Pacific, more significant troughs should crash into the western U.S. and we should also see more southeastern U.S./Gulf of Mexico ridging as well. Essentially, a pattern that would allow rich low level moisture to lift north into strong westerly winds aloft, promoting severe storms across the southern plains.

 

MJO plot as of April 3, 2014. Notice the latest plot is over the eastern Indian Ocean, indicating that area of convection may become the most dominant. I drew in the black arrow myself, showing how this new MJO wave should move east, eventually towards the western Pacific later in April.


 

BUT, this is a not a perfect world and the dateline convection IS a messy issue. What will probably happen is the dateline convection will bring a convective response in the form of intermittent ridging across the northwestern U.S. into western Canada, perhaps even into Alaska. But the Pacific jet stream will increasingly cut underneath this ‘block’ and crash into the southwestern U.S. We will also continue to see a subtropical jet stream as warm sea surface temperatures in the western tropical Pacific will support that.

I think this is all very positive news for storm chasers..at least it is for me. The storm chasing season has been slow as we were frozen by the never ending winter. Predictions of El Nino have brought a lot of doubt to the future of the chase season going into May and June. And while this post has nothing to do with that, I’m simply pointing out a sub-seasonal weather event that may bring some decent severe storm events to the Great Plains in mid and late April (perhaps into early May?). Whether or not El Nino develops is a topic for another blog post (if I ever get around to that!). I will say this: If El Nino does indeed begin developing in earnest by May, that is not a good sign for the remainder of the chase season.

Until next time…

 

Jim

Mar 262014
 

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

 

There is no easy way around it. It has been a long, cold, rough winter for most of us across the U.S. Or, at least it has been for storm chasers looking for early spring chasing activity. And while the cold winter pattern doesn’t want to give up across the northern parts of the country, mother nature has had enough over portions of the southern Great Plains. We’re finally seeing Gulf moisture returning north into Texas, warmer temperatures, and a general sense that spring is in the air.

The jet stream is also switching gears. For months the polar jet has been in a blocking position, allowing brutally cold arctic air to continue sliding south from Canada into the U.S. It has also blocked Pacific storm systems from making headway into the western U.S. and plains states, which are typically key to help trigger severe storms. But finally, the Pacific weather pattern is changing its tune. The Polar jet stream is shifting and the subtropical jet is coming to life. At last we have the beginning stages of severe weather setups across the southern Great Plains in the coming days and weeks.

 

12z March 26 GFS Operational model 500mb forecast valid 00z April 1. Notice the white arrows indicating the polar jet stream over the north Pacific heading into the western U.S., along with a subtropical jet stream coming from the equatorial Pacific.


 

But wait, I wish it were that simple and easy, but it’s not! While this new pattern (mix between the polar jet and subtropical jet, see graphic above) will undoubtedly bring storm systems into the southern plains over the coming weeks, low level moisture may indeed be a huge issue. The problem is arctic air sitting over eastern Canada isn’t quite ready to retreat north, and that’s because the base state of the atmosphere continues to favor cold air intrusions over eastern parts of the U.S. This may be enough to limit the supply of quality low level moisture into parts of the Great Plains. At best there will be room in-between cold fronts for moisture return northward and severe storm setups over the southern plains. At worst, however, cold air intrusions will cut-off the Gulf moisture supply and storm systems across the plains will have poor moisture to work with for severe storm setups. This will lead to marginal setups.

The good news is there will at least be storm chasing opportunities heading into late March and the first week or two of April given the jet stream flow. But it will take some work from the atmosphere to get all the right ingredients together for severe storms and tornadoes — more than normal for this time of year.

But seriously I’ll take it. It’s been cold and it’s been snowing for far too long. It’s time for something different, something new..it’s time for storm chasing season to begin. And even though this is a slow start, we have to start somewhere, right?

Until next time…and seriously sooner rather than later!

 

- Jim

Jul 092013
 

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

 

I’m finally getting around to posting footage taken from a video camera mounted to the windshield during the May 31 El Reno tornado. The footage begins just as I decide it’s time to begin driving east to get away from the 2.6 mile wide EF5 tornado that is rapidly approaching I-40.

I made the decision to drive east with plenty of time to drive safely away from this large, destructive tornado. However, what I didn’t know was the car had traction control. Given the conditions with the increasing inflow winds and rain, the traction control certainly impeded — at the very least — our initial acceleration and overall ability to drive away from the tornado.

