Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A New Direction

Hello all and thanks to anyone who has hung around this long after my last update! Or maybe I am just suddenly obnoxiously appearing in your RSS feed. :)

I didn't want to leave everyone hanging for so long, but only have just now decided that a new blog would be appropriate. Why is that, you ask? Well...what do you think I am doing right now? Continuing on in the awesomeness that must be involved with storm chasing 24/7? Of course that's's past 1:00 a.m. local time and I am clearly not storm chasing. As the new season of Discovery Channel's Storm Chasers approaches, I am dreading the onslaught of internet comments about "extreme" storm chasing and how glamorous it all is. In reality...we all have other work to do. The purpose of V2 was for research...what exactly does that mean? I can assure you it's not all awesomeness and extremeness all the time.

Pictured: Awesomeness and extremeness during V2

So if you are still reading, I invite you to come along with me on an entirely different type of journey, the kind that occurs after the chase.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The End of VORTEX2

The CSWR crew the night before ops ended. Can you find me? How about Waldo? (

VORTEX2 has officially ended. In two years we collected data on one long-track tornado (Goshen County, WY) and deployed on many other null cases (no tornado) or short-lived events (most of this season). The towel was thrown in yesterday outside of Lubbock, TX following an uneventful chase in hopes of some "High Plains Magic." Tearful goodbyes were had, future personal plans were made, and radio shoutouts were conducted as each team peeled off the armada. While many of the goodbyes were a bit silly, it was very heartwarming in its own way. The VORTEX2 crew has been a big dysfunctional (cliche alert) family for the past 6 weeks: we've laughed, we've cried, we've yelled at each other, we've talked about other people behind their backs...and just like in real life, when it comes down to it, we've all had each others' backs.

While V2 operations have ended, CSWR is extending the season a few more days. I write from the front seat of Probe 12 as we wander the plains as a discrete unit, the immediate family. This will not be my final post. For the second edition of VORTEX, as Porky Pig would say, that's all folks.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

A story about Probe 12

Probe 12, doing its thing (

Let me tell you a story about Probe 12.

A long, long time ago, the Center for Severe Weather Research acquired two shiny 2003 Dodge Rams. These trucks were destined for a life as storm chasers (vehicles)!!! “How exciting!” thought the Rams. “To actually act out the scenes shown in car commercials, to traverse the Great Plains, to use four wheel drive more than once a year! My, what a life!” And so it was. CSWR outfitted the sibling vehicles with the best (strikeout) cheapest materials they could find, with multiple GPS instruments, laptops, a mast with weather instruments, and a truck bed full of tornado pods! They named the trucks Probe 11 and Probe 12.

And so the siblings began their lives as storm chasers (vehicles). Roaming the plains with the deer and the antelope. During the second year of VORTEX2, Probe 12 got new drivers: Lindsay and Mallie. Lindsay and Mallie took good care of Probe 12, cleaning him up, organizing his compartments, and keeping everything quite prim and proper—on the inside and out!
One day, Probe 12 didn’t feel so well, and blinked the dashboard lights until Mallie paid attention. Mallie took Probe 12 to the hotel parking lot to be looked at, but once she turned him off and back on, everything was fine! “Weird…” thought Mallie, and there was talk of changing the alternator. But Probe 12 still didn’t feel too well…. The next day, Evan took Probe 12 to the doctor (strikeout) car dealership. The doctor told Probe 12 that he needed a new alternator. But Probe 12 knew it wasn’t just the alternator, and blinked at Mallie some more during a deployment. Mallie hurried Probe 12 back to the next hotel, where they got it a new alternator. But Probe 12 still didn’t feel well, and the problem continued. So Justin gave Probe 12 a new inverter. “There!” thought Justin and Herb. But Probe 12 still didn’t feel quite right, and died in the parking lot while taking Alex and Jeff to dinner. So Justin gave Probe 12 a new battery, but Probe 12 still didn’t feel quite right….

