October 19, 2021

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Tornadoes, hail and stunning skies make for unforgettable Texas storm chase – The Washington Post

5 min read

My day started in Dallas. That’s where I picked up two of my friends at the airport — neither of whom had ever seen hail larger than the size of dimes. They’re not meteorologists, but they leaped at the chance to tag along on a storm chase.

For days, I had been obsessing between potential chase targets: a messier batch of storms in East Texas that would surely spin or the chance at an all-or-nothing bet along the Texas-southwestern Oklahoma border. I knew that if a storm popped, it would be big — but whether one would fire was more than a risky gamble.

The setup featured a dryline — the boundary between moisture-rich air to the east and bone-dry desert air to the west — that could serve as a trigger for storms. Changing winds with altitude from a zone of low pressure nearby meant anything that popped would spin.

But weather models showed nothing — nary a drop of rain. Yet the setup reminded me of April 22, 2020, when a string of supercells, thunderstorms that spin, dropped picturesque tornadoes across southern Oklahoma. I figured I’d kick myself if I didn’t make the trip.

I wrapped up work early, piled my friends Allen and Gabriel into my truck, and started the long drive north. We arrived at my target in Quanah, Tex., along the southern border of western Oklahoma, around 3 p.m. I refueled my truck, greeted a trio of other chasers, and evaluated the radar.

“Convective initiation” was underway. In other words, storms were developing. Sunshine had finally emerged from behind a veil of cloud cover, heating the ground and making the air unstable. It was only a matter of time.

I quickly settled on the northern of three storms developing. Ordinarily the southern one — “tail end Charlie” — is the wisest play, since it has uninterrupted southerly winds to pump in warmth and moisture. But in this case, I figured the northern storm was closest to the instigating boundaries and the low pressure center that would make it spin. It proved to be the right call.

Of the three storms, the northern cell, per radar, appeared to be intensifying the most quickly. Childress, where the cell was anchored, was just a 20 minute trip west. We hopped in the truck and immediately spotted a wall cloud looming in the distance. That’s a lowering associated with air rising into the southern end of the storm. That marked the rotating updraft.

We sat and watched it for a while, navigating a grid of dirt country roads eastward as it slowly churned and cycled up and down in intensity. After a while, I grew bored and antsy. The middle cell to the south was in reach. I decided to check it out.

It was a “low precipitation” supercell, meaning it was dropping large to giant hail but little rain was falling. We sauntered beneath the updraft, which was spinning like a tiered birthday cake. I lost cellphone service, but kept driving for the next 20 minutes. That’s when my radio buzzed with a weather alert — the northernmost cell, which I had impulsively abandoned, had triggered a tornado warning.

I began the calculated but internally frenetic and seemingly futile drive northward, certain I could never catch the storm. A rainbow — the kiss of death in storm chasing — arced across the backside of the second storm, which I was once again passing beneath. Golf ball-sized hail was falling.

We slid along empty dirt roads, blasting north. It was bright and sunny, with cauliflower-like clouds marking the distant northern cell. When we finally happened upon a paved road, we began the trip northeast. Neither of my friends had any idea about the potential tornado — I didn’t want to disappoint them; I was sure we had missed it. Dark clouds lurked east.

Suddenly, cell service returned — and with it arrived a new radar scan. What? A debris ball? (A debris ball is a radar signature indicating vegetation and parts of structures lofted into the sky, essentially confirming the presence of a tornado.) A classic hook-shape traced the northern cell’s dramatic rotation, punctuated by a lobe at the tip of the hook where an obvious tornado was on the ground. It was seven miles away. It was moving at 35 mph and the speed limit was 75 mph. Maybe I could intercept it.

No other vehicles were on the road. Maybe chasers had taken the northern route. I was late to the party. I watched inflow race into the storm, southerly winds sculpting the base and fueling the behemoth. Dark, rugged clouds lurked ahead despite the sunshine beaming down on me. I squinted.

“Tornado,” I stated, matter-of-factly, immediately jolting Allen and Gabriel to attention. They both grabbed cameras and began recording. Allen held my phone while I delivered a video report, all the while driving and angling closer. The gray, fully-condensed funnel stood against a blue background, whirling across the road. Two minutes later, it was gone. I was reeling. Leaves and the husks of corn drifted down from the sky.

But I noticed a new wall cloud, or rotating lowering, to my north. Sheets of rain began pouring down as we continued into the town of Lockett, having lost radar coverage again. I continued driving, striving to keep ahead of the rotation. The rain lifted. I knew we were again beneath the updraft. I turned east.

Cell service abruptly returned and a new radar frame loaded. I did a double-take. The hook echo was on top of us. If a tornado was forming, it would be within a mile — or directly overhead.

“There’s a big one right there!” shouted Gabriel. I had been focused on the road, but stole a glance in the back seat. There, out the window, was a ghostly-white funnel with a collar of reddish dust, standing in contrast against a blue sky behind. I pulled into a small neighborhood as we watched funnel.

Soon, the “rear flank downdraft” wrapped around the circulation and arrived at our location. That’s the blast of cool air and hail that surges south behind an area of spin. Half dollar-sized stones began pelting me as I continued to film reports outdoors. I snapped a few photos of the second tornado roping-out.

Even though I knew in my gut the storm had performed its final act, we continued east for a few miles. That cost a windshield despite having adequate protection — strong northerly winds were whipping tennis ball-sized chunks of ice across the road.

By sunset, a stunning display of mammatus, or pouch-like clouds on the underside of a thunderstorm’s upper-level anvil, were hanging in the sky. To the west, the setting sun bathed storm clouds in a purple hue, punctuated by crackles of lightning.

I sighed and grinned, content. It was the best storm chase I had ever had.

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