There’s a feeling I got as we raced through a small town toward a slender, ghostly orange tornado on the horizon. The sirens were blaring and people were standing about confused in the 60-degree Christmastime air admiring a beautiful cotton-candy sky. It gave me chills. Flashing back to my first real tornado encounter, all at once I felt choked up at people’s fear while at the same time I just stared at the sky in disbelief that nature is so unreal. Then I realized my 5-man team and I, cramped up in a tiny speeding car had for days been using pure instinct just to get us in that one specific town at that exact time just to feel that. That we were the only ones who happened to have the instinct to be specifically there that day and the knowledge to alert the National Weather Service of the apparition when they could not detect it themselves meant the sirens could even be screaming in the first place. It really makes you think about existence.
The day started Leaving from Springfield and heading to Galesburg, IL with very high hopes of seeing something interesting. Though CAPE was low (500-750), this was December after all. With shear/helicity being through the roof, we naturally had the fear that any storm that took off would simply drop a wedge. Storms popped a little ahead of schedule so we flew toward the IL/IA border; we passed a sign for Cameron, IL, the same sign I took a photo of before seeing a large and dangerous tornado. I took another photo. Meanwhile, the bright white leaning towers had that classic late-season crisp look to them.
As soon as we got on the scene we saw a funnel on from a distant organizing storm on the horizon; this photo was shot as it began to retreat back into the base. Sunlight streamed in between storms.
Our storm got a bit closer.
Just like that it dropped a massive downburst. Meanwhile a cell south of it started spitting on us. It was in a position ahead of the line but we wrote it off as it just wasn’t looking interesting.
It gave us this, though.
Anticrepuscular rays (“spokes”) and a rainbow. First time I’d ever seen this. There was ridiculous drama in the sky and it was about to just get better.
Our initial funnel-maker was starting to crank up a notch. The intense downburst was racing East, stirring up a massive flock of seagulls.
I wondered if that farmhouse had any idea.
Propelled by that downburst, the RFD really began to surge and began to wrap around the storm; it was intensely close to producing a tornado, right next to the rainbow.
It never happened, but we knew we were in perfect position and it was time to follow. We raced northeast but the storm was also moving at highway speed. Meanwhile I noticed this nice storm to our southeast; it was the one we had written off, and minutes later it decided to produce a funnel cloud. In total confusion as to which storm to pursue, we just continued on as our initial storm minutes later produced its second funnel. In such an environment, we were now prepared for anything.
As we rounded a corner the southeast storm’s base just had all these ragged tendrils dancing under it and we knew it was time.
Quickly it dropped a slender pale orange rope as beautiful as it was dangerous. We reported it to the National Weather Service Quad Cities and a warning was immediately issued, sirens immediately activated. The feeling was tremendous.
Just casually drifting along. It really didn’t change shape too often but just floated with the cloud.
As soon as it really didn’t show signs of stopping, it just disappeared.
Knowing our environment, however, we expected more.
It tried a second time. It was again just in such an awkward part of the base, like it shouldn’t be there.
This one had all sorts of motion to it, like it was literally getting whipped around and sheared to bits by such strong winds aloft.
It was beautiful, though. The sirens were blaring as we entered the town of Sciota, IL. We realized we had driven through it on the way to our target and remembered seeing its high school, the home of the Cyclones; their mascot was a twister. Go figure.
It was definitely done. But was it? We still expected more from it and raced ever closer to the storm, now on great road network.
Emergency crews were on the scene. It looked like some minor damage had been done to a farmstead or two. The sky was surreal.
It really, really looked like our tiny little low-topped supercell was saving up to try one more time and we were in perfect position. It never did, losing its sunlit color as it passed into the distance.
Driving back, we passed through the one corner outside Rochelle, IL where I get my flashbacks from. It made me relieved that this Christmas-eve-eve was nothing more than it was for this town.