Sunday, March 20, 2016

Crocketts Bluff, Arkansas EF0 Tornadoes

Negatively tilted shortwave trough with cape values forecast into the 2,000 region and dew points in the mid 60s? This would setup to be the second chase of the year for me, even though I swore the February 23rd bustfest in Louisiana would be my last before I depart for California.

Its pretty funny how this chase all started off. Up until the day before, I had no idea there was even a setup worth a damn. I probably looked at the SPC and saw an outlined area for Arkansas and said "Hey, screw that". But, the day before Facebook started to come alive with chatter about the next day potentially going big. Which I wouldn't see until I went on break while working at REI. Alec sent me a sounding for the Pine Bluff, Arkansas area with impressive upper level dynamics, shear vectors, and lapse rates. Knowing I had to work the next day, and with my hike so close, this was not an easy decision to make. But given how low gas prices are right now, split between three people, the temptation was to strong to say no. So, I called my boss at the movie theater about a shift change and departed for Arkansas after my shift at REI was over.

I was pretty stoked for this chase, a lot more excited than the previous one in Louisiana. This setup didn't appear to have morning convection issues littering the sky with cloud debris that would screw over instability (remember what I say here about instability not being an issue) lol. Really, the most notable thing that was wrong were straight lined hodographs and slightly veered 850mlb winds. After arriving in Indianapolis, Indiana a 5% tornado risk was outlined for central Arkansas including our target of Pine Bluff. This would later be upgraded to a 10% hatched area with the mention of several tornadoes (possibly strong). I was also very excited for this chase because joining Alec and I was fellow chaser, and good friend Adam Lucio. A first for me. We had AAA all together for one last chase before I left and I was worried I wouldn't get to see them again before my departure.

Another concern arose that morning, as the high resolution models were showing the trough slowing down and having initiation in a nearly if not completely impossible chase area. The Ozarks. Where rock canyons hug both sides of the road, and where there aren't canyons tall trees line each side of the highway, with bare minimal views. But, looking at Satellite imagery you could tell, if anything the trough was a little bit ahead of schedule. Which was a good thing for us, because this would lead to an earlier initiation before dark, and potential produce tornadoes in the flat terrain of the delta during the day.

We arrived in Memphis around 10am and while we were under clear skies, we did notice a problem. Dew points on the mesonets in central and southern Arkansas were only in the mid 50s. When they were forecast to be much higher by then. However, given the unique dynamic of this setup, we thought things would all come together very quickly and right on time. So, at the time, we weren't too concerned. Another problem was there was absolutely no cape. Even under clear skies, the lack of dew points was not allowing the atmosphere to destabilize as forecasted. Regardless, we were down here, and in position a couple hours before storms would erupt. We would wait at a taco bell in Pine Bluff for the remainder of the day. But, I was super stoked because I got to see a ton of people I definitely did not expect to see before my hike. We were joined along side with Brett Wright, Brandon Sullivan, Mike Scantlin, Connor McCrorery, Courtney Eleys, Max Olson, Jessica Moore, Tony Measis, Stephen Jones, and Brandi Detrich. It was like I was home in Norman again. A place I have not visited since the Elmer, Oklahoma EF3 tornado. However, we were sitting in the number 3 most dangerous city in the USA with lots of expensive camera gear. Which was a bit unsettling. Especially since there was nearly a full on brawl outside this taco bell between two ladies and a man. So, of course we all filmed it. Once the people realized they were being recorded they stopped talking, flipped us some kind of a gang sign and drove off. This being right before a guy in a low rider screeched out of the parking lot blasting loud music. Needless to say, I was a believer with these statistics after experiencing that.

(Above image taken by Adam Lucio)

It was now 3pm and while it was sunny, it wasn't very humid. Dew points were STILL only 59-60 degrees and CAPE was still nearly non existent. I think it was about 500 at this point. Which told us one thing. The models were way off with the overall dynamics of this system. Way off. That being said, a 70/50 tornado watch was out mentioning strong tornadoes until 8pm. I was baffled there was no mention of the moisture and instability issue. Storms erupted a short time later into an arc of supercells. But, all the storms down South where we were, were taking on a more linear look. While storms to the Northwest near Little Rock and Mayflower were isolated, full blown supercells. We lost our patience and bit on the Northern stuff. Nothing to the South looked even remotely appealing, while supercells were underway to the North.

