April 19, 2011


Initial Target: Effingham, IL
Departure: Westchester, IL 7:00 am CDT
Arrival: Westchester, IL 10:30 pm CDT
Intercepts: Girard, IL
Tornadoes: 1
Hail: Severe (1.0 inch estimated)
Wind: Severe (70 knots estimated)
Features: Tornado, RFD Clear Slot
Miles: 590


Warmfront/coldfront play across west central IL. Targeted warm front near Effingham, IL with Jennifer Brindley, but warm front failed to initiate so retargeted mature cold front storms over MS river. Caught new development ahead of the line near Girard, IL. Storm quickly organized with rain free base, RFD clear slot, and produced a cone tornado. Lost sight of tornado in Girard, but caught it on north side of town at extremely close range, noting large stovepipe/cone shape with swirling debris aloft. Lost sight of tornado in RFD hook, so targeted Tail-End-Charlie storm near Litchfield. Attempted core punch but aborted after visibility dropped to zero and winds went well over severe threshold. Turned north out of core while storms congealed into a solid line. Encountered tornado damage on the way home from earlier storm.


Crew and Equipment:

Chase partners: Jennifer Brindley.  Equipment:  Kenwood TH-F6A Tribander, Dell Inspiron Laptop.  Millenicom 760 USB datacard and cradlepoint router, Holux 236 GPS, Robotic camera dome with Sony XR-520V. Canon 60D and EF-S 10-22mm

Photography courtesy: Jennifer Brindley



Tuesday's play called for cold front storms to fire in Missouri while moving into southern and central IL. A sharp warmfront was forecast to extend across central Illinois. The cold front storms looked like they might stay linear due to veered surface winds and forcing along the front, but the warm sector ahead of the front and along and south of the warmfront was a very favorable environment for tornadoes. The hope was that there would be a source of lift ahead of the cold front for prefrontal initiation of discrete, tornadic supercells. Capping looked like it might be a concern across the warm sector, but as the event approached the models started to indicate otherwise.

Prefrontal lift could have come from a variety of sources including outflow boundaries from overnight/morning thunderstorms, the nose of the low level jet pushing into eastern IL and Indiana, a shortwave trough in the midlevels over central Illinois, and convergence along the surface low near St. Louis. I'd much rather get sun burnt waiting for storms an environment primed for tornadoes, than chase linear cold front storms. If that warm sector storm does go up, it could be a huge tornado producer, something akin to the June 5, 2010 setup, which had suckered me out to Iowa when the Illinois warm sector lit up with several long track tornadoes.

Jenn Brindley teamed up with me again for this chase, while Mike Boik, who went with us on the 9th to Iowa, was teaming up with Adam Lucio, Danny Neal, and Jon Williamson this time. Jenn and I left from my place and were on the road just after 10am, debating whether to take 55 or 57 down to the target area, but we had enough time that either one could have worked. We decided to take 57 down seeing that we'd want to be a little more east if the warm front lit up.

Chasers Danny Neal, Mike Boik, Allan Detrich, Andy Wycislo, and Jenn Brindley

Cool, cloudy and rainy skies finally gave way to warm, humid, sunny skies when we got to Effingham. Michigan chaser, Nick Nolte was just ahead of us and we met up with him at the McDonalds off of 45. Soon afterwards, at least a dozen other chasers joined us. We waited in the parking lot for initiation. An east west orientated band of cumulus was moving up to us from the south and I was hoping it would be the focus for storms where it intersected north south orientated, pre frontal convection to our west.

Adam, Jon, and Mike putting up a hail guard on Adam's truck:

The cold front initiated first as expected, but the plan was to let those storms go and wait for something ahead of the line. The northern cell in the line stayed discrete and I figured it might produce as it hit the warm front. Sure enough it did, dropping a photogenic tornado near Bowling Green, MO that Reed Timmer and crew were on. Meanwhile, the warm sector failed to initiate. The warm front conintued to push north, leaving us well south of it, and the tornadic cold front storm was turning right, tracking along the boundary, which would extend its lifespan as it wouldn't cross into the stable air north of the front.

