Sunday, June 5, 2011

Oklahoma-Arkansas Tornado Chase May 24-25 2011

The week of May 23 started off with some excitement in the Ninja household. All weekend long model data suggested a good chase situation in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas on Tuesday the 24th and into Arkansas on the 25th. It was too good to pass up, so I got together with my chase partner Erich Hopkins "ChaserErich" on Twitter and we decided to go for it.

Erich secured a rental car for so we could save a little cash since gas prices were still up around four dollars a gallon. We figured we knew we were going to put drive some miles so why not do it in a rental. Earlier that afternoon, I was in contact with a couple of WGA (Weather Geeks Anonymous) members and they were talking about going as well. We could team up.

I met Erich at work Tuesday morning and we planned our day. We had some business to attend to so we could not leave until lunch time. Based on the model data that would give us plenty of time to get to our target area of North-Central Oklahoma or South-Central Kansas.

We picked up the car (don't ever try to rent a car after a few flights have come in...long line) and got on the road around 1 and headed west. As we approached Ft. Smith, storms were beginning to fire across Western Oklahoma and that made us want to get there quicker. We had a decision to make. Would we go northwest towards Tulsa and then Wichita or towards Oklahoma City? After looking at radar data and getting a report from Paul Wilkerson and Chad Gardner who were an hour or so ahead of us we decided to head west with a possible turn NW towards Chandler Oklahoma.

Storms continued to fire and intensify and quickly became tornadic across W and Central Oklahoma. As we got closer to our turn towards Chandler we decided to continue west then south towards Norman and try to intercept storms coming up from the SW. Paul and Chad were on the El Reno EF5 storm and we were watching their stream. It was tempting to head up that way but there was no way we could catch up.

As we approached the eastern suburbs of OKC I was in contact with Todd Yakoubian at KATV in Little Rock to get some additional data on the storms to our SW. Todd suggested we take Sooner Road and head south. I remembered that road as we took it when we attended the National Weather Festival back in November.

With Erich driving I was watching not one but two tornadic storms to the SW of Moore and Norman and we were right in between. It was hard to choose but we stayed with the Moore storm. Both storms were rain wrapped (you could not see the funnel). We encountered some large hail and some strong inflow but did not get the tornado. We did discover though if we would have continued on south a few more miles we would have been on a strong tornado that hit just south of Norman. In fact the Storm Prediction Center had to take cover from that storm.

At this point all eyes were on the El Reno storm as it was moving across the Northern OKC metro. Chad and Paul were trying to get video of it but once again it was rain wrapped and I think they encountered a bit of traffic as then attempted an intercept.

We decided to head back north and then east and attempt an intercept near Shawnee OK.

As we got back to I-240 we stopped as a strong storm was approaching and was tornado warned. We saw some rotation but no tornado so we quickly headed east. As we traveled eastward I found a location that I though would be good for an intercept and Erich quickly got us there. Erich located a nice field with a view to the SW and we waited on the storm.

As the storm approached from the SW (not the best position for a chaser as any tornado would be moving directly at you based on the movement of today's storms) we saw the wall cloud and then a funnel. The funnel dropped to the ground and quickly picked up debris. It traveled to the east/northeast across Interstate 40 and then weakened and dissipated. Chad and Paul stopped on the interstate to check on a tractor trailer driver who had his rig blown over by the tornado as it crossed I-40.

Funnel dropping from the wall cloud

Tornado on the ground!

Tornado beginning to weaken a bit
Tornado starting to "rope" out
As it roped out and took on an "elephant trunk" was still doing damage on the ground.

We left that storm and headed towards Shawnee where we  attempted another intercept of a storm coming up from the SW. I called Paul and let him know where we were and he and Chad arrived shortly after.
It was at this point we saw Reed Timmer and Dominator 2 & Dominator 1 along with a host of other chasers. The storm didn't produce at our location so we tracked it eastward and at one time were in between D1 & D2 (we felt special). As the storm moved into a location where we could not track it, we stopped at a gas station to get something to drink. Little did we know there were many chasers that had the same idea including renouned storm researcher Josh Wurman, also known from the Discovery Channel's StormChasers. I got a picture of Joah and Paul and one of Josh and the WeatherNinja.

Passing the Dominator 2 on the side of I-40

D1 passing us as we chase down a storm.

