February 24, 2007

Statistics:

Initial Target: Salina, KS
Departure: Bolingbrook, IL 8:45 pm CDT February 23
Arrival: Bolingbrook, IL 2:30 am CDT February 25
Intercepts: Marion, KS
Tornadoes: 0
Hail: Non-Severe (pea sized on ground)
Wind: Non-Severe (not measured)
Features: RFB, Funnel, Mammatus, Anvil with Overshooting Top
Miles: 1453

Summary:

Very early season cold core setup.  Targeted Salina, KS, right off nose of 985 mb low with low 50's Td's.  Left night before with Fabian Guerra, arrived at Abilene, KS at 7:30 am.  Received speeding ticket in Dickinson Co.  Intercepted tornado warned mini-supercell just north of Marion, KS with RFB but no lowerings.  Pursued storm north for half hour noticing rapidly strengthening updraft.  Got van stuck in mud on Marion/Dickinson county line road, ending our chase.  Locals pulled van out with tractor.  Headed for home noting mammatus, anvil, overshooting top south of Kansas City.  Arrived home at 2:30 am with winter storm conditions.

Crew and Equipment:

Chase team included Fabian Guerra. Equipment consisted of a TH-F6A Tribander, and GPS/Cell Phone equipped laptop.  Photography by Skip Talbot.

Details:

At 180 hours out, the GFS put a 980 something mb low over Kansas City with 60 Td's advecting into Missouri.  It had to be too good to be true, but the low remained run after run, and when the NAM came into play the two were in good agreement with each other.  Dewpoints were only forecast to reach the mid 50's, but with the amazingly strong low advecting cold air into the upper levels, steep lapse rates would provide enough instability for a cold core setup.  
Fabian and I agreed to team up for this chase.  I had never really chased a cold core setup before so I did some reading up on it at Jon Davies' Page.  Cold core events are characterized by a low dewpoint surface environment, with a closed 500 mb low, and very cold air aloft.  Mini-supercells spawn in the steep lapse rates near the surface low, and can be prolific tornado producers, even though the storms look quite weak on the radar.

We targeted Salina, KS with initiation at 18z, our forecast mainly based off the position of the low.  Fabian had to work Friday, so we couldn't leave until Friday night.  I had the seats out of the van and made a little bed in the back.  We'd take turns driving and sleeping in the back, driving straight through the night to our target area.  We left Bolingbrook at 8:45 pm Thursday night.  It was a chilly 25 degrees outside with piles of snow still hanging around from last week's winter storm.  Fabian took the first driving shift since he had been up since early in the morning.  We took 80 across Iowa to 35.  I switched to driving shift at about 1am in Des Moines, and Fabian went to the back to get some sleep.  Having gotten plenty of rest the night before, I was able to take us all the way to Abilene.  Our initial target was Salina, but the RUC indicated we might want to hang back east a little ways.  Abilene was a perfect stop for us, right off the interstate with plenty of food, gas, and wifi.

We had breakfast at the Mexican Fiesta Restaurant.  Kansas style Mexican at 9am had disaster written all over, but we did it anyway.  It turned out to be a buffet with no real Mexican food (just some Mexican cooks), and decor that was lifted from the movie "Three Amigos."  The food wasn't bad though and the service was friendly.  After breakfast, we moved across the street to the Super 8 to get data until initiation.  Chaser Michael O'Keeffe was sitting in the lot with us also getting data, but we didn't know it at the time. 

Chasers on the forum were mentioning towers going up near Marion, KS which was a ways south of us.  We spotted the cell on radar.  It didn't look like much, barely hitting 30dbz.  That was our cell though so we jumped on 15 and headed south. 
Near 15 and KS 4 our low clouds gave way to blue skies.

Buried in the radar and mapping program, I wasn't paying attention to Fabian's driving until I heard him exclaim, "He's going to pull me over."  I look up and see a trooper whiz past us in the other direction.  Fabian pulls the van over.  "Skip, we need to switch seats... I forgot my license at home!"   What... the... hell...

