Severe Weather 2011 / 2012 SeasonUSA Chase May 2011

Distance driven today: 595kms | Total so far: 15390kms

Well, what an education this is. I virtually had no radar for the entire state of Nebraska and a good portion of S Dakota and (I've subsequently learned) N Dakota. Exactly where storms fired today. Grrr. It's now ridiculous to consider spending more on better coverage with just three days left in the region, so I'm convinced I will leave Tornado Alley without seeing a tornado. This is a little heartbreaking to me considering my original aim, not to mention the cost of getting here and associated living and traveling expenses... but obviously not nearly as heartreaking as those who have lost everything because of those very tornadoes I want to see. Talk about wildly differing priorities. However, I will spare you the speech about storm chasers not wanting to see storm damage.

It seems every time I follow the NWS's weather advice, they get it wrong, and when I don't, they get it right. Today, I was on my way out to where they had originally suggested storms would start firing: central Nebraska. Thirty kms down the road, I saw the cap break not too far from the eastern border with S Dakota. That'd be right, I thought. I should've stayed in Yankton, S Dakota where I spent the night (again). I had no radar to see what was really going on, and when I got back to Yankton, I discovered the "cap breaking" was just a decoy. The real stuff WAS in fact firing in Central Nebraska, just as the NWS had predicted. It's hard not to feel like whatever I do, I should do the opposite, even when I do the opposite.

Anyway, enough complaining. Storms were firing W of O'Neill in Nebraska and heading NNE. Knowing it would be the last radar update I'd see for a while, and taking traveling time into account, I made my best assessment for an intercept point. I finally got something right. And thankfully, with only 100kms or so to travel, these storms weren't going to die for a while.

Some mammatus as I got close:

 

After crossing Fort Randall dam in S Dakota, which is one of six control points for the Missouri River, and then the S Dakota / Nebraska border, I intercepted the storm just S of Spencer. Big lightning bolts stabbed the earth at what appeared to be one point on the NE side of the storm. Like I mentioned on May 24, on any other day I would care about this, but I knew what I really wanted was on the SE edge.

The radio reported a tornado sighting and gave constant tornado warnings from this storm. I finally got close enough for a look at the base features:

   

The storm looked like it was about to cross the highway, meaning now would be a good time to work out an exit strategy! Going back the way I came was not an option as the road veered in westwards towards the N end of the storm. Still facing S:

   

The closer I got, the more menacing this thing looked. The compulsion to get out was surprisingly strong, but so was my will to see a tornado. This next photo doesn't look like much, but it's a zoom on the RFD with rain and hail - complete whiteout area with doubtless all hell breaking loose inside. Storm chasers are turning around, but a truckie doesn't seem to mind. I'd love to talk to him or her now.

   

Like the other chasers, I turned around and started heading N again. These guys took an E road.. maybe I should follow them!

 

Another look at the storm on my second south-bound approach. Downdraft region is straight down the highway:

 

I then took the same E road and drove like I'd never driven before!

   

I afforded myself a stop for a few seconds every few minutes:

     

The roads in the US are awesome with a complex criss-cross of N-S and E-W roads. But now there was a problem: the Missouri and Niobrara Rivers. Care would have to be taken to choose roads that would lead to a river crossing so as not to get trapped by the relentless NE moving storm. Unfortunately, this meant leaving the storm for a bit while I relocated. There were still interesting views to be had, and this tornado-looking formation is probably a weak gustnado - it didn't last long:

 

And no, it wouldn't satisfy my tornado need. A look at the same storm from a distance while I relocated:

     

During my relocation I stopped to get petrol where a tornado siren was blaring and the servo manager was halfway out the door explaining that I could only get fuel if I paid by credit card because she'd sent the staff home because of the weather. I nodded sympathetically and proceeded slowly through the town to the eerie backdrop of that tornado siren. It eventually stopped, signifying that the main threat had passed.

On my way to my new target area and I made a fatal mistake. Not fatal to my life, thankfully, but fatal to my tornado spotting chances for today.