Me and Josh Wurman (from Stormchasers)

Paul (Wx Guru) and Josh Wurman

We got a chance to talk to Reed Timmer and crew and got an upclose look at the new Dominator (D2). It was at that stop that they told me they were coming into NE Arkansas or SE Missouri the next day.
We hung around for a while and chatted and looked at a couple of DOWs (Doppler on Wheels) then left for Arkansas. It was a good day.

Joel looks at some radar data inside D2

D2 at the gas station. Notice it isn't complete yet!


Chaser Erich (Erich Hopkins), Paul and Chad taking a break after checking out D2

As we approached Ft. Smith, tornado warnings started flying for storms in NE OK and E OK. Tornado warnings were issued for the Fayetteville area and areas to the north and also for the Ft. Smith area. We talked about chasing but in that terrain at night is very dangerous. We continued on and stopped briefly at a rest stop near Ozark. Paul and Chad had been monitoring radar and alerted us to a tornado warned storm to our south. We watched radar and noticed we were very (I mean very) close to the expected track. We looked at radar and it looked like the tornado passed to our east and northeast so we took off to attempt to track it down from the backside. At this point it was 1:30 AM. We headed north of Ozark but could not catch the system as it was moving at more than 40 mph and since we were low on gas, decided to head back. We got some gas and learned that the small town of Denning had been hit so we headed that way to see if we could see damage and or help them if needed. We got to the town and you could tell a tornado had just gone through. The smell of natural gas and fire/police personnel gave it away. It was pitch black as all power had been lost. We stopped and talked to a couple of residents who said they were shaken but ok. They told us of the loss of life in the tornado. We headed east and could see much damage but because the road was blocked had to turn back and head towards Clarksville. As we worked our way through Coal Hill and Clarksville it was evident that a pretty strong storm had moved through. I called Ned Perme at Channel 7 to relay our report. As we hit I-40 west of Clarksville there was no power at all anywhere. We headed east and stopped at a rest stop west of Russellville where we got a few hours of sleep.

The next day (Wed) started with some breakfast and a plan for the day in Russellville. Conditions were favorable for tornadoes over a large part of Central and Eastern AR (another high risk day). Paul and Chad stopped off in Sherwood and Austin and Erich and I headed up towards Searcy.

Models indicated that storms would fire around 2pm in Central Ar and quickly become severe as they headed east and northeast. My choice was Newport but after talking to Todd and hearing his concern for Central Ar we decided to hang near Searcy/Bald Knob. Paul and Chad joined us just as storms began to develop in Central AR. We could see the storm near Maumelle starting to rotate and plotted it to and intercept point near Beebe. So off we went. As we got to Beebe the rotation weakened but we stayed with the storm to see if it would cycle. We saw the wall cloud but no funnel/tornado. We did get hit with some 1" hail...

Next stop was an intercept near Bald Knob but apparantly we were going just a tad too fast on 67/167 and had to stop and have a chat with an Arkansas State Trooper who was very kind and even gave us a tip on a tornado on the ground (guess where? Near Newport). I determined we could intercept the storm we would have been on near Augusta by going north and then east towards Harrisburg. That is what we did and we got on a beautiful wall cloud that looked like it was going to drop a large tornado at any moment. We tracked the storm towards Trumann as we streamed live on KATV but it never produced which is a good thing.

Wall Cloud near Trumann Arkansas

We had to leave the storm south of Trumann as we ran into a flood situation and our road network ran out. So we headed to Trumann and got some dinner, then worked our way back to LR.

I decided that I am going to start a collection of town/city signs that I pass through and Weiner gets to be the first one.

Weiner Arkansas part of our tornado chase 2011

1200 miles in two days, it was sucessful as we intercepted two tornadoes and saw a couple of wall clouds all while being able to report what we saw to the National Weather Service and KATV so that we could keep the public informed.

I think Paul, Chad and Erich were a little tired, but I could have gone another day if I had the chance. It's what I do...

Watch for my announcement of my new website coming this week.

Michael (Ninja)

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Storm Safari 2011..As Seen From My Camera

Well Storm Safari 2011 is in the bag. For those of you not familiar with Storm Safari 2011 let me explain. I accompanied Todd Yakoubian from KATV Channel 7 in Little Rock, photojournalist Philip Labuda and storm chaser Erich Hopkins on a two day trip to do a story on storm chasing tours. These are Seven to Ten day tours that take you all over the country searching for natures most severe weather.

