Monday, April 4, 2016

Windfield Alabama EF1 Tornado-3/31/2016

2016 sure is becoming the year of last minute decision chases. Most eyes were focused on the day before (Wednesday March 30th) where a potent dryline was in place across Oklahoma and Kansas, while a less potent, but better backed windfield closer to the Low was in place across Nebraska and Iowa. I opted not to chase this setup due to veered winds and morning convection problems. However, looking ahead to the next day I really liked what I was seeing. However, there were two, very obvious target areas. One across Southern Illinois, Indiana and Western Kentucky, and one across Mississippi, Alabama, Southern Tennessee, and extreme Western Arkansas.

To the North, you had an impressive, highly amplified positively tilted trough with 80 knots of shear at 500mlb, NAM CAPE values pushing 2,000, and higher amounts of 0-1km helicity. However, winds were veered so bad, and all of the crossover winds were unidirectional. Meaning there wasn't much, if any turning in the atmosphere conductive for tornadoes. But, if there were to be an Outflow Boundary draped out from morning convection, and a storm could root to this, strong tornadoes would be very possible. To the South, an intense exit region was in place with better backed 850mlb winds, 3,000 cape and 70 degree dew points. But, Helicity was lacking and appeared to be displaced from the better parameters, and an OFB also looked to be likely in this area as well.  I was at work when the newest outlook came out, and while the enhanced risk area for severe weather was extended North and now hatched, they mentioned what I had been thinking all morning. But, seeming how this was my last opportunity to chase before my hike. I figured why not?

Getting my shift covered was not a problem, and just like that, I went hope to give the 00z model data a look and see if it was as impressive as 12z runs. It wasn't. It was a big step backwards. I texted my photo friend Nicholas Reichard earlier that day asking if he wanted to come along. He's not a storm chaser, but a fantastic film photographer who is also hiking the PCT this year. What better way to send off a season than to bag a home town friend their first tornado? He agreed, and met me at my place around 230am. However, I woke up and checked model data one last time and texted Nicholas asking if he was there yet and how he felt about going to Mississippi? I calculated the route and realized we could make it. But, we'd have to hustle.

The drive down was freaking terrible. Cold, pouring rain for hours on end, morning rush hour traffic. I was beginning to wonder if this was a sign to turn around. But, it didn't take long for us to reach Tennessee's I-40 West and quickly clear all of the precip. We were even treated to clearing skies which seems to just not exist on severe weather days anymore in the South. Then, once we got to Memphis to head South into Mississippi, a well defined Outflow Boundary was visible on Satellite.

My original target was Batesville, Mississippi. But, once we arrived and stepped out of the car and noticed there was a bit of rain and cloud cover. I realized we were still north of the boundary and we repositioned to Grenada and it was as if someone had pulled the curtains back and let all of the sun light in. Arriving in Grenada, it was hot, humid, and sticky outside and for once, it felt like a chase day. Nick and I ate at Wendy's while I went over model data and trends, and I noticed a little echo top showing up just to our Southwest on radar. So, we departed from Wendy's, got gas, right as an MD for a Tornado Watch was issued highlighting our target area for an enhanced tornado threat.

Immediately I was concerned. Based on radar presentation, storms were getting up to 40,000 feet and wouldn't push any further and would collapse. This was telling me there was still a hefty cap in place. Which was odd, because the problem that morning was supposed to be the opposite, and concerns of storms going up all at once was the big fear. While I was happy I nailed the target area, I was quickly getting bummed out. Especially seeing the fluffy updraft approaching me.

Even though storms looked like garbage, and what we call "popcorn storms" I couldn't give up. I drove down all this way and it wasn't even 3pm yet. I continued trekking East, pacing the storms and by nearly 4pm anything of interest lost to the cap and died. There were plenty of severe warnings to the South, which were all hail producers. Storms to the North in Tennessee with one storm that was tornado warned but, heavily rain wrapped. But, nothing where we were at. One storm blew up about 30 miles to our South near Ackerman and was reported to have been dropping Ping Pong Ball size hail. I was sure to keep an eye on this, as I was repositioning to my new target of Tupelo, Mississippi. A town, in which was devastated by an EF3 tornado on April 28th, 2014. We stopped along State highway 15 to monitor radar trends. Just like the other ones, this thing was barely a kidney bean on radar and was probably a 30 mile wide storm (if that). We turned around and briefly headed to South. It only took until we got to Woodlawn to realize this storm wasn't going to do anything impressive. Then, the severe warning was dropped. My friend Jason Cooley was nearby and I asked him if he wanted to do dinner in Tupelo. I thought the day was over, but its not over until that sun goes down and the sunlight fades away into darkness.

