STORM CHASING USA 2011

Distance driven today: 844kms | Total so far: 16234kms

Sadly, this was likely to be my final day of storm chasing in the USA... this time around anyway. I am definitely doing this again!

I'm flying out of LA on sunday, and these storms would actually occur roughly en route. A moderate risk for severe storms was forecast for the western border area of Nebraska and Kansas. It was going to take me six hours to get there, so I figured I would be late for the initial development. On my way, some storms fired sooner around the eastern border area to my S:

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I figured this was a ploy to throw me again so I ignored it, choosing to focus my energy on a giant hot-dog on wheels:

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More mammatus on the approach to the storms:

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Again I spent about 90% of the day without radar access. Not only is this extremely frustrating, but potentially unsafe. I'd made a final radar check some time before when I had access, but was now flying blind, relying only on visual observations. The radar showed a short virtually N-S line of activity near Stockton, Kansas heading NNE. My plan was to aim for the S end of the storms where the tornadoes usually form, then duck around behind it and simply follow it.

My plan didn't quite work out.

When I got close, some nice base features were forming to my SSE.

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Problem was, this development seemed to have sprung up to the SSE and was heading straight for me. My original storm was still on track to my SW and heading NE also towards me!

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As the SE storm approached, I was again entranced by the developing gust front. When I see this stuff forming, I'm always reluctant to leave and consequently end up doing so too late. Probably not a great idea in Tornado Alley.

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With the SE guster virtually over my head, I finally decided I'd better split. Here's the view out of both sides of the car as I sped off:

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I needed a road N and was struggling to find one. This is facing W towards the gust front from the original storm tracking NE towards me:

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I continued W desperately looking for a N road. Continuing westwards was taking me directly into the NW storm! Turning around would only take me E directly into the second storm I was trying to escape. I was ideally after a paved road, but with this guster now also right on top of me I took the next dirt road N.

Things got a little hairy as I struggled to out-pace the storm. My speed was limited by the dirt road and this gust front was well and truly past me and it had now started bucketing rain. This is the inside of the gust front looking out of the sharks mouth!:

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The sky was getting crazy dark and I nervously awaited the DONK DONK of large hail, but it thankfully never arrived. As I continued N, the sky started to brighten and I felt like I was getting out of it. I finally ended up on it's N edge where I took a W road to get completely out of its way. The other cell heading NW seemed to veer more N as it merged with the NE-heading cell.

Stuff here seems to happen so fast. One moment, things look rosy, then suddenly you're trapped. Then next thing, you're out of its way and things look dandy again. How to get the heart-rate going! The escape always feels bloody amazing afterwards though! Feels like a victory. Although, I wouldn't want to lose.

"You won't be taking the car off-road will you?" "No, definitely not." Whoops.

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Out of the hot zone and a new cell was visible directly W, dumping a nice silhouette of rain in front of the sun:

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Love chunky contrasty mammatus!

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I then got to sit and watch a very cool transformation. I thought the W cell was in its death throes, but it just kept dumping rain and producing a near-constant flickering of lightning overhead. I watched it morph as it tracked ENE roughly towards me:

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Without any rain at this point, I was surprised to get a little bit of 1cm hail, producing thuds on the dry dirt and tinks on the car. There was a metal shed about 500m to my NE and it was bizarre to hear pretty solid tinking on its roof for about 10 seconds, without getting much locally.

The 'W' cell was now passing over me - the attractive cloud structure directly above me and its rain shaft just to my N. It was awesome watching this change and drift over me. Here's the development as it moved over to my E, starting to look a little chumpy:

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I then spotted another storm anviling out to the NW:

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My local cell was continuing to drift E so I followed it for a better view:

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It drifted away happily as my attention was divirted to new activity to the S which was dropping CGs:

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Not only that but more activity was firing up to the SW again! Also lightning active, but virtually no CGs. Some nice crawlers though:

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As the sky darkened, flashes were now becoming visible to the NE! First it was only sheet lightning, but eventually it dumped a few CGs.

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The SW activity seemed to drift off (or become that which I was seeing the NE) which was followed by another fresh cell to the SW! This was a beautifully isolated cell, which sparked continuously! Virtually every lightning flash was a bolt poking its head out of the cloud. While CGs were rare (I was hoping for a positive strike) the constant forkage around the updraft was utterly spectacular. I've never seen anything quite like this before. Certainly never with such a high ratio of visible forks. See below for some video I shot to illustrate the frequency.

