The March-April 1999 issue of STORMTRACK features the Col. Robert Miller, and the tornadoes near Rapid City, SD and Yocemento, KS.
BEGINNERS LUCK: A COMEDY
I. COMMENTARY by Tim Marshall
I usually think of the first chase of the new year as a time to check the equipment and work out all the bugs. On April 21st, what we experienced was downright buffoonery. On the way over to my place, Carson stopped at a McDonald’s to get a malt. He carefully placed the malt in the cup holder on the dashboard, then proceeded to drive away. However, the malt did not fully engage the cup holder and it fell as he turned onto the highway. As the malt fell, it impacted the steel corner on his ham radio frame mounted to the floor. The impact punctured a hole in the bottom of the cup and the malt contents began to leak out into the vehicle. Carson, of course, had a bag handy to limit the amount of damage -- but he admits it was difficult to drive --while at the same time --bag the malt rolling around on the floor. Somehow, the malt residue was cleaned up by the time Carson arrived at my house.
After loading up more equipment, Carson and I headed northbound on I-35W to our target Oklahoma City. About five miles out, I noticed my camera cable was missing. For a moment, I thought "Hey, I don’t need my camera anyway, since the odds are we won’t see anything." But then I realized that I may regret that decision, so I asked Carson to turn around and head back to my house. Arriving home, I put the key in the door but the lock would not turn. I tried and tried but could not get into my own house. "This must be a bad dream", I said. I asked Carson if he had a pliers -and of course he did. With precious time ticking away, I worked on the lock until finally the deadbolt turned and I was able to get into my house. As I hunted around the house looking for my camera cable, Carson fixed the lock by spraying it with WD-40. When all was said and done, we were delayed an hour from our planned starting time.
We arrived in Oklahoma City and it was time to gas up the vehicle. Carson pulled the van into the large LOVE’S gas station. Suddenly, we noticed all the UNLEADED pumps had bags placed over them. As it turned out, the gas trucks were late and the station was out of fuel. We managed to find gas elsewhere and we were able to obtain and plot weather data at 4pm. At least the telephone and computer worked! However, it turned out that SPC had dropped the Moderate Risk for Oklahoma and local weather statements were saying storms were now unlikely due to the very strong cap on the 18z soundings. What else could go wrong? Well, at least we didn’t have a flat tire! We decided to continue our chase. After all, the surface moisture convergence maximum was still north of Watogna.
Heading west on I-40, we noticed a clear area in the cirrus overcast with two towers to our northwest around 5:15pm. We exited Rt. 81 at El Reno and headed north to Kingfisher -the same route as we took on October 4th our last tornado day. We sat behind a convoy of trucks and a slow moving dump truck doing 20 mph less than the speed limit. Carson commented that slow moving vehicles had to be placed on highways to slow down chasers. The two towers quickly became Cb’s and a tornado watch was issued just as we arrived in Enid, around 6pm. By now, the southernmost Cb -to our west -had incredible structure complete with cumuliform, backsheared anvil and a vertically oriented main updraft. We turned west onto Rt. 60, and suddenly encountered an immense traffic jam. The highway was being torn up. Two lanes were reduced to one lane. In one block, the right lane was closed, whereas in the next block, the left lane was closed. We turned onto a side street and tried to get out of town. Using our trusty road maps, we found a paved road leading northward. However, the road was dirt and bumpy like a washboard with no pavement in sight. We double backed and headed east then north before setting up our cameras east of Carrier, Oklahoma. As if on cue, a funnel formed ahead of the precipitation area -then cone-shaped tornado developed just to our west at 6:53 pm. The cameras worked and we even had film in them! What beginners luck! The tornado wrapped in rain a few minutes later and the storm did not produce any more tornadoes.
On our way back home, we decided to stop in Norman, OK for the traditional steak dinner. We stopped at one of my favorite restaurants Charlestons and walked in to the lobby. The hostess came over and said. "Sorry, gentlemen, but we closed at 10pm." I looked down at my watch and it was 10:10pm! Holy cow, I get to the tornado on time, but now I miss my steak dinner by ten minutes! Fortunately, we were directed elsewhere to the only restaurant on the Interstate that was open and serves "real" steak. --Who said chasing was frustrating?
