Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Chase Expedition June 2007

Camera - 2 x Olympus E1
Lenses - 14-54mm, 50-200mm, 7-14mm, 90-250mm
Plethora of accessories

Day 1 - June 5th

After a gruelling 18 hour journey, battling against British motorways, two United Airline flights, customs and more customs, we thankfully made our destination in Kansas City approx 1830hrs local time (CDT).

After pouring over the models the night before, and finally in Heathrow before we left the UK, our target area had not changed - Central Nebraska/South Dakota border. Synoptically this was showing the best setup favourable for a severe weather outbreak. SPC had issued a Mod risk for our target area. After many weeks of waiting and pondering this was the week we decided looked favourable for sustained photogenic severe weather. I say 'we' because this year the team consisted of four. My usual chase partner Ian Brindley (Navigator, joint forecaster and suicidal driver extraordinaire!), Andrew James (Editor Practical Photography) and Jerome Demare (Olympus with his new & impressive E510).

No rest upon landing. We had to head north and get much mileage between Kansas and target area. Sioux City, Iowa was our planned stopover. Six hours on the road allowed me to play with the usual digital suspects in the form of phones, GPS and radar tracking devices, not without problems. We stayed at the Best Western in Sioux and some very tired heads were glad to hit the sack. Unable to sleep until I had updates on the forecasts my frustration continued through the early hours of the morning as I tried (in vain) to get internet connection. The supposed high speed wireless was down in the Worst Western, and to make things worse before departing to his room Jerome announced his good deed of the day.... The flight reading material was so bad during the United Airlines flight from Chicago to Kansas that he decided to donate his passport. Such generousity. I gave up and went to bed.
Day 2 - June 6th

Managed to eventually grab a few hours sleep before waking up early in excitement and anticipation of the day ahead. The wireless internet feed was still down, so after using the ancient lobby pc (which would have made an Amstrad look modern!) we refined our days target to Pierre, South Dakota. There was a stout cap in place for today albeit with some very impressive flow throughout all levels of the atmosphere. The region west of Pierre offered some orographic potential to enhance convective instability and hopefully get the supercell ball rolling.

A quick breakfast of doughnuts and coffee (gotta love this country) and we were on the road by 9am. Stopping at Walmart for supplies we we soon flying west on 20 and north on 83 towards our target area. I'd almost forgotten what a pleasure it was to drive in this country. Empty, open roads and nothing but landscape. A six hour drive in the US is probably equivalent to half an hour back in the UK in terms of frustration levels. We purchased a cheap US cell phone from Walmart as the US SIM card I bought with me did not want to play ball. It proved an invaluable 10 buck purchase. I hooked up with numerous fellow UK chasers, currently in the US, and of course my usual US colleagues for nowcasting advice. The chase rookies (Andrew & Jerome) seemed to be in high spirit, albeit one without a passport and the other itching to stop and take photos of this amazing landscape every minute. We had to push onwards in order to reach our goal. There would be many photo ops, I assured, when we reached storm zone.

Upon reaching I90 at Murdo we hooked up with Tony Gilbert and his team whom were also in the same area. Storm cells were starting to initiate just south of Kadoka, in the Badlands region. This was to be our target. We only drifted 15 miles or so south of the I90 when we found our cell. It began to take great shape and structure and looked very good on radar. After winding through the very photogenic Badlands area we sourced a good local road with relatively flat terrain and a good viewpoint. It seemed we were not the only chasers in town, including a DOW were parked up. We cleared the circus and found our spot. Vehicles emptied and cameras started rolling. The storm produced some famtastic structure including a great wall cloud. Many funnels teased us with touchdown but none visibly made it. I found a great spot for a few photos with a very photogenic 'Little house on the Prairie' in the foreground. I watched the wall cloud roll straight over it and funnels galore dropped right over the house. We must have stayed there a good 30 mins until the time came when we had to move, to keep away from the precip and stay in tow with the storm, which was issued a tornado warning. As we all made our way back to the vehicles someone screamed look behind you. Within 50 feet a dust devil landed and blew straight past us. There was high pitched scream associated with it and my first thoughts were a tornado was initiating. Fortunately, for us, it never and it must have been an associated spin-up. We watched it disappear into the distance, actually towards the other chasers parked up. I learned later in the day that this dust devil created quite a bit of chaos in a nearby town as it passed through and someone had caught it all on video.