Later that month, Probe 12 took a 50 m/s wind gust! “Good job, Probe 12!” said Mallie and Lindsay. But Probe 12 wasn’t feeling too hot…actually, it was feeling totally hot, and gave up on the air conditioning. Phil, Lindsay, and Mallie took him to another doctor in the middle of a chase, and found out it would cost over $1000 to repair! Josh didn’t want to pay that, so Lindsay and Mallie bough desk fans to plug in for Probe 12. But that still did not make Probe 12 feel better.

One day, Mallie was driving Probe 12 and heard clunking noises. “It’s probably the transmission,” Matt told her. That brings us to today….

Phil Kurimski got a couple good shots of 2 out of 3 of today's tornadoes

We were deployed on a sorry-looking line of storms when the circulation picked up. The circulation first passed overhead after a supposed area of interest dissipated. As we prepared to turn around a chaser almost ran into us in a hurry to pull off and video something. At that point both Rachel and I noticed what he was recording: a funnel that we watched descend, reach the ground, and grow rapidly. It quickly became hidden in the precipitation which we were sent through to attempt an intercept. The core was devoid of hail but rain curtains made it literally impossible to see past the front of our truck. In addition, the region had received a radar estimated 10 “ of rain the night before, so flooding and water on the roads was a major concern. As we turned east to get onto the road we expected to intercept the tornado on, DOW7 announced to us that their power was out and they were unable to scan, so they had no idea where the tornado was. Thankfully a few minutes later we found out DOW6 was still scanning and the first tornado had dissipated.

As Lindsay and I finally broke through the precipitation, we spotted what appeared to be midlevel circulation which then seemed to evolve into a funnel, then eventually evolved into another tornado. At this point we realized we might need to turn around to deploy pods in its path, and things went a little haywire. Probe teams split up as everyone tried to figure out the best spot to deploy. Based on initial DOW6 guidance, Lindsay and I dropped a pod right on the main road (270), which we then had to pick up quickly as the tornado occluded and reformed on the other side of the road. We then moved to a town called Slapout and went north a few kilometers before receiving instructions to move back south towards where the circulation (no longer visible to us but visible on radar) was crossing.

As we tried to work out pod deployment instructions, Josh came on the radio: “Pod teams, the tornado is now close to the road, you do not have much time.” At this point we were 3 km south of DOW7, and Lindsay starts yelling at me to stop driving, “Stop stop stop we’re already too late, it’s right there.” Josh: “While you’re deploying pods you may get into the circulation; don’t worry, the winds are only 70 or 80 mph, this is a very weak tornado. It will be crossing 4 km south of the DOW in 5 seconds…4…3…2……the tornado is on the road now…ok, the tornado has crossed the road, please continue south.” At this point, I was already laughing out of confusion/frustration at another failed pod deployment, and also at the fact we had a countdown for a tornado that we couldn’t see a kilometer (that’s less than a mile) ahead of us. As I pulled off the side of the road Probe 12 made a horrible wretching noise, and I could tell I was dragging something that was supposed to belong to the car underneath us. I was still surprised from the deployment that had just failed, then became extra surprised by the new development and needing to figure out a not completely muddy location to pull over since the ground was nothing but mush next to the road. Eric came on the radio to tell us we were dragging something under us, and I hopped out to look. Sure enough, the entire driveshaft had fallen off the bottom of our car, a kilometer away from the third tornado. I hurriedly grabbed my cell phone and wallet and jumped into Probe 11 since it was still pouring and operations on the storm were still underway.

Lindsay grabbed her phone and did the same.