About 30 seconds after we began driving east and away from the tornado, violent inflow winds began slamming the car in addition to periods of heavy rain. The car was shaking at times due to these powerful winds, and Jesse was having difficulty driving the car. At around 1:10 in the video you can see a billboard on the north (left) side of the interstate get ripped apart by winds. Then immediately following you can see the edge of satellite tornado approaching the interstate from the south (right) with some debris in the air. While not visible in this particular video, I remember seeing this satellite tornado destroy a barn just south of the interstate not far from our vehicle right before my eyes. Debris was being thrown high into the air, some of which flew well over our vehicle.

We then passed under the overpass and emerged just as the edge of the satellite tornado was crossing the interstate right over us. In the video you can see the windshield wipers slow down significantly. In reality, they froze to the windshield for a few seconds as the satellite tornado went over us. I remember this moment, like time stood still. I remember feeling like something was grabbing hold of us, of the car. Just for a moment in time. And then it let go. We drove through the outer circulation of this satellite tornado. It continued moving north and across the interstate, and we continued driving east. We were out of its grips. It was liberating because for this moment in time, this brief period when everything seemed to slow down, we had no control over anything. But suddenly we were free. It was over. We had driven away from a historic 2.6 mile wide EF5 tornado only to be held captive — if only for a few seconds — by a small satellite tornado.

I think an important lesson here is you never really know what kind of a curve ball you may be thrown when chasing tornadoes, even when taking calculated risks.

 

Jim

Jul 082013
 

Monday, 8 July 2013

 

I feel like a broken record in saying this, but things have been far too busy as of late! I’m just now putting my footage of the May 31 El Reno EF5 tornado online from before I got on I-40 heading east. The editing has been delayed so severely because my time over the past few weeks has been filled with numerous obligations. The two biggest ones of course being life and work. And quite a bit of time has been filled working and collaborating with researchers as well as other storm chasers with respect to the El Reno tornado and some of the events that unfolded that day. And it’s work that I am honored to do. And I think there’s always been an unspoken agreement between the chasing and scientific/meteorological communities for collaboration to better understand tornadoes, and I have always and will continue to support that effort whenever possible.

The video I’m posting begins with my first visual of the wall cloud. We were on the 119 on-ramp off I-40 looking southwest in position to head east towards El Reno. The footage was shot at approximately 5:53pm, or just a few minutes prior to the El Reno tornado’s initial touchdown.

The next shot is from Country Club Rd (exit 123) driving south and looking west. There you get a much better visual of the mesocyclone. We then turned west onto Jensen Rd and you can see the tornado to the west-southwest. We drove about 1.5 miles or so and watched the tornado as a multi-vortex for a few minutes. We then repositioned, briefly, about a mile to the west and to the south for a closer view before committing to an east option. However, this is just as the tornado was clearly expanding rapidly into a large wedge. In the video, you can see rain bands on the northern edge of the meso getting close to our location as the entire mesocyclone was rapidly expanding from the south towards the north.

We drove east back to Country Club Rd and then north to I-40 to head east again and to get off the dirt/gravel roads. But we didn’t have much time since the tornadic circulation was expanding so rapidly in addition to the tornado itself turning to the northeast. We were forced to, momentarily, drive through blinding rain and high winds just as we were getting back on I-40. These winds were associated with the northern edge of the mesocyclone. In this case, every few seconds prior to getting back on I-40 eastbound were extremely important, though we made it there just fine. But we were slowed down quite a bit while trying to head north on Country Club Rd as a chaser blocked the road for almost 30 seconds. fortunately, we still had enough time to make it to our east option.

As always, there is more to say about this chase, but time is not my friend. I have footage from a camera that was mounted on the windshield which captures was pretty dramatic shots while driving away from the 2.6 mile wide EF5 El Reno tornado on I-40. That video (not online) and summary will become a later blog post.

 

Jim

Jun 072013
 

Saturday, 7 June 2013

 

I haven’t had any free time to truly express the events that unfolded on May 31, 2013 when my friend Jesse Duncan and I witnessed the El Reno tornado at extremely close range. My flight back to PA left the following day, I didn’t arrive home until very late that night, and the next day I went back to work. With such insane sleep deprivation on top of the fact that I went on this second storm chasing trip putting ‘life on hold’, I’ve had a lot of things to take care of between working and sleeping! Thus, I simply haven’t had the time to really express things in words. And I’m still short on time, so this won’t be an extended post.