The next hour or so turned out to be quite eventful. The plan was to track NE in an effort to sit alongside the storm and catch it at various opportunities. For a slow moving storm this turned out to be more difficult than predicted. Whilst I had the exact location of the storm and the vehicle's position on radar we could just not get away from the hail. Initially we were close to the bear's cage (NE of the meso very close to the core). Later reports indicate a rain wrapped tornado here! Visibly and via radar we eventually got well away from the main core but still were getting hammered with large hail (dime). The noise of hail on metal was intense. At one stage we pulled under an Interstate bridge, causing Ian to scrape the vehicle along a safety barrier! However, I was concerned that if we were to stay here we would never get ahead of the storm. We decide to press on an drive through the precip. Eventually we got clear but it took a good while and I have never experienced hail so intense so far away from the main core. We were on the edge of the anvil and still getting battered! An indication of the updraughts and outflow associated with this cell. The usual buzz and chatter had gone very silent in the cheap seats. I think our guests had just been stunned into silence, with the occasional onset of panic. Welcome to the Alley chaps!

We eventually reached a point when we just had to let go and decide to blow south. Thoughts of positioning for tomorrow. We picked up on the dryline storms firing as we drifted south and picked off some great stuff near Springview in North central Nebraska. At one point we hit a monstrous road work section keeping us parked for a good 15 mins. As we waited the most glorious mammatus show emerged on the flank of an anvil. Cameras began firing. We also had some epic lightning displays above us as we continued driving south. Very tired and in dire need of rest we thought about accommodation. Not much about in this neck of the woods but we eventually found a reasonable shack on 20 in Oneill, Nebraska. The hand delivered Pizza and beer was most welcome, unlike the swarm of mossies attempting to hijack the fun!

A few more images here:-

Day 3 - June 7th

Awoke very early through excitement of another potential excellent chase day. However, the models left us in a bit of a dilemma. The severe play of the day was going to be high plains, Iowa and Wisconsin area with some incredible flow patterns within the atmosphere. SPC recognised this with a high risk. The down side to this play was a) the extreme speed at which storms would be travelling, making for hard chasing and b) the storms would quickly evolve into a linear mess and become virtually unchaseable. The other potential play was a lot further south and not picked up by all the models, and hence the risk of a bust. NE Oklahoma had the potential, if released, for explosive convection with dew points forecast in the low 70's and CAPE's as high as 6000. Deep level shear was never going to be as good as the north play but could be sufficient to provide a show.

This is where chasing becomes a bit of a nightmare, weighing up which option to play. I also made a few calls to my valued local nowcasters. There would still be plenty of mileage to any target area. I decided the south play would be the choice. Mainly because subsequent forecasts were looking like central plains chases and which would keep us in a reasonable target area.

With a long drive ahead, we continued east and then dropped immediately south on 81 through Nebraska and into Kansas, towards the 35 into Oklahoma. It took us all day and a full circle of shifts in driving but we broke Oklahoma approx 6pm. Updates on the forecasts were now showing the potential for NE OK and SE KS. SPC had now caught up on this and extended their risk area to reflect this together with increasing it to a Mod risk. Things were looking good.

As we approached the OK/KS state border one of the things we noticed, via the Baron system, was a surface convergence zone setting up almost directly ahead of us. This became visual with a line of towering cu's building up in what looked to be the Ponca City area. This was to be our target. We headed east on the 177/60 through Ponca City and stopped to assess. NWS were issuing many advisories for potential explosive convection, via the weather radio. However, as we were witnessing, convection was struggling to overcome a pretty strong CAP. Time was moving on and we were hoping something could get going before dark.

We sat and watched, and even the local sheriff pulled up and joined us. Eventually one cell right above us got going and became the first storm to exert a signature on the radar. Great shout we claimed! It started to explode into life, cracking open the CAP, and whilst it would have been nice to stop and time-lapse it all, we had to move. It was moving and the road network was not brilliant along its immediate path. The Kaw city area was riddled with water and few options to move. We pursued the storm as it grew in stature and watched some pretty explosive and impressive convection. We managed to get into position and take the odd photo stop. Shame it wasn't an hour or two earlier as light was fading, making photography difficult. No sooner had Andrew got his tripod set up, I was shouting "time to move". Who said capturing moving storms was easy?

