- Andrew Pritchard
Gibson City, IL "Surprise" Supercell | July 23rd, 2022
It continues to be a dreadful year for observing photogenic storms in central Illinois, and for getting any rain to fall on my garden and surrounding portions of east-central Illinois. Champaign County continues to be ground zero for a stretch of dry conditions that goes back to late-May.
To the topic of this post, I did get out for a bit of a surprise chase this past Saturday afternoon.
I woke up around 5 AM and pulled the radar up on my phone. During the summer months when thunderstorm activity can be quite unpredictable, this feels like a necessary "situational awareness" thing to do when first waking up, even before enjoying that first sip of coffee. Did storms spring up nearby overnight? Do I have something unexpected to contend with?
That was the case on Saturday morning. Pulling up the radar I noticed a cluster of severe storms had erupted to our north, prompting a tornado warning in the Chicago metro area. That's certainly something that'll jolt you away.
Still, I wasn't headed off to the Chicago metro for a sunrise hunt for tornadoes. My morning looked more like heading to the farmer's market with the wife and kiddo. As we did so, storms continued to backbuild along a line from Chicago to Indianapolis or so, off to my north and east.
Around lunchtime I started to notice a look I'd seen before. The outflow boundary was starting to prime in the late-July sun with an agitated cumulus field to my north, around Pontiac. Sometimes you can get renewed storm development to tap into the volatile environment being fueled by hot & muggy air to the southeast, while tapping into the rich vorticity of the modified outflow environment to take on supercellular characteristics on a day when supercells would not otherwise be expected.
That's something interesting about the summer months in the Midwest. The ingredients for supercells & tornadoes are almost always sort of passively available. They're just waiting for some kind of funky boundary to activate them.
A storm began intensifying near Pontiac and I bolted. We had plans as a family to see a play back in Champaign at 7 PM. It was 1:30 now. With the storm an hour to my north and slowly moving my way, with multiple north-south highways at my disposal for direct routes to the action area of the storm, this felt like plenty of time to play.
I picked up the storm near Gibson City, just north and east off Hwy 47. While the storm exhibited a rather gnarly wall cloud and initially had me pretty hyped for tornado potential, it pretty quickly was undercut by the outflow boundary and took on a colder, non-tornadic look. Additionally, fighting with rather meager flow aloft the storm struggled to stay organized, ebbing and flowing between a mostly unremarkable summer storm and at times, ominous HP supercell structure.
The storm moved very slowly, crawling south. This made it possible for me to find "scenes", a nice combination of Illinois prairie or farmland, a section of powerlines howling in the wind for added vibes, and to just sit and shoot it. There's not much that soothes my soul like standing on a country road in howling winds, an ominous storm in front of me, and the wind cutting through the powerlines making that erie ooooOOOOOOOOoooo sound.
I followed the storm for an hour or so, perhaps 90 minutes, before it began dying out on the doorsteps of Champaign-Urbana.
No complaints here. A perfectly nice storm to enjoy. In a more typical, active severe weather and storm observation season this is just a nice "cherry on top", but instead, in a year like 2022, this provides the same effect as a 1/10th of an inch of rain falling on bone dry soil. Satiated for now with a nice local storm, but hungry as ever.
Video & Photos:
Making my approach from the south, as a tornado warning is prompted.
First view of the storm, near Saybrook, IL. Note the soybeans leaning toward the storm in the very strong inflow winds. The storm had life, and at this moment, I thought it had tornado potential.
Outflow dominant, but impressive! The aqua green core carried golfball sized hail.