September 24, 2011


Initial Target: Illinois Beach, IL
Departure: Westchester, IL 5:30 am CDT
Arrival: Westchester, IL 8:00 pm CDT
Intercepts: Illinois Beach, IL, Racine, WI
Tornadoes: 2
Hail: None
Wind: Non-Severe (not measured)
Features: Waterspout
Miles: 195


Waterspout chase with Jennifer Brindley Ubl and Jonathan Williamson.  Targeted west side of Lake Michigan where cold air aloft from passing frontal boundary created steep lapse rates over warm lake water and morning land breeze created area of enhanced vorticity.   Noted spout many miles to the north shortly after sunrise at Illinois Beach.  Headed south toward cells northeast of Chicago before turning back north and heading into southeast WI, noting spout well to the north near Milwaukee from Wind Point.

Crew and Equipment:

Chase partners: Jennifer Brindley, Jonathan Williamson.  Equipment:  Kenwood TH-F6A Tribander, Dell Inspiron Laptop.  Millenicom 760 USB datacard and cradlepoint router, Holux 236 GPS.

Photography by Jennifer Brindley Ubl



I had never chased waterspouts before.  Capturing a type of tornado I had never seen before, just a few miles from my house seemed like an attractive idea.  Friday’s setup looked like the perfect opportunity to go on a spout hunt. 

A deep trough had moved through the great lakes, with lots of cold air aloft.  By early fall, the lake water was at its warmest and in the morning hours, the air just above it at it’s coldest.  The moisture and steep lapse rates above the lake were more than enough to fire off lines of thunderstorms.  Also at work was a land breeze.  The air over the land cools overnight, becoming denser than the warmer air over the lake.  The resulting pressure gradient causes the colder land airmass to push out over the lake, forming a boundary where it meets the warm lake airmass.  Along this boundary, areas of vorticity are stretched and tightened by thunderstorm updrafts aided by the steep low level lapse rates.  A waterspout is the result.

Jennifer Brindley Ubl, Jonathan Williamson, and I decided to see if we could spot a spout from shore.  We picked a spot on the map with a view and where the models were indicating the coldest air aloft.  Our initial target was Illinois Beach, just a few miles south of the Wisconsin border.  We agreed to meet up at dawn when conditions would be most favorable for spouts, and we’d be able to first spot them with the light from the rising sun.  If there were no storms or spouts, our fallback plan was to shoot a timelapse of the sunrise or convection over the lake.  I left the house an hour and a half before the sun came up.  The radar showed several lines of storms already in progress and as I headed north I could see lightning out over the lake. 

I got to the beach first, Jennifer and Jon arriving shortly afterwards.  We strolled out to the beach.  The sunrise and clouds over the lake were photogenic, but we didn’t get there in time to shoot a timelapse of it. 

Storms to our north, south, and straight ahead to the east, we scanned the cloud bases for any hint of a funnel.  Within mere moments, “Eagle Eyes” Williamson spotted one a number of miles to our north. 

I couldn’t believe it, on my first attempt, within just a couple of minutes of arriving at our target, I was witnessing my first waterspout.  Jon shouted to Jenn, who was back at the car scrambling to get her telephoto lens.  The spout hung from the base of the storm as a thin trunk or rope shape, heading west with the storms moving in toward shore.  We had to strain to see it at this distance, but  were able to track it for a few minutes before the storm moved close to shore and our view was obscured.  Invigorated by what we saw, we scanned lines of storms to our north, south, and straight ahead over the lake, often spotting things that looked like spouts, but were more than likely just rain shafts and difficult to properly identify at this distance.

A prominent line of storms extended out over the lake between our position and Chicago, and we had seen several suspicious lowerings or bands underneath them, so we decided to move in closer for a better look.  We headed south down to the lakefront toward Waukegan.  As we approached it became obvious that the closer cells were fizzling out and the other ones were too far south to intercept without having to go through Chicago.  We turned around and headed north after some new development off the lakeshore in southern Wisconsin.

Brindley lead us to a spot that she frequents for her shoots, a lighthouse right on the shores of Wind Point north of Racine, WI. 

The spot gave us great views to the north and south, as well as out across the lake.  Several cells were passing directly overhead, showering us with rain as ducked into our cars to avoid getting the cameras wet.  If these storms had produced spouts, we would have had dramatic front row seats for the show.  They never did, however.
We bummed around on the beach having a good time shooting skies and waves. 

“Eagle Eyes” Williamson spotted something way out to the north.  I thought the white line was probably just another precipitation band catching the light, but it turned out to be a large, very dramatic waterspout just off the Milwaukee lakeshore.  Our view of it more than 20 miles to the south, was less than spectacular, however.  It was still neat to be able to catch another spout on our first spout chase.

The updraft base of a much closer cell approaches:
A flanking line of convection extends southeast off from a storm:

We setup a portable grill on the beach, grilled some meat, and opened a bottle of (seemingly appropriate) Michigan cherry wine. 


Looking north at stormy skies over a turbulent Lake Michigan:


Jon heads out on to the rocks to get some closeups of waves.
A play on perspective made it appear like a giant seagull and a Boeing B-17 flying fortress were duking it out in the sky for aerial superiority. It was neat to see the old World War II bomber against the stormy skyscape.

One last cell passed to our south, and it exhibited similar structure of other cells from photos that I had seen produce spouts, but it remained quiet, the initiating land breeze boundary probably having retreated onshore by now.  We packed it up and headed into Racine to hang out at a pub.

Cells were starting to pop over land to the west, the cold air loft making the atmosphere unstable as the ground heated up.  Perhaps there was a chance at getting a spout of the land variety, maybe interacting on the lake boundary that was moving onshore or from an outflow boundary from the morning activity.  We drove a ways out into the countryside looking for a flat piece of land that was open.  That proved difficult to find in southeast, Wisconsin.  We watched a couple unimpressive cells go by before we decided to call it a chase, say our farewells, and split up.  

My first waterspout chase turned out to be a success.  We were incredibly lucky to be able to see two on our first attempt, even if they were distant ones.  Best of all, Williamson, Brindley, and I had an awesome time hanging out on the lakeshore.  The relaxed chase that was mostly hanging out on the beach, was  a nice change from the hurry up and wait, or frantic driving of the usual land chases.  We’ll all definitely be out for the next big spout setup.


Lessons Learned: 

  • Make sure you telephoto is ready to go when shooting spouts and scan the far horizon.
  • Use your telephoto and watch carefully as distant rainshafts and protrusions from shore can look deceivingly like spouts.