In the beginning…
The first time I went storm chasing was in 2006 and I was a first-year Ph.D. student. The iPhone did not yet exist, flip phones were generally considered cool, and tweeting was something a small bird did. My friend and mentor at McGill had this crazy idea to take me and 19 other (mostly Canadian) grad and undergrad students to the U.S. Great Plains for two weeks. He was the only one who had ever chased before, so he (thankfully) insisted on driving the lead car. Which left me, the oldest grad student on the trip, as the chief navigator. So we drove to Detroit, rented a fleet of five cars, hung out by the St. Louis arch, spent half a day at a Bass Pro in scenic Council Bluffs, Iowa, found a really cool slide in Omaha and a really nice park in Sioux Falls, saw Mount Rushmore for the first time, and oh yeah, there was some severe weather too. It was terrifyingly fantastic.
Of course, in writing the first chapter of what has become my reputation, we didn’t see a tornado. We almost got blown off the road by a bow echo, followed an Independence Day-style supercell for over 3 hours after first finding it as a cumulus cloud, and learned Grand Island, Nebraska hasn’t been hit by a tornado since 1983 because they built an 8-story building downtown (seriously, this is what a group of locals told us). And oh yeah, we accessed internet by walking into public libraries. And holding laptops outside closed libraries desperate for wifi (yes that’s me in that picture, I had hair then). As nervous as I was that first chase, not knowing what I was doing or even if it was safe to do, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. The bonding, the lifelong friendships made, the forecasting lessons learned, all of it. I was pretty much hooked.
Picture it, western Iowa, June 2008. A small group of friends and I had just driven 7 hours from Pierre (pronounced “pier”, not like your favorite Quebec waiter or Pelican mascot), South Dakota, where we ended up the night before after chasing a supercell in the Black Hills. About that previous day: we also busted through a “pavement ends” sign, drove 15 miles on a dirt road, nearly ran out of gas because no stations were open on the state highway, and hung out with a bunch of actual juvenile delinquents at the only Pierre diner open after 11 p.m. But I digress, as the moderate risk (see below) was calling.
After crossing the blasted Missouri River like 5 times (seriously, I hate the Missouri River…it’s always just so…there), we found ourselves in the midst of eight supercells lined up in an Iowa state forest. We saw a brief tornado, made a few #poorlifechoices, and then got caught in the heaviest rain I had ever experienced. Pulled to the side of the road, we then felt the wind shift 90 degrees against the car. When it was all over and we got to the bar I mean dinner, we realized that the tornado that had destroyed a nearby scout camp had just barely lifted before the mesocyclone rolled over our car. Many drinks were had, but hey, first tornado! In all seriousness, this was a sobering experience. Not just because we came so close to disaster ourselves, but because the tornado had caused a number of deaths and injuries at the scout camp. It’s sometimes a strange feeling desperately trying to see a phenomenon that can be so deadly. And when those two things intersect, it can make you want to stop doing it.
The Bowdle and the not-so-beautiful
If you chase, you’ve surely heard all about the May 22nd, 2010 EF-4 in Bowdle, SD. If not, Google it, I’m still too bitter to provide video links. We knew that day could produce something big. But as is often the case in storm chasing, good things can only potentially come to those who wait the longest. The cap was strong that day, my friends (see the 21Z Aberdeen sounding below). So we got to Pierre, found the McDonalds, plugged in our laptops, and waited. And waited. And waited. I think we spent six hours at that McDonalds. For the first time, I somewhat understood why the folks in Clovis, NM had looked at us like we had four heads a couple of years prior (also, most of them are likely aliens from that new solar system NASA just discovered, but anyway, we were there a long time with a bunch of laptops). Around 530 p.m., the cap finally started to break. A cell to the east went from fair weather cumulus cloud to tornadic supercell in 20 minutes. We raced to catch it, and we did. We were 2 miles from seeing the Bowdle EF-4 wedge tornado when there it was in front of us…a downed powerline, and a cop. We could have driven over the downed powerline, but the cop not so much. So we turned around and by the time we got back to the supercell, the tornado had lifted. It’s still one of my biggest chase career regrets; just look at that 00Z sounding!
We’re not in Kansas anymore
Actually, I was. Lived there for two years. Great place. Chasing blue sky for 8 hours and coming home to sleep in my own bed was awesome! Oh, you expected me to talk about how I went to Nebraska on April 14th, 2012? Nope, not happening (*looks around nervously*).
Anyone who has chased with me knows I have a reputation for three things: 1) being completely paranoid about positive lightning strikes from the anvil, 2) having terrible tornado luck, and 3) loving the forecast challenge more than the actual chase. And then came 2016. Ten years and many fewer hairs after I first went chasing, I decided to run my own storm chase course at Embry-Riddle. Twelve of us spent two weeks in the Plains, and hit the proverbial spinning jackpot. After a few quiet days to start, we saw the Woodward tornado of May 23rd (pictured below) the Dodge City supermegatornadopalooza of May 24th (12 separate touchdowns), and several other awesome supercells and mammatus outbreaks. Of course, we still missed the Bennington/Chapman EF-4 on May 25th, because that’s what I do, I never show up to Bennington tornadoes. But finally, I broke the “curse”, and the students all breathed giant sighs of relief that their $4,000 didn’t go to waste.
Never stop chasing
Storm chasing has changed a lot in 10 years. Now anyone with RadarScope and a car thinks they’re a storm chaser. The roads are more crowded, the data is more plentiful, the energy drinks are strong, and the social media takes are fiery hot. But there are few things in meteorology more satisfying than making a correct forecast, picking the right storm, and watching Mother Nature do its thing. And in a field that has become all about the best computer models and the most #prettycolors on the 700-hour CFS, it’s rewarding to actually make a forecast and see the results for yourself. There will be more success and more disappointment, but you can never take away the experience that a storm chase trip provides.
Put another way, we’ll always have Pilger; well, you will, I had to go home to Florida two days before that.
Shawn Milrad is an avid blue sky chaser constantly busting in North Platte. But they have a great Ruby Tuesday. He is also an Assistant Professor of Meteorology at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Daytona Beach in his spare time, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://www.shawnmilrad.com