Day 11 - Massive supercell of Oklahoma, we are not worthy

29 May 2012

We woke up in the motel in Weatherford, unfortunately a bit too late for breakfast but still in good time to get into position for today. We were again hoping cells would fire along the dryline, so we headed west to where this was situated and a bit further north to a town called Woodward in Oklahoma. As we drove, we could again see the familiar sights of the cumulus fields above our heads, so we knew we were heading in the right direction. Before getting to Woodward, we decided to take a road straight east as the most impressive towering cumulus seemed in that direction. In this part of Oklahoma we had only the satellite data and our eyes as a guide as there is no reception for mobile internet. We also had weather updates on the radio from the National Weather Service and were pleased to hear that Major county, the county we were in had been advised to expect sudden changes in weather with the potential for it to become severe later on in the day. Awesome news!

We found a park in a place called Seiling that had a good 360 degree view of the sky and got out to have a good look around to see what was happening. One of the most impressive cells we had seen was now right above us and growing fast. We captured a lovely shot of the sun's rays shining out from the side of him as he grew.

A little bit of rain could be felt and a lot of thunder could already be heard. We decided to stay with him as he tracked north-east. We pulled over a short while later and took a few more photos. Apart from the thunder it was all still quite tame but we knew we were onto a good thing when we spotted the discovery storm chasers crew at the side of the road pointing to the cell and high fiving a lot. We got a wave from Reed and a photo of the famous 'dominator' as it drove past.

This area of Oklahoma was beautiful and the cell looked amazing against the landscape.

Then we watched as the cell split as had happened the day before. Part of it moved off to the left and the part we had focussed on moved off to the right. The splitting of cells is not uncommon but it's a rare occasion to witness it happening right above you. We captured a photo as the cell split and shafts of sunlight filtered through.

At this point it was what is referred to as a low precipitation supercell, which means there is relatively little in the way of rain or hail, but it was certainly throwing down some awesome bolts of lightning and often in very close range to the car even though we were still a good 3 miles from the core of the storm. The base of the storm was also very high from the ground which isn't conducive for tornadoes but we stayed with it and got a few more photos.

There was another cell we could see behind it which was following in the footsteps of this one with a very high base but appeared to be occasionally forming a ragged wall cloud, which is often a feature apparent before a tornado forms. It was only possible to see this due to the low precipitation nature of the cell we were on; it meant that the visibility in the area was still very good. It wasn't long before our cell also started to show signs of developing a wall cloud and we pulled over to take more photos. We stopped where a number of other chasers had gathered. Some were out of their cars taking photos but running back to safety at every nearby strike which was quite amusing to watch. The thunder that accompanied each strike was ground rumbling too and cracked right above our heads. I've never heard thunder like it. The structure was also amazing and clear striations could be seen. We've only seen pictures of such structure in the past, so this was a great photo opportunity for us.

We were then informed by a local sheriff that the storm behind this one had 2 funnel clouds a quarter of the way to the ground and 5 inch hail had been reported. We wanted to stick with this storm though as it too was showing signs of rotation, which to our pure delight became even more apparent at our next stop a few miles further down the road. It was so close to putting down a tornado, and as the ear piercing tornado sirens could be heard nearby, we stopped to take more photos and watch it in all its glory.

Unfortunately, even though a funnel was formed, it never quite reached the ground before the cell moved off further east. We followed it and were once again joined by the discovery crew and a number of other chase tour companies. It would seem that nearly everyone in the area was now on this particular storm. Many chasers complain massively about such 'chaser convergence', but I find it quietly reassuring that we aren't the only nutters out there; a safety in numbers kind of thing!

Not that it mattered whether other people were around in the few moments that happened next. Often a tornado can form without a fully condensed funnel to be seen. Contact is made with the ground and this is when you can often see the dust swirling around on the ground. This rotation can be extremely powerful. Gradually as this column of air condenses, a funnel appears. Now there were multiple areas above us where we could see rotation and these were in the vicinity of the inflow area on the storm so clearly tornadic. Also, across the road from us a gustnado had formed - this is still a form of rotation but from the outflow area of the storm and although very similar to a tornado in appearance, it is not a tornadic circulation, is often shorter lived and is not as intense. Me and Tim both knew that this was about the time we should be making our exit but as we walked hastily to the car, the wind kicked up in roaring fashion and it was all we could do to get the car doors open and get in. The tripods and cameras got chucked in any old how and we threw ourselves into the front seats. Using both hands I slammed the door shut as Tim turned on the ignition and we got the hell out of there. The wind had hit us from all direction and for all we knew we had been caught out in some crazy tornadic circulation. A mile or so down the road, we took a breath and calmed ourselves down. Nothing amounted from what we had experienced and it was unlikely that it had been anything tornadic. It was probably just some extremely strong outflow winds or possibly another gustnado. It had been scary none the less.

By this time, the storm had grown into a beast and as it passed over local towns, it had the inhabitants looking up and gawping in amazement. That's the ones that weren't probably hiding inside! We kept with it, making sure we kept just in front of the hail core, driving south. Some guy had reported 10 inch hail and although we find this quite hard to believe seeing as though 7.5 inches is the largest reported hail diameter to date, it definitely signified bloody large hail and not the kind to be caught out in. It also gives an indication of just how monstrous this particular cell had become with an updraft so powerful it was able to keep lumps of ice this large suspended in the air.

We took a dodgy road south east. When I say dodgy, I mean it was so close to the storm it would probably mean being caught in the outflow winds on the leading edge, known as the gust front. But Tim was his usual cool self about driving through it, so we took the road. As we got further down the road, we again saw the familiar sight of chasers converging at the roadside to take piccies and look up in wonder at the power of this storm which was immensely foreboding and had by now taken on the form of a classic supercell, rapping itself intensely around a precise hailcore. It was a sight like nothing I had ever seen. We stopped but gave ourselves 3 minutes only to get photos before again, we'd have to get out of there. This is the view on the road in front of us. the leading edge of the storm is about to cross the road and in the distance the anvils of other storms in the area appear to be growing. 

A bit further down the road and we were in a perfect position to let the storm pass us by. It had become so massive that it was impossible to track it as it had engulfed too many roads and was now well on its way to fully merging with the other cells in the area. This would most probably lead to the formation of an MCS (a mesoscale convective system) which would be too large to chase and any structure worth capturing would be obscured by the amount of heavy precipitation coming from the storm complex.

So we decided at this point to call it a day and headed on south out of the way of the storms. We still managed to get some nigh shots of it in the distance.

It was an epic day and we both saw sights we had never seen before. It is  a day I'll always remember and that green hue it sure to re-emerge in scary stormy nightmares. Absolutely stunning, impressive and if I never see a storm again, sure I'll be massively sad, but I can't imagine seeing anything more incredible. Except maybe something just like this finishing off with a tornado to top it off. Ah, so the chase continues!

SPC Day 1 Weather Outlook as at 06:00UTC (01:00 Central Time the night before)

SPC 01:00UTC day 1 forecast for Tue May 2012

SPC Day 1 Weather Reports for the day.

SPC storm reports for Tue May 2012

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