Lightning, flooding can be big hazards in storm chasing

Co-leader Chris White and student leader Trevor White have excellent accounts and photos of Thursday’s chase on their blogs, hyper-lined here. So I’ll let you read those for the details of our Thursday in Texas and New Mexico, that included nice storm structure, mammatus clouds and a possible landspout tornado in Texas.

In the big picture, Thursday was another reminder that tornadoes are not close to our top safety concern in storm chasing. Tornadoes are not in the top five, in fact. The first is simple highway traveling, the same concern that exists for any cross-country trip.

The second is lightning. We pulled to a roadside in the Texas panhandle preparing to get out for a look at growing storms, and suddenly there was a flash and a BOOM! and then smoke rose out of the adjoining field 100 yards way.  We didn’t get out at that stop, as you might imagine.

The third is flash flooding. Amarillo, Texas, has been experiencing a historic drought for over 2 years, but that didn’t mean that getting a couple of inches of rain in a short time wouldn’t flood streets. On the way to our lodging stop in Vega, Texas, west of Amarillo, an exit ramp onto I-40 in eastern Amarillo was blocked by floodwaters. So we had to detour down a gravel road not far off the interstate and a flooded intersection to navigate before we could get back on the interstate.

The fourth concern is big hail that can smash windshields. We avoid that at all costs. Much of our running from storms the last couple of days has been to avoid big hail.

The fifth is straight-line winds. We saw evidence of that in the distance Thursday with huge clouds of dust whipped up by outflow gusts from thunderstorms.

Then, after all that, comes tornadoes, which are fairly uncommon and usually tracked easily. We know where not to locate inside storms when tornadoes are occurring. Three veteran chasers were killed last year in the El Reno, Oklahoma, tornado we avoided. They were experienced scientists whose job it was to place probes very close to tornadoes for important data, and in this case, conditions became confusing and they ended up at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Our role is observation and education for future meteorologists — we have many Hokie Storm Chase alums working as meteorologists in various organizations, public and private — so we don’t have to, and don’t want to, get that close to a tornado. But last year’s tragedy should be a reminder never to be overly confident near storms … though as we’ve talked about above, tornadoes are down the list of safety concerns behind things that can easily happen in much weaker storms.

— Kevin Myatt

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