I didn't want Fabian to get arrested and I had to make a quick decision, so I jumped into the driver seat with the cop still turning around.  Dickinson County Sheriff Longbine walked up to the van.  I had my license and insurance card ready.  "I stopped you because I clocked you doing 83 in a 55."  Christ, I thought to myself.  I had no idea Fabian was speeding that much.  Now I was the one in jeopardy of going to jail.  "May I ask why you were driving that fast?"  I told the officer that we were storm chasers and trying to make it down to a cell that had just fired.  I showed him my laptop and gave him an explanation of the radar and the current conditions.  He seemed genuinely interested, probably having heard something about the day's tornado probabilities.  He went to his car and returned a few minutes later.  He seemed reluctant to ticket me but said, "...at 83 in a 55 I have to."  And I agreed with him.  That was way too damn fast.  As he was explaining the ticket to me, the dispatcher came on over his radio describing a tornado watch that had just been issued for central Kansas.  The sheriff and I looked at each other, listening to the details.  "Ok, you are free to go," he said, handing me the ticket, and walking back to his car.  Flustered about the situation, but not wanting the ticket to ruin our chase, I looked over the radar and plotted our intercept route.
The ticket didn't slow us.  We intercepted what appeared to be a pair of cells, just north of Marion.  A broad RFB came into view.  Fabian, now in the navigator's seat, for obvious reasons, exclaimed that the cell had a tornado warning on it.  I couldn't believe it.  I knew cold core setups produced tornadoes from surprisingly weak looking storms, but this didn't look like much more than a shower.
Looking back to the north and the mediocre convection that was obstructing our storm.
Watching from the east, we realized our storm was actually moving northwest.  An unusual track for a tornado warned storm, but this was an unusual setup.  We setup for video and shot stills, but there didn't seem to be much activity under the storm.
Panning straight up from the previous picture, we had a good view of the updraft tower.  No anvil on this storm, just a low topped cumulonimbus that was rapidly building.
The storm was pulling away so we got back on the road to keep up.  Driving west under the RFB:
Heading back north now we had a good view of the base closer to the precip core.  The contrast was low but there seemed to be more activity now.  Lowerings and scud  were moving around the base.
Driving just north of Tampa, KS.  The updraft was strengthening and taking on a real nice bell shaped appearance (right), with sunlight shining on the tower behind it through a gap in the clouds (left).  Things were looking really good, I thought the cold core magic was about to show.
Disaster strikes.  We needed a westward road option to keep up the storm, but the only thing available to us were county roads.  We turned onto the gravel road dividing Marion and Dickinson counties.  Only two miles to highway 15, I could handle driving slow on the gravel, knowing we would catch back up once on the main highway.
The gravel gave way to dirt, and before I could react, the tires were flinging mud up in the air.  I stopped the van.  There was no room to turn around so I tried to reverse.  On a downgrade without the proper traction the tires just spun.  This was not good.  I crept the van forward hoping to inch my way through.  The van made it another 100 feet and started to sink in.  We were stuck in the mud, in the middle of nowhere.  This was not good at all.  Fabian was able to wrestle the van free.  We thought the grass field to our north might be a little more solid.  We checked it out to make sure it was level enough to drive on and free of obstructions.
The field was not solid, and we were stuck again.  Now we were stuck 50 feet out from the road.  Neither one of us had a cell signal.  I got on the ham radio.  The simplex frequency was busy with chasers reporting funnels.  Great, we were missing the show.  I waited for a pause in the communication and then called for a break with my call sign.  I got no reply.  I called again, but the chasers started up again with their reports.  I realized that they probably had mobile rigs with much more power than my 5 watt transceiver and that more than likely I was out of range.  Finally I raised a chaser.  He said he also was just stuck in the mud and was helped out by some firefighters, but the firefighters were long since gone.  Unfamiliar with the area, he was at a loss of what to do.  The chaser turned out to be Kurt Hulst, whom I had met in Jacksonville last year.  We didn't recognize each other's call signs though.

"The chase is over.  1500 miles for nothing," I concluded.  Fabian slumped and I got out of the van to wander.  We then mulled over our options.  Perhaps the sun would dry this mud and we could just wait and then drive ourselves out?  The sun was beating down on us now that the storms had passed.  That would probably take hours or days.  I didn't know which.  Walking was our next plan.  The nearest town was six miles away.  If we could keep up a good pace we could make it there in 2-3 hours on foot I figured.  It was going to be getting dark by then and the temperatures were forecast to drop significantly as a cold front moved through.  We prepared for the journey as best we could, putting on a warm layer of clothing and coats even though it was almost 60 at the time.  We had drank all of our water.  I brought my ham radio with, some matches, and a piece of paper with the exact position of our van.  We also left a note on the dash with our names and where we were heading in case the car was found but we weren't.

Our storm was now miles off to the north.  It reminded me of a photo from Jon Davies' paper.  I wished we could watch from a distance as a white tube dropped from the base.  It would definitely lessen our pain of being stuck in the mud.  I intently watched it for several minutes and, as if heaven was listening to my prayer, I spotted something stirring underneath.  "Fabian, get out here and check this out!"
There was something under that base, but at our distance we couldn't tell what it was.  Fabian tried to shoot video but his camera wasn't working, so we just had my zoomed in stills.  Very suspicious looking indeed.
Post chase analysis of the photo brought the feature right out.  I started to get excited when I saw how remarkably it looked like a true funnel.  I sifted through other chaser logs of the day trying to find a report that would match the photo.  Michael O'Keeffe, the chaser who was by us at the Super 8, had video of a funnel cloud on his log.  I ran a contrast enhance on of his video captures and the similarities were striking.  An analysis of both of our positions showed that we were looking in the same direction as well.  This was indeed a funnel cloud, Michael describing to me the strong rotation that he witnessed.
Although we didn't know it at the time, and I had thought I had suffered my most catastrophic bust to date, our funnel cloud salvaged part of this chase.  It wasn't a total bust after all.