(Photo by Adam Lucio)

Into the jungle we go. Navigating through the curvy roads of the Ozarks, trying to position ourselves North of the hook echo as the storm was HP (high precipitation). But, that proved to be a big challenge due to slow, local drivers on two lane roads, and having to drive for what seemed like an eternity in golf ball, to ping pong ball sized hail. Which at one point was covering the roads, making driving very tough as I slid all over the road, and locals were traveling at a meer 5mph. The NWS at one point called my phone and asked if we were seeing any hail, as we were the only ones in the core of the storm. I relayed what I was seeing, and hung up the phone before passing the truck in front of me. What I didn't realize because I was talking on the phone, was a hail stone had taken out my GoPro and knocked it off some where. But, seeming how it was 4 years old, giving me fits, and I had just cleared the SD card and it wasn't filming at the time, I decided not to go back and look for it and cut my losses.

Finally....we broke out of the core of the storm and were now in my favorite spot, but also the most dangerous. It was time to dance with the bear in his cage. The fact we were even able to navigate ourselves into the cage in the jungle was an accomplishment all its own. Winds were screaming into the area of interest. But, even North of the hook where the tornado would be was severely rain wrapped.

We received a phone call again from the NWS in Little Rock and this phone call was priceless. He states to Adam "I see you guys are the only ones brave enough to get into the hook. Are you seeing anything?" and while we were very confident there was probably a tornado ongoing, or about to occur we couldn't confirm it visually. Then, the gut wrenching feeling set in, when we realized there was a river with no crossings. Nothing like going through all of that to only get a 5 second peak in the cage, before having to drive back North on a major interstate into the core of a tornadic supercells, praying it didn't produce for other chasers that chose to remain upstream.

Thankfully, the storm did not produce anything note worthy for other chasers as we got back into position near Carlisle right as the storm ramped up, with text book supercell structure. RFD cut, wall cloud, and alligator mouth. We were all repeating "This thing is about to produce, this is about to produce!" Only to get out of the car and feel cold air blowing into the area where a tornado would occur and shortly after the storm was undercut by cold, outflow.


We all yelled once we realized a confirmed, and VERY photogenic tornado was on the ground just 15 minutes East of where we sat for several hours earlier that day. The tornado was on the ground and it wasn't even tornado warned yet. "Are you kidding me?!?" Knowing our storm was dead, we hauled it South, but not before our storm spit out a couple of small funnel clouds from her belly.

Daylight was fading fast, and we knew our shot at a daytime tornado was done. But, persistence almost always pays off. While we were all tired, angry, and sad at the same time, we got South onto the storm while it was still showing supercell characteristics and still signs of rotation. We hauled it up Highway 1 near Dewitt, Arkansas when we noticed a classic wall cloud with RFD cut in front of us. Through the flashes of lightning we all noticed a funnel cloud, but couldn't tell if it was touching the ground. several more flashes of lightning revealed what appeared to be a debris cloud. Adam, Alec and myself were all seeing this but didn't wanna jump the gun and call it a tornado, when maybe it could have been lightning illuminating a rain shaft. But then fellow chaser friend Max Olson made a status saying there was a tornado on the ground, they were just in front of us and he posted a video grab of what we were seeing, but from a closer distance. Finally! A tornado! It wasn't a great one, but this would be all of ours first Arkansas tornado, and the first of 2016.

Aaron's Photo

Max's Photo

Radar at the time

White circle is our location compared to the rotation area on radar.

We continued up highway 1 paralleling the ongoing supercell. We pulled ahead of it near the town of Marvell where we waited on it to approach us again. However, we overshot it and Alec noted a funnel (or what looked like a funnel) and then RFD winds blasted our vehicle following several power flashes just ahead of us. This would later be confirmed as an EF0 tornado (the second tornado of the night). Not sure how the folks of this home didn't realize their front yard was on fire, but they didn't. Thankfully, it was already called in and shortly after we left this location police offers and firefighters were on their way.

A couple more weak tornadoes were confirmed later that night, but we decided to call off the chase in Marianna, Arkansas. At this point we were almost in Mississippi and we were all tired and most of all, hungry. That, and flash flooding was settling in, and many roads were becoming flooded over. We met up with our other chase partner Stephen Jones and Brandi Detrich in Memphis to celebrate with some Perkins. The power of the limeades helped once again! They weren't tornadoes to brag about, but had a sense of accomplishment with them, because we worked so hard, and covered so much ground getting to those. At least this time there wasn't a blizzard to drive home in.

Conclusion-Lack of dew points lead to less instability than progged by models, thus screwing over the strong tornado potential for the day. However, I couldn't have asked for a better way to end my chase season before I depart for my hike in California. I got to see almost all of my friends that I didn't think I'd get to see before I left, and we even got hail AND tornadoes! While the day was underwhelming I definitely don't regret going.

Footage from the day

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