We tracked the cell as it moved NE towards the SE corner of Kansas. By now this had become the OK storm of the day (and night!). Occasionally the road network became a tad difficult and we had to hit many a dirt track to maintain our position. We were also in constant comms with Tony and his vehicle behind via the two-way radios, which proved a valuable piece of kit. At one point Ian attempted to wipe us all out completely by playing chicken with a freight train at a level crossing. Fortunately the barrier saved our lives as well as nearly slicing off our roof as we skidded up to it!

That proved to be the point of no return. Darkness was near and we decided to let go and head for accommodation. We arrived in Coffeyville, SE KS shortly after.

Little did we know as we booked into the Best Western, that a new line of storms had fired to our SW and heading straight for us! One of which went tornadic. After some food refuelling we all agreed to drive away from the town and stop for some lightning photography. We were treated to the usual spectacular lightning show from the passing storm. A few hours later and memory cards full we finally retreated to the hotel. The usual close of play activities ensued for me - downloading images onto laptop, recharging batteries, email and quick analysis of the following day's forecasts. Tomorrow was going to be a down day by the looks, but I had a cunning plan to fill the time! By now Ian's snoring was infectious. I needed sleep!
More images here:-
Day 4 - June 8th

After a pretty hectic 2 days today was a down day. We would use this as a travel day in readiness for positioning on Saturday (which is currently looking like an east Colorado or west Kansas play). After a lazy brekkie we called into the local Coffeyville police dept in order to sort out some paperwork for Jerome and his lost passport, which was still probably orbiting the earth somewhere! In the meantime Ian and Andrew took time out to visit the local Fire station, situated opposite the Police Dept. In fact we all befriended the Coffeyville officers. We were probably the talk of the town for many weeks since it seemed nothing much happened in Coffeyville, according to these guys. Four Englishmen in town was big news!

Paperwork signed off we were on our way, heading east acros Kansas. I thought it would be a good opportunity to drive through Greensburg, recently hit by a strong tornado, in order to show the guys just how bad it gets over here when a bad tornado comes to town. In addition, I called my colleague Jon Finch, who works at the Dodge City NWS and he offered to show the guys around the NWS office. A busy down day in the end.

Our eastward trail, via the 166 and then 160, spanned the entire scenic state of Kansas. Flat lands, wheat fields and hills, we passed through it all. Ironically, we had to stop for roadworks in Harper and it was directly outside my adopted friends, the Mathes family farm. That sure brought back memories from 2004!

Once we got back on the northern track and approach to Greensburg we started to see tornado damage. Well outside of the town there was plenty of destruction, which paled into insignificance as we drove into Greensburg. My jaw hit the ground when I saw what hat occurred. I had seen tornado damage before in the UK and US, more isolated but never anything as widespread as this. It resembled the aftermath of a nuclear bomb. Every single property either gone or a pile of rubble. The bare stalks of trees the only sign that once there was life in this town. It was truly jaw dropping. Although very difficult, and sensitive, I pulled over alongside the army camp and spoke to the commander in charge. He allowed me access to take photos. After about an hour I was feeling very uncomfortable, as were the other guys, which I could sense. Personal possesions were still spread all over the place, each telling their own story. We did not stay much longer. I felt physically sick and the event struck a real chord with me. Little did I know it would be the start of the Greensburg journey for me.

We continued eastwards heading for Dodge City, the NWS office where a colleague Jonathan Finch was working and who had invited us over for a brief tour of the office. Jon had been helping us with nowcasting over the past few days and I am in frequent comms with regards a future trip planned for Bangladesh. The Dodge NWS ofice is not huge but has a great outlook from the east side of the City sitting at the top of Airport Road hill. Jon showed us the hardware and software they use to forecast and issue warnings, which included the warning they sent out on the night of the Greensburg tornado. President Bush actually telephoned this office and personally thanked one of Jon's colleagues who provided the warning on that night. It was a sure life saver warning. Having seen the damage it was more amazing that fatalities were at 12. A sure credit to the NWS people.