II. CHASER NEWS
The 1999 STORMTRACK CHASER PICNIC will be held on Saturday, May 15, 1999 at Rocky Rascovich’s house at 5504 Hall Road, NW, Piedmont, OK 73078 beginning at 1pm. Everyone is invited. Bring your own food, beverage (NO ALCOHOL) and videotape. The picnic will be postponed to the next week (May 22, May 29, or June 5) if there is a slight risk or better issued at 13z (8am) for any part of Texas, Oklahoma, or Kansas. Call the STORM TRACK voice recorder at 817-430-0517 after May 13th for the latest updates after May 13. Here are the directions to Rocky’s House: From Oklahoma City, head northwest on Highway 3 (also called Northwest Expressway) and travel approximately 14 miles from I-44 to Highway 4 (Piedmont Road). Turn right and drive north on Highway 4 and you’ll go through the town of Piedmont. Obey ALL speed limit signs to the mile says Rocky! Continue north on Highway 4 for 2.5 miles until you reach 206th Street (Apache Road). Make a left and travel west on 206th St. for 1.8 miles until you reach Hall Road. Turn right (north) and travel to the end of the road (about 1/2 mile) which turns into Rocky’s driveway. ST PICNIC signs will be posted on Rt. 4 at 206th Street and at 206th and Hall Road. Rocky’s phone number is 405-373-3062 and his email is email@example.com See you there!
A new book entitled: TORNADO ALLEY: Monster Storms of the Great Plains has just been published by famous storm chaser, scientist, and mountain climber Dr. Howard B. Bluestein. The book is 192 pages with 67 color illustrations and sells for $30 plus $3.50 postage and handling. CA and NC residents add sales tax. To order: remit payment to Oxford University Press, 2001 Evans Road, Cary, NC 27513 or order by phone with your credit card by calling 1-800-451-7556 from 9am to 5pm EST or fax your order to 1-919-677-1303. This is a must to get!
THE UNFRIENDLY SKY by Col. Robert C. Miller
Transcribed by Charlie A. Crisp from parts of the unpublished manuscript (written middle to late 1970S),
I was assigned forecasting duty in the Tinker Air Force Base Weather Station, under the command of Major J. Fawbush, on the first of March 1948. The evening of March 20th, while on the evening shift, I was rudely awakened to the sometimes vicious vagaries of Mother Nature. There were two of us on shift that night. My backup forecaster was a Staff Sergeant, also new to the Tinker Weather Station. In course of idle conversation we found we had much in common - we were both from sunny Southern California and had no weather experience in the Midwest portion of the United States. We analyzed the latest surface weather maps and upper charts and arrived at the same conclusion that except for moderately gusty surface winds, we were in for a dry and dull night. We were not astute enough to note that the upper-air analyses, received in completed form over the facsimile net from the USWB in Washington, depicted erroneously analyzed moisture fields. We issued a Base warning for gusty surface winds up to 35 mph without thunderstorms, effective at 9 p.m. local time. This forecast gravely underestimated the gravity of the situation.
Shortly after 9 p.m., stations to our west and southwest began reporting lightning and by 9:30pm, thunderstorms were in progress and, to our surprise, detectable only twenty miles to the southwest of the Base even on our crotchety old AN-PQ-13 radar. The leading thunderstorm cells looked vicious and were moving very fast. The Sergeant began typing up a warning for thunderstorms accompanied by stronger gusts even though we were too late to alert the Base and secure the aircraft. At 9:52 p.m. the squall line moved across Will Rodgers Airport 7 miles to our west southwest. To our horror they reported a heavy thunderstorm with winds gusting to 92 miles per hour and worst of all at the end of the message, "TORNADO SOUTH ON GROUND MOVING NE!" We had it for certain! We could only pray that this storm would change course and move southeast. There was no such miracle and at 10 p.m. the large tornado, visible in a vivid background of continuous lightning, and accompanied by crashing thunder began moving from the southwest to northeast across the base. We watched it, not really believing, as it passed just east of the large hangars and the operations building where we crouched in near panic. Suddenly the glass in the control tower to our right shattered. The control tower personnel were badly cut. They had not abandoned the tower despite the 78 mile an hour winds around the outer fringe of the tornado. Seconds later the Operation Building's large window blasted outward into the parking area. Debris filled the air. Then, suddenly, the churning funnel lifted and dissipated over the northeast edge of the Base.
At 10:00 A.M. the next day, an investigative board of five General Officers flew into the ravaged base from Washington D.C. and convened an hour later. Major Fawbush (E. J. to me) and I waited our turn "on the grill" with considerable trepidation. I was especially tense, having performed in such a abysmal manner the previous evening. It really didn't seem fair that a bright young forecaster, native to an area where a mild thunderstorm was considered a holiday event that caused people to run outside and gesticulate skyward mouthing such phrases as "golly" and "wow", should be thrust into an area subject to such miserable phenomena. The time came and we were ushered into the room. We snapped to attention with E. J. advising the board, in a garrulous voice, "Major Fawbush and Capt. Miller, reporting as directed.". We were put at ease (a most inappropriate phrase), and the interrogation began. The questions were well put, concise and fair and we were both impressed. E. J. described the events of the previous evening but did not mention the erroneous facsimile charts. We felt, perhaps wrongly in retrospect, that this would result in a great political hassle of dubious value to anyone. E. J. described the difficulty involved in forecasting tornadoes and the resultant reluctance of the weather services to issue warnings to the public. The board reached its decision early that afternoon. They decided that due to the nature of the storm it was not forecastable "given the present state of the art" and that it was "an act of God" which it most certainly was. They recommended that the meteorological community consider efforts to determine a method of alerting the public to these storms and urged Base Commanders to develop safety precautions to minimize personnel and property losses in violent storms.
