Now where the heck did I put my rain jacket?
Each time I head over to the United States storm chasing I feel like I’m going to forget something. Then there is the annoyance that I am packing to become totally mobile for the entire time I am traveling, so then I end up cutting down what I have in my bag to the bare essentials, after all whatever I take I am going to be carrying around Los Angeles International and into every hotel room across the alley. Even though I’m mostly prepared I am sure I will end up doing a bunch of things at the last minute, after all you can never be too prepared when going chasing after thunderstorms and tornadoes.
And why is it I can’t shake that weird feeling of nervousness and excitement? Worrying about connections, of how far we are going to have to drive to see a storm on the day we arrive, or of the season remaining quiet and seeing no storms at all during the trip! Well, hopefully that last thing won’t happen, the forecast models seem to be suggesting an end to the ridging high pressure pattern that has kept storm chasers far away from the plains if not sitting at home. That’s the danger when you book a time period months ahead as many chasers do (including me), no matter how many times you look at the climatology you just never know what the season will throw up; whether you will luck out and get to improve your tan under a ridge, see a single extraordinary tornado, or get a full blown tornado outbreak.
Its always interesting keeping in touch with my friends in the US, particularly those that chase storms. Sometimes you get incredibly jealous when they get amazing storms and tornadoes and you are around the other side of the planet unable to do anything about it (April 14 this year saw 80 tornadoes in an outbreak over Kansas). Then there are others where you enjoy teasing them as the entirety of May (traditionally the peak month of severe storms and tornadoes in the Great Plains) has produced very little in terms of severe thunderstorms…like this year. Fortunately for me (but unfortunately for residents of Tornado Alley) there appears to be an upper-level trough moving into the west of the continent, which should mean that Tornado Alley fires up again and will begin to live up to its name. I guess what really says a lot about how things work in the alley was our experience last year. We chased for five weeks and saw 22 tornadoes, but 19 of those came in a single 5-day period that produced 242 tornadoes (out of the May total of 320). So even though May has been quiet up until now (only 47 tornadoes reported to date), it might only take a single day to change that in a big way. That’s what makes the United States and Tornado Alley a special place.
Sometimes looking at the models you wonder why you are bothering to fly 16 hours to the Northern Hemisphere just to see storms. One of my fascinations about chasing storms is just never knowing what the atmosphere is going to serve up; even if the environmental conditions appear to be very similar between days, it may have little control over storm mode or how they appear. Even the most ideal looking day in terms of environmental conditions can leave you with endless blue skies in the plains and nothing to show for it, the ever depressing ‘bust’ of chasing.
|A lovely sunset on a blue sky bust in Oklahoma. Not a storm formed.|
The next day can have a very similar environment, and unlike the previous day have one supercell thunderstorm that goes crazy, or have a whole outbreak of storms across hundreds of kilometers.
|The other extreme, when given huge amounts of instability and shear a tornadic supercell near Kingfisher, Oklahoma|
I guess that’s why I really enjoy looking at the environments associated with severe thunderstorms, trying to understand the ingredients that make them tick and what differing combinations can produce in terms of not only storm appearance, but also the physics within the storms. With the conditions for severe storms and in particular supercells an almost daily occurrence in the US during active periods I guess its little wonder that I would go every spring if I could!
So I guess I’d better get back to the anxious excited countdown (36 hours, 35 minutes, 34 seconds until I depart for Brisbane…but I’m not counting), getting that last job done for the research until I get back (well, I will still be writing but that doesn’t count), and maybe just checking I’ve packed everything one more time… John