Although I storm chase over the mid south, I had not been to the plains of Kansas to do this so I jumped at the chance to go. Erich and I loaded up our gear and waited for Todd and Phillip to meet us in Maumelle Tuesday May 10th about 3:00 PM. The plan was to meet up with Roger Hill and his Silver Lining Tours in Wichita Kansas and so some preliminary interviews with some of the people on the tour. Earlier in the week while chasing in South Dakota Rogers group encountered some strong downdraft winds from a nearby thunderstorm and the winds broke out several windows in one of his tour vans. So while Roger was getting the van repaired in Wichita, Todd would do interviews at the hotel and then we would follow them on the road for a day of chasing. Well after a 7.5 hour drive from Little Rock, we arrived in Wichita about 11:00PM and settled in at our hotel (which we got a discounted rate because we were with The Weather Channel..wink..wink).

While eating breakfast Wednesday morning, we met some of the people on the chase tour. It had been a quiet tour so far with only one tornado witnessed. Today would be the models had put the bullseye on Kansas and Oklahoma for an outbreak of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes. Little did we know..Mother Nature had other plans. Late Tuesday night into early Wednesday morning an area of thunderstorms had formed in the Texas and Oklahoma panhandle region and then moved across Oklahoma and Kansas. This pretty much ruined our chase day as it trashed the atmosphere and made it almost impossible for thunderstorms to form as the atmosphere was much more stable with clouds blocking out the sunlight. But we would hope for something. While Roger was getting the van repaired, Todd interviewed Roger's wife Karen and several of the tour guests.

Todd interviewing Silver Lining Tours owner Karen Hill
Todd interviewing a Silver Lining Tour guest from New Zealand

Todd interviewing Steve who is legally blind.
An interesting twist to the story is that one of the guests is blind and can feel the energy of the storm. You can hear his story on Channel 7 Nightside on Monday night, May 16th.

Once the interviews were complete I took the chance to get a picture with some of the guys on the tour and check out the vans. They use pretty much the same equipment that I use when chasing.

A few of the chasers and me..
This van has seen plenty of hail!
We then loaded up and headed towards Western Kansas. Dodge City would be our first stop to look at the weather conditions. On the way we pulled into Pratt Kansas to get fuel and we saw Reed Timmer and the Dominator, the TIV and a host of other chasers just lined up on the side of the road or in gas stations or restaurants. The chasers were in Kansas as the models were painting a turbulent picture.

Passing one of the tour vans on our way to Dodge City.

Tracking all the chasers. I would say Kansas was the place to be.

We stopped in Dodge City and had some lunch while Roger looked at the models and indicated that we were to go much further north into NW Kansas and west of Garden City. While we were taking a break, Todd had a little "Twister" fun.

Dodge City Kansas

Montana Mikes in Dodge City. Wx Guru suggested this for lunch.
Break Time!
Todd shot a promo with an iphone 4.
Just goofing off in Dodge City.
The sky in Dodge City was clear but the temperature was warming up. The problem was you could tell we were west of the dryline as the humidity was very low. Not a good sign if you are looking for thunderstorms.

Just a dry looking skyline in Western Kansas.
Towering cumulus were being reported in NW Kansas closer to the track of a surface low pressure center coming out of Colorado, so off we went. Our window was closing as it was approaching mid afternoon. We crossed the Arkansas River and there was not a drop of water in the section we saw. Quite different from what we see in Little Rock.

As we traveled north through West Kansas we started to see cumulus building to our north.

Cumulus starting to build higher in the West Kansas sky.
As we approached Oakley Kansas we could see developing thunderstorms to our east and NW. We turned west at Oakley and headed for extreme West Kansas. At the same time a couple of thunderstorms went tornado warned in NE Colorado and we were getting kind of excited. On our way west, we encountered two dust devils so we knew the atmosphere was trying to tell us something. Cell service was kind of spotty on this trip but Verizon held up rather well for our data collection.

We turned north at Sharon Springs and were working our way towards Garden City. About halfway on radar you could see thunderstorms developing on radar in association with a boundary and this would prove to be our target area. Temperatures south of the boundary were still warm but north of it, well that was a different story. As we stopped for gas just south of Interstate 70 near Garden City we could see a fairly potent storm to our south drifting to the north, so we quickly got into position for any possible devleopment. It looked promising but just didn't deliver.
Storms starting to build in NW Kansas
This storm caught our attention but it didn't produce anything.
Erich and the Silver Lining Tour group looking at the storm coming up from the south. Notice the jackets..
temperatures were in the mid 50s. Not exactly what you want to see for tornadoes.

