Tornado photo


by Alan Moller

Nov-Dec 1995 StormTrack

© Copyright 1995 Alan Moller

Mention the word "Sunray" (see Storm Data, June 1971) to an old storm chaser and you will invoke a response similar to that received by whispering "Rosebud" to an newspaper tycoon or screaming out "Roswell" at a UFO convention. For years, Chuck Doswell and I have chased and wondered when our Sunray would come. I think 1995 gave us our answer. Furthermore, I am convinced that the storm gods blessed Chuck in 1995. He chased tornadoes down on five dates (5/22,5/31,6/5,6/8, and 6/9). If you were with him this year (luckily for me, I was for the last four dates), you were going to cash in some serious blue chips!

For the uninitiated, storm chasing amounts to making a series of crucial decisions about forecasts, routes, what to eat, what storm to chase, when to gas-up, when to give-up, etc. You can make the perfect forecast then blow it with a bad road selection. You can make all of the right decisions, then have no serendipity (e.g., no photographic contrast of an F-5 tornado); make the wrong decisions then have nothing but serendipity; or make no decisions yourself -- call Harold Brooks at NSSL (250 miles away) and have him tell you what to do and then waltz into the sensory event of your life. The latter occurred on June 8th.

The deluge of northwest Texas tornadoes this year was similar to the events on the June 3 to 11, 1971 or the fabled "seven days in May", 1977. We received extremely helpful information from phone calls to Mike Branick, and as mentioned Harold Brooks in Norman. The first conversation brought us south from Lamar, Colorado (where Chuck, Sam Barricklow, and I witnessed several beautiful supercells the evening before) towards a triple point low Mike said was forecast to be in the extreme northeast Texas panhandle at 0000 UTC. The progs turned out to be fast with the low's position.

We decided to drive south towards Dumas, Texas instead of southeast into the Oklahoma panhandle to approach storms from the clear air mass behind the dry line, rather than from the low visibility, stratus-laden air mass across the Oklahoma panhandle. That was a fortunate decision, since we never could have made it in time for Pampa if we had taken the southeast route.

A line of scattered, rapidly developing Cb's, already with visual right-flank overhang was to our east,as we arrived in Dumas. Unfortunately, Sam had to stop following us temporarily as the driver's side window had "popped out" of his van on the trip down from Colorado (no serendipity here). Rear-flank convection began to mask the Cb tops as we drove into Stinnett, making it difficult to pick the target storm. So we called Harold Brooks. He said that three storms to our east had mesocyclones and suggested that we drive down Highway 152 to pursue tail-end Charlie.

We saw a dense precipitation curtain to the east and a large, rounded rain-free base to the south as we entered the outskirts of Pampa. A funnel cloud already was dangling beneath the CB base! The funnel cloud dissipated, but a wall cloud formed quickly to our south- southeast as we turned south on FM road 282 in west Pampa. Dust whirls and frequent, short-lived ground-based condensation tubes were visible beneath the rolling wall cloud. We pointed out the developing tornado to a Pampa policeman and he zoomed toward it as debris became more apparent. Unknown to us, sirens already had been activated in Pampa. The developing tornado initially moved northwest and then west(!), passing within a mile south of our position, which was about midway between Highways 152 and 60. We drove to the Highway 60/282 intersection, then watched in awe as the circulation intensified into a full-blown tornado and turned north across Highway 60 and the railroad tracks. From our location, the photographic contrast was excellent; the core of the tornado was dark with light-fringed edges and a bright background. I have only dreamed of such a photogenic view. Chuck zoomed in with the video camera at the right moment, as if he knew he was about to capture the very sudden and dramatic example of tornado intensification, from about 1/3 of a mile away.

We made a U-turn and moved north on FM road 282, paralleling the tornado as it began to pick up considerable debris. The spin of it's compacted debris cloud intensified to about one revolution per second. The tornado entered an industrial district in west Pampa, with high speed motions continuing in its central, wedge-shaped cloud. Considerable lightweight roof and building material floated skyward into a less dense, outer debris cloud. I shot photographs with a normal lens at 1/250th of a second (wide open at Fl.4), freezing debris in the photos. Some debris is identifiable (sheet metal, etc.). Chuck's video at this time ranks with the best "whirling debris" videos I have seen.

The tornado sounded like a waterfall as it moved about 1/2 mile north and northwest of us. What had been a dark funnel began to reflect sunlight, turning milky white as it moved to our northeast. At this time, we captured tornado #2 (the Hoover tornado, forming several miles east-northeast of the Pampa twister) in the same frame as tornado #1. After the Pampa tornado dissipated, we spent eight minutes steering clear of emergency vehicles and exiting Pampa so we could chase the Hoover tornado. We captured several good shots of tornado #2, but Martin Lisius did much better. The Hoover tornado was two or three times larger than tornado #1, probably F-4 to F-5 on the Fujita scale. The tornado ripped asphalt off a farm road near Hoover and inflicted various mayhem onto area livestock and flora.

Apparently, we were so stunned by the Pampa event, that we lost our poise and played a futile game of catch-up the rest of the day. We did not take the right roads out of Pampa in pursuit of the supercell towards Hoover and Canadian. Instead, we watched several low- contrast tornadoes to the distant north of Highway 60, then got to the McLean/Allison storm too late. We stayed with the Pampa storm too long (all the way to Canadian), possibly thinking about yet another tornado day in the distant past, some 48 years ago). Nevertheless, what a fabulous chase day!

We were relieved to learn that no one was killed by any of the June 8th tornadoes. I am not surprised, since local emergency preparedness, the NWS offices at Lubbock and Amarillo, and the local news media have done a terrific job of developing spotter networks and warning systems in the Texas panhandle. A tip of the hat to these people! Finally, VORTEX had tremendous success with this event on its last day of field operations -- a great way to end what turned out to be a highly successful field project.

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