2012-05-30: Paducah, TX landspout

Paducah, TX landspout at about 5: 30 p.m.

Paducah, TX landspout as seen from U.S. Hwy 70 at about 5:32 p.m.


On 30 May 2012, I had the honor of tagging along with the NOXP radar (with my husband Dan D. and Ted M. as crew), operating in support in of the Deep Convective Clouds and Chemistry Experiment DC3). Although the morning’s SPC outlook highlighted a SW KS-NW OK corridor for severe thunderstorms, some of the high-res models indicated that there would be an earlier outbreak of storms along the dryline in the E TX PH, in response to a developing cyclone and robust moisture return. Any cold pools laid down by the storms in Texas had the potential to muck up the Oklahoma target.

Horizontal convective roll over Elgin Air Force Base near Altus, OK

HCR over Elgin AFB near Altus, OK

We set out from Norman shortly after lunch and headed southwest to Altus, where we were greeted by some striking horizontal convective rolls (HCRs).

Farther west, storms fired off the dryline and promptly split. Right-movers tracked southeast, prompting the DC3 radars (SR1, SR2, and NOXP, led by Dr. Mike Biggerstaff) to head south out of Altus on U.S. Hwy. 283. A few participants grumbled about the choice to head south rather than take more direct route west. However, the objectives of DC3 are a bit different than in VORTEX2. Priority number one is long-duration, dual-doppler data in convective storms, so the radars set up well in advance and collect as the storms pass by. (Tornadoes are not the main focus of DC3, but they’re considered a nice bonus.)

After crossing the Texas border, thereby committing ourselves to chasing right movers, Dr. Biggerstaff decided to target the southernmost storm in the cluster, which was headed for Paducah, TX, and set up his dual-Doppler lobe on U.S. Hwy. 70 between Crowell and Paducah. As the crew NOXP’s scout vehicle (a mobile mesonet called Scout 3) drove ahead to locate a suitable deployment site and hold it for the radar truck, a few dramatic dust clouds arose on the updraft-downdraft interface, some with gustnadoes and shallow rotation. One dust tube (pictured at top) extended up hundreds of feet, almost touching cloud base. It was unclear whether it as connected to the nearby mesocyclone or shear-induced, so I’ve been calling it a “landspout” in my discussions.

NOXP deployed south of Paducah, TX

NOXP deployed south of Paducah, TX

In Scout 3, Chris S. and Blake A. located a small hilltop side road on which to deploy, and Ted M. backed NOXP into it. I bailed out of the radar operator’s seat and was nearly knocked flat by the gust front. I shot some shaky video as a second, low-contrast landspout erupted out of the field about half a mile to our east, and still another touched down almost on top of Scout 3. Just as NOXP was preparing to start scanning, I heard a sharp thump on the ground next to me, looked down, and saw a baseball-sized hailstone half-coated in red dirt. I dove into Scout 3’s back seat for cover with my camera in hand, with more large hail thumping down around us. Ted M. waved his hand in circles, indicating that we needed to undeploy and escape ASAP, as our target storm had turned hard to the right. Rather than trying to scramble back to NOXP and possibly delay our expedited departure, I simply buckled into my seat in Scout 3, and hitchhiked west with them to Paducah. As Chris put it, “Welcome to NOXP!”

NOXP reflectivity display

The Paducah storm as seen by NOXP radar at about 6:08 p.m. CDT, showing a WEH (at about 40 km range and 60 degrees azimuth) near a report of a rain-wrapped tornado.

Fortunately, both Scout 3 and NOXP escaped any direct hits from the sporadic, fist-sized hail stones, and were able redeploy on U.S. Hwy. 83 about 12 miles south of Paducah. When NOXP finally started scanning again, an velocity couplet and weak-echo hole were evident on the display. We strained and squinted, but could not make out any evidence of a tornado in the murk to our east. (NOXP’s display indicated it was buried behind a rain curtain several km thick.)

