This day really made me see how every storm is like a living, breathing creature. This philosophical musing was probably just a result of me living off zero hours of sleep the night before from anticipation, but I prided myself in this being the first day I completely shut off radar and science from my mind and just watched things happen. This was also my first nighttime tornado. Before the Valparaiso University Storm Intercept Team and I headed out, our meteorology professor jokingly requested we bring him back a photo of one, even with the rule that VUSIT never night chases. Well, some rules are meant to be broken, and I do have that photo.
The wait was agonizing as impressive storms formed and quickly became tornado-warned in extremely familiar territory for me. We watched what we thought was our perfect storm erupt in the exact location the HRRR predicted, then just struggle until it couldn’t anymore. We sat there feeling quite defeated. We knew we should never under any circumstances trust computers. I know I don’t. But then we watched the biggest breakthrough in modern meteorology start to bubble up and verify their forecasts.
The storm quickly split into two. The cell we were watching became absolutely stunning, its base shriveling into a tightly spinning, skeletal sculpture that signified a left-split that would fail to become dominant.
One major difference with this day’s adventure is that we based much of our forecasting on high-res computer model guidance, something that in theory should never be done under any circumstances, with trust instead placed on actual conditions and observing. However, with skies being crystal clear and no real subtleties to work with, we simply trusted that the one beautiful supercell the HRRR painted trekking from just north of St. Louis, MO all the way to our home base of Valparaiso, IN was just going to happen. Despite the absurdity of it, it did.
It became even more beautiful over time, while the storm to the south predictably took over. We quickly dove in front of it. While doing so, it developed a large, ragged wall cloud. We reveled in the thought that every other chaser and his mother were stuck in a rapidly developing mess up north, while we, the patient ones, had this lone, beautiful creature all to ourselves.
The problem was daylight. I had never observed tornadic storms at night before, but as the sun set this storm began to show unreal structure only found in the high plains. Its base looked chiseled in stone with its updraft corkscrewing madly up into the atmosphere.
As a strong rear-flank downdraft wrapped around the storm, we knew tornadogenesis was imminent. Light was fading fast and we followed it north, putting ourselves behind it and in clear view of anything that was about to happen.
After much waiting, a secondary RFD surge was visible and the nightmarish sight of a small tornado dropping downward was illuminated by constant lightning.
It lasted a few minutes as we called 911 and the National Weather Service to report it, then lifted after causing one bright green power flash.
Knowing the dangers of spotting at night, we called it a day as the storm approached Springfield. It dealt EF-1 damage just outside of town, and it would cycle on and on until it did in fact reach Valpo, just like the computer models predicted. It was like we had a crystal ball at our disposal as everything went eerily according to plan. It made me almost unsurprised by anything I saw at all.
If only it was like this all the time… but that would take the fun out of it.