October 4th Iowa Bust
The tornado drought has surpassed 500 days. I returned to the road on Friday with the motivational help of my chase partner Colin Davis. The setup looked potent over Nebraska and Iowa, and after a fruitless spring my days are limited as far as avoiding a tornadoless 2013 are running out. When in a sky rut such as this, each potential outing kind of has that “what’s the point” feeling beforehand, but a warm and humid Thursday with cauliflower in the sky helped light the fire inside, and after browsing the evening weather data I sent several texts to Colin saying that the chase was certainly on. We planned to leave his place in Canton, IL at 7 am, which meant I’d be leaving Champaign around 5. After a slightly earlier than planned 3 am wake up, I threw all of my camera gear in the car and grabbed a cup of coffee and hit the road. There really is no better feeling than that of driving down the highway with the windows down, letting in the moist morning air while the first hints of light start to peak over the eastern horizon. The day has yet to begin for most people, but already my head is swimming with visions of how it will play out.
I rolled into Colin’s driveway around 7:30 and made the switch over to his vehicle and we hit the road. Spirits were high as I poured over the morning data. The obvious target was eastern Nebraska, but I always seem to get the smart ass idea that I should go for the underdog target. I had earlier suspicions that the warm front may not surge northward as quickly as forecast by some of the computer models due to early morning convection in the region, and that storms forming further north may be grungy and riddled with low visibility. Based on that hunch I was really liking a southwest Iowa target. I thought that given enough insolation during the afternoon, thunderstorms would redevelop near the Iowa/Nebraska border just south of Omaha and potentially interact with the residual outflow boundary left in the area by morning thunderstorms. We grabbed lunch and a new tripod for my forgetful self in Des Moines and then made the call to head southwest and pass up the Nebraska/nw Iowa target that most were sitting in, and drifted toward Creston, IA.
Driving through Creston it was obvious enough to me that the system had slowed some, and that we may as well continue west a little further and park it in Red Oak, Iowa. We found a gas station with a large parking lot and a view of the western horizon and decided to wait there.
So we waited.
After a couple hours of waiting and several trips into the gas station for food and drinks, sunset was now only half an hour away. Our friends were intercepting tornadoes in Nebraska, and there was nary a cloud to be seen over our heads. It was subsidence city. Morning thunderstorms can leave outflow boundaries that later enhance thunderstorm rotation inducing tornado development, but that is conditional on an actual thunderstorm developing in the first place. These same outflow boundary producing thunderstorms can also leave in their wake a region of sinking air that acts to suppress any convective development.
An isolated thunderstorm had developed in northeast Kansas and was drifting our way, but it was mostly ignored as it appeared to be behind the boundary and in a region of weaker low level shear so the tornado threat was not really present. However, around sunset this appeared to be the only play. The storm was coming into view, and mammatus were starting to overspread the sky. It was the only storm in sight, and we were seven hours away from home, so it was this or nothing.
We jumped onto Highway 69 north and paralleled the storm for about half an hour before the sun finally hit the horizon and the storm collapsed on itself. In true ‘slap in the face’ Iowa fashion, a river valley prevented us from finding a spot to photograph the storm at its peak visual appearance as the sun hit the horizon casting a red glow on the underbelly of the storm.
As we made our way toward home, other storms came and went, and excluding a brief stop for lightning photos we chose to ignore most of the after dark action.
Busting is hard to stomach, but it is a little bit easier when the storm system as a whole fails to produce. But making the wrong call, when the more obvious target produces tornadoes and photogenic storms and most of your friends and colleagues have a successful evening while you catch a suntan in an Iowa truck stop parking lot a long way from home is pretty hard to take.
Sometimes I look back at the successes of past years and wonder if I have lost the knack, but I hope that just as the highs come and go, this sky rut too shall pass. It does seem that every sky I touch turns to mush at this point, but I’ll keep at it, and the hopefully the sky drama will follow.