Patience, persistence pay off in SE New Mexico


On Friday we rested, and on Saturday we busted. It was beginning to look like Sunday would be another bust. We had watched towers climb repeatedly west of Lovington, New Mexico, until what we thought was the last one poofed out, exporting another saucer-like “orphaned anvil” toward Texas.


So gave up on that location and drove toward storms 80 miles away at Roswell. On the way to Roswell, we got distracted by growing cumulonimbus clouds just north of the road. With the Roswell storm wavering a bit, we headed north on paved roads through open rangeland — carefully watching for numerous cows on the road — toward the new cell. It showed promise for a bit, but began to waver, and the paved roads began to bend away from the storm. But then, we got a glimpse of a tower growing about 60 miles to our southwest, east of Carlsbad, N.M. We had seen the echo on radar, but it took a good look at the storm from a distance to know this was THE STORM we needed to go after, even if daylight was beginning to run out on us. We raced south, back toward Lovington, and then southwest and south, diving in front of the storm’s path just ahead of the precipitation core. During several quick stops in front of the storm and longer ones once we were south of it, we were treated to spectacular supercell structure backlit by the sinking late-day sun.



The funny thing is that we caught the supercell right back where we had been searching the sky earlier, west of Lovington, N.M., driving through a blacktop road through a Chevron oil field with more free-range cattle to make our dramatic intercept. A day that could have easily been among our most frustrating turned into one of our most exhilarating.

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


Catching a monster … then having it chase us …

Catching a monster ... then having it chase us ...

This is what chased us away from Denver on Thursday. We went there to find it, though, locating as close as we would ever dare to that sprawling metropolis, barely east of Denver International Airport. We watched planes take off and land at the airport for more than an hour, but we were there to catch an expected supercell thunderstorm rolling off the mountains and over the Denver metropolitan area. And that’s exactly what happened, quickly becoming tornado-warned due to intense rotation detected on radar (and clearly visible visually).  We never saw the tornado, as the whole circulation of the storm became wrapped in rain and turned into a “high-precipitation supercell.” Soon, we had to move east before the storm’s strong winds and big hail could catch us. We stopped a few times to look back at the monstrous storm spinning madly as it pursued us and hundreds of other chasers who had come for the same reason. Many if not most of those chasers ended up on Highway 36 eastbound through the Colorado plains, and the traffic soon became the number one hazard. Recalling a similar situation we faced near Kingfisher, Okla., in 2010 with extreme chaser convergence, and also noting storms developing to the south that could join with this one and trap us, we decided to bail off the storm after about 3 hours of chasing. We found a weak spot in the storms to the south, punched through some heavy rain (but no hail!) and made it to Lamar, Colo, for the night. But watching this storm roll off the Rockies (never really visible behind the storms) and ramp up into a wildly rotating supercell is exactly the kind of experience we bring the students out here for.

— Kevin Myatt


Tornado or not? Sometimes it’s blurry

Tornado or not? Sometimes it's blurry

On our first real chase day of 2014, we followed a couple of rotating storm cells — mostly high-based, but with rotation and some nice structure — from eastern Wyoming into western Nebraska. One of the most interesting events was this whirl of dust that developed beneath a wall cloud — or lowered base of the storm. Tornadoes do not always have to have full condensation funnels from cloud to ground, and the High Plains areas of Wyoming and Colorado are often noted for producing brief tornadoes of this nature even when cloud bases are high and temperatures/dew points are relatively low (many of us were wearing sweaters and jackets as the easterly inflow winds raced into the storm). While from our distance this appeared to be a rotating cylinder of dust beneath a possible a funnel above, some other chasers of my acquaintance who were closer said the dust whirl did not rotate and was likely dust kicked up by an RFD — a rear flank downdraft, a feature common to supercells. So was it a tornado or not? It’s not often a straightforward question. Whether it was or not is an academic question, though, with no damage/injuries in open terrain, and what was a good first chase day with excellent positioning on a somewhat sparse road network and some good storm features. We’ll be looking for even more spectacular supercells and possibly some no-question-about-it tornadoes today, probably in Colorado.

— Kevin Myatt

Evening severe storms greet our arrival in the Plains

After 2 hard days of driving we arrived in North Platte, Neb., late Tuesday. The day’s storms were farther west,  yet, but did blow over us late in the evening with striated shelf clouds, frequent lightning and 60-mph wind gusts propelling dust across the parking lots outside our hotel. It looks like very similar supercells — produced largely by upslope flow against the higher terrain of the High Plains/Rockies and then spun by strong winds aloft changing direction and/or speed with height — are likely over the next 3 days in this same general region, perhaps sinking southward with time.

We hope to have more photos posted in days to come.

— Kevin Myatt

Hokie Storm Chase 2014 begins …

The 2014 Hokie Storm Chase is scheduled to leave Blacksburg about 9 a.m. on Sunday morning.

The weather pattern we face headed to the Plains will likely produce some periods of severe storms on a regional basis, but is unlikely to produce a widespread tornado outbreak. That’s just fine. We’re looking for one special supercell in open terrain — hopefully on more than one day. The farther we are from major central U.S. cities, the better, especially considering the storms on both of our 2013 trips continually passing through the Oklahoma City and Wichita metro areas. We don’t have to see a tornado to be successful … but we’ll do all we can to forecast where one might occur and be there ahead of time … hopefully where it’s doing nothing but swirling dust and tumbleweed.

I’ll update more on the trip from the Plains states. Meanwhile, wave at us if you see our 3 antenna-laden vans rolling west Sunday morning.

— Kevin Myatt

Six weeks…and counting

txstormMay 2013, west of Denton TX.

Signs of severe season awakening have begun, and the Gulf of Mexico opened her doors as moisture streamed northbound on April 3 for a decent outbreak of severe storms stretching from Texas to Illinois.   Incidentally, this marks the anniversary of the 1974 Superoutbreak, which devastated portions of the country some 40 years ago.  Many lessons were learned that day, from the science and understanding of tornadoes, to the impacts and awareness of populations affected.  Six weeks, and we are underway.  It will be here before you know it.   -Dave