We undeployed and headed south again to U.S. Hwy. 82, where we learned that the DC3 balloon crews had stopped operating. NOXP headed back north again for a second deployment on U.S. Hwy. 83, targeting a second supercell following much the same track as the first Paducah supercell. Although the storm had a nice inflow tail, it appeared to be outflow-dominated, with a rolling dust cloud spilling out in front of it.

Mammatus under the second Paducah, TX supercell of 30 May 2012

Mammatus under the second Paducah, TX supercell of 30 May 2012

We made a last stand back to the south on U.S. Hwy. 82, watching the storm roll away to be replaced by clear skies and a golden Texas sunset. A few small low-level vortices appeared along the storm’s rear flank, but were not connected to any updraft upstairs. We enjoyed some elaborate mammatus clouds as we drove back north and the sun sank below the western horizon.

During our hasty, hail-induced departure from Paducah earlier in the afternoon, we had had to leave behind a pair of NOXP’s metal plates (placed underneath the hydraulic levelers on soft soil). As we returned to the site to retrieve the plates, we observed sporadic wind damage throughout Paducah. Garage doors had buckled inward, roof shingles and small brances were strewn across lawns, and the power in Paducah was out. A few miles east of Paducah, near the intersection of U.S. Hwy. 70 and County Rd. 301, we encountered a metal outbuilding that had been about 50% demolished by a particularly intense wind swath. Sheet metal had been peeled off and scattered to the southwest of the structure, wrapped around telephone poles and road signs up to 1/4 mile away. (I couldn’t get any photos owing to darkness.) Curiously, a second metal building across the street, a few hundred feet to the south, appeared untouched. Some very localized wind phenomenon (small tornado? microburst?) had inflicted substantial damage there.

After retrieving the plates, we made our way back to Norman by way of Childress, TX. Now in the driver’s seat, Dan fought a 70 mph head wind in Lawton, pushed out by collapsing storms dozens of miles to the north. We pulled back into the NWC around 2 a.m.

A storm chaser’s review of the Bloggie 3D pocketcam

The Sony Bloggie MHS-FS3 in hand

Can this little gadget shoot quality 3D storm video?

As a reward for submitting a long-overdue manuscript, I recently bought myself a toy: A Sony MHS-FS3 3D Bloggie HD pocket camcorder. I’ve been intrigued both by the idea of “HD in my pocket” and by the recent resurgence in 3D films. This camera is not intended to replace my Canon Vixia HV30; I intend to use it primarily to shoot 3D video of tornadoes for novelty. It also serves well as an HD dash cam, since it doesn’t weigh down my windshield suction cup mount. I tested it out on both 13 and 14 April 2012 chases.

Here’s an example of 3D video I shot on our approach to Cherokee, OK on 14 April. YouTube was smart enough to recognize the H.264 3D format.

Pros:

It’s teeny, about the size of a smart phone. It’s also fairly intuitive to use, with minimal buttons and menus. I was able to explore most of the functionality before I ever had to crack open the manual. (Owing to the small box size, the camera only comes with a “quick start” instruction card; the full manual is available on Sony’s web site.)

There’s no need to use the pre-loaded “Bloggie” software (intended to facilitate quick sharing of video via Facebook, Youtube, etc.) to offload the videos in Windows 7; the “import” function works just fine. Like other pocket cams, it interfaces with a computer via a Swiss-army-style USB 2.0 port. The viewfinder is actually a “Magic Eye” 3D display, which I find nifty. The camcorder also interfaced cleanly with our 3D-capable Samsung HD TV using a mini-HDMI cable.

The 1080 HD video and audio quality are surprisingly good. I used it on my 14 April chase as a dash cam, turning it on and off whenever something interesting came into view. The battery held out through the entire chase (although admittedly, I was rather frugal with it). My highlights reel from 14 April 2012 contains video from both the Bloggie (dash-cam shots) and my Canon Vixia HV30 (handheld and tripoded). Can you tell the difference?

Cons:

The Bloggie mounted on a tripod

Because the tripod threads are on the side, I have to tilt my tripod head over as far as it will go, then cheat a few more degrees by retracting one of the legs.

