Day 9 - Storm Chasing on Interstate 80

27 May 2012

It had been a hard night's drive the night before in an attempt to position ourselves nearer our northern target for today. We were both aware that there would be an updated forecast issued by the SPC before we went to sleep, but we couldn't bear to look at in case the drive had been in vain. I couldn't help myself though and had a sneaky look before we both turned in for the night. It wasn't great! The good news was that the risk had been upgraded to 'moderate', but the bad news was this was more in the region of where we had come from. I decided not to disclose this to Tim before bed as firstly, I didn't have the heart and secondly, the forecasts may have changed by the morning.

Tim woke first and the forecast hadn't really changed. He told me the news I already knew and we then had a decision whether to stick with what we'd originally decided and play for further north or bite the bullet and drive back south. We decided on the latter but armed with a selection of treats for the road such as nutella choc dips and extra red bulls! South seemed preferable as the chase terrain was flatter, we knew the are better and rather than chasing a system from behind which would be the case with the northern target, we had the possibility of intercepting something travelling north-east.

We headed straight south from Sioux Falls, SD along the western edge of Iowa and Missouri and then turned into Nebraska on the I80 - the main interstate that runs east-west through the southern part of Nebraska. It was hot and the drive seemed quite long. After making quite a bit of headway into Nebraska, we saw that many of the other chasers were heading a bit further south. This would also take us further into the moderate risk zone. We casually drove south but took our time as we were quite happy with this particular area and it was only when the storms started firing, if they did, that we would refine our position. It wasn't long before this happened. Often, it can take 1-2 hours from storm initiation to the point where the storm is severe enough to be thunderstorm warned. It's great fun watching the cells initiate and grow into fully fledged severe thunderstorm warned beasts!

Before long we were surrounded by cells firing up. They start off as little cumulus clouds and grow into towers in no time. It was now that we had to choose which cell we would stick with. The radar showed us that there were also storms that had fired a little further north. These had been going a little longer and some were already severe thunderstorm warned. All of this activity was the result of a dryline front pushing east into the much warmer, moister air in place across much of the southern plains. The storms themselves highlighted the exact position of the front, travelling north-east, parallel to it. We saw a very promising cell going up in front of us and we could see it growing rapidly. We decided to track north with it.

This took us back onto the I80 and east to get in front of it before going north again. A few of the storms further north were actually now tornado warned but they were too far away for us to chase. The other point being there was the potential that as our storm tracked north it may also show signs of rotation as it entered a potentially greater sheared environment. Shear being a change of wind speed or direction with height and this is one of the main ingredients for tornadic storms. 

As it happened the storm we had in mind had outrun us slightly and it looked a better option to wait for the other cells travelling up this way. We pulled over on the roadside and got some piccies of the storm as it left with its rainshafts clearly visible.

It was clearly a beautiful scene, but it had all been a bit tame to this point. I remember thinking I hadn't feel that scared yet (the sign of a good day)! The next cell crept up on us and took us a bit by surprise. This one was much angrier. Its base was much lower to the ground and there were clear areas of rotation that we could see above us. It looked like it was trying to put down a tornado and it was certainly low enough to the ground but it just didn't seem organised enough. We got some photos before we had to jump in the car and get out of the way fast!

As we drove, the rain became harder and bigger, before all visibility was gone. Then it started to hail. Luckily we were on the outskirts of a little town called York so we took cover under a garage forecourt until the worst of it had passed. I took a quick piccy out the car so show how dark it was, but it's a bit blurry.

We hung around to wait for any further approaching cells but everything had become a little more disorganised and although the lightning and thunder was still prolific there were no discrete cells to locate or chase. So we drove and played around in this for a little while before it seemed the time was right to head south to set up for a risk further down towards the Oklahoma / Texas border the following day. Going south would take us very close to Salina, Kansas, where we had previously found a bargain motel, The Log Cabin. It was only 3 hours drive away and having just gone 9, we were on target for a bed by 12. In fact, they gave us the same room again room with the glittery artex ceiling and bed level mirrors. A great chase day and it nice to be home with a beer.

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

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

SPC Day 1 Weather Reports for the day.

SPC storm reports for Sun May 2012

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