Almost right after we placed our order. Jason and I noticed a couple blimps that had rapidly fired up on radar, and looking at velocities, it was obvious these storms fired off of the Outflow Boundary and if these were to interact with it, would for sure drop tornadoes. We just about left, and dealt with the hunger later. But, right as the storm we were keeping an eye on was showing a strong couplet our food was brought out. We asked the waitress if we could please get our checks and her response was "Oh, damn. lol". I was having flashbacks to the Elk Creek, Nebraska tornado in August. Because it was basically the samething. We all quickly woofed down our food and ran to our cars after paying the tab, and the chase was on. We quickly flew East on US 78 crossing the Alabama state line approaching the storm closer and closer. I remember clicking the warning box to see how fast it was moving, and the warning text stated it was only moving at 25mph. I'm incredible optimistic at this point. We were approaching fast and furious and the storm wasn't even close to the highway we would intercept on (US 43 in Fayette). Then, something caught my eye. A little baby rain shower blew up to the North of the tornadic supercell and while it looked terrible on radar, velocities revealed a small, developing couplet. I didn't say anything to Nick who was driving at the time, because I thought it might be bad radar feedback, or a quick spinup.

That wasn't the case though. The next scan reveled an even tighter couplet and rapidly growing or, well, "growing" storm. It was apparent this storm was trying to take dominance as the storm to the South was becoming less impressive.

(My position is delayed as I saved these radar grabs well after we documented the tornado)

We dove South as we entered Winfield, Alabama and the purple box all of us chasers love the most appeared. A tornado had now been confirmed on the ground! I warned Nick as we exited town and dropped South, that as soon as we clear the rain core, the tornado, if it was still there would be waiting for us on the other side. For someone who had never been on a chase before and no forecast knowledge he handled the whole scenario like a champion. A couple of palm sweating, knuckle clutching moments went by as you are in the core, approaching the cage, waiting to see if there was a bear to tango with on the other side.

Dancing with the bear is dangerous enough, throw in the chase terrain of the deep South, and it'll get your heart bumping faster than ever thought possible. A few intense minutes ticked by before the rain began to settle, and an ominous feature was looming above the tree line. I told Nick "I think that's it. Start slowing up"

By chance, it would appear as if we found the one "flat" opening on this road. Thanks for a nearby farmers house (which was thankfully spared from damage). Once we cleared this last tree line, an obvious tornado was on the ground. Finally!!!! This grinded chase had finally paid off. The best part? The only people there to document this were me, Nick, and Jason. In this day in age, when you have those days were you are the only people to see a tornado, when there are literally thousands of chasers out every year. Its quite the accomplishment. We caught the tornado in its dying stages as it began to rope out. But, she decided to condense fully one last time when we pulled over from nearly 50 yards away!

I told Nick to be ready to backup, because this thing was literally headed right for us. We watched it spin and spin until it was nearly overhead, and at one point I pan my camera out and you could look up the funnel as it completely roped out. This photo by Jason Cooley puts better into perspective as to how close we were.

My car is just ahead, as the tornado approaches.Getting into the bears cage can be trick even in the plains. To successfully do it in the hills and trees of Alabama is something to celebrate with all its own. We pulled up and parked in a driveway and rolled down our windows jumping for joy and saying "WE F.CKING MADE IT! WOOOOO!"

The best part, is the chase wasn't over yet! This storm was still going strong with a nicely couplet. I navigated Nick South and found and East road and finally had us back North.

(Again delayed radar grab)
We topped a hill on highway 13 just of Eldridge, Alabama and lightning illuminated rapid rising motion. Another flash revealed another tornado! Tornado umber 2! Hell yeah! We didn't get to enjoy this one as long as we got blocked by debris, and trees preventing us from getting a better view. But, I didn't manage to snag a couple video grabs of the tornado.

Right before the tornado plants 

Tornado number 2 in progress!

Shortly after this video, I noticed Jason wasn't behind us anymore. I figured he pulled off to send footage in and get photos up. But, I received a message from him that he ran out of gas. So, I called the chase off and we turned around to pick him up and take him to a gas station. The first gas station we came across was closed and it was filled with abandoned cars. Turns out, everyone had taken cover in the tornado shelter. Which is awesome! We found another gas station about 5 miles East of there and got Jason the gas he and us both needed, took him back to his car and after another, quick high five, we both parted ways and were homeward bound!

Conclusion-Never give up on a chase day! Always eat Dinner in your target area. No matter what. This method has paid off twice in a year for me. Because you never know what can happen until that sun goes down. This chase was even more special because I got Nicholas his first tornado and he got an image he had always wanted to capture. A tornado on 35mm film! To top it all off, after several bust, and two crappy tornadoes in Arkansas after dark, all of which while I lost a GoPro nature finally coughed up a good tornado before I left. See everyone this fall, next to the wedge!

Storm Reports

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Footage from the day