To shoot in 3D, one has to hold the camera horizontally. However, the tripod threads are located on the side rather than on the bottom – meaning you need a tripod head that can articulate 90 degrees in order to shoot level 3D video. Fortunately, the camera weighs a scant 4.2 oz, so the danger of tipping over a substantial tripod is minimal, but the placement of the threads strikes me as a serious design flaw.

The internal media only holds about 80 minutes of 1080 HD or 3D HD video. I would love to be able to expand to an SD card, but unfortunately this model does not have that option.

The 4.2-oz. Bloggie holds fast to my windshield with a standard 3-suction cup mount.

The 4.2-oz. Bloggie holds fast to my windshield with a standard 3-suction cup mount.

There are a lot of “auto-” settings, such as exposure, white-balance, and most importantly, focus. When shooting storms, I typically peg the focus on infinity. On 14 April, the Bloggie yielded a few “wet windshield” shots, but fortunately passing windshield wiper blades don’t confuse it too much. The auto-focus didn’t work very well in low light conditions, as one might expect – it tended to keep the focus on the foreground.

The Bloggie isn’t weatherproof, so you have to keep it dry. Sony makes another model called the Bloggie Sport, which is waterproof, dirt-proof, and drop-proof, but it doesn’t shoot 3D. Oh well.

At the moment, my current video editing software of choice, Adobe Premiere Elements 10, doesn’t support stereoscopic 3D editing. That’s why I had to upload my first tornado clip sans editing or copyright overlays. Adobe Premiere Pro supports 3D, but of course it is considerably more expensive. I can only hope 3D editing is on the horizon for Premiere Elements 11.

To summarize, the Sony Bloggie MHS-FS3 is a relatively cheap (<$200) gateway to 3D HD video. It could benefit from some weatherproofing, a few more user control features (particularly the focus), and affordable video editing software. However, it's something new, lightweight, and fun in my chase gear bag, and I look forward to testing it out on future storms.

2012-04-30: LP supercell near Claude, TX

The last week of April saw the arrival of this year’s Windom High School group from southwest Minnesota, consisting of nine enthusiastic, weather-savvy seniors, their teacher, Craig Wolter, and three chaperones. Each year, Craig takes his top ten or so students on a five-day storm chasing trip to Norman, where the students get to visit the NWC and meet and greet with meteorologists there. Craig has a tight itinerary for his students upon arriving in Norman, but it can always be pre-empted by a decent chase setup. As a fellow Minnesotan, I have a soft spot for Craig’s kids, and always try to lead them on at least one chase. If there had been such a program at my high school, I would have killed to get on the trip!

2012-04-30: Claude, TX LP supercell

The Claude, TX LP supercell, around 6 p.m. The view is toward the west.

Dan and I were able to take Windom group out on Monday, April 30th, after noticing an enticing setup in the Texas panhandle consisting of a trough encroaching on an outflow boundary from the previous night’s widespread convection. Upon arriving in Memphis, TX, we found convection struggling to initiate along the dryline. We drifted northwest on U.S. Hwy. 287, toward a clump of storms west of Amarillo, intercepting it as it organized into a supercell near Claude, TX. We drove about 2 miles north off of U.S. Hwy. 287 to obtain a clear view to the west.

2012-04-30: Claude, TX "nipple cloud"

This "nipple cloud" (just left of the rain shaft) persisted for about three minutes and prompted several funnel cloud reports. We think it would have developed into a full tornado if the storm had been able to tap into deeper moisture just to its east.

We were presented with a beautiful, high-contrast LP supercell, and proceeded to point out all the salient features to the students. The high bases didn’t bother us too much, because we knew the Claude storm was drifting east into better moisture, and we expected great things from it once it began to realize the improved buoyancy. As we watched, the Claude storm split right in front of the students, allowing us to narrate the process live. I pointed out a small, cone-shaped lowering just south of the main precipitation shaft on the right-mover. It persisted for three to four minutes, but never extended more than 10% of the distance from cloud to ground.

