Today, Cameron saw a tornado.
What I saw was the beauty of nature’s raw power, but what the small Illinois town saw was fear and devastation.
Despite how conservative most forecasts were for this day, I had a gut feeling that something notable could happen on this day… until the day of the event. I almost reluctantly went with my small group of 3 because our target was too far south to justify the day. Given the previous outflow boundary / warm front laid by overnight storms, I had no doubt that a brief, weak spin-up was possible, but as we approached Galesburg, IL and began to see the sharpness of that boundary near the IA/MO border, we knew we were in for an interesting day. Instability was quite high, with a gradient of 1000-4000 CAPE separated by a mere half hour’s drive near the boundary, and 0-1 km helicity reached a whopping 250 on top of it, meaning that any storm that formed on this dividing line would be a definite tornado contender.
As soon as we reached Galesburg, storms were conveniently forming that really taught us the small-scale dynamics of a sharp boundary between cool air and warm, moist air. Storms to its south were the first to explode with high instability, but lacking helicity they failed to spin. Storms to its north dealt with very high helicity and quickly began to show hook-shapes on radar but their bases were just too high as they sat above a layer of cold air. As soon as a blip showed up right in the middle, I knew it would have the perfect recipe.
The updrafts to this storm did not take their time to shoot to 60,000 feet. Our “Goldilocks” storm had now become three, this being the northern updraft.
Though the middle storm was tornado warned, it was obvious the southern cell would quickly take over.
It took a long while to escape the rain wrapping around the hook echo of the southern storm, which had now become dominant, but right as we did, near Biggsville we were faced with something I still have yet to decipher. This circulation was far west, removed from the main meso of the storm and while we could not see rapid spinning, scud clouds were literally rising out of the corn stalks ahead of us. Looking closely at the photo, a thin wisp of white can be seen touching the row of corn ahead.
As we headed east toward the heart of the circulation, we observed at least 2 satellite tornadoes riding along the rear-flank downdraft toward where we were expecting a monster tornado on the ground. Basically, it was like the storm was spinning so hard it was sucking tornadoes into its tornado.
Debris could briefly be seen from these, despite the low photo quality.
As we neared the location of where we feared the real tornado may lie, we were relieved to see an empty base.
Almost instantaneously, however, a large stovepipe tornado dropped out of the cloud as we approached Kirkwood, IL and chugged toward Monmouth. Thankfully this apparition lasted only mere minutes, but this storm was not finished yet.
In the radar image just before its touchdown, a tight couplet can be seen about to cross the road ahead, as well as a weak couplet to the south that may have been the cause of a satellite tornado or two.
When we were finally able to get out of the car, the stovepipe had lifted, but clouds hung extremely low. This was arguably a tornadic circulation above the farmhouse in the distance.
The mesocyclone had a definite spinning and tilted look to it and looked seconds away from just dropping to the ground.
For better or for worse we got mighty close to fascinating multi-vortex structure as we pursued it further, this small noodle being lit up by the power flashes it was creating.
We came almost 1/8 of a mile from it; we could literally see the tornado in the cornfield ahead of us. That didn’t strike me as insane though, at least until I saw headlights emerge from its direct path.
At this point we were trying desperately to scoot ahead of the storm to see structure, but it grew darker and road networks soon became nightmarishly forested, hilly and flooded.
As we kept tracking east toward Knoxville, we soon realized the storm had began moving due east instead of northeast, putting us slowly further inside the rain-wrapped “bear’s cage”. Streaky sheets of rain flew violently left to right as we encountered very high RFD winds, and we were pretty sure something was looming off to the right. This was likely the beginnings of the large EF-2 tornado that ripped through Cameron.
The bear’s cage is guarded only by these dark streaks of rain, or bars to the cage. At this point we did not want to play with the bear.
One thing that made this day different for me was that there was never a point when I really felt in danger. Despite how close we came to a dizzying array of circulations within one rotating supercell, I could at least keep a compass in my head and see enough storm structure to know that we were in safe positioning the entire time. This half hour, though, was psychologically draining. As we entered Galesburg to begin our journey home, we soon realized the city was a maze of flooded streets with water 6″ high at spots. After a moment of frustration we eventually decided to work our way meticulously through the road grids to dry land. I was sure we’d be stranded there until after dark or even the next morning, which was not really a pleasant feeling.
We made it home safely though. For better or for worse, we did not drive through the chaos our storm left behind in Cameron, IL and surrounding areas. After such a successful, on-point forecast and adrenaline-rushing day, it is too easy to forget that what we saw today dealt actual destruction, actual hurt and actual despair. Though no one was severely hurt, the toughest part about this day was knowing that while we enjoyed seeing nature’s power, it left quite a scar on other people’s lives.