That afternoon the Commanding General of the Oklahoma City Air Material Area, Fred S. Borum, directed the Air Weather Service to have the Tinker Base Weather Station (under the command of Major Ernest J. Fawbush), investigate the feasibility of forecasting tornado-producing thunderstorms. Major Fawbush had been interested for some years in such storms and since I had become "most interested", overnight. I was most fortunate in being selected to aid in the investigations. During the next three days, we analyzed not only the surface and upper-air weather charts prior to the Tinker tornado, but for several other past tornadic outbreaks. Certain similarities in the weather patterns preceding such storms did appear and, in addition, supported theories advanced by other researchers interested in the cause and behavior of tornadoes.
Using our findings and incorporating those of others - most notably, excellent work by USWB personnel such as the late Mr. J. R. Lloyd, Meteorologist in charge at Kansas City, Missouri and an extremely useful paper by A. K. Showalter and J. R. Fulks (also with the USWB) - we listed several weather parameters considered sufficient to result in significant tornadic outbreaks when all were present in a geographical area at the same time. The problem faced by the forecaster was to consider the current surface and upper air data, determine the existence of these parameters or the probability of their development, and then project the parameters in space and time in order to issue the "tornado threat area" with a reasonable degree of confidence and lead time. The size of the threat area would cover 20-30,000 square miles. Such a detailed forecast procedure was time and labor consuming and required intensive and specialized analysis.
On the morning weather charts of the 25th of March 1948, just five days after the Tinker storm, we noted a great similarity between the charts of the 20th and the 25th. After analyzing the surface and upper-air data, a prognostic chart was prepared for 6:00 p.m. local time showing the expected position of the various critical parameters. This chart resulted in the somewhat unsettling conclusion that central Oklahoma would be in the primary tornado threat area by late afternoon and early evening. General Borum was notified and shortly thereafter arrived at the weather station. He was very interested and most knowledgeable when it came to weather. He was highly proficient in the operation of our local radar and loved to watch the scope during thunderstorm outbreaks. He digested what we had told him and asked, "Are you planning to issue a tornado forecast for Tinker?" There was a period of uneasy quiet until E. J. spoke up. "Well it certainly looks like the 20th, right Bob?" Oh, great! I wanted to turn and ask my Sergeant friend the same question, but he wasn't on shift. I replied, " Yes, E. J., it certainly looks like it did on the 20th."
After hearing these helpful observations, the General asked what we believed the critical time would be and received a useful answer this time -- 5 to 6 p.m. The General then decided we should issue a forecast for heavy thunderstorms during that period. He patiently explained that such a move would serve to alert the base and set phase A of his brand new, and detailed, base warning system into effect. We were more than delighted with this approach, knowing in our hearts that we were "off the hook" since this would cover us. The chance of a second tornado hitting the same spot within five days was less than 1 in 20,000,000. Far better we should take such odds rather than actually issue a tornado forecast and be laughed out of Uncle Sam's Air Force. We issued the General's heavy thunderstorm warning -- what else?
As the day progressed, reports we received over the weather teletype network, confirmed our opinion that the weather pattern was indeed strikingly similar to that which produced the tornado on the 20th. Events were moving more swiftly, however, and any organized severe weather activity would occur during the afternoon. Stations to our west and southwest began reporting building cumulus clouds shortly after noon and by 1:30 p.m. Wichita Falls, Texas and Altus, Hobart, and Enid, Oklahoma were reporting cumulonimbus.