I happen to find attractive shelf clouds (or gust fronts) quite irresistable. Well, this one was a stonker.

I'd rather cunningly stopped at a motel recently to scab enough of their internet to get me a much-needed radar update. Well, I pin-pointed a spot to my N where some rotation seemed to be occuring, which could lead to tornadoes. The radar also showed a line of storms to that location's SW in a N-S line. The NWS had predicted that storms would eventually "become linear", meaning that discrete supercells would merge into a squall line. Well, I got a tiny glimpse of this squall line in the distance to my W as I darted for my target to the N. With visibility the way it seems to be in these parts, some pretty crazy structure should've been going on to the N. I thought I should at least be getting some glimpse of it from my location about 15kms S. Although, I should've also known that one needs to be pretty close before one sees anything chumpy.

Still, disheartened by anything visually interesting to the N, and completely drawn by what was visually frikkin' SEXY to my W, I caved like a cotton kitten and turned left. Just a quick look, I said, and I'll continue N, I PROMISE!

     

 

   

I was completely entranced by this other-worldly formation. Knowing exactly what it is doesn't take the magic away. Except, mother nature was pushing this blower-vac at 40 knots and I had to scoot, toot sweet. I could actually see the front rapidly approaching, and it was a creepy feeling.

     

This thing was seriously nipping at my heels as I took E and N roads, sealed or not, driving like the devil himself was after me.

 

So much for my grand plan of continuing N to those possible tornadoes. Eventually, I noticed it started to weaken, so I could relax a little.

 

I let it drift over me as I considered my next move.

   

Some more kick-up in the dust had me wondering if anything was spinning:

     

The main area of precip was N and with absolutely no other information to go on, I blindly headed that way, still wondering what I should do:

 

Some video of the chase so far, including the very eerie tornado siren around Springfield, S Dakota:

Some lightning forks actually became visible so I turned down a middle-of-nowhere dirt road and tried for some:

 

While attempting lightning photos and holding my tripod steady amongst the crazy outflow winds, a german shepard appeared out of nowhere running towards me. Was this day not crazy enough without wild animals coming to eat me alive?? I seriously bluffed, while similtaneously preventing a renal explosion, as I pretended he/she was a lost lost friend: "hey puppy! What's goin' on!". Wild dog looking for a main meal of Aussie storm chaser turned out to be quite friendly as its owner approached (also from completely out of nowhere).

A brief conversation followed amongst the bluster, as he proceeded to explain that the tornadoes were dropping further N. I expected as much, and thanks very much fella for confirming for me that yet again I'm in completely the wrong place.

My chances of seeing a twister dwindled with the daylight. I sat there in the car a little defeated, wondering whether I should bother staying ahead of this line, which had now incredibly stretched across four US states. My laptop sprung to life with a single bar of internet access! While I joyously pulled over to wait an eon for a radar update, a cop pulled up behind me. I'd already received a speeding warning today so more attention from the S Dakota law enforcement community was not something I was aching for. All I could think about was that if this guy was genuinely concerned for both our safety, he should give me the hell back my license and we both get the freak outa dodge pronto, lest mother nature's blower vac blow us sky high.

Sadly, my meantime plans to skillfully stay ahead of the line of storms were thrown to shit as the kind police officer took about 45 minutes (which was actually about 5 minutes) to register my driver's license and discover that I'd already received a warning. It started pissing down as he rather amusingly knocked on my window and handed back my license in the pouring rain.

Still not knowing what to do, I pulled up under a closed servo, with a possible hail threat, and waited. The main line passed with no hail, when some lightning crawlers crept out. I headed back down a dirt road and took photos through the car windcreen:

     

Eventually the tornado warnings disappeared, followed by the severe storm warnings, resulting in what was basically a four-state long stretch of rain with thunder.

I got bored and eventually checked in to a motel in Sioux Falls, S Dakota.

A hell of a day where I again felt like I got close but no cigar.