Mike Boik being badgered by one of the locals, exquisetly captured in one of Brindley's "locals portraits":

I got real anxious watching our prospects, and while the crowd in the parking was still chatting, we slipped out of the lot without saying goodbye after deciding that we had better make a play on the cold storms or go home with nothing. Jenn and I headed northeast out of Effingham on a series of highways and county roads with the hopes of eventually catching the storm that produced in Bowling Green, MO which had now crossed the river and was tracking through western IL. Meanwhile there were new cells initiating ahead of the main line over St. Louis. This could be the prefrontal initiation we had been hoping for, however, it was much further west than originally anticipated, and so close to the main line that I could see these new cells being overrun and undercut by the cold front storms.

We headed through the town of Pana and then made our way due west toward the storms. The Bowling Green storm was disorganizing into a large, severe complex, and the cells ahead of it looked like they were starting to congeal. We crossed I-55 and headed into Girard. The back end of the northern most storm had an interesting pendent shape, which might have some chaseable structure, so the plan was to punch through the line and chase the back end of the storms. As we approached, however, the line quickly filled in. We decided to make a play on Tail-End-Charlie, which was several miles southwest of Litchfield. As we headed south, however, the cells split up a little bit and the middle cell in the line started showing off a nice rain free base to our southwest.

Tail-End-Charlie looked like it needed some time to organize, and not wanting to pass up promising structure, we stopped a few miles south of Girard off of Highway 4 to watch the storm. The storm looked rather unimpressive on radar, but the nice horseshoe shaped base indicated that we should give it a chance. Then the inflow winds picked up with impressive force. I got out of the van and jumped in to feel the force and see which way it was blowing: northwest towards the northeast corner of the horseshoe base. That's where we needed to be, so I jumped in the van and we started heading back toward Girard where we had been minutes earlier.
The storm organized rapidly to levels I was not expecting. The horseshoe base and ahead of it looked almost outflow dominant. On the northern end there was a white bowl lowering, however. It looked like it could be a hail shaft, or possibly a large funnel. It was in the right place for a funnel too. We watched it for a minute or two and then a white plume kicked up underneath. It was partially obscured by trees as we drove northeast on highway 4. Eyes glued to the feature now we watched as we passed the next clearing. Another white vorticy spun up underneath the cone lowering. It was a tornado.

I couldn't believe it. We had gone from a junky, congleaing storm with little structure to a tornado in just a few minutes. Several more voritices kicked up underneath the tornado, and it appeared to condense all the way for a minute or so while we were passing some trees. I had Jenn hop on Spotter Network and report the tornado for me.

A couple of power flashes lit up the bottom of the tornado brilliantly as it rolled over some transformers. Lasting only the briefest of moments, Brindley amazingly captured one of the flashes with a hand held, short exposure still:
The tornado was moving northeast and we were a little more than a mile away from it, almost paralleling it on highway 4. We were coming into Girard, and the plan was to blast through town, heading due north on 4, and get our view back on the north side of town, which should put us a little closer to the tornado and hopefully in the best viewing position.



There was some traffic in town which slowed us down a little, but most of the locals ducked onto side streets or turned away from the storm as the sirens were wailing and it looked very ominous up ahead. Unbeknownst to us, the tornado took a right turn while we were in town as our view was obstructed.

Coming out on the north side of town, we saw it again, and it was much closer than I aniticipated, the white funnel looming over the tops of the trees and houses:

We slowed up and watched it for a moment to make sure we were ok. It was heading almost due east now as a ghostly white cone. Barely 6pm, the sky behind the tornado was as black as midnight. It was a surreal sight.

I was dismayed to see an entire line of cars heading south down 4, seemingly trying to escape the tornado. We were so close, a few hundred yards at this point, that I was sure the last car in the line was probably going to get hit. The headlights were blinding and we strained to see the tornado looming ahead and above us. The last car cleared the tornado and darted south away from the tornado and I could see it more clearly now. It crossed route 4 about 800 – 1000 feet in front of us.

There was a building off to our right that would block our view, and knowing that tornado had now passed and was continuing east away from us, we crept even further up route 4 for a better view. An inflow jet behind the tornado came slamming in. Sparks arced off the powerlines in front of us, showering down in front of and behind a car pulled off on the side of the road even closer to the tornado than us. I wouldn't learn until later that it was Illinois chaser, Paul Hadfield, who had bailed out of his vehicle into the ditch when he saw the tornado make a hard right turn for his position.

