2/28/17 Ottawa and Washburn, IL Tornadoes

I watched with instinctive terror what was tearing apart the field in front of me, a dark-matter dust devil maddeningly cycling away. Inky black dirt whipped into the tornado, cloaking it in ugly clouds that shed off into curling tendrils. It picked up its pace and stumbled angrily through the field in front of us as if in a temper. When we looked back, all that was left was a floating cloud of dust, like a demon banished with a spell.

The night before, sleep did not quite come easy. My mind was racing through the possibilities of what we could see tomorrow, with the unsettling feeling that large, long-track and even deadly tornadoes could be roaming by nightfall. After much deliberation, we chose a target of Ottawa, IL, close to a differential heating boundary reinforced by a couple morning storms. When we arrived, a number of cells had already fired. Three prominent clusters formed, the tail end of which seemed the most intriguing, just having that look like it could last forever. Keeping these in mind though, we chose to check out the northern cluster first, which was rapidly strengthening.

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What struck me the most about this storm was the lightning. It was constantly rumbling, a strange sound in late winter. One of my chase partners let her hair down so we could see when the electricity in the air became a bit too much.

We fortunately chose not to gamble with this storm that would later produce an EF-3 tornado that hit the south side of Ottawa, IL. Following a high-precipitation supercell through a river valley with horrible road network and dense trees lead to deteriorating safety, so we decided not to keep up with it despite its obvious gearing up to produce a significant tornado. Mostly, however, it had that grungy, bland look to it that seemed uncharacteristic of such a day, and that suggested it wouldn’t be hard to find something more visually appealing.

As we fled south out of its grasp however, a twister seemed to drop out of nowhere less than half a mile from us near the town of Standard.

2/28/17 Tornado near Standard, IL

It was anything but “standard”,  a random spin-up along the rear-flank downdraft of the massive Ottawa beast. What appeared to be a tornado was just a tiny circulation around the main powerful mesocyclone.

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The