At 1:52 p.m. the first thunderstorm echoes appeared on the radar scope 60 miles to our northwest and extended 100 miles to our southwest. By 2 p.m. they were beginning to increase in number and size and organizing into a squall line. When notified of this development, General Borum headed for the weather station at once. The General spent ten minutes scanning the radar scope and commented on the rapid development and increasing intensity of the squall line. By 2:30 p.m. we determined the line was moving toward Tinker at 27 mph which would place it over the base near 6 p.m. E. J. and I glanced rather apprehensively at each other, sensing what was going to happen next. General Borum stood up, looked us in the eye and asked the unsettling question, "Are you going to issue a tornado forecast?" I knew E. J. would come up with a sensible, honest answer and he did. "Well, Sir, it sure does look like the last one, doesn't it Bob?" I tried to think of a brilliant answer and found myself saying, "Yes E. J., it is very similar to last week." The General was not particularly impressed with this intelligence. "You two sound like a broken record. If you really believe this situation is very similar to the one last week, it seems logical to issue a tornado forecast." We both made abortive efforts at crawling out of such a horrendous decision. We pointed out the infinitesimal possibility of a second tornado striking the same area within twenty years or more, let alone in five days. "Besides", we said, "no one has ever issued an operational tornado forecast. " You are about to set a precedent", said General Fred S. Borum.
With a sinking feeling in the pits of our stomachs, E. J. composed the historic message and I typed it up and passed it to Base Operations for dissemination. The time was 2:50 p.m.. The General left, asking to be kept informed of significant developments. We discussed our suddenly impossible predicament. It seemed a hopeless situation, one where we couldn't win and the General couldn't lose. Base personnel were carrying out his detailed Tornado Safety Plan, hangaring aircraft, removing loose objects, diverting incoming air traffic and moving base personnel, including the control tower personnel, to places of relative safety. I could see it now, a sure "bust" and plenty of flack thereafter. I figured General Borum wasn't about to say, "I made them do it". More likely it would be, "Major Fawbush and Captain Miller thought it looked a great deal like the 20th - ask them.". I wondered how I would manage as a civilian, perhaps as an elevator operator. It seemed improbable that anyone would employ, as a weather forecaster, an idiot who issued a tornado forecast for a precise location.
The squall line was fully developed by half past three and continued to move steadily toward Oklahoma City. There had been no reports of tornadoes nor any reports of hail and high winds, as yet. We were both very apprehensive and at this point would settle gratefully for a loud thunderstorm with a brilliant lightning display and hopefully a wind gust to 30 or 40 mph with perhaps some small hail. General W. O. Senter, commander of the Air Weather Service would perhaps be more merciful if we could just get a reasonably heavy thunderstorm. Shortly after 5 p.m. the squall line passed through Will Rogers Municipal Airport, but this time they not only didn't report a tornado, but infinitely worse, a light thunderstorm, wind gusts to 26 mph and pea size hail. That did it, I abandoned ship, leaving a grim Major Fawbush to go down with the vessel.
I drove directly home. E. J. and I both lived in Midwest City, just across the highway on the north side of the base. I related the events of the day to my wife, Beverly, who was reasonably sympathetic, and then sat down to aggravate my depression systematically. A little after six o'clock it began to thunder rather quietly and rain began. There was very little wind. It became quite dark and over the base, portions of the clouds seemed to be boiling while low cloud fragments darted hither and yon beneath the base of the thunderstorm. My view was quickly obscured by heavy rain and I stopped observing the storm. During the evening the radio broadcast we were listening to was interrupted for an urgent news bulletin. I was in another part of the house but caught the words destructive tornado and Tinker Field. "Good grief", I thought, "they're still talking about last week's tornado" -- but why break into the news. I tried to call the weather station but the lines were dead. I felt a strange unbelieving excitement rising, told my wife I was going to the station and drove away.
The base was a shambles. Poles and power lines were down and debris was strewn everywhere. Emergency crews were busy trying to restore power, clear the streets and, in particular, to restore the main runway to operational status. I reached the station to find a jubilant Major Fawbush who described the course of events after I had given up hope. At six o'clock thunder began at the base as the squall line moved in from the southwest. E. J. and my friend, the Sergeant, were outside, observing the motion of the clouds. As the line approached the southwest corner of the field, two thunderstorms seemed to join and quickly took on a greenish black hue. They could observe a slow counterclockwise cloud rotation around the point at which the storms merged. Suddenly a large cone shaped cloud bulged down rotating counterclockwise at great speed. At the same time they saw a wing from one of the moth-balled World War II B-29's float lazily upward toward the visible part of the funnel. A second or two later the wing disintegrated, the funnel shot to the ground and the second large tornado in five days began its devastating journey across the base very close to the track of its predecessor.
It was all over in 3 or 4 minutes. It seemed much longer. The swirling funnel left $6 million dollars in damage, $4 million less than the first storm and significantly, there were no personal injuries. General Borum's Tornado Disaster Plan had been just as successful as the first operational tornado forecast. We became instant heroes, and in my case, the rest of my life would be intimately associated with tornadoes and severe thunderstorms. General Borum graciously refrained from mentioning the story behind the sensational forecast and he convinced General Senter that we should be allowed to concentrate on further development of our forecast system. The complexity and evolution of the pattern that instigated the sequence of events I have described boggles the mind. This first tornado forecast triggered a chain of events which led to the present day Severe Storms Forecast System and a vast national research program investigating these killer storms. Well, it did look a lot like March 20th. Even the General thought so.