 

Looking west-southwest off I-40 a few miles west of El Reno as the tornado  had just touched down.

Looking west-southwest off I-40 a few miles west of El Reno as the tornado had just touched down.


 

Our first view of the tornado was not good to say the least. We had just shot south to I-40 through El Reno and headed a few miles west of town, and stopped at an exit to view the wall cloud to the southwest. You can see in the image above a wall cloud wrapped in rain. There was already a tornado reported on the ground, but we just had too much rain in our view to see it. I decided to re-position to a county road south of I-40 and we ended up with a great view of the multi-vortex tornado to our southwest (seem image below).

 

Multi-vortex tornado looking south from a dirt road just east of a county road feeding south off I-40 south of El Reno.

Multi-vortex tornado looking south from a dirt road just east of a county road feeding south off I-40 south of El Reno.


 

Cutting this post short, I’m going to fast forward to after when got back on I-40 and shot east a few miles (actually 2-3 miles west of exit 130).

The tornado had already made the turn to the northeast, expanded and had accelerated to 40 mph! After punching through the rain core, the tornado all of the sudden became visible to our south (seem image below). We continued east another mile or so, now northeast of the tornado. Within a matter of seconds the tornado expanded like nothing I’ve seen before, and became 2.6 miles wide. This is the new record for tornado width in the U.S., and likely makes it the largest tornado in the world. It was rated EF5.

 

Looking south from I-40 just east of El Reno at the tornado that just just emerged from the rain.

Looking south from I-40 just east of El Reno at the tornado that just just emerged from the rain.


 

In the video you can’t even see the entire tornado because the outer circulation actually extended beyond the visible ‘funnel’. Multiple vortices touched down at random well outside of the condensation funnel. The tornado was just so huge, it was very intimidating. I remember as the wedge came within a few hundred yards of the vehicle (just an estimation, I just know it came VERY close to our location) how incredible it was just to be there. I could hear the roar of the tornado out in the field, I could hear the sound of a tremendous waterfall in front of me. The winds around me were increasing dramatically and the air pressure suddenly dropped. The car started shaking. As I looked at this massive, wedge tornado churning in the field just yards away from me and getting much closer by the second, time stood still. I could feel the energy of the tornado effecting everything around me, including my body. It was like I could feel the raw power of the tornado as it got closer and closer to us. I’ve never felt anything quite like this while near a tornado. It was almost as if the energy within me was somehow connecting to the energy of the tornado. I know that sounds strange, but this tornado was SO powerful it was like it was literally grabbing hold of me in this instant in time. This tornado was just something else.

 

Looking southwest at the El Reno tornado at its maximum width (2.5 miles).  This was the largest point during the tornado's life.  It began contracting a bit after this moment.

Looking southwest at the El Reno tornado at its maximum width (2.5 miles). This was the largest point during the tornado's life. It began contracting a bit after this moment.


 

Finally, I told Jesse to start driving east to get away from the tornado as it continued to churn closer and closer to our vehicle. Little did we know the traction control for the car was turned on (rental car, had no idea what traction control even was!) and this kept the car from accelerating quickly due to the high winds and rain now pounding the car! So all of a sudden, we find ourselves in a race to get out of the way of this massive, 2.6 mile wide EF5 tornado.

 

 

The inflow jet to the tornado was insane with winds easily 60-70 mph blowing directly against (east to west) our vehicle. Random small pieces of debris were flying around us, and driving the car was difficult. Again, this wouldn’t have been a major issue had the car been allowed to accelerate freely(thank you traction control), and we would likely have already driven far enough east – away from the tornado – to where it’s likely none of this would have been a concern. But that wasn’t the issue anymore. The issue was this massive inflow into that was keeping us within grips of the beast of all tornadoes. At one point the winds shook the car violently and the windshield wipers literally stuck to the windshield! At the same time I saw debris fly up in the air just south of the road (to my right) as a satellite tornado struck it! Pieces of debris flew twenty or thirty feet over the car. The winds were just insane, and you could see the trees were bending nearly to the ground facing west into the tornado! It was like looking at an atom bomb explosion in slow motion. Then suddenly, we were out of the inflow band feeding into the tornado, and we were free! The car accelerated at a great speed, and all was ok again. Things were calm again, it was over.

