On April 14, 2012, Doug Drace, Jeremy Milligan, Jeremiah Anderson and I set off to pursue tornadoes in northwestern Oklahoma after the Storm Prediction Center placed the area within a “high risk” zone for severe weather. Jason Girard and Garrett Doty followed us in a second chase vehicle.
It’s a long ride to the target zone. We head north out of Ardmore on I-35, and on the way are frequently checking out the latest data, looking for a signal as to where storms might begin forming. We’re chomping at the bit to see some Supercells, but please know none of us want anyone to get hurt or to see property destroyed. A tornado which forms and dies in the middle of nowhere is always our greatest wish.
Wall cloud (circled) which produced a large tornado 5 minutes after this image was captured.
This is only my second tornado chase and it’s such a different experience from being on-air during severe weather. The work on-air during tornadoes involves getting information to the public quickly to help them make important storm decisions. Here, we are front-row for nature’s handiwork.
Things began to “cook off” about 4 p.m. We were headed west on Highway 412 when a tornado-warned storm began moving up from the southwest some 5 miles east of Woodward. A turn to the right aimed us north to intercept the storm. We saw a funnel cloud and some really interesting wall clouds as we followed it for the next 30 minutes, but no tornado.
I didn’t realize how crowded these country roads become when there’s a lot of severe weather expected. Literally hundreds of chasers appeared seemingly out of nowhere after we crossed an intersecting highway near Freedom, OK. Now, some of these folks were just plain rubberneckers with no idea what they were doing, and these often make for the greatest nuisance. And of course there's the local people who are adding to the traffic with their desire to sightsee.
About this same time we noticed the storm’s radar presentation had begun to decay. Finding the roads choked with motorists clinched our decision to turn southward and pursue a newly-formed tornadic storm 30 miles away.
20 minutes later we used our GPS software to locate an obscure country road just past Bouse Junction, OK and got in close to this developing storm. It didn’t look like much when we arrived, but within a few moments a tiny rope tornado had formed:
It only lasted 10 seconds, but the wall cloud began to grow after the rope dissipated, so we knew this one needed to be watched closely. Since the storm was moving along at a good clip (about 35mph), we turned around and came back toward the tiny town of Bouse Junction.
The road which had been empty moments before now attracted dozens of storm chasers and all of us were rewarded with quite a sight: a huge wall cloud which looked like an upside-down Abe Lincoln hat:
This structure is not a tornado, but a wall cloud. The wall cloud is a visual signature of a strong updraft which may be rotating. Most significant tornadoes come from wall clouds. There was no mystery here: we could see the wall cloud rapidly spinning!
Just a minute later we witnessed a large “stovepipe” tornado rapidly form in a field behind the house you see here:
It was an amazing sight and the stories you hear from survivors are true - tornadoes can form very quickly.
It tracked to the northeast, so we turned onto an eastward-bound highway, carefully navigating through a cluster of other chasers, spotters, media, and untrained thrill-seekers also following the storm.
There were TV helicopters from Oklahoma City and plenty of folks with all kinds of cameras. Several vehicles sported weather instruments and many bristled with antennae. Some foolhardy people (with no weather training) had little kids with them in their car. Really? In a tornado? Come on!
The tornado continued on the ground for a number of minutes and you can see the debris cloud here:
Then, a second funnel appeared, making tandem tornadoes for a very short time. The first tornado then lifted and the second one dissipated a minute later. It was getting late as it was now about 15 minutes before sunset.
We called it a day with a good feeling because we saw some amazing storm structures including three tornadoes, with no damage and no injuries caused by them in our area.
Sadly, a different tornado struck Woodward, OK just after midnight that same day, killing 5 and destroying more than100 homes and buildings. We were nearly home by then, and glad for everybody that this severe event was winding down.
The 860-mile round trip was a fatiguing experience, but it was also exhilarating and just a bit scary too.
If Doug and Jeremy will put up with me then I plan to be on another chase with them (provided there’s no severe weather threat in Texoma that day) before this season is over.
Note: Storm chasing is an adventure, but it’s also serious business. All involved in the effort should be trained spotters who supplement this with additional weather training. This is done at advanced training seminars, working with other spotters/chasers, and independent study. It’s also essential to have excellent maps of the chase zone, a dependable vehicle, and reliable communication equipment to receive weather data/bulletins. Chasing alone is possible but not recommended. Most chase teams use laptop computers with “air cards” to access data through their cell phone service.