I published an article in Smile Politely Online Magazine that recapped the June 22nd tornado intercept in northern Illinois, and also gave a bit of insight into storm chasing as a whole. I'm going to let that serve as the log for this particular date. Enjoy!
It’s been 20 years since the movie Twister came out, and storm chasing is still nothing like it was in the Hollywood cinema. I’ve been chasing tornadoes for nearly 15 years now, and I’m still waiting for my opportunity to drive straight into a farmhouse that is actively rolling across the highway.
Maybe one day I’ll be so lucky! So what *is* it like out there? I’m constantly trying to explain the delicate balance between it being both the most exciting and addictive hobby imaginable, while also somehow managing to be 98% boredom and disappointment. I was out during the severe weather outbreak that spawned 15 tornadoes across northern Illinois on Wednesday, June 22nd and thought a written play by play of that day might be a fun way to immerse you all in this weird cloud obsession that myself and a few other twisted souls have.
While I won’t spend a lot of time on this aspect, the gears begin turning nearly a week in advance. Perusing the long-term weather models a major weather maker can often be seen several days out - though the timing, location, and impacts are constantly evolving as the subtle nuances in the weather pattern work themselves out. Think butterfly effect. Tiny little thunderstorms on the other side of the continent today can have big effects on how things play out over the next day or two in our area, let alone over the next week. So while a day may look like a big severe weather producer a week out, that excitement is often tempered as we get closer to reality. This particular day was evident 4-5 days in advance, and lucky for the storm chasers it remained fairly consistent.
After days of “this is going to great!” and “crap, it’s gone!”, the morning of the chase finally arrives. I woke up early on this one, shortly before 5 AM when my weather radio sounded alerting me of severe thunderstorms several counties to our west. While morning thunderstorms can sometimes have negative impacts on your afternoon severe weather chances, I just love going over a morning forecast while sipping my coffee with thunder rolling out the window. During my morning weather analysis I’m looking at what’s happening right now, and what the many different forecast models suggest may happen later, and then doing my best job of trying to figure out what’s really going to happen. Perhaps the computer weather models suggest a big tornado outbreak that evening. But perhaps those same weather models also say that it should be sunny outside this morning, while in reality we’re three hours deep in rain and thunderstorms. Well if the weather models doesn’t know what’s going on right this second, how the hell can you trust it to know what’s going to happen 12 hours from now?
While it’s becoming a lost art, there is no substitute for channeling your inner five year old, and breaking out the colored pencils. Taking a weather map and analyzing it by hand helps you notice subtle details that might otherwise be overlooked by taking a quick glance and then jumping straight into the all-knowing computer weather models. Those subtle details can be the difference between getting on the storm that produces a tornado that day, and going home empty handed. For what it’s worth, the odds of an experienced storm chaser seeing a tornado on a given storm chase is somewhere around 1 in 10, so if it means increasing my odds a little bit, by all means, I’ll get to coloring.
An hour or two of analysis, coffee sipping, and hair pulling later, I’ve picked a target city. This is sort of your next landing spot; where you’ll head to and take your next look.
I was chasing this day with my brother, Wil, along with my best friend and storm chasing partner of 10+ years, Colin. Wil and I left my house in Urbana around 10:30 and planned to meet Colin in the Peoria area around the lunch hour. We ditched our car at a Park-n-Ride along Interstate 74 jumping into Colin’s car, which is much better suited for storm chasing. You don’t *need* an SUV with 4-wheel drive for storm chasing (I chased the Great Plains many times in a Mazda 6), but it doesn’t hurt.
We cruised up Interstate 74, linked up with Interstate 88, and eventually landed in our target area near Sterling, IL (close to the Quad Cities). Now, we wait.
There’s not much worse than being *late* to a tornado outbreak. Watching storms go nuts on the radar screen while you are still two hours away. That’s why if at all possible, I prefer to be very early to the target area. I’d rather be bored than mad. You can grab a bite to eat, and find somewhere to relax and watch the storm system come together. That’s precisely what we did here. We snacked on spicy almonds, sour patch kids, and sandwiches. We threw rocks at highway signs, and took peaks at the clouds with the Cubs game on the car radio, and took sneaky awkward photos of each other and uploaded them to Twitter. A fellow storm chaser/college best friend from my meteorology studying days at Northern Illinois University, Heather, showed up and parked beside us and joined in the excitement of the wait.
Finally, storms began appearing on the radar. And of course, mother nature never makes it easy. Rather than one big, dominant storm immediately popping up, multiple storms developed all at once forcing you to make your next crucial decision: which storm do you pick? This is where that morning analysis becomes significant. Without that deeply involved look at the entire weather picture, you might not be able to determine which storm has the best chance of producing a tornado.
We went down the list of deciding factors… the storm right out our window looks like the better storm right now, but it also looks like it could end up being a rainy mess that would make any tornado hard to see. In this case, it was clear the decision was to pick the smaller, but less rain-filled storm to our west. Almost immediately after we ditched our current storm and left it behind us, it was given a Tornado Warning. Of course it was! All we could do was hope that any tornado it did produce really was hard to find, and that we were making the right decision by ditching it for this new cell to our west.