EDITORS NOTE: Col. Robert Miller passed away in 1998. His book: "Notes on Analysis and Severe-Storm Forecasting Procedures of the Air Force Global Weather Central" published in May 1972 was utilized in my severe weather course in college. The book is 180 pages and can be ordered through the National Technical Information Service, U.S. Dept. of Commerce, 5285 Port Royal Road, Springfield, VA 22151. Number is AD-744-042. Chasers interested in severe storm forecasting definitely should add this book to their library.
"WORKING WITH COL M" by Dr. Robert (Bob) Maddox
During eight years of service in the USAF in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I was lucky enough to work directly with Col. Miller for almost five years. This was an absolutely unique experience, which became the keystone for my entire career in weather forecasting and research. I'd like to discuss this experience from several different perspectives, but first some background is probably needed.
During the late sixties when I was a weather detachment forecaster, Col. Miller and his Military Weather Warning Center (MWWC) were co-located with SELS at the Federal Center in Kansas City. The Colonel had been fairly successful in developing and keeping the MWWC as a highly specialized forecast group that put a heavy emphasis upon the experience of the personnel assigned there. For example, multiple tours of duty at MWWC were common, and forecaster rank had little relation to specific duties and responsibilities. (For those readers not having had USAF weather experience, its important to remember that typically as one's rank increases duties shift away from operations toward administration.) It was during this time, because of the supercomputer power being implemented at Air Force Global Weather Central (AFGWC), that the MWWC should be moved to Omaha and integrated into the continental US forecasting operations. Since I was at AFGWC, I was able to volunteer to help with the preparations and logistics related to this relocation. Thus, my experiences working with Col. M. occurred after his unit had been reorganized and shifted up to Omaha. Even at AFGWC, Col. M was able, at least for a number of years, to keep control of staffing for the severe weather section. He tended toward picking those of us who had a great enthusiasm for severe weather, along with good skills in synoptic analysis.
He always had a very competitive edge to his personality and work. He liked nothing more than having his unit beat SELS in getting an area identified and "watched." He coordinated daily with SELS, but was most in tune with the operational lead forecasters rather than management back in Kansas City - this was also true at AFGWC. In fact, he went to great lengths to protect his severe weather troops from the military BS that was rampant all around us. He worked almost around the clock, usually insisting that forecasters, unless they'd been on board for a long time, call him and discuss all tornado-forecast areas, i.e., "red" areas, regardless of the hour. He basically made the final forecast decisions during weekday shifts, when he and the Military Weather Advisory forecaster (this was the position that I was lucky enough to have) worked together. He also followed up, almost fanatically, chasing down verification reports for each and every tornado and severe thunderstorm forecast area issued by the group.
His approach to forecasting severe thunderstorms had several key, but distinct, components. The first step involved intense analysis of the current situation - surface and upper-air charts. The Col. was a highly skilled and practiced analyst. His final charts were both incredibly detailed and also were often beautiful works of art. Naturally, continuity and time evolution of features up to the current time was an important aspect of this process. The final product of this analysis effort was the famous Miller "composite" chart on which all the key features at various pressure levels related to severe thunderstorm production were overlain and color-keyed on a single large chart. The base analysis on this chart was almost always the most current, detailed surface analysis. It has often been said that forecasting with a Miller composite is easy - storms will be the worst where the underlying base map is most obscured by co-located parameters!
The forecasting of these features in time was the second key step in the process. Over the years this step gradually incorporated increasing amounts of numerical forecast model output. The prime emphasis through was always upon generating a composite forecast chart that drew upon both the forecasters' experience and whatever model output was deemed useful. The next step in the Col.'s personal methodology was often related to analog situations. He had a nearly photographic memory for synoptic events of the past and the severe weather that they produced. The final step related to climatological data sets that the Col. used routinely as an integral part of his forecast process. Some of this involved use of monthly plots of past severe occurrences, i.e., maps showing all tornado reports by month. He had several large notebooks completely filled with climatological charts, tables, and analyses of specific past severe weather events. He would often open these up and pour through them as he was pondering the final forecast. He also had accumulated a mental climatology of where, given the occurrence of strong thunderstorms, severe storm reports were most likely. This aspect of severe storm reporting, while well known and documented today, was tracked assiduously by the Col.