Windom HS students watching the approaching base of the Claude, TX supercell.

Windom HS students watching the approaching base of the Claude, TX supercell.

Meanwhile, we noticed new Cbs to our east, rooted in the deeper moisture. The updrafts on the new towers were crisp and glaciated, so we kept our heads on swivels in case we needed to re-target. The Claude storm dropped a few nickel-and-dime hailstones on us, forcing us to jog east twice along our dirt road in order to keep ahead of the storm. The vault structure grew breathtaking. We were able to enjoy it in relative solitude, without any other chasers blowing clouds of dirt on us. Simply moving a mile or so off the main highway is proving a surprisingly effective way to avoid the hordes. (I think I’m going to require 4WD in my next chase vehicle.)

The Claude, TX supercell eventually became outflow-dominant, so we decided to re-target the next storm to the east (the Hedley, TX storm), whose birth we had witnessed about an hour before. We retraced our route southeast on U.S. Hwy. 287, then went east on TX-203. We thought we would be able to core-punch the Hedley storm without too much trouble as it lifted northeast, then emerge from its forward flank and with a view of the hook to our southwest. However, radar updates showed new storm cells erupting to the south of, then being ingested by, the Hedley storm. These processes interfered with storm consolidation and hook formation, and also resulted in our spending more time in the hail core than we expected, our vehicles pelted with nickels and dimes for nearly 40 minutes.

2012-04-30: At dusk: Gustnado? Tornado?

At dusk near Wellington, TX: Gustnado? Tornado? The view is toward the SW, the feature of interest at the center of the image.

When we finally did emerge from what should have been the forward flank of our target storm, crossing over the border where TX-203 changed to OK-9, it was dusk. Looking back toward Wellington, TX, we caught glimpses of the hook region to our southwest. Suddenly, Dan commanded me to stop the car, chattering excitedly about a dust cloud. I couldn’t see anything from the driver’s seat, but I stopped at the top of a hill. By the time I got out of the car and fired up my camera, the dust cloud was gone, but I could see the scud finger which had grabbed his attention. My only photo of it is very poor and I had to enhance the hell out of the contrast in order to make it visible. The feature was too brief and ambiguous, the distance too far, and the lighting too poor, for us to conclusively call it a tornado.

We took a rather circuitous route back to Norman via Lawton, attempting to avoid a southward-diving hailer over Hobart, OK. We returned to Norman around 1 a.m.

In the days since this chase, I’ve read an April 30 chase account from Bill Reid, whose Tempest Tour group (including Brian Morganti) was much closer to the ambiguous lowering than we were. Even with his close proximity, he wasn’t certain what to call the feature, and after viewing his video, I can see why. However, he eventually concluded that this dusty spin-up was indeed a tornado. Bill’s a veteran chaser, and if he says it was a tornado, then that’s good enough for me. Based on his account, I was able to report to Craig that his students were no longer tornado virgins!

Update, 2012-05-07: After looking at video from the Tempest Tours group, the NWS office in Amarillo declared our “scud finger” an EF-0 tornado. So, now, it’s officially official!

2012-04-27: Brief tornado near Council Grove, KS

SPC 1630 UTC Day 1 Convective Outlook on 27 April 2012. Copyright NOAA.

SPC 1630 UTC Day 1 Convective Outlook on 27 April 2012. Copyright NOAA.

Parental visits in springtime are always fraught with uncertainty. We can pack our agenda for the weekend with varied activities, only to have everything unravel the minute the atmosphere starts acting up. I had poo-poohed the chase setup for Friday, April 27th, thinking that it wouldn’t be worth driving to Kansas. However, I awoke to find the forums abuzz with excitement about the shortwave trough ejecting earlier than forecast, prompting a moderate risk on the Day 1 convective outlook from SPC. Anticipating an early afternoon chase setup, my husband and I scooped my parents up from the airport, and blasted north on I-35 into south-central Kansas, where we were greeted by clearing skies and a few turkey towers along the dryline. (Mom and Dad had flown more than 800 miles south from Minnesota to see us, only to backtrack immediately almost 1/3 of the way home.)