We flew down the highway toward the town of Tampico and eventually our storm came into view, and it looked fantastic! It was clearly rotating strongly, perhaps readying itself to produce a tornado right in front of us, while powerful lightning bolts crashed down around us. We grabbed the cameras and began filming the base of the storm, adrenaline pumping. This was it! Except that it wasn’t! As great as the storm looked, as fast as it was spinning, as is usually the case it just could not get it done. If every supercell thunderstorm produced a tornado, storm chasing would be a lot easier, and our property insurance would be a lot more expensive. The storm’s base filled in with rain and eventually it fell apart.
While we were repositioning we got a phone call from another good friend of ours from the Peoria area, Jarrod, who was right behind us! We pulled off and greeted him, and agreed that we would continue the rest of the day caravanning together. That’s the craziest aspect of storm chasing right there. You have all of these friends, often some of your best/longest friends, who you only see a handful of times a year, and only out in the middle of nowhere on the back roads under turbulent skies. I haven’t seen one of my best friends since I ran into him in the parking lot of an Aberdeen, South Dakota gas station in 2010. Yet we still talk weekly.
After some decision making, we were ready to bounce to the next storm in the line, near the town of Manlius. We pulled off again after getting a view of the storm, again with incredible lightning striking around us. Colin at one point said “I’m gonna get out” followed by an immediate flash-BOOM lightning strike followed by “No I’m not.” Even if it meant having to shoot photos through the dirty windshield of the car, this was not a storm that you stood outside and admired. A lot of aspects of storm chasing are relatively safe if you know what you are doing. Hail and high winds are very easy to avoid, and even tornadoes can be relatively predictable. But lightning? One moment you’re fine, the next moment you’re fried. That’s not a risk I’m willing to take, so more often than not anymore I’ll shoot photos from inside the vehicle.
A large ‘wall cloud’ quickly developed on the base of the storm. This is often a precursor to a tornado. Nearly all tornadoes come from a wall cloud, though not all wall clouds will produce a tornado. Was this another instance of the storm simply playing with our emotions? One thing was clear; it was quickly overtaking us at our current location, and we needed to move again. Quick adjustments were made and we were back ahead of the storm, and just in time!
As our eyes pierced through the dark and stormy horizon, we finally saw it… a cone shaped tornado was emerging from the rain just behind some trees. I was extremely excited, and not sure that Heather and Jarrod saw the tornado from their vehicles parked behind us, so I, as Colin called it, “Baywatch-style” leaped through the air prancing down the road pointing at the tornado on the horizon. Once they had visual, I remembered that I should probably begin taking some photos myself. While the devastating, news-making tornadoes that you hear about are often on the ground for quite a while, the average tornado is down for less than a minute. That was more or less the case for us here. We watched the tornado drift along the horizon for what seemed like forever, but in reality was only a minute or two before lifting.
It looked like the storm had more in store for us, but it wasn’t meant to be. After this first tornado, the storm followed the pattern of the day and became a rainy mess. It was now almost 8:30 PM, and daylight was waning. There was one more storm to our west though, and we figured it was worth one more shot.
This fourth and final storm never stood a chance though - not for us anyway. It struggled to get its act together, and now darkness was truly taking over as the sun fell behind the horizon. I won’t act as if I *never* chase storms at night, but this was not the day for that. The environment was still primed for significant tornadoes, and the storms were moving quite fast. Pursuing this in the blind darkness of night is a recipe for regret. This was an instance where you take what you’ve got and go home safe.
Along a small farm road, we said goodbye to Heather and Jarrod and began our trek home. That meant driving a bit out of the way to find our car at the Park-N-Ride… 90 minutes to our car, and then another two hours from there to Urbana. It’s a tough call on what the worst part of storm chasing really is… the waiting and waiting for storms to develop, or the often very long drives home after a potentially fruitless day. At least in this instance we did have a tornado to show for it, though it wasn’t necessarily a trophy-winner itself. But as I mentioned earlier, the other 9 times out of 10 you’re making that long, exhausted, late night drive home with perhaps nothing to show for it. Forget your storm not producing a tornado, a handful of those ‘bust’ days don’t even include a storm. Colin and I have driven all-night, all-day, and all-night again to Kansas and back for blue skies. Certain aspects of the weather pattern that can often enhance severe weather chances, if too plentiful can actually suppress any thunderstorm development altogether.
Colin dropped Wil and I at our car, now nearly at 11 PM, still two long hours away from home. The stars twinkled overhead, with lightning from our now-distant storms flickering on the horizon, while we swatted mosquitos and emptied our bladders along the side of the road before untangling the mess of camera gear and other electronics in Colin’s car and heading our separate ways. It wasn’t until we were topping off the gas tank in Peoria that Wil and I realized that now at nearly Midnight, we hadn’t eaten anything since lunch. On the road at 12 AM there isn’t a lot to pick from, so late-night double cheeseburgers and an ice cold coke it was, before rolling into Urbana somewhere close to 2 AM.
So why do it? Why put up with all the miles on the road, all the waiting in the middle of nowhere, all the sleepless nights? For that one storm, that one in five years chase where your storm just goes absolutely crazy. That storm that produces tornado after tornado where you just completely lose yourself in the atmosphere. The entire world ceases to exist while you watch the sky do things that seem to defy all logic. The best way that I can describe seeing a tornado, is that it just seems like you’re looking at something that shouldn’t be there. And that’s what will keep me coming back as long as my mind and body will allow.