So here we sit, passengers in Probe 11 while Eddie limps back to the hotel in Probe 12. Eddie hurried over to take a look at it when they returned to pick up a pod and figured out we could get it to our overnight location (how he did this in the pouring rain, I do not know). He rallied up DOW6 members Justin and Matt and the media member, Yoshi, to do a quick fix. They removed the driveshaft until it can be reattached tomorrow morning and are driving about 3 hours at 60 mph.`

What. A. Day.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Four tornadoes, Two Days

Deer Trail, CO

Successful deployment on a tornado that lasted longer than 30 seconds by most of VORTEX2, including the UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles)! Unfortunately due to, once again, a poor road network, tornado pods were not and could not have been deployed. Two tornadoes formed near the same location, but by the time the meso reached the road it was no longer producing tornadoes. After sunset operations were called off and a few anticyclonic* funnels could be seen between lightning strikes, causing DOW7 and another mobile radar to stop and scan. At one point three funnels could be seen at one time.

Post-tornado meso

Limon/Genoa/Arriba/?, CO

This day was very interesting because we almost ran into two (three?) tornadoes. Initially we moved towards a tornado-warned storm in Denver then turned around and decided to target the southern storm near Limon (where we’d been sitting the past few hours). On radar the storm looked nice with a high-reflectivity core and a hook, then it blew up into an HP (high precipitation) mess. The CSWR pod teams were separated so that 15 and 16 followed DOW7 and 11, 12, and 13 took off on our own down a curvy, narrow, dirt road with two media vehicles following us. As we were moving north we got instructions to turn around and move back south to where the circulation was—we’d overshot it. Unfortunately, turning around meant core punching. Within a few seconds of turning around we were taking baseball-sized hail (2+ inches). Baseball hail is interesting for multiple reasons:

1. Its terminal velocity is pretty freaking fast. Imagine someone dropping a baseball from a two-story building and it’s coming at your head. Ok, now instead of a two-story building, that baseball is being dropped from 10 kilometers up in the atmosphere.
2. Baseball sized hail breaks into smaller pieces upon impact. These “small” pieces are the size of golf balls.
3. The microphysics of getting baseball sized hail also means they are few and far between compared with pea or nickel sized hail. So every now and then you just see a giant piece of ice fall in front of you.
4. It’s ice the size of a baseball. This ice actually melted on the way down from the cloud, which means at some point that piece of ice was much larger than a baseball.

Miraculously, we had no major injuries or vehicle damage. 13 has a nice ring of cracked windshield and 11 has a new large crack. Our already super-cracked windshield on 12 received no damage.

Anyway back to the tornado. At this point we can barely see 100 feet in front of us thanks to this wall of precipitation. I was driving, and in addition to being concerned about the hail, I was concerned that the dirt road we were on was getting a bit ruddy; this would not have been the first time a vehicle got stuck in the mud, but we were expecting the tornado to pop up somewhere nearby this time. In fact, it did just that. 13 was leading the pack and from a few cars following distance behind, I saw them hit the brakes and start backing up. Alex got on the radio and shouted frantically “We have a circulation on the road in front of us, we’re turning around, go north!!!” As we all hurriedly tried to turn around in the baseballs on the dirt/mud road, Josh came onto our frequency to say “Did you deploy pods?” Alex: “No we never made it out of the hail to deploy! We’re moving north, the circulation is on the ground in front of us!” Josh: “Don’t turn around, continue moving south. The circulation should be crossing the road now, it’s not that strong, we’re seeing winds of only 80 to 100 mph.” …………….

To recap this deployment: dirt road, baseball-sized hail, oops the tornado is on the road 50 feet in front of us, it’s ok it’s only 100 mph winds, did you deploy?

I’m sure we have very interesting mesonet data.

Driving into core

So we bailed east through the storm, got ahead, then were sent back west towards more dirt roads. We passed by a deployed DOW6 and went in circles on the dirt road network as our instructions changed to get us closer to the meso. We noticed we were getting dangerously close to the core (again), and received instructions to move back east ahead of it (again). As we were all bailing, a tight circulation appeared off to our right which we reported, then a couple minutes later a less tight circulation appeared immediately to the left of the road. Our initial thought was they were both landspouts** and went about our business. Then we received word from DOW6 that it was definitely a tornado associated with the meso; from about half a kilometer away at their lowest scan they had a very pronounced “doughnut hole” on radar at the location we (and they) were visually seeing the circulation.