This experience is a good reminder to all chasers that sometimes unexpected circumstances occur, which can sometimes put you and others in risky situations that are temporarily beyond your control. It’s a good lesson and reminder for me as a storm chaser to respect mother nature. She is powerful and once under her grip she’s extremely dangerous. I’m thankful we made it out of there unscathed. I’ve been in a lot of dangerous situations in the past by taking calculated risks, and I’ve always made it out in the end without harm. But this was definitely the closest call I’ve had. It was also the closest I’ve ever been to such a violent tornado, and certainly the most I’ve ever been connected physically to the raw power of a tornado.

More coming soon….
 

Jim

Jun 052013
 

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

 

In reviewing my footage of the El Reno tornado from May 31, 2013, I can across something that really caught my attention. While sitting on I-40 about three or four miles east of El Reno, I was shooting video of the massive 2.6 mile wide EF5 tornado to my southwest. In the video I zoom in on the wedge. A sub-vortex develops on the left. Then, a large piece of debris becomes visible, being thrown by the vortex from left to right at a 45 degree angle downward into the wedge tornado. This piece of debris is very large, though it’s difficult to say just exactly what it is. Whatever it is, it’s being tossed at will by the tornado and you can even see the large piece of debris spinning or rotating, having been forced by the sub-vortex.

I haven’t found the time to post a full chase account or to review everything. But I did want to put this slow motion video online. More to come very soon….

 

Jim

Jun 012013
 

Friday, 31 May 2013

 

Tornado just east of El Reno, Oklahoma on May 31, 2013

Tornado just east of El Reno, Oklahoma on May 31, 2013


 

It’s difficult to even begin describing the events that unfolded today. It was my final chase day of my second trip out to the plains and I knew the conditions were coming together for at least one large, violent tornado across central Oklahoma. I just didn’t know if I would be able to get into position to see a tornado, though I would do everything in my power to do so. Well I did, and at close range.

 


 

My friend Jesse decided to come along for this chase and I’m really glad he did. Both for the good company to share the experience with, and also so he could drive! That way I could focus all my attention on the data, navigating and shooting video. I had targeted the area surrounding Kingfisher, but we hung back east a bit just west of Guthrie all afternoon to be just a bit ahead of the storms when they initiated. We ended up driving into Kingfisher anyways once towers went up and then south a bit. At that time there were three supercells all competing with one another. But the southernmost cell suddenly exploded and that’s pretty much when it became obvious this cell – headed towards and just southwest of El Reno – was the cell of the day.

Upon reaching El Reno we drove west on I-40 and pulled off at an exit. We could see the meso of the supercell, but the tornado from our vantage point was either wrapped in rain or further to the southwest. So we turned around and headed east and shot south a couple miles on a country road. As soon as we got about 1 mile to the south we could seen a tornado to our southwest by three or four miles. There was actually a lot of ‘traffic’ on this road with chasers and mostly locals kinda blocking the road..especially a couple cops storm spotting. We were able to get around all of them and get into good position northeast of the tornado.

 

Tornado southwest of El Reno before becoming a monster wedge

Tornado southwest of El Reno before becoming a monster wedge


 

After a few minutes we were forced to drive east as heavy rain near the vault approached. We tried going south but the rain bands wrapping around the actual meso to the south around the tornado were massive. So I decided we should head back to the north/south country road and get back to I-40. That proved difficult at first because a chaser actually blocked the road for about 30 seconds with the large, rain wrapped tornado less than 1 mile to our south!

Well, we made it to I-40 and the plan was to get east fast and re-position. However, after going three or four miles east the tornado emerged out of the rain to the southwest as a dark stovepipe!

 

Tornado just east of El Reno, Oklahoma on May 31, 2013

Tornado just east of El Reno, Oklahoma on May 31, 2013


 

We stopped the car and watched as this tornado became a monster wedge/multi-vortex! The tornado came within an extremely short distance to us before I decided we needed to drive east and get ahead of it. It actually came so close that not only could I hear the roar of the tornado, but I could literally feel the pressure from the tornado. It was almost as if I could feel the power of the tornado right up next me. There really isn’t anything anymore intimidating than that. For a moment time stood still and nothing felt real. Words just can’t describe it.