Thus, his final forecast chart for the US would draw upon the current and predicted composite charts, the climatological aspects of the situation and the reporting characteristics of key cities in and near likely severe weather areas. He'd always tell us not to leave a "hot spot" out of a severe weather area, like say Kansas City, if they were close. Often, he'd finesse and finalize the final forecast product that had been "drafted" by the advisory forecaster, talking and explaining all the while his reasons for this or that adjustment. He would always follow up and evaluate each and every advisory forecast that had been issued. The high point of an MWWC forecaster's day would be to come in and find a huge "Great!" marked on your forecast chart boldly in large purple print. The opposite experience of finding his equally bold critique of a bad forecast was always disheartening and embarrassing in the short term. Seeing the comment of "Dummy! How could you have missed this........" in bold purple for all to see was tough. But, I think it inspired all of us to work hard and to do our absolute best. I know the Col.'s critiques of many bad forecasts motivated the perpetuators to do careful post-analysis and study. Personally, many of my goofs helped steer future research efforts. Decades later I can still remember vividly some of my worst tornado area forecasts. I like to think that, given the chance, I could do better today because of all the work that experiences at MWWC led to.
The Col. inspired his forecasters to great levels of enthusiasm and devotion to our very difficult job. He was a great teacher and taught extremely effectively by example and intense on the job training. He expected only perfection and helped us try to achieve it. Even though he was so intense and dedicated to the job of severe weather forecasting, he did not lose his sense of humor through the years. The changes imposed at AFGWC on what was once "his" unit were undoubtedly difficult for him to deal with, but he'd joke with all of us. The forecast shift logbooks from the '70s are hilarious because of his off-the-wall humor and accompanying sketches. It was the humor that allowed all of us to survive the incredibly high stress that went with the job. I don't think that many, if any, of us suffered burnout - I know that I was just as eager to get in to work my shifts at the end of five years as I had been at the start. In closing, the years that I was able to work with and know Col. M had a huge personal impact. I was so taken up by the job and severe weather and the inspiration of Col. M that I spent my whole career working to both understand storms better and to improve ways to forecast them. My situation and experience is not at all unique; most of those who worked with the Col. were affected forever by his mentoring. He'll always be with me in spirit. I'll never forget him, chewing on his stogie, hunkered down over his precious charts and analyses, working intensely to make that perfect forecast!
YOCEMENTO, KS TORNADO: OCTOBER 16, 1998 by Mike Umscheid
Well it was mid-October, possibly the worst time of the year for the typical storm chaser. The longest possible time, climatologically, until the next season of chaseable severe storms. Come September, I was ready for more severe storms during the fall season. After busting every chase I attempted in September, I was in dire frustration with the atmosphere. I logged a good thousand miles of blue sky, despite what appeared to be rather impressive chase days. It seemed as if it would be a long winter for me, after enduring a seemingly everlasting period of chasing misfortune starting in mid-July. On Friday, October 16th, all the fates came together for the most spectacular chase day I would ever dream of. It was a day where persistence paid off.
Friday was looking good all week long according to the medium range forecast models. A strong amplitude trough was forecast to setup over the central Rockies by Friday morning with potent short-wave troughs rounding the base into western Kansas by Friday evening. Seeing as it was mid-October, and a last gasp chase for the '98 season, I paid particular close attention to the evolution of this storm system. By 36 hours out, the ETA and AVN were consistent on developing a strong surface dryline along a Dodge City longitude by 7:00pm Friday. Seventy knot winds from 500mb on up were to be positioned over western Kansas along with 40+ knot winds from the 850mb to 700mb level. It appeared that the storm relative helicities would be ideal, with Storm Relative Helicity [PCGridds] macros forecast to approach 400 m2/s2. With it being middle October, the one problem present was low level instability. Surface parcels (T/Td) were only forecast to be around 75/65. I looked at the data on Friday morning and the potential target area was looking to be too far west to chase, and with the marginal severe weather parameters, it appeared that this potentially big chase day would end up being a non-chase day. My regular chase partners Jay Antle and Jon Smith were unavailable for a chase. I called John Moser Thursday night, and he was unable to make a four hour one-way drive. So, I was to be on my own. Will the extreme 0-3km helicities overcome the marginal low level instability and result in tornadic supercells? Well, there was only one way to find out, and that was to actually get out there. It would be a boom or bust to end the season. After my first morning class, I checked new data, and moisture convergence bulls-eyes were now crossing into extreme southwest Kansas. It was time to make the chase/no-chase call. I couldn't resist, and decided it was a go. Target: Between Dodge City and Great Bend by 5:00pm.