To recap this deployment: East, west, east, uh oh core, east, landspouts right next to us?, nope more supercell tornadoes.

*Most tornadoes in the northern hemisphere spin counterclockwise, or cyclonically. An accompanying anticyclonic circulation is not uncommon with a cyclonic mesocyclone.
**Landspouts don’t begin in association with the circulation of the mesocyclone, but develop ground circulation along an area of shear (changing wind direction) which is then stretched by an updraft. Landspouts are still tornadoes (people can get into arguments about this), but not the long-lived, damaging types like those that form from a parent mesocyclone. Landspouts can also evolve into traditional supercell tornadoes; the Jarrell, TX beast began as a landspout event.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


We had an interesting day yesterday.

After sitting in a park in Kimball, NE for about 4 or 5 hours, we moved north towards Scottsbluff and prepared to deploy on our target storm. At this point we could also see a good number of chasers converging on the area on StormLab (plug for Evan) and I was at least a little concerned about that. We'd already tried to deploy in that area earlier this year and ran up against a poor road network; the addition of more cars pulled over could have made deployments even more difficult. Probe 12 consisted of Lindsay and myself only yesterday, and we pulled over in a parking lot literally next to the Nebraska/Wyoming border on the Wyoming side. We were then sent back into Nebraska to attempt another play on the target storm. It caught up with us again and we were forced to backtrack and continue to move east to get ahead of the storm. At this point DOW6 recorded a decent tornado that was even visible at the lowest tilt of the nearest WSR-88D.

Eventually that storm began dying (because we kill storms) so we had to move back west to go after a new target following immediately behind the first. Our initial concern was that the storm following the first one would be eating the former's dust...literally. If the first storm had eaten up all the good air and then output less desirable air, it would kill the second storm off before it had a chance to produce anything. As we moved back west and then east again (this happens a lot), an interesting turn of events occurred. Operations were about to be called off, teams were making dinner plans amongst themselves, when DOW7 began observing a new area of interest. At the same time, our probes and others began reporting power flashes, a funnel, some debris... and things started getting hectic. Our probes were sent back to 26 to potentially deploy pods along the busy road that was also full of chasers hightailing it away from this unexpected tornado.

Once we got to 26, in the confusion 3 of us moved west towards the storm about half a mile and the others held up at the intersection of 26 and 71, the north-south road DOW7 was deployed on. Josh came over the radio to announce that the tornado was crossing 26 so we wouldn't have an opportunity to deploy pods, but to hurry east (again) to get ahead of it. Unfortunately, the road had a median and 3 of our pod vehicles had to move west towards the "area of interest" before we could get back east.

For Probe 12, this next 30 seconds was very interesting.

I had hopped out to turn on our pod cameras in the back of the truck and when I got back in the vehicle the door ajar light came on. Thinking it was our back door, I hopped out again as other vehicles were fleeing to make sure the back was closed. When I hopped back in, I realized it was my door that was ajar. As I was trying to figure out why, Lindsay moved the vehicle further west to our closest turn-around spot, and we were hit by a very strong wind gust that knocked the antenna on our vehicle off the top and significantly rocked our Dodge Ram. The two vans in our crew were also at the same location, but Probe 12 was the only vehicle with weather instruments.

After the storm became outflow dominant (aka not going to do much from now on), Lindsay and I collected our mesonet data to discover we'd recorded a 50 m/s wind gust at that time. That's over 100 mph. That number is before we subtract our vehicle speed, which was about 30 mph at the time. The people that process the data will do that, and we cannot wait to find out what the post-vehicle moving speed is. The NSSL/PSU mesonets recorded gusts of ~35 m/s with vehicle movement taken out at a nearby location, about 70 mph. These values were recorded while DOW7 was recording a weak tornado a few kilometers southwest of its location.