Fabian trying to film the feature:

Farewell to the van, or the mudpuppy as it shall now be called.  Our long hike begins.
We made it maybe a half mile down the road before we came upon a farm house.  It was dilapidated and looked abandoned, but there were two cars in the drive so we figured someone was home.  The remoteness was creeping Fabian out.  "I hope some psycho doesn't live there."  The front door was open and it was dark inside.  "Hello?" I cautiously called out.  A couple appeared in the doorway.  I told them who we were and of our plight.  "Yall Oklahomans?" the man replied grinning at us.  "Nope, we're from Illinois."  The man got on his cell, which he said usually does not have signal out there.  He started calling everyone in town he knew who had a hitch or a tow, but they were all gone.  In the background we could hear a weather radio.  The man told us he was a volunteer firefighter and the EMT for the county, so he was keeping tabs on the weather.  The couple couldn't directly help us.  It wasn't even their house, they were just there for the weekend cleaning.  An old woman named Mabel lived there and she recently passed.  She was schizophrenic and paranoid about everything and everyone.  She hoarded vast amounts of miscellaneous objects, packed away in boxes throughout her house.  Fabian was right.
"What's her face has a tractor just up the road..." the man thought.  He took us in his car up the road to the next farm house.  An older woman answered the door.  She vaguely reminded me of Aunt Meg from Twister, with her large white farm house and warm generosity.  "Well, the boys are out... but I guess I could try and see what I can do with that tractor."  She climbed into the cab of a huge (huge to us city slickers) tractor, and it started right up.  She talked to the man and convinced him to drive the tractor down to the van, even though he was reluctant about driving big machinery that wasn't his.
Fabian helped them put some chains on the back of the tractor and we followed it back to the van.  We latched the chain onto something that appeared sturdy on the front end and the tractor pulled us out of the muck and onto dry land, where we were soon driving under our own power.  We unhitched the chain and followed the tractor back up the road. 
Half way back to the farmhouse, the man jumped out of the cab and came running up to the van.  "I just got a call on the radio!  You gotta drive me back!" he exclaimed.  He slung up the sliding door and just got his bottom down, legs still hanging out of the van.  I drove cautiously forward, still unsure about the mud I was driving on and nervous about him not being completely in the vehicle.  "Punch it!  Punch it!" I hit the gas and we were hauling down the dirt the road.  "Turn in here!"  The man jumped out and ran to his car to respond to the EMT call.  I could barely say thank you to him before he was gone.  We drove the woman back to her tractor, which was still running in the middle of the road.  I offered her money for her trouble, but she refused.  I can't emphasize enough the kindness and hospitality of Plains farm folk.
More than two hours had passed since our debacle with the mud.  Fabian was itching to see the radar, but I was sure that the chase was over.  I drove us west in the general direction of home without consulting any maps.  A weak shower and the Kansas plains:
Once we were back in data coverage we could confirm that the show was pretty much over.  We made for 70 to start our long trip home.  More Kansas scenery:
I was able to keep my eyes open, but my mind was badly indeed of more sleep.  When I started seeing construction barrels that weren't there I made Fabian take over the driving.  I slept in the back for an hour or so before Fabian exclaimed, "Hey Skip!  Check this out!"  We were in the middle of Kansas City with mammatus overhead.
In the distance there was also an anvil` with an overshooting top.  Where did that come from?  I couldn't believe it.  The radar didn't seem to match what we were seeing either.  The storm pictured here produced a tornado near Holden, MO a short while after this photo was taken.

With the sun setting and our long jaunt home, we decided against intercepting any of these storms except via the interstate on the way home.

 

We hit a smattering of hail that covered the interstate just outside of Columbia, MO.  It was smooth sailing from there until about 20 miles from home where we hit the winter storm that the might cyclone had created
Conclusion:

Some hard lessons learned on this chase.  When you commit that much time and money to a chase, and disaster strikes, it etches those lessons into you that much deeper.  The post analysis of this chase salvaged it from complete bust status.  Despite how amazingly well this setup went from models to reality, there were only two tornado reports in the area.  One out west by Russell, KS and the other mentioned above in Holden, KS.  Kurt Hulst and company bagged the Holden tornado on video.

Kurt Hult's page
John Diehl's Log
Michael O'Keeffe's Log

 

Lessons Learned:

  • Pay attention to what your chase partner is doing.
  • The dirt roads of the great plains are not to be trusted.