 

Tornado just east of El Reno, Oklahoma

Tornado just east of El Reno, Oklahoma


 

 

Tornado just east of El Reno, Oklahoma

Tornado just east of El Reno, Oklahoma


 
Tornado just east of El Reno, Oklahoma

Tornado just east of El Reno, Oklahoma


 

 

Jim

May 292013
 

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

 

Tornado near Bennington, KS on May 28, 2013

Tornado near Bennington, KS on May 28, 2013


 

It’s really late so I’ll try to make this brief, but after such a successful day I had to find some time to at least post a few photos. Today I documented a large, violent tornado near Bennington, KS. I had targeted the Salina area for storms to develop along the warm front near the pseudo dryline intersection. Well the forecast worked out well and a supercell indeed developed just northwest of Salina. Before long it became a monster storm just west of Bennington. The tornado developed and quickly became a large cone/stovepipe, becoming wrapped in rain a couple different times before transitioning into a large wedge.

 

Tornado near Bennington, KS.

Tornado near Bennington, KS.


 
Tornado near bennington, KS.

Tornado near bennington, KS.


 

When the wedge transition occurred, I re-positioned a mile or so to the north to get a better shot, hoping I would be able to see around the rain. The re-positioning did get me a better short for a little while. But with time this storm became the monster of all HP supercells.

 

Wedge tornado near Bennington, KS.

Wedge tornado near Bennington, KS.


 

Jim

May 262013
 

Sunday, 26 May 2013

 

Better late than never. I finally had the chance to edit and post my tornado footage from May 19 in central Oklahoma. I was chasing along with Simon Brewer and Juston Drake, who were in a separate car. We also brought along Juston’s sister Mechel, who had never been storm chasing. We documented a rope/mutli-vortex tornado in Edmond, OK. Then the supercell produced a stovepipe that became a wedge near Carney, OK. The terrain wasn’t great but I managed to get some footage of both life cycles of the tornado.

 

 

Eventually the supercell became a HP beast and into an area with a poor road network. Thus, we decided to drop the storm and head south towards a new supercell southwest of Norman, OK. That storm soon produced a tornado that we documented near Dale/Shawnee Oklahoma from I-40.

Anyways, looking at this upcoming week, it appears the atmosphere will be primed for yet another series of severe weather events across the Great Plains. As usual, my free time is limited. So more on this later…

 

Jim

May 242013
 

Friday, 24 May 2013

 

It has been a very busy past few days. I attempted to write a post at the airport on Tuesday on the way home, but that proved to be both too time consuming and much too difficult. At the time I had only slept for about 3 hours two nights in a row. Not to mention the fact that after the Moore, OK tornado and chasing other tornadic supercells across southeast Oklahoma that evening, I needed to find a town with good cell phone reception in order to do a phone interview on CNN with Piers Morgan that night. Afterwards (it was around midnight by then) I had to drive all night back to Wichita – grab a 3 hour nap – and then catch my flight. And remember, upon returning home I went back to work the next day after yet another short nap for sleep. So, it might be appropriate to say I’ve been a little busy!

 

 

So today, after finally having the chance to catch up on sleep, I finally found the time to edit video from May 18 in Kansas. The first tornado was near the town of Rozel, KS and has been rated EF4. I was standing about a half mile or so east of it for a while. Eventually it came much closer to me. I was probably a couple hundred yards away at one point before I had to leave my position. There is more video of the tornado after it crossed the highway and for a few minutes after that, but I didn’t want this clip to be too long. In fact, I had to cut a lot of video from much of this tornado’s life to keep this clip short. (I don’t normally have issues with too much tornado footage…this was an extremely successful chase).

The second tornado developed further east with the new mesocyclone a bit west of the town of Larned, KS. This tornado quickly became a beautiful elephant trunk and had a very long rope out stage. Both tornadoes did little damage, which is always a good thing. In fact the only reason the Rozel tornado was rated so high (EF4) is because the doppler on wheels mobile radar was getting readings and measured wind speeds between 165 and 185 mph, supportive of an EF4 tornado.

This goes down as one of my more memorable chase days. I got right up next to a slow moving, photogenic, violent tornado harmlessly passing through a field. The Rozel tornado did pass by a farm and one or two homes were damaged. But nobody was hurt and the tornado, for the most part, missed the town. It’s unfortunate that homes were hit, but I’m glad no further damage occurred and that nobody was hurt. As a storm chaser, you want to see a tornado pass harmlessly through an open field like this tornado did for most of its life. And the second tornado west of Larned, KS danced around open fields for it’s entire life.

More coming soon. I still need to edit all the video from May 19 in Oklahoma. Yes, I saw the Edmond, Carney and Shawnee/Dale, OK tornadoes. So more coming very soon…

 

Jim