Out the Door
I left my house in Overland Park, KS shortly after 12:30pm in pursuit to my target area. I had Jay Antle and my dad, no doubt, armchairing for me. Most of Kansas was under gunge and pre-frontal showers, until you got west of Great Bend. I headed west on I-70 to west of Salina, then jogged southwest towards Great Bend along K-156, arriving in Great Bend shortly after 4:00pm. I gave Jay a call shortly before entering Great Bend, and he notified me that storms were already going up along the dryline between Dodge City and Ness City. I was still under low level gunge, with a clear slot to the west of town. After receiving advise from Jay, and getting some gas in the chase vehicle, I headed west on K-96 towards Rush Center. Time 4:30pm. The gunge was breaking up, and towers became visible off to the west. I began to see the rain free base of the storm which prompted a Severe Thunderstorm Warning for Hodgeman Co., but this storm was bolting northeast at near 50mph, so I decided to wait for more activity to develop to the southwest. At 5:00pm, I noticed another significant base to the southwest, which appeared to be southwest of Ness City. I was about 15 miles east of Ness City. I pulled off along an intersecting county road to monitor this base, as it had a nicely sheared anvil and flat base. I sat at this location east of Ness City about twelve minutes. There were two significant towers, one was southwest of Ness City, and one was right on top of Ness City. Time was 5:25pm. I continued west into Ness City, then north on US-283, to a location about four miles north of town. I sat along Highway 283 for about twenty minutes watching the progression of these developing storms, now under the base of one of them. Time was now around 6:00pm, and one of the towers was now producing a decent precipitation core to the northeast of Ness City, as I was under the updraft of the developing storm. It was time to head back east to continue monitoring this struggling storm.
I went back into Ness City and then east on K-96. With no new development to the southwest, I was going to play with this low topped thing until sundown. I was more than four hours from home, and I was not going to blow off anything until after sundown. So, with that in mind, I continued east, and the weak storm was now far enough north for me to get a look at the grand scheme of things. It was really low topped with no anvil and rather soft updraft towers. The storm continued to pulse up new updrafts along the rear flank, with each pulse into the stratosphere getting progressively higher and more sharp. Hmm, things were looking a bit more interesting. I had to stay near latitude with the storm, so I headed north on an unpaved county road at Basine. Shortly before going north, I noted a group of what I presumed were storm chasers parked along Highway 96 monitoring the situation. Time was about 6:20pm.
At this time, I became increasingly interested with this updraft to my north-northwest. Each updraft pulse was getting sharper and sharper -- higher and higher in altitude. At 6:30pm, I jogged east on Highway K-4 for a couple of miles then north again on a county road in extreme northwestern Rush County, about 17 miles due south of Ellis. The next sequence of events, from about 6:40 to 6:50pm were, to put it lightly, remarkable. I began to pick out a faint lowering off to the distant northwest. All of the sudden, the towers underneath this developing wall cloud were rock-hard and continuing to develop. In only a couple minutes, the faint lowered base was now a very impressive wall cloud. I was still heading north and in motion, so I couldn't determine if it was rotating or not. Time was 6:48pm.
I approached a bend in the county road at the Ellis/Rush County line. I stopped to take a bit of outside video and I became instantly shocked to find this wall cloud rotating like a top. The wall cloud was even developing a significant funnel when I was at this location. I started to get a bit excited to say the least. The storm had gone from nothing to forming a rapidly rotating wall cloud in about 15 minutes. I didn't have enough time to get my camcorder back on my other tripod in the car, so I was now shooting video and driving at the same time, luckily I was on a county road with no other traffic. I continued north on the county road (Ellis Ave.), and all of the sudden the wall cloud was developing
a significant funnel cloud. As I got on top of a ridge, I was shocked at what I saw next. A very impressive debris cloud was on the ground, and a full fledged tornado was underway. Time was 6:56pm. I learned later when I got home that at this precise time, Dodge City issued a severe thunderstorm warning (yes a SVR) for Ellis County. I was too nervous and too focused on documenting this tornado that I didn't even think about calling in the tornado. This was the first time I've ever encountered such circumstances in my life. I've always dreamed of witnessing tornadogenesis, but this was downright phenomenal. The storm produced a tornado no more than 20 minutes after I was writing off how pathetic the updrafts were looking.
Up to this point, I was in chaser heaven, but this was only one pebble of sand on the beach. The tornado developed a condensation funnel a couple minutes later due north of me while I continued north. I estimated the tornado to be about three miles north of me. The tornado was now well developed, and I was beginning to lose contrast, so I stopped to get some outside tripod video. The classic cone shape condensation funnel was breathtaking. After almost completely losing contrast, I continued north on Ellis Ave. Contrast was getting much better now as I was gaining on the tornado's latitude once again. As I continued north, the tornado was now a wide cone to my northeast. The tornado
began to lose the cone definition, but near the cloud base, the condensation funnel was getting much wider. The contrast was getting significantly better. The cloud base was very low, and shortly, the tornado began to get much wider at the ground base. In no more than a minutes time, I was watching a rather large wedge spinning out in the open plains about 7 miles or so south-southeast of Ellis. I simply could not believe what I was witnessing. I estimated the condensation and debris cloud to be about 1/4 mile wide at the ground base and almost double that at the cloud base. This was simply incredible. This wedge cycle of the tornado lasted no more than a couple minutes: from about 7:06 to 7:08pm .
