June 29, 2005

Statistics:

Initial Target: Albert Lea, MN
Departure: Bolingbrook, IL 8:00 am CDT
Arrival: Portage, WI 1:30 am CDT
Intercepts: Madelia, MN
Tornadoes: 1
Hail: None
Wind: Non-Severe (not measured)
Features: Tornado, funnel clouds
Miles: 790

Summary:

Rendezvoused with Jacques Tiegs in Madison, WI, opting to take her car and leave the Shibster.  Jacques almost called chase off before initial target was reached due to mileage.  Tornado watch issued for western MN, but stopped in Austin for dinner.  After dinner, found line of tornadic supercells in western portion of state.  Jacques agreed to continue chase.  Intercepted tornado warned cell near Madelia, MN.  Observed funnel cloud form into rope tornado, lasting about five minutes.  Pursued storm observing new funnel near Lake Crystal.  Followed storm north of Mankato until nightfall before heading home.  Encountered strong to severe squall near La Crosse, WI.

Crew and Equipment:

Chase team included Jacques Tiegs.  Equipment consisted of a GPS/Cell Phone equipped laptop. Video and photography by Skip Talbot.

Video:

Madelia Tornado (25MB WMV)

Details:

Broke and with July just around the corner it looked like my chase season was over.  Spoiled by 2004, I was certain I would go this year without seeing a tornado, and who knows about next year.

Nevertheless, I enthusiastically checked the models everyday when this setup rolled around.  The ideal chase seemed to be setting up on the Iowa/Minnesota border.  Dewpoints in the low 70's made for moderate to extreme instability, ample speed shear, excellent directional shear, with backed surface winds.  Helicity values were over 400 and past 600 in places north.  All the severe indices were off the charts on an Albert Lea forecast sounding the day before: EHI 10.2, Sig Svr 92, Sig Tor 8.  I had never chased a day like that.

I had no money, let alone enough to chase Minnesota.  Wisconsin chaser, Jacques Tiegs, was interested in this setup as well and asked me if I wanted to chase.  I told her I did, but that I had no money to contribute for gas.  In exchange I could offer GPS navigation and data, and she agreed.  We planned to rendezvous in Madison and target an area between Mason City, IA and Albert Lea, MN.

With the extreme severe indices the models were spitting out, I expected SPC to upgrade to a high risk when the day one was issued.  However, I was surprised to see only a moderate with a 5% probability for tornadoes.  The forecast called for supercells in Minnesota  initially, evolving into a line and potentially a derecho that would race across Wisconsin.  The chase was still on.

I borrowed enough money from the folks to get the Shibster to Madison for the rendezvous.  I met Jacques for the first time in person, and we agreed to take her car since she was paying for the gas, it was much newer than the Shibster and the A/C wasn't broken. 

Everything was fine and dandy until we hit the Minnesota border.  Jacques started to complain about the distance, and that she had stayed up all night working and didn't want to go that far.  Taking interstate 90 into Minnesota we stopped in the small town of St. Charles so I could check data and Jacques could take a nap.  Things looked bleak at first.  The sky was completely overcast with a light drizzle.  Satellite showed clearing to the west, however, and the models held solid.  I eagerly and optimistically informed Jacques that the forecast still looked great and we should continue driving west.  Jacques, unimpressed, brought up the mileage again.  It was clear that we were both operating on different agendas.  Unable to hide my frustration I finally said that "we should either go all the way, or turn around and go home right now."  After driving 300 miles we were inches from calling the chase off early.  However, Jacques reluctantly agreed to press on. 

A tornado watch was issued for most of western Minnesota, but it was clear that we weren't going to drive that far.  We stopped in Austin, falling short of our original target, and grabbed some dinner.  I wanted to race into the red box, but Jacques put her foot down and said that we weren't driving any further west.  I came up with an acceptable compromise:  We'd eat dinner, taking our time, and then check to see if there was anything worth chasing in the immediate area.

