Tornado Alley, USA
Today was the earliest weather briefing morning of the trip at 8:15AM as we had a potentially long drive ahead of us. Severe weather was predicted in south western Iowa, even hinting at a 5% tornado risk, and north eastern Kansas. Bill was adamantly against Iowa unless the tornado chance was extremely high but it was difficult to ignore the models. The compromise was to drive due east for several hours and see if the portion of Kansas developed and if it did not, we would continue to Iowa. As we drove and the hours pasted, the models reflected severe weather developing late afternoon in the south western Iowa and north western Missouri regions while the storms would not develop until later in the evening, and so we became Iowa bound. Once we got into Iowa we completely understood Bill’s point- chasing in Iowa is much harder then the terrain we had seen on this trip. As opposed to miles of flat land of the plains where you can view for miles, Iowa had hills and trees making good and safe viewing spots challenging. We pulled over and observed the blue sky and the towering cumulus clouds beginning to develop. Storm A was still developing with huge cauliflower tops in front of us and storm B already had its storm anvil behind us. Since storm B was progressing quicker, we marked that as our storm #1 of the day.
Finding a clearing, we parked the car and watched the storm rotate and a wall cloud already formed. Since this storm was not tornado warned, Bill called the weather center to issue an alert as we were 3 miles west of the town, Shenandoah. Within seconds, the funnel formed and our first tornado dropped. Mixed emotions watching the entire thing unfold- excited to actually be seeing a tornado, worried for the nearby town, horrified when the tornado touched the ground and torn up debris, in awe this natural phenomenon occurs and impossible control or to look away. Standing in front of the tornado’s path, we get back in the van and drive several miles in front of the tornado for a better view.
Watching from inside the van, the tornado was chasing us. We got two very quick pit stops on the side of the road to watch the tornado move and change shapes into a thicker funnel until we got far out enough to watch for a longer period (more than several minutes). We watched the tornado change into a rope shape that left us all speechless and then began to dissipate.
Directly to the right of this, a new funnel began to form. Lightening interrupted our viewing (it was the loudest thunder we have ever heard- check my instagram for video footage) so we had to move. As we drove, tornado #2 dropped from the funnel so pulled off to get a good look at it. It was bigger than tornado #1 but lasted a shorter amount of time. Once back in the car, tornado #2 retracted and the storm slowed its pace. A neighboring supercell caught Bill’s eye and we headed a few miles to a viewing location.
Storm #2 gave us another funnel and tornado #3 minutes later. It became hard to recall every event since we were constantly moving and high on the adrenaline of being chased by tornadoes! Having to relocate again due to the lightning, we headed towards another developing supercell.
On our way to storm #3, we pulled over to observe the rapidly rotating clouds and the drastic colors in them. When we got out of the car, we immediately noticed the giant hail that littered the ground- baseball sized! I cannot image what that could have done to a vehicle. You could still see the teal hue in the clouds that is reflections of the hail in the core.
Wanted to get in front of our target storm #3, we had to drive through torrential rain and small hail as we maneuvered between the two supercells. When it became to tight for a safe route between the two taking us to close to the core, we found a gas station and parked the vans under the overhangs to wait out the worst of the weather. We resumed chasing storm #3 into Missouri and settled near Maryville where we found an open field for good viewing. Another funnel and tornado #4 formed in front of our eyes. It was hard to grasp that we were making it to these storms just in time for their tornadoes to form- Bill clearly has a knack for this (wink, wink)! We were able to watch this tornado move for several minutes until it got rain wrapped.
Driving back and forth chasing a few more supercells, the sun began to set so our chasing time dwindled. We found a field to watch the storms move on, occasionally lighting up the sky as we spotted lightning bugs in the field. Many of the people on the trip had rarely or never seen lightning bugs before, so it was a small treasure to share them. Flashing from the lightning bugs at the ground and lightning from the sky made for a wonderful end of the day.
At least 25 tornadoes hit the US today. Over 550 miles of driving today alone for 4 tornadoes and over 6 hours of storm chasing. Fortunately no one was hurt and there was minimal damage from the storms that we saw. I think we are all still shocked that we saw everything that is documented from this day. The photos helped me re-piece the details since it was pure adrenaline rush for the entire chase. Constant running in and our of the van to get a glimpse then back in for safety and moving onward to multiple different supercells. I can understand the appeal of this profession- the thrill of the chase.
Interested in a trip like this for yourself? Read Storm Chasing: What to Expect.