2012-04-27: Funnel cloud near Council Grove, KS

Brief funnel cloud near Council Grove, KS. Note the clear slot illuminating the funnel.

Near Emporia, KS, we met up with Jeff S., chasing solo. The atmosphere produced mediocre convection for hours. As a surface low approached from the west, increasing the low-level shear, it also squeezed the warm sector between the cold and warm fronts. We were forced to follow the warm air up into the Flint Hills area. This region has good visibility, provided that you’re on top of one of the hills. By the time we targeted a storm near Council Grove, KS, the warm sector (and the storm’s access to the warm, moist air within) was only a few tens of miles wide, if that. Cold rain and gusts of wind pelted us as we parked on a hilltop gravel road off U.S. Hwy. 56 near Bushong, KS, watching two cloud bases to our west-northwest. Suddenly, Jeff S. shouted to our group as a small white funnel abruptly materialized within an RFD slot to our northwest. I barely had time to re-center my video before it eroded away.

2012-04-27: Tornado near Council Grove, KS

Brief tornado near Council Grove, KS. One or two suction vortices revolved around the base.

Minutes later, another funnel descended from the far bank of clouds, tickling the ground with a few suction vorticies. From my vantage point, this brief tornado dropped right behind a tree. My video consists mainly of my scrambling a few feet to the right and re-leveling my shot, by which time the tornado had already vanished. Because of the brevity of these two funnels and the shakiness of my video, I decided not to post either shot on YouTube. Screen shots it shall be.

The cold rain and pea-sized hail began to fall in earnest, driving us back into our cars. We may have glimpsed another funnel on the horizon, but lost it in the rain after a few seconds. To our north was a road hole, forcing us to head east on U.S. Hwy. 56. The remainder of our chase consisted of an attempt to catch another storm to the east of our original target. Unfortunately, it was ingesting stable air, the warm sector long since squeezed out of existence, and we decided to abandon the chase near Osage City, KS. We had dinner at Emporia, then began the long haul back to Norman.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten little more choosy about which days I chase. (I chalk part of this change up to accumulated experience, and part to having a full-time job and family to support now that I’m done with school.) However, when I have guests along, I’m more likely to bite on riskier setups with more potential failure modes. Even though it required a 5-hour drive each way, seeing one tornado is definitely better than seeing none!

2012-04-14: Tornadofest in Northwest Oklahoma

Today, I broke my personal record for the number of tornadoes seen in a single day (9, 10, or 11). Two were small funnels near Freedom, OK; the remainder were produced by a single supercell that we followed from Mooreland to Manchester, OK.

SPC 1630 UTC Day 1 Convective Outlook on 14 April 2012

SPC 1630 UTC Day 1 Convective Outlook on 14 April 2012. Copyright NOAA.

I had some trepidation heading out on 14 April because it was a widely-publicized SPC high risk on a Saturday. I had no wish to re-experience the Kingfisher, OK Charlie Foxtrot of 19 May 2010 (when it seemed like every storm chaser on the Great Plains converged on one two-lane highway, with a solid line of cars from horizon to horizon – not even joking). However, the moderate risk area stretched from the Missouri River to the Red River, encompassing Nebraska, Kansas, and most of Oklahoma, so I figured the atmospheric playground would be big enough to handle the chaser convergence. We decided to target the Oklahoma portion of the high risk, where the moisture was better and supercell shear was forecast. With the storm motions progged to be 35 mph or faster, our strategy was to follow tail-end Charlie storms until they raced northeast out of our reach, then turn back southwest to catch the next in line.

