Day 17 - Lightning!

04 June 2012

We'd had a few beers in the motel the night before and jibbered about the trip so far and the possibilities of maybe getting a house in Colorado one day to make our chasing base. We hadn't counted on today bringing very much in the way of storms and had been thinking of how we may spend our time doing other things in the area of eastern Oklahoma.

However, I was woken by Tim 20 minutes before our time allocation for breakfast ran out and he had a plan. The SPC had issued a slight risk for way over in the Texas panhandle. The potential plan was grab some breakie and leave straight away for a 6 hour drive across Oklahoma and into the panhandle to maybe catch a few high based thunderstorms. We'd then have the chance to capture some lightning and perhaps get caught out in a few lightweight stormy hail cores; sounded good to me. Even though the night before we'd reluctantly accepted not much was going to happen, we'd awoken this morning reinvigorated to hunt out anything we could.

The motel breakfast system was to give you a $3 coupon to use at the cafe next door. We sat in a booth getting coffee refills from a cute little blond waitress and Tim had the opportunity to order his eggs 'sunny side up'. With caffeine levels high and bellies full we set off from Sallisaw, Oklahoma toward the Texas panhandle. We shift drove 2 hours at a time along the extensive toll road system of Oklahoma and across into the epic red dessert landscape of Texas, with temperatures soaring up to 102 degrees. It was hot. Even the air conditioning could only manage to blow warm air around the inside of the car.

We were 60 miles into the panhandle and saw that some storms had started to fire around the Lubbock area. Many of them were stationary and oddly the cells that had decided to make a break for it seemed to have a westerly storm track, opposite to their usual south-east journey. We fuelled up at a place called Floydada, a town which we recognised by name having chased their before in previous years.

The ground was very wet and obviously a few storms had already graced the area with heavy precipitation. There was a fair bit of lightning around but a few hardcore farmers were still diligently working the fields, with a tentative eye on the skies.

We found somewhere to pull over and attempt a few lightning shots from a nearby cell but it looked like he was dying out a little so we headed into the more messy line of cells where hopefully our chances would be greater.

As we headed deeper into the storms, another discrete cell erupted nearby and we captured some of the structure and after numerous attempts got a few lucky strikes. It seemed as though the cheeky cell would only strike when the camera wasn't looking.

More cells had also fired further east and following the pattern of the previous storms, were also heading west, straight towards us which was great. We positioned ourselves in a place to get a direct hit and at one point, before the rain caught us, it was possible to see the smallest, teeniest amount of rotation from part of the storm, albeit at a great height, but there was a small lowering apparent.

We had to rejig our position slightly as the storm seemed as though it was going to veer past us, so we headed north a bit and found a great little lay by quite low in the valley that would give us a good view of the storm. It was too wet to get out and take photos but we enjoyed the washing machine effect of the storm hitting us from the safety of the car.

As it turned out we were also in line to be hit by another much larger cell heading up from the south. This was a real beauty and we watched as it emerged from over the top of the capped hills in the distance, heading straight for us. This one had much more structure and we could see from the radar that it was more powerful than any others it the area. This was also obvious from the green hail core straight in front of us and the copious cloud to ground lightning strikes that accompanied its approach.

I stayed out of the car as long as I could to capture some strikes. I crouched down low to the car thinking for some reason this might give me some protection. A felt a few big raindrops hit my back. The cell approached fast and I knew that at any moment conditions would become near impossible to calmly and methodically dismount my camera from the tripod, put my gear in the boot and get myself back into the passenger seat. I felt the thunder rumble through my feet and as the force of the wind started to kick up I knew the opportunity was over and hurriedly threw my things into the car, jumped in and buckled up to start the ride.

We saw the shelf cloud on the leading edge get closer and knew this was it. We had to sit it out now. The extent of the hail was unknown as we had no internet right then as the signal was too poor in the valley. I, as I often do, panicked thinking there might be some rain-wrapped monster tornado hidden deep in the core of the storm, some of the cloud base seemed so low, but Tim logically convinced me otherwise. We could see lightning striking in all directions, either the sky was flashing or bolts were firing down around the car. Luckily there were many taller metallic objects in the area - telephone wires and historical markers etc, which reduced our likelihood of being a target of any sort. It was amazing. The rain was driving and hitting the car in the horizontal at times, but we escaped the main hail core. After a long 15 minutes things seemed to ease up and we turned the car around to follow it north, a favoured direction seeing as though we wanted to be further north for the following day.

On the way, we stopped to capture more shots of it in the distance. It was amazing and some of the strikes were so fat, you had to feel sorry for whatever was on the end of that strike, even if it were just a blade of grass.

About 10 miles further north, we swapped driving and I took the wheel. The driving conditions still looked pretty horrendous up ahead but I was determined to do a bit of storm driving. Usually we work it so that Tim drives us through the storms whilst I navigate but on evenings like this when the storm coverage is so high in an area it would mean Tim driving all night. So with post storm munchies in close reach, crisp sandwiches and red bull being a popular choice, we hit the road north, aiming for Dumas, Texas which was a good couple of hours away.

I don't much like driving the dark as it is but I'm lucky out here as 99% the of roads are just straight and flat so even if you can't see where you are going, if you keep straight you'll probably be OK. It is at this point I want to say a big thank you to the stormies overhead. They seemed to guide me with their lightning flashes. Often a quick flick onto full beam is all I need to see ahead but this was unnecessary as the strikes lit up the area as though it was daytime and guided me to my place of rest, the Walmart car park in Dumas.

On arrival there we had to laugh. It was raining so hard that even Walmart was leaking and positioned amongst the various aisles were buckets collecting water dripping from a height of about 40 feet. The thing is the water was hitting the bucket with such a force due to the height of the roof, that most of it was splashing back out. Ah, at least the lovely Walmart people were giving it their best shot. We chatted to a couple of girls on the till and they seemed to be loving the storms too!

After grabbing a few essential we legged it back through the rain to the car. It was gone midnight now. We checked the radar and to our joy it seemed as though every storm in the area was heading straight to us and at one point we had storm tracks from 4 different cells pointing right to our GPS marker point. We watched in awe for a while but soon fell asleep to rumbling thunder and great flashes; a storm chaser's ultimate lullaby.

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

SPC 01:00UTC day 1 forecast for Mon June 2012

SPC Day 1 Weather Reports for the day.

SPC storm reports for Mon June 2012

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