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Some video of the chase so far, including the incredible lightning display:

There was pretty much lightning flashing in every direction. Earlier, I was in a gust front sandwich, and right now I was in a lightning doughnut! And stunningly, I was spared any rain. This perfect scenario wasn't going to last forever, but it was long enough to really enjoy it. During this awesome show, some inflow was condensing right above my head and speeding NW. The SW storm was heading NE, and as the lightning active portion of the storm slipped by my S, I think I copped the rain. I headed E to try and stay in the dry area.

Down the road a bit, the rain eased so I turned onto a dirt road. There was a rise, then a slight downhill. I took it fairly slow, but when I braked on the downward slope, absolutely nothing happened. The car continued to coast down the slight hill and I knew I was in trouble. I pumped the brake gently and heard some scraping from the wheels. Painfully gradually, the car eventually slowed to a stop on the edge of the road.

Reversing out was my first option. I got about 30cm as the car started to rotate, the steering wheel doing absolutely nothing. I did the edging forward then backward thing that I was taught. I got a little further back, but the SUV would always lose traction well before the rise. Crap.

I attempted a U-turn several times but the car may as well have not had a steering wheel for all the good it was doing. Crap.

My heart-beat stepped it up a notch as I considered proceeding forward in the hope of finding a sturdy surface to turn around on. There was a railway crossing down a bit further that I thought may provide traction. I got out of the car and trudged through the mud, discovering why the wheels weren't having much luck with it, to investigate the road up ahead. It was dark, but in the constant lightning flashes I could see the railway line was disused and covered mainly in mud and grass. A bigger problem was that it was on the downward slope, and at the bottom of the slope there looked to be lots of water sitting on the road. I was already stuck on a section that wasn't even sitting in water, so the idea of a muddy pond forced me to search out another solution.

I contemplated the thought of being stuck here indefinitely, waiting for the mud to dry, but quickly dismissed it. I looked around near the car and found an opening on the road to a grassed area. I jumped around on it and it felt quite solid. About a car space further into the opening however, was what I would confidently call a swamp. No pressure, then.

I heard some tinks of hail as a few lightning bolts landed nearby, really testing my heart-rate. Did the close bolts happen earlier when I was shooting? No, of course not. I also later learned that the approaching cell was tornado warned for a while! Ok, I get the lesson; now just get me the hell out of here please.

It took another five minutes of forwards and backwards movements, but I finally got the car up on the grass. Hoorah! A minor victory. I breathed. The bigger challenge was getting the car another 90 degrees onto the muddy road, then up the slippery incline.

I went for it and the car slid the right way round as I worked the accelerator. The car quickly slipped into the slight lowering on the right side of the road. Just off the road was a narrow corridor of long grass, shrubs and small trees. I steered half off the road and onto the long wet grass, figuring I'd get better traction. A few trees slapped the car good-naturedly as I proceeded. This then got me to the top of the rise where I figured the worst was over. Continuing with vigilance, but with a little relief creeping in, I finally made it to the end of the road and back onto the bitumen.

Wowee, that was exciting, but never again please! Phew. When I first drove onto it, the road looked more like gravel to begin with - so innocuous. Wow, what a lesson learned. Ok, no more dirt roads. With the wheels completely coated and lord-knows how much mud through the wheel mechanisms, I still had to take it easy on the bitumen. I spent lots of time using the water on the road to wash the wheels as I drove.

It was now getting late, and with all the excitement, I was ready to call it a night, even though thunder continued to rumble. I didn't have much luck with the local motels back in Smith Center, but I got chatting at the last one. The gorgeous biddies Monty and Dixie were genuinely trying to find a solution for me that didn't involve driving endless miles in the now pouring rain. They were completely full up, but they offered me a couch in the bar area out the back! I just had to be up by 8am so Monty could start making BBQ ribs! Awesome. All I had to do was run Dixie home.

A simple enough request, but by now I was seeing possibily the heaviest rainfall I'd ever seen. I didn't mind driving in it, but flash flooding was a concern for me. Dixie didn't live far, but water was flowing down the locals streets like rivers. My heart started beating a little faster again because of the possibility of getting stuck somewhere else now because of flood water! I took things nice and slow, but the return journey involved driving through almost a foot of water in some places. I did have the added advantage of the massive wheels on this (evidently, not so) beastly Buick SUV, and I arrived back at the Buckshot Inn in one piece.

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I got a photo of Monty the next morning, but unfortunately Dixie wasn't around when I left.

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Wow, what a day. An exciting one to cap off my USA storm chasing adventure. I will continue LA-bound over the next few days to make my flight on sunday. I'm not expecting any storms in the meantime, but who knows what other excitement awaits before I board the plane on sunday night?