Throughout the spring, in the run-up to the two 2011 storm chase trips, I (Kevin Myatt) will be doing some “Top 5” lists from the last 6 years of the Hokie Storm Chases. Feel free to share your memories of these or other chase trips — even before ’05 — in the Comments below.
Today’s topic: The Top 5 “atypical” chase days.
A bit of explanation: A storm chase day is one in which we actually engage a severe storm — not a bust day when we miss the storms or they don’t develop, or a travel day when we have no intention of chasing. A typical chase day would have us in an obvious severe risk zone in the Great Plains tagging a late-day supercell, usually moving northeastward. These 5 days were anything but typical …
(5) The Dallas splitting supercell, 2009: Nothing seemed to go right on this trip — except this. We were parked at the north Dallas-Fort Worth suburb of Decatur, frustrated as the day’s only major storm was pummeling Fort Worth in the middle of an unchaseable metro tangle. As we contemplated our options with the day getting away from us, something amazing happened: The storm split. One piece, the “right mover,” went southeast, while the other — the “left mover” — turned northward almost directly at us. All we had to do was drop a few miles south to intercept this storm, and it just so happened that the only radar-indicated mesocyclone was on the northwest corner closest to us. In most storm splits, the right mover intensifies while the left mover dissipates, but with northwest winds aloft, this odd duck — an anticyclonic supercell, we learned later — quacked the loudest. We watched a rotating wall cloud south of Decatur and later a brief funnel cloud over a meadow north of town. Victory from the jaws of defeat!
(4) Champaign, Ill., wind blast, 2007: Some days our storm intercepts can last 5 hours. This one lasted about 15 minutes — but what it lacked in duration it made up for in intensity. Starting in Iowa from the previous day’s chase, we targeted central Illinois and ended up hooking around a storm plowing toward Champaign. It dropped a noticeable lowering just as we arrived and kicked up clouds of dust in the drought-ridden early spring cornfields of the central Illinois prairie. Standing outside the vans watching the storm, the 60 mph-plus winds — likely a rear-flank downdraft of a developing mesocyclone that became tornado-warned not long afterward — caught up to us, hurling dust, leaves and even some metal cans through the air. We rushed back into the vans, which tipped slightly in the wind — “A little bit of tippage,” chaser Sandy LaCorte can be heard saying in the replay. That was pretty much it for the day, as the storm raced northeast too fast for us to keep up.
(3) Mount Rushmore/LP supercell, 2007: We’ve had some great storm days, and some great tourist-type days when there aren’t storms. On this day we were able to do both! We were perfectly positioned for a dramatic low-precipitation supercell rolling off the Black Hills over Rapid City, S.D., spitting out some hailstones and spinning out a few high-based funnel clouds. When the storm rolled by toward the Badlands, we found ourselves only 10 miles from Mount Rushmore, and couldn’t resist making a tourist stop at the famous presidential busts carved in Black Hills granite. Later in the day, we caught back up to the storms as they formed a squall line with mesos and lightning over the emerald green, antelope-dotted plains of western South Dakota.
(2) The “Maroa Miracle”, Illinois, 2006: A truly legendary day for Tech storm chasing. With nearly all the country’s chasers having mothballed it under an unrelenting northwest flow pattern from the heart of Canada, we made an all-day drive from northeast Arkansas to central Illinois on the fourth day of the extremely unusual 2006 trip to catch a marginal upper-air disturbance producing a “See Text” risk for severe weather. To maximize shear, instability and moisture, all lacking, we targeted the southwest edge of the southeast-diving disturbance in hopes of finding one storm with marginally severe hail or a little structure. What we ended up with was a parade of rotating wall clouds with High Plains-quality structure on a repeatedly tornado-warned thunderstorm in open terrain every bit as chaser friendly as western Kansas. This was our miracle storm outside the small town of Maroa, Illinois.
(1) North Carolina tornado, 2006: It feels weird to go east on the first day of a chase trip. Faced with what looked to be an incredibly unfavorable pattern for several days, we headed out of home port and targeted Danville, Virginia, as severe thunderstorms popped behind us in Pulaski and Montgomery counties not long after we left. Late in the afternoon, outside Raleigh, near Gorman, N.C., we filmed a funnel cloud that, upon later review, proved to have a circulation on the ground. We caught a tornado in North Carolina! We ended the day in Rocky Mount, N.C., the farthest east a Tech storm chase trip has ever ventured.
— Kevin Myatt