A video grab from the camera dome showing sparks coming off the powerlines (white lights on left) over Paul Hadfield's car (red tail lights) and the debris cloud of the tornado (right):


The tornado was partially rain wrapped, but being so close we could see it very plainly as a large stovepipe tornado.

The tornado moved into the field to our right and became more of a cone/bowl shape with the funnel just above the ground and multiple vorticies whipping around underneath.
Debris swirled in the air above and next to us, while larger pieces were rolling around on the ground. It reminded me of a giant carousel. The closest I had ever been to a tornado, and a strong one too, it was an incredibly intense yet mesmerizing moment.

The rear flanking downdraft hit with tremendous force, well over severe limits. We could still make out the tornado through the rain and lighter skies to the east, but it was time to move. We should have driven up and checked on Paul, but the RFD was blinding and I could barely make out the road, and was worried the lines were going to come down on us. I also feared that there might be another circulation behind this one as there were two hook like appendages on the radar when we first intercepted. We turned around and headed backed into Girard, turning down a county road east out of town. We were behind the tornado, but couldn't see it as it was obscured by heavy precipitation in the rear flanking downdraft.

We never got our view back and it appeared the storm had finally congealed with the line. Meanwhile, Tail-End-Charlie had gone tornado warned and was looking much better on the radar. Not wanting to get stuck on the interstate we took a county highway south instead of 55 for the intercept. Our route meant a core punch and we decided to attempt it with caution. We hit some hail as we headed south but nothing too severe. Midway through the storm, however, the winds picked up to incredible levels. Hurricane force winds, of what I'm guessing were a sustained 80 mph were howling out of the north. The fact that wind was such a constant speed and direction, with little gusting lead me to believe it was some sort of inflow jet, possibly into a tornado. We could no longer see the road at all and had been drifting from the right to left side trying to stay on it. We stopped with a moment of terror at the realization that we might be driving into a tornado or about to be rolled by one. The winds were coming hard out of the northwest so if they were indeed funneling into a tornado, the tornado would be to our southeast, which would put us out of the path. We still had zero visibility, however, and given the strength of the winds believed we were fairly close to the circulation so we decided to abort our core punch. I turned the van around and we headed north into the wind as it pounded on the windshield, but took us out of the core. Sure enough, several tornado reports popped up a few miles to our south. We could have easily driven into that circulation if we weren't careful. In hindsight we were still a good 6 miles from the path of the reported tornado, but its possible there was something else embedded in the core of the storm, either a downburst or some sort of embedded circulation. We headed up to an east option looking to get out ahead of the storm before getting in front of it again. We wound up on the same county road we took out of Pana, seemingly retracing our steps for most of the chase.

We plotted a new route to try and get ahead of the supercell from the north, but the storms quickly congealed into a solid line that would mark the end of any chances for tornadoes and our chase. We were happy with calling it quits and started heading back toward home. Heading back up toward Springfield, we passed a farm with what looked like some rather serious damage. Emergency vehicles were already there, and it looked like it may have been hit by another tornado produced by the same storm that dropped the one we saw earlier. I drove over some powerlines that were in the road without incident and we continued on our way.

We picked up a tail for a few miles and I stopped to see who it was. It was Nick Nolte, he caught the Girard tornado as well, but got stuck in the mud briefly, getting out just in time to see us go by after our failed core punch. We chatted for a minute or two, before heading in opposite directions for home. Everyone was itching to get home so we decided to drive straight back without stopping for dinner. Brindley and I were awe struck the whole way home after our amazing chase, however.

I had modest hopes for this setup, and thought we were going to bust for sure when our warm front target failed to initiate as planned and we showed up fashionably late to the cold front storms. The weather was on our side this time however, as the storms organized and produced as soon as we arrived, with extremely dramatic tornadoes, and my closest encounter yet. I had never seen debris swirling in the air like that before. Adam, Danny, Mike and Jon wound up on the Tail End Charlie storm that we failed at core punching, and intercepted a beautiful white tornado near Litchfield. It was a successful day for most chasers, but turned out to be a rather widespread and destructive severe weather outbreak across the entire region. Our tornado was rated EF3 and did some rather significant damage to a few homes on the outskirts of Girard while the Litchfield tornado was rated EF2. Thankfully nobody was killed.

Lessons Learned: 

  • Give tornadoes a wide birth when you lose your view of them as they can shift in direction.
  • Don't push your limits on a core punch, and don't attempt one if the storm is producing.