We headed back to Garden City and then west towards Burlington Colorado. There were several thunderstorms to our west and three of then were tornado warned. We could see for miles in this country so we took a shot. On our way we encountered a developing thunderstorm that we were watching very close. We passed on it for another cell to our NW and this one would deliver a wall cloud and small funnel. This was just to the east of Burlington.

This storm caught our eye on our way to Burlington, but we let it go so we could get on a more
promising storm to our NW.

Wall cloud just east of Burlington Colorado on I-70
Trying to get a funnel going.

As the first funnel dissipated a new lowering appeared on the wall cloud.
We quickly moved west of the storms and then turned north in Burlington to intercept them from the south. The storms were rather slow movers so we had plenty of time to get ahead of them. While moving north, we encountered a hail shaft. The hail covered the road in front of us but for the most part it was pea to marble size so it didn't cause any damage to our Jeep. As we were moving north we saw the TIV (Tornado Intercept Vehicle) and it appeared they were either setting up a camera or getting ready to deploy a probe of some sort. There were chasers up and down the road we were on in anticipation of this storm spawing a tornado.

Hail covering the road.
We finally located a great spot to get a closer look at the storm. While it edged closer to us we could see a well defined rotation to it and small funnels were rotating around. We thought for sure that this would produce a tornado but with temperatures on the north side of the boundary in the upper 40s to low 50s it was not to be. Everyone piled out of the Jeep and van and took pictures and video of the mesocyclone. No tornado but we were in perfect position. If one had occurred with this storm we would have been about 5 yards from the touchdown.

Rotation with the thunderstorm (hard to tell)
Look close to the center and you can see a swirl indicating a small funnel.

Silver Lining Tour guests taking pictures and video.

Taking video of the mesocyclone. That's Todd in the blue shirt.

Funnel trying to form.
After the storm moved to our north, everyone took off to intercept another storm coming up fromt the south. The TIV and crew blew past us and then we left.
TIV and crew moving N. Notice the hail shield on the Discovery Channel Crew vehicle.
We drove north for a few miles then turned east and waited on the next storm. We encountered some large hail (slightly larger than quarters) and some what I would call snowballs falling from the sky. They were hail but when they hit the windshield just broke apart like a snowball would. Weird. We got into position to intercept the storms and one of them had a small funnel with it but mostly hail, rain and a lot of lightning.

Storm lowering and moving toward us.

Can really tell in the picture but that middle section is a hail shaft.

Taking video of the storm.

Erich capturing an image of a small funnel

Between the two telephone poles in the center of the picture
a funnle is trying to lower.

After the storm moved through, we saw the TIV once again heading to the east.
Once the last storm moved through we said goodbye to Colorado and prepared for the long drive home. We headed east, then south to Goodland Kansas, then east again on I-70 where we spent the night in Hays Kansas.

The long road home from Colorado....
We ate breakfast in Hays then loaded up for Arkansas on Thursday morning. It was amazing to us after leaving the Silver Lining Tour group and heading back that we just so happened to stop at the same hotel they were staying at in Hays.

On our way back we came across a large wind farm in the middle of Kansas. And when I say large I mean LARGE. It was several miles wide and long. We stopped to take a few pictures to share.

Kansas wind farm between Hays and Salina

A closer look

Kansas wind farm
Once at Salina we turned south and headed for Wichita where we stopped for lunch. We noticed we picked up a little Colorado dust on the Jeep so I decorated the window.

Photojournalist Philip Labuda and Todd taking a break

Storm Safari hunters..Todd, Erich and me.
We left Wichita and were watching radar closely as thunderstorms were developing over Eastern Oklahoma and Arkansas. We thought we might get in once last little chase before home. But most of the storms were away from our route. We made it back into the LR area around 6:30 that evening.

All in all..I would say the trip was a success. Todd got his story or stories and I got to chase in the plains. Total miles traveled: 1685 Tornadoes:0 Funnels:4 Wall Clouds:2 Hail: a bunch. We ate plenty of junk food and it was good!!!

Storm Safari Route: Little Rock,AR to Tulsa OK-Wichita KS-Dodge CityKS-OakleyKS-Goodland KS-Burlington CO-
St. Francis KS, Goodland KS, Hays KS, Salina KS, Wichita KS, Tulsa, Little Rock 1685 miles

I am ready to go back and in fact planning a trip for early July to the northern plains, or maybe I'll just wait on a landfalling hurricane along the Gulf Coast. Hmmmmm maybe I'll do both.


For more information on chasing vacations with Silver Lining Tours click the link below:

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