Storm Chase 2018

It's been a tough year for storm chasing generally, with a near record-low tornado count (see graphic). But I got lucky and had a great two-part trip, which really made up for the last couple years, where I busted on nearly every trip (see here and here and here). I also broke my tornado dry spell, seeing my first since 2015, and in notoriously difficult Iowa at that. As usual, I had to wait for my classes to end and then planned to chase before and after the Infocomm show in Vegas, where I also taught a very fun networking workshop for Cirque du Soleil,

Part I

The forecast was showing a big setup in Nebraska, so I pushed my flight up a day and flew into Kansas City on Thursday May 31, and made it to Lincoln, NE that night. Along the way, I discovered that my rental car had been left in a weird mode where its speed was limited to 80 (not good when the Nebraska speed limit is 75) and certain radio stations were blocked (on return, Hertz said this was not a new policy but a previous renter had messed with it; this goes on the rental car checklist). I randomly picked a hotel in Lincoln which was also the home base for the Grainex weather science project, so I saw all the trucks and their operation center. I headed out from Lincoln the next day and, as forecast, there was a decent system, eventually leading to a small tornado in Ord, But I was too gun shy to get close with the hail when I realized my rental car had a sunroof, but it was a good day chasing and I did get out in front of a beautiful storm right at sunset (click on any photo to see a larger version): 

I followed the storm after dark, and it put on a great cloud-to-cloud lightning show.

The storm lined out and followed me to my hotel in Grand Island, so I watched it come in there:

Unfortunately after this day, the weather completely died out, and my flight to Vegas wasn't until Monday June 4 and it was too expensive to change it. But late on Saturday morning, I was sitting in the lobby of the Hampton Inn trying to figure out what to do for the day and--luckily for me--well-known storm chasers Daniel Shaw and Jeremy Holmes walked in. I had met Daniel last year randomly in a Hampton Inn lobby in West Texas, and Jeremy for the first time here. We talked storms for a while then had a nice lunch where we continued to talk...storms. Daniel and Jeremy were heading way north for the next setup, but I had to get to KC for my flight to Vegas by Monday, so I had a leisurely drive back and found really nice BBQ along they way.

I had just been in Kansas City back in August for the eclipse, and on this trip I caught up with a long-time friend from boarding school and her husband for dinner, which was nice. On Monday I then headed off to Vegas which was an excellent trip on its own. Here's the map of this leg of the trip:

On this trip I experimented with doing Facebook live transmissions from the field, and it seemed to work out well.  Here's a consolidated video of all the broadcasts, which is nice for me to be able to look back--chasing is so intense and you have to continually make so many decisions that I often don't remember exactly where I was or what exactly happened when until I go back and look through the GPS tracks and so on.

Part II

I came back from Vegas to KC on Friday June 8th, and headed north to Des Moines, Iowa that night for a setup in this state which is notoriously difficult for chasers. On Saturday the 9th I headed north and saw one storm up near Forest City that got funnel reports before it even went severe-warned. I got up there, found the base of the storm and almost immediately saw a tornado!  My first in Iowa:

I stayed in front of the storm and tracked it down south east towards Mason City:

Mason City already had been hit with pretty major flooding in previous days, and the ground was saturated, but I ended up above the tornado warning so I gassed up and sat there for a little while thinking the storm would move on; It didn't. Instead, the whole town flooded, and when I tried to get out and back on the storm, I got blocked in nearly every direction, and finally ended up going through some very deep water. I'm pretty careful in flash flooding situations but in this case I was fooled; fortunately the Jeep Grand Cherokee powered right through it:

With all this delay I ended up stuck in the storm and had to core punch out through it, which was no fun. 

But I did finally get in front of the now line before sunset, and ended up in Waterloo for the night.

People are generally nice and often come up and talk storms when they see you're a chaser:

The next day, Sunday June 10, was a down day weather wise so I watched the Formula 1 race at a sports bar and then took a leisurely drive down south and ended up in Omaha, to be in position for a setup the next day in Nebraska. The weather on Monday June 11 got a late start, and although I was in a good position, all the storms were heading right back into the Omaha metro area around rush hour, which I wanted to avoid, so I ended up behind the line and the tornado warnings.

My car even told me about the storms: 

But it was still pretty spectacular back there:

The line was just moving too fast and in the rental car I didn't want to core punch through the hail, so I couldn't get in front of the line.  And the models were showing it developing to the south, so I dropped south to Kansas (where I wanted to be for the next day anyway) and ended up in Manhattan around sunset:

And then a severe warned storm fired up just as I was coming into town::

The next day I dropped south again.  It's really pretty country around there.