That all being said, we're not exactly sure of our location. A few of us wonder if we were in the outer circulation of the tornado and will make that our story until the data tell us otherwise. :) More likely is that we were in some very strong outflow as the gust front passed through. Initially Karen said we should have been east of the storm when they sent us that direction so we shouldn't have been near the circulation, but once we explained that a few of us went west instead of east she said, "...Ohhhh"... but still figures we were safely out of the way. Nonetheless, it was a very exciting experience, especially given our not so interesting experiences from the rest of the project. If nothing else I'm happy that our probe was able to add to the other mobile mesonet data along that transect since no one really expected anything to happen at that point, so this case will be interesting to put back together to figure out what happened and how.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A New Hope

Dimmitt, TX 1995. Happy 15th Anniversary, VORTEX.

VORTEX2 implemented a new strategy today, 15 years to the day from the VORTEX (1)-saving tornado in Dimmit, TX. The final week or so of the original two-year VORTEX project was a Godsend to the program. Perhaps in honor of that blessed day, from now on we will no longer have 10:45 A.M. CST (or is it CDT right now?) general weather briefings. Instead, the PI (Principal Investigator) meeting will take place earlier in the morning and we will depart shortly thereafter, forecasting on the road like many amateur/professional chasers do. The idea is that this will allow us to pursue more distant targets that we might otherwise give up on. So far giving up on the distant target has, pardon my language, screwed us over at least two notable times while we watched in frustration from (both times) North Platte, NE. Remember the large wedge in South Dakota a couple weeks ago? "Too far away." The photogenic tornado in southeast Colorado a few days ago? "Unreasonable travel distance."

South Dakota, 5/22/10 (

Campo, CO, Memoral Day (

After these two iconic misses, the PI's have decided that we need to increase travel and decrease sleep for these last two weeks. I don't blame them; I wondered early on this year why we waited to leave until noon on days when we knew our target would be a great distance away. We've also not had another Goshen County, WY storm this year. That storm capped off the worst tornado season on record, and perhaps spoiled us a bit for this year. A lot of us (I know from personal parking lot discussions) expected Goshen County every week this year. We thought, "Hey, last year sucked because the weather sucked and there was nothing we could do. Now we'll be on every storm, in the right place, getting tons of data all the time!" Of course, with two weeks left in the project, crew morale has waned and everyone is getting a little desperate.

Hence the new strategy, or the new hope, if you're feeling optimistic and a little nerdy. My personal hope is just that our fearless leaders remember we're humans, not droids. We laugh, we cry, we actually lose a hand if you cut it off with a lightsaber. The Force that guides us also tells us to go to bed sometimes. We wish the character Jar Jar Binks had never been introduced to the series too.

Ok killing the Anyway, I for one will be consuming more caffeine than perhaps even during finals these next two weeks, and my exercise schedule went out the window (wait, did I say "schedule?" I meant "attempts to exercise depending on how long I am allotted to sleep each night"). I hope I have renewed your interest in the blog by putting in other people's tornado pictures today. I sure wish I had seen them and/or collected data on them too.

P.S. Day 1 of the new strategy did not result in a successful deployment. But we have driven about 1100 miles in the past two days!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Moderate Risk Today

Probe 12 in all its malfunctioning glory against sunset mammatus after last Wednesday's storm.

I apologize for the lack of updates. The past 3 or 4 days have either been down or travel. After our last big chase in between two states, CSWR stayed in Boulder while the rest of the crew was in Loveland, CO to do DOW repairs and maintenance. We then drove 4 hours north into South Dakota to then drive 4 hours south the next day. We also had a chase day in Colorado that resulted in a pretty supercell that was not quite able to get its circulation to the ground. My vehicle also continued to break, and Justin had to replace the battery. Yesterday in Colorado a rather unexpected tornado occurred that would have been perfect for deployment. The ingredients didn't seem altogether for tornadoes, but what is called "high plains magic" came through. Now we are somewhat hopeful with a "Moderate Risk" outlook in the region and are awaiting further instruction!

On a personal note, Matt and I celebrated our first anniversary May 28th. We met last year on V2, so this project means a little something extra for us. :)