tale of a tour: part 2
At last, the tempest
May 6: A chase day. Finally! Our forecasters aren't making any promises, but it looks as if there could be storms firing in the Texas panhandle. We set out on the long trip toward Amarillo.
I'm in the Blazer with driver Matt Moreland, a meteorology grad of OU. The other tourists are in the two vans, which Charles and Steve are driving; Lan, the Nashville news team and another NBC team from Alabama fill out the rest of the entourage. It's starting to look like the caravan in the tornado thriller "Twister." All we're missing is Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton.
Hours of driving follow. This is the part of the chase that is not for the faint of heart -- the boredom. I happen to love looking at meadows, fields, and little towns with their grain silos and Dairy Queens, and even more, gazing at the clouds, trying to decipher the puzzles they contain. I learn a lot from Matt about storm structure and formation as we drive toward the area where we hope storms will develop.
The prospects get better and better as we go west. Charles and Steve plug in at truck stops and check the latest data, using laptop computers to access the many sources of information available on the Web. Charles also has a satellite dish that he hooks up during stops to see the latest radar and reports on The Weather Channel.
Chasers have a love-hate relationship with the Weather Channel, much as they do with the movie "Twister." The movie has brought them a lot of attention, and they get a kick out of quoting its more outrageous lines, but they're constantly talking about how stupid it is. After all, we haven't seen one tornado yet, let alone six in one day, like the "Twister" crew.
We are seeing a storm, however, for the first time, and a tornado watch has been issued for the area. We stop along U.S. 287 in the Oklahoma panhandle to watch distant downpours and spectacular lightning bolts. "That's the only thing that scares me about storm-chasing -- lightning," Steve says.
The clouds are roiling overhead. The chasers are worried that storms to the south of us will cut off moisture to this storm. Soon, we are overtaken by rain, and set off toward Boise City. Intriguing "scud clouds," the sort that provoke false tornado sightings, hang overhead. In front of us, a storm's updraft base hangs low, dark and ominous over the road. We stop almost directly under the most amazing structure yet, an enormous rotating column of cloud. Lightning is striking very close, and Charles warns people to stay in the cars. The chasers get out, of course, and I do too, but I'm more cautious and stick close to the Blazer.
"If this were in a slightly better environment, we'd probably have a good wall cloud hanging down," Matt says. (A wall cloud, which lowers from a rotating storm, is the most likely place for a tornado to occur.)
The cloud spins above us, a spiral staircase to the heavens. It's eerie, scary -- and fascinating.
Hail and rain begin to come down, and we jump back into the vehicles. The hail pounds loudly on the roof. It sounds like it's raining rocks.
Just as we're about to pull away, celebrity storm chaser Warren Faidley, who's been featured on the Weather Channel and in TV documentaries, pulls up in front of us. His license plate reads "CU IN OZ" (the "CU" isn't just a play on "see you," but is an abbreviation for cumulus clouds).
Like many prosperous men -- the success of his company, Weatherstock, allows him to call himself "the world's only full-time professional storm photographer" -- Faidley takes flak from some insiders even while outsiders regard him with awe. The word in chaser circles is that Jonas, the arrogant chaser in "Twister," was based on him. Whatever the truth, we don't stop to say hello.
As we try to get ahead of the storms to get a better vantage point, we see a glowing veil of white, pouring down from a storm to our west, with a low, dark cloud draped in front and an orange sky behind. I have never seen anything so beautiful. It's a hail shaft, Matt tells me: a rush of light-reflecting hail descending from the storm.
It's sunset, as it often is when storms are reaching their peak. That's the time when the day's heating has done its work, creating enough lifting energy to produce the cloud "towers" that in turn produce storms. Storms with strong updrafts are also likely to produce hail, as supercooled water droplets are lifted into the cold, upper part of the storm, gaining as many as 25 layers of ice as they are churned through layers of varying temperature and humidity. When the ice particles become too heavy to be lifted, they fall as hail.
We stop twice in front of what has become a rapidly advancing gust front, a gloomy, undulating line of storm that isn't likely to produce a tornado but is very likely to spit out hail and rain and fierce winds. It's on top of us in a just a few minutes each time, sending the cows before it stampeding.
Night is looming, and Matt and I are given orders to "punch the core" of the storm -- drive into its hail-filled and gale-twisted heart -- while Charles, Steve and the rest seek shelter in Stratford, in the northern Texas panhandle. Charles has attached a hail shield of his own invention to the Blazer, and he's eager for us to try it out.
Matt drives us straight into the gust front, and the sudden darkness is almost as amazing as the noise from the wind, rain and, soon enough, hail. It's time to deploy the shield: We roll down our windows, stick our arms out, and are thoroughly pelted by hailstones while we flip the cage-like shield down over the windshield from its mount on the roof. The hail stings like hell, but it's also hysterically funny. We can't see a thing, except the lightning bolts striking all around us, and the noise is deafening.
I love it.
We turn around and catch up with the gang at a gas station in Stratford. Then: a tornado siren. My first. I'm nervous. No one seems to know what's really going on, but the veteran chasers, talking on the CBs, are pretty sure the storm we just went through was unlikely to produce a tornado. "Probably one of those radar-indicated mid-level rotation things," Steve says confidently. It's little comfort that the hysterical woman running the convenience store locks everybody out after the siren's wail. What a humanitarian!
After the adrenalin rush, no twister materializes. We set out for a Motel 6 in Amarillo on hail-coated roads, treated to a lightning display better than any fireworks. We stop to take a few shots, mindful that these fireworks, if you're not careful, will turn you into toast.