 From around Greensburg, Kansas I saw--from about 50 miles away--the anvil of an impressive storm to the south west that hadn't shown up on radar yet. So I headed to that and it became this stationary, monster storm.  The storm just sat in one place and pumped out rain and hail:

After punching through it and wandering around back and forth around Buffalo Oklahoma for a while, the storm was powerful but not particularly photogenic, so I pretty much gave up on it and started heading back up to Kansas. But then, in the rear view mirror, I could see that the storm was intensifying, and pumping out unbelievable amounts of cloud to ground lightning. I turned around and immediately got stuck behind a pre-fab home being moved slowly in the strong inflow winds on several trucks, but when I got past them I found a good spot west of Buffalo, and it was one of the most amazing lightning shows I've ever seen. I set up the camera and actually got back in the car because I was afraid a bolt might get too close.

While the storm was intensifying it developed south, so I moved south with it:

As the sun set, I got a room and headed south to Woodward, OK, and stopped on the way to shoot this wind farm:

The next day, Wednesday June 13, not much was forecast to happen, but a strong forecast for North Dakota on the 14th had been indicated for some days.  My flight was on Friday but there was no way I could make it back in time from North Dakota so I agonized about it, and then pushed my flight back a day to Saturday and drove north. I stopped in Greensburg, KS, a town completely leveled by a massive tornado:

Had a nice lunch:

Helped several turtles out of the road:

I made it that night 500 miles north to Winner, South Dakota, up a long string of beautiful two way roads (I can not wait for self-driving cars!) 

The next morning I woke up and immediately started heading north, trying to get to Minot, ND before the storms fired. The Storm Prediction Center ended up with a moderate risk for the area right near the Canadian border, and then a tornado watch with an expectation for long-tracked supercells (every chaser's target).  But in the end, morning convection undercut the setup (at least on the US side of the border), but there was still some interesting skies and several self-standing supercells:

I also found the limit of the four wheel drive on this dirt (this was much scarier than it looks here, especially with no audio):

I eventually got a room in Bismark for the night, and the storms did fire up again around sunset on my way down there:

One of the things about chasing is that you end up in some pretty remote areas and see some interesting stuff. I noticed while doing a Facebook live shot a fenced in area with a big power feed and a radio tower right by my road. Sure enough, it was a missile silo!  They were all over the place, interspersed with all the oil and gas drilling in the area. Also, blasting down a dirt road off a dirt road, I turned a corner and passed a truck simply marked, "Security forces" with two guys in uniform inside, which turned around and started following me. They must have been baffled by all the chasers in the area with all their cameras and computers and antennas; I'm sure we were carefully monitored. The truck turned off somewhere behind me and I passed by this, a "Missile Alert Facility" (you can read the sign by zooming in) more on Wikipedia here), more on the whole system here. Also, And they recently lost a box of grenades and a machine gun.

The next Friday June 15, I drove 770 miles back from Bismark to Kansas City, and then flew home the next day and made it in time to see the Loser's Lounge.  Here's my approximately 3000 mile GPS track and FB live compilation:

A special thanks to George Sabbi, who was my remote chase partner from his base in NJ for most of the chase days!

Thoughts

reaching Some years ago, after my Mom died at the age of 63, I decided that I wasn't going to have a bucket list--I was going to, as my always conservative "nose to the grindstone" father then said, "do it now". For my whole life, I've always loved seeing the power of nature in action, whether it's the ocean or a tornado or a whale breaching or a stunning view. I chased my first hurricane in 1985, and for 10 years now, I've been going to the plains to chase these monsters whenever possible. 

I typically chase alone, not out of desire but simply because it's a hard sell to try and convince someone to take a risk and spend a lot of money, drive for thousands of miles, inevitably eat a gas station cheeseburger at midnight, and--in the end--possibly see nothing. Or, see one of the most amazing and truly awesome sights you will ever see and then maybe get struck by lightning.  For me, I enjoy the whole process, the sights, the decisions, and the constant engagement. When I'm on a severe storm I'm almost always in a state of "flow" and rarely notice what time it is, except to check how long until sunset. And the electronic connections of Facebook and seeing other chasers out there keep loneliness at bay. 

I grew up a country boy but have been in the biggest of big cities for almost 30 years now; periodically I need some time in wide open country like the plains (which feels like a more expansive version of the land where I grew up in rural Maryland) to clear my head. 

There's a big set up in the plains today, and while I'd love to be out there, I'm content for now to chase whatever happens locally for the rest of the season. But I know, come about January, that pull from the plains will start again and I be out there again next year...