The condensation funnel lifted back to the cloud base about half way, and the tornado was morphing again: multiple vortices were now clearly visible, and I was able to get some more outside tripod video. This lasted a couple minutes as well. Then, a second tornado appeared to be forming to the north of the primary tornado, which lasted only a half minute or so. A local storm spotter passed me by on the county road, the only vehicle I saw on this road. He stopped, and we shared a few words, however he had to keep going, so I didn't get to tell him much what I witnessed. The tornado again lifted, and the wall cloud was rotating rather vigorously for another couple minutes, then dropping a tornado once again. Darkness was prevailing and my contrast was getting very poor. The tornado was an awesome cone shape once again, now nearing the town of Yocemento, unfortunately. Time 7:15pm. Occasional lightning within the core provided dramatic illumination of the tornado as the sun was setting. I continued north again, then east along Golf Course Rd. I got to 150th Ave (I believe), when I just about ran into downed power lines at this county road intersection. I had no option but to continue north. I had the radio tuned into the Hays station, as scattered damage reports were coming in from around Yocemento. The tornado apparently crossed I-70 at the Yocemento Interchange where there was one injury as the tornado crossed the interstate.
I tried to go east into Hays but failed, as law enforcement officials blocked off Old US-40 into Yocemento. So, I backtracked a ways and pulled off to watch the video I shot, in amazement. I departed for home about 8:30pm, and got home around 1:00am.
This was by far the most impressive storm I've ever witnessed in terms of intense strengthening, on the order of less than twenty minutes. I expected to possibly see supercells, however, I didn't expect to see what I saw, which was a significant tornado on the ground for over twenty minutes. SPC issued a Severe Thunderstorm Watch for the area of western Kansas. It was a Slight Risk day as per SPC Day 1 Convective Outlook. I failed to lose hope when these storms struggled and the area was only in a yellow box. I was honestly beginning to lose hope that I'd see anything once I was in Ness City watching the pathetic, mushy towers going up and down. So why did this tornadic supercell explode out of nowhere? I'm not a meso-meteorologist (yet, at least!), so I have no idea. Perhaps whatever low level instability there was, was sufficient to overcome a weak capping inversion. I think a big contributor to the formation of this tornado was a) High Helicity values, which were forecast to dramatically increase by 6:00 and 7:00pm. b) The surface T/Td spreads were significantly low, averaging 6-9 degrees F, resulting in quite low LCL values, which results in lower cloud bases, helping to spin up a tornado easier, without influence of the storm's outflow. I'd love to see case studies on these types of low-topped supercellular situations.
A TORNADO IN MY BACKYARD by Tom Warner
The day started with a slight risk over our area. By 4 pm MDT, dewpoints were in the mid-60s and southeast winds at 15 mph were continuing to bring moisture into the area. A short-wave trough was moving in from the southwest as well as increasing mid-level winds. A storm started developing about 7 miles north of my house. After 40 minutes, it showed some organization so I drove out to intercept. At 5:15 pm MDT I arrived at an elevated vantage point and saw a well developed mesocyclone. Forty minutes later an RFD punched a clear slot on the western side of the storm and five minutes later the first of three tornado touchdowns occurred. The first tornado was a cone and was on the ground for ten minutes.
After this tornado dissipated, I drove north a few miles and then east on my only east-west road option. A needle formed behind me in what appeared to be the old occlusion and lasted about 5 minutes. There were at least two additional funnels from this old occlusion. The main mesocyclone then produced a V-shaped tornado after another clear slot formed. This tornado occasionally had a cone appearance as well. I was about three miles away on the southeast side of the storm at closest approach. After traveling eastbound to a north-south road option, the mesocyclone became rain wrapped and appeared to be dissipating.
I left the storm by traveling south towards I-90 and ran into a large yahoo convention consisting of 20-30 cars. I saw one other car prior to this. The storm dissipated, but another good storm developed on its outflow to the southwest. I was able to get a great light show now that the sun was down. See some images of the show at my web page at http://www.cris.com/~Warnerst Overall, I saw three touchdowns and two funnels. The first tornado touched down approximately 15 miles from my house --right in my backyard.