After our brief tour we stopped over at Dodge City in the Best Western and met up with Jon for a great steak dinner at Montan Mike's. A few beers in Peppercorn's bar after sure concluded an eventful and reflecting day. A usual look at the forecasts for the next day and I was happy with our position. SE Colorado looked favourable.

Day 5 - June 9th

Awoke with the first thick head of the trip! Jumping from bed to laptop and checking the latest model forecasts. Not a significant severe weather day expected but I was hoping something could be worth seeing on the lea slopes of the Rockies to our west. Deep level shear was not looking significant, but the upslope envronment and local topography would assist with driving moisture along this corridor. My initial target was Lemar in SE Colorado.

The 400 and 50 west would see us out of Kansas and into Colorado. Not too long a drive but still a good few hours ahead of us. As we entered Colorado and passed through the first small town of Holly we noticed plenty of fresh looking tornado damage. A later Google search identified that one person was killed during the tornado that struck Holly a few months back. It hit a mobile home killing a lady. Her husband and children were rescued from trees some distance away having been displaced via the winds. As if Greensburg was not enough, another sombre reminder.

We arrived in Lamar shortly after and lunched at the usual calorie counter take-out. Upon returning the car we noticed a subtle line of Cu developlment in what was an otherwise almost clear sky to our SW. The start of something? We hurried into chase mode and got on the road. It certainly was. These tiny Cu's developed and one in particular took strength and grew into a nice looking supercell. We tracked and followed it around some nice scenic backyard tracks around Hasty and Caddoa until it tracked back over Lamar, where we had started. This was the first and best looking cell to produce of the day in this area. We had chosen well.

Plenty of photo ops along the way as we chased. Some good structure, albeit high based, and excellent lightning. As we tracked south east and north, through Two Buttes (graet name for a town!) and back to Holly we saw some really impressive gust front structure with many ground spin ups. By now the entire area had evolved into a linear mcs and was all heading eastwards. It was now getting dark so we just kept going with it as this was to be our ultimate direction for tomorrow and the airport run. We passed back through Dodge City and the NWS office where the storm was now getting pretty aggressive with plenty of lightning. The Dodge NWS would have had a great view of this coming!

It was time to call it a day and we needed to get within spitting distance of the Kansas City airport run for tomorrow. We made Larned in Kansas and our trip was all but over, bar the flying.

More images here:-

Closing Words

A short trip this year but at least there was a trip! In hindsight, the predicted super tornado did not happen but it could have and more importantly if it did then we would have been on the right storms to see it! Shame really because I really wanted it for Andrew (editor of Practical Photography) and his article and of course Jerome and Ian. However, we saw some great storms and they felt the ferocity of Mother Nature that's for sure.

Equipment wise and once again Olympus has done me proud. I took 2 E1's and glad so because I used them simultaneously frequently. I must say my favourite front runner for lens of the trip, for this kind of work, is the 7-14mm by a long way. It really is a quality piece of glass and encapsulates the huge subject matter with ease.

In addition, the built -in dust cleaning mechanism, as always, is a life saver, as is the weather proofing. I had to clear at least two layers of mud from the housing afterwards. Not a problem on the outside cause the inside is nice 'n dry & clean.

Big thanks again to Olympus for making this possible. Also thank you to Jon Finch and Karl Schulze for the local nowcasting.

In addition, thanks to the guys of course for accompanying me - Ian without the navigation, driving (ha ha), and balanced forecasting decisions this chase would not have been possible. Andrew for showing we what a REAL photographer can do (especially love the fire truck contortionist trick) & Jerome for rubbing in my face the new E510 and all of its tricks (Your passport is still probably orbiting the planet somewhere!).

Can't wait for the E3 and next trip.

Signing Off.
Mark Humpage.
June 2007


Mark Thackara said...

Excellent - Just to prove I read it! DO you ever get any rest!

Anonymous said...

Mark, where's the photo of that rampaging dust devil. You're supposed to stage dive right into the thing.


Anonymous said...

Bravo, what words..., a brilliant idea

Anonymous said...

Dig the well before you are thirsty.

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