Jeff Masters Weather Blog

Front row for an atmospheric masterpiece (Part 2) » Yale Climate Connections

The scene above is what I saw upon turning onto this uncertain road. But the singular chunky lowering I’d seen moments before had soon morphed into a massive rotating curtain of a cloud that was within a hundred yards of the ground. A huge plume of dust was being drawn into the storm from the newly tilled fields the storm was scraping over. A few other chasers claimed this to be a tornado, but I had doubts as there is a regular misunderstanding of seeing things that look like a tornado, but don’t have any rotational motion to them. To my eye, the dust plume was just being pulled into the storm by the lower pressure at its center, but was a tell-tale sign the storm was strengthening and formidable. The speed of the rotating mesocyclone, so stunning and quick, imparted in me a sense of awe, borne of my seeing something I’d never before witnessed.

Now driven by excitement and adrenaline, it was clear I needed to figure out how to continue with the storm. A single road east seemed to turn into back roads winding their way to the next N-S highway. But not knowing the area, I was unsure how long it would take and whether it would even be drivable the entire way. But with no better option apparent, and other vehicles seeming also to commit to it, off we went.

From this intimidating wall cloud, soon came a subtle but very well-defined funnel, near the right side of the lowering. It was incredibly sculpted, against the jagged edges of the surrounding cloud curtain. It very quickly condensed all the way to the ground, and among all the chaos I felt a moment of calm relief. Here it was: The most magical atmospheric phenomenon on the planet, right in front of me in an absolutely pristine environment, churning through empty farmland disrupting nothing but the occasional bovine.

Now that at least a dozen other vehicles had committed to this road and path of chasing, we got about 5 mins of watching this beautiful tornado swirl through the scrubland. Eventually, however, it became wrapped in rain and lost from view. We all then drove somewhat blind and dust-covered for at least half an hour, not knowing what was going on and seeing only a dark cloud to our northwest punctuated by lightning strikes on our horizon.

Then, just like that, we rounded a curve, and the tornado was still there! Looking a little bit different, it left me unsure if it was still on the ground, a still well-defined funnel: an incredible second wind of excitement that not only had I seen one tornado, but the chase was not yet over.

We soon met up with paved road, and I raised my fist out the window in celebration knowing now we could seriously do what was needed to continue the chase. We passed through the small town of Truscott and met up with the north-south highway that would take us to a place in front of the tornadic storm as it continued east. The funnel pictured above, however, had disappeared: While still looking incredibly ominous, it left me uncertain whether the day’s magic had ended.

Again, I was not alone. Even more vehicles than on the original highway, 100 easily, lined both sides of the road, their passengers watching the darkening sky. People of all ages, solo like me, in small groups, all marveling at what was happening in front of them. I continued driving past the biggest groups knowing the core area of circulation was still a bit farther ahead. I eventually got to a clearing that looked out over vibrant green fields with multiple wind mills dotting the landscape. This is when the storm debuted its second act.

Another well-defined funnel appeared, quickly descending to the ground, and almost immediately beginning to wrap a curtain of brown topsoil around it like a towel. As it continued to intensify, I parked my van along the road and got out to watch. A young woman nearby looked at me and screamed ‘HOLY SH*T LOOK AT THIS! THIS IS MY FIRST TORNADO!’ With her excitement, both of us sharing our first experience with this wonder of nature, we jumped for joy and hugged, eventually taking a photo together as the tornado churned closer.

While the tornado was quite obvious in its power and movement, a number of other circulations and downdrafts were creating multiple walls of lofted dirt in different areas around it. One was moving directly toward us, forcing us back into our vehicles as the tornado crossed the road in front of us, soon to be quickly obscured by massive amounts of dirt swirling all around it.

I let the dust pass and settle, and then continued up the road to try to follow the storm. It quickly became clear that this tornado was continuing to intensify and that options for chasing it were dwindling. Along with a few others, I chose to go down a dirt road: Things started out okay, but as we followed the still obscured tornado to the east, heavy rain began to fall, further veiling the twister…and turning the roads to mud. I made it for a couple of miles before finally becoming disoriented and my van ending up in a muddy ditch.

I just sat and breathed for a few minutes, accepting what had happened. With sheer chaos beyond my van, I knew the main tornado was moving away from me, and knew that for the most part I was safe. It was so windy outside, however, that I couldn’t even open my door, and the intense lightning barrages around me were seemingly multiplying by the second. After calling some friends and trying to figure out if and when a tow truck could come help me, I decided to give it a shot at just getting myself out. It had stopped raining, and the strong winds were doing a bang-up job of evaporating some of the water on the road, miraculously allowing me to get my van out of the ditch.

It still was a grueling trip along that muddy road at about 2 mph, but I finally made it to a paved road and with jubilation turned east. At this point I was quite torn about what to do as the tornado intensified even farther. But light was fading quickly and I was exhausted and felt like I had already achieved a lot that day. I got to a road that, had I turned left, would have taken me to the tornado, while turning right would take me to my hotel for the night (I felt entitled to a bit of luxury after that day). After a brief deliberation I turned right and let the tornado go, in retrospect definitely the right call.

Tornado signature on radar just before it moved north towards Lockett (not labelled, but just SW of Vernon)

At this point the tornado was at its peak strength (later to be assigned an EF3 rating by the NWS) and doing some heavy damage to the small town of Lockett, Texas, and the surrounding area.

(Photo credit: NWS Norman)

An unfortunate situation developed with a tour van forced off the road with its windows smashed after positioning on the north side of the tornado which, at the end of its life, took a deviant motion to the left (north) right where some chasers were stationed thinking it would continue east. This deviant motion at the end of a tornado’s life cycle is well documented, having been observed numerous times.

This is the exact reason you sign a waiver when you go on guided tours. Even the most experienced chasers will make mistakes. I’m betting half the people on that van had the ride of their lives, and that the other half will never do so again and will not recommend others do so.

In the end, these guided tours are a commercial enterprise designed to get people close to tornados, inevitably and inherently a risky thing to do. No one in this case was seriously injured, but the incident sparked a furious debate among the weather community about the dangers storm chasers face. Coupled with storm chaser deaths just a week earlier, many wonder what if anything can be done to mitigate the risk.

As I drove away from that unfolding situation, one of the most spectacular lightning displays I’ve ever witnessed illuminated the way to my hotel. When I got there around 11pm, a different tour van with exhausted looking guests was checking in. This is where I first heard of the van accident, as the operators of this expedition lamented with one another how silly it was that a tour would find itself that close to a tornado, after dark. “I never chase at night man, it’s just not worth it,” one man said to another. As chasing becomes more popular, these kind of too close for comfort incidents will undoubtedly increase, showing yet again the unstoppable, mysterious draw so many of us have to such a violent, beautiful sight.

One would think I would fall asleep quickly that night, but residual adrenaline and wonder at what I’d seen led to a fairly restless sleep. And the chase continued.

South of Lockett, Texas

Editor’s Note: Photos and captions in this series by Charlie Randall unless otherwise noted. See Part 1 of this story here.

Charlie Randall is a Canadian photojournalist, one-time meteorology student and, now, an avid storm chaser traveling across parts of the U.S. observing extreme weather and its aftermath.

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