Our mini-caravan consisted of two cars: Jeff S., Howie B., and John L. in the first, while I drove Dan D. and Michael H. in the second. We departed Norman just after noon and drove up the Northwest Passage. From Seiling, we headed north on U.S. Hwy. 281, then west on U.S. Hwy. 412 after the first tail-end Charlie storm. Near Freedom, OK, we caught a glimpse of a slender needle funnel as we crossed the OK-50 bridge over the Cimarron River around 4:30 p.m. About 10 minutes later, just east of Freedom, it again produced a slender needle, both of which we captured on video. We were a bit disappointed at the brevity of both tornadoes; neither lasted more than 30 s. Knowing that a new storm was forming down the line, we decided to end round #1 and head back southwest toward Woodward.

Back on U.S. Hwy. 412, we stopped about halfway between Moreland and Woodward. A second supercell with a vigorously rotating wall cloud churned past us just a few miles to our west, but did not produce any funnels. We followed that storm east along 412 almost to the intersection with U.S. Hwy. 281, where we decided to head south a mile or so and find an unobstructed view towards the next storm erupting back to our southwest. We staked out a claim on a pull-off near the top of a hill, and waited. Several other chasers joined us there.

2012-04-14: Woodward Co., OK tornado

2012-04-14: Woodward Co., OK tornado around 7:00 p.m. The view is toward the west.

Around 7:00 p.m., excitement began to build as the target storm grew near and a fat funnel descended about 10 mi to our west, playfully twirling a cloud of dirt at its base. That tornado had a lengthy (<15 min) rope-out phase as we trained our cameras on a new mesocyclone to its east, which also dropped a truncated funnel halfway to the ground to our NNW. We were elated to finally see some tornadoes with decent longevity and contrast, and we couldn't tear ourselves away. By the time we finally did pile back into our vehicles and headed back north on 281, yet another new meso was taking shape directly to our north. With the storm scurrying away toward the northeast, we were considerably behind it for the remainder of the chase. The new lowering narrowed almost to a square. The lower portion then tapered into an unequivocal funnel, and tornado #5 was born. Returning to the U.S. 412/281 intersection, we found that 281 northbound toward Waynoka was blocked by two police cruisers, forcing us to turn east. The chaser crowds had by then thickened considerably, and I focused my eyes on the eastbound shoulder of U.S. Hwy. 412, only stealing occasional glimpses toward the north, where Tornado #5 was churning happily away. (I trust that my husband got HD video for me to enjoy later.)

At some point, we stopped to film again, and I witnessed a bizarre handoff between two tornadoes. (It occurs at about the 3:00 minute mark in the YouTube video above.) One vortex eroded as another descended right next to it. We can be heard disagreeing verbally about whether we were witnessing multiple vortices within the same tornado revolving around a common center, or two separate tornadoes doing a graceful dance. (Mobile radar data could have settled that question, but unfortunately, RaXPol was in the shop.)

We then drove up OK-8 towards Cherokee, OK, with tornadoes (sometimes multiple tornadoes) visible almost all the way there. On our approach to Cherokee at around 8 p.m., I shot my first-ever 3D footage of a tornado with my new Bloggie pocketcam, and was pleasantly surprised by how well it turned out. (I’ll review the camera later.)

Tornadoes continued to snake out of the storm as darkness descended. As the driver of my vehicle, I had to keep my eyes on the road rather than the tornadoes, and I didn’t particularly care about an accurate count. I was simply enjoying sharing the spectacle with my passengers.

Our chase was ended by downed power lines just after dusk, a few hundred feet north of the Kansas border near Manchester, OK. There was still an unmistakable, lightning-illuminated funnel visible to our northeast. That tornado later triggered a tornado emergency for Conway Springs, KS, southwest of Wichita, but thankfully dissipated before reaching town. We made our way back to Norman by way of Enid, OK.

After midnight, as we straggled back into Norman, word began to filter through that a tornado, spawned from a trailing line of storms, had ravaged parts of Woodward, OK. Woodward suffered greatly at the hands of an F-5 tornado in 1947, an event that still figures prominently in Oklahoma lore. Unfortunately, six fatalities resulted, and cleanup and recovery efforts are still ongoing as of this writing. Donations for the victims can be made to the American Red Cross.