We spent over an hour at the diner.  I fired up my cell phone internet connection to find that four beautiful looking supercells went up in western Minnesota, two tornado warned, and the others severe warned.  I informed Jacques and her eyes lit up when I said they had tornado warnings.  However, the closest storm looked like it was still an hours drive.  Somehow I managed to convince her to press on, and we headed northwest for intercept.  I didn't express it, but I was doubtful at this point:  If a storm is already tornado warned and you are an hour out from it, more than likely the show will be over by the time you get there.  I still wanted to catch something to justify the chase though, convinced we were just going to catch a pretty, yet dieing supercell in the sunset.

Surprisingly, the tornado warnings continued for the storm.  At one point it appeared to be getting sheared over, but the mesocyclone reorganized and strengthened.  As we came into Mankato I started getting excited, our storm was still looking good.  We took route 60 out of Mankato, and then country roads between Lake Crystal and Madelia. 

The base of our storm came into view with no apparent lowerings.  We stopped just shy of it and setup for pictures.  A funnel dropped, and things got real exciting,, real quick.

A needle descended from the more broad portion of the funnel, like a snake sticking its tongue out.

High contrast zooms of the funnel a few seconds apart: 

 
 
I started to get the video camera setup, but just like my first tornado, it touched down before I could start filming.  The funnel still well up, a small puff of dust confirmed my second tornado.  After nearly calling it quits earlier we hit the jackpot, and what an amazing sight it was.  The tornado touched down just before 8 pm.

Since my video camera wasn't on the tripod, I couldn't shoot both stills and video.  The next few stills of the tornado are enhanced video captures.

The funnel continued to snake its way down, with a hollow tube of dirt reaching up to meet it.  A beautiful rope tornado.

Jacques dialed the police to report it, but the sirens sounded so I knew they were on top of the situation.

Here's the tornado at what appeared to be its strongest point: 

I got the video camera tripoded just as the tornado ended, of course.  The ground circulation faded and the funnel retreated.

Video:

Madelia Tornado (25MB WMV)

 

The last bit of the tornado passed us to the south, still kicking up some dust.  Looking carefully it we could see that the funnel had not disappeared but that our rope tornado had merely roped out into a thread (the line descending from the cloud in the foreground). 
A close up, high contrast view of the "thread" funnel.  You could have probably put your arms around this thing.

We both stood watching in wonder until it finally disappeared.

The roads had been almost abandoned before the tornado, but now these rural country were suddenly filled with cars.  A stream of locals, a few chasers, and a tour group passed us before we too joined the parade.

We kept up with the storm, avoiding the chaser convergence where possible.  Looking north at the horseshoe appearance of the storm base and clear slot:

North of Lake Crystal we spotted another funnel dropping from the storm base.  We promptly pulled over and I setup for stills this time.
We could see the funnel spinning wildly, at times it appeared to have a multi-tiered appearance like a cone of rolled paper.
The funnel shifted its shape a few times before retreating back into the storm.  We couldn't spot any debris circulation under it from our vantage point.  Chaser Michael Gribble, however, does have evidence that this was a tornado at one time during its life span.  A cloud of dust can be seen swirling briefly under the funnel in his video.
Invigorated by what we had seen, Jacques and I pursued the storm north of Mankato until nightfall set in.  The tornado warnings continued, but with the darkness setting in and the long drive home, the chase was over.  A squall line behind us, and another one in front of us, we managed to stay in the clear until we got back to La Crosse, WI.  The lightning was just phenomenal, like a strobe light at times.  We caught up with the large squall between La Crosse and the Dells.  Light rain turned into heavy rain, which turned into a driving, horizontal rain that made driving impossible and forced us to pull over. 

After waiting awhile, we were able able to keep out of the heaviest stuff.  Jacques dropped me off in Portage at about 1:30 am instead of Madison and I spent the night with family friends, the O'Neill's.  It would have probably been around five in the morning if I had gone all the way back to Bolingbrook.

The locations of the storm features on the map below are estimated based on visuals.  The route and timestamps are based directly off the GPS log, however.

Conclusion:

What could have been another long distance, disappointing chase turned into my best chase yet.  There are many enjoyable and exciting aspects to storm chasing, but nothing tops the awesome sight of a tornado touching down in the country side.  The tornado was caught by several other chasers including: Michael Peregrine Mike Hollingshead Kurt Hulst Simon Brewer Tony Perkins

 

Lessons Learned:

  • Make sure you and your chase partner are compatible, with same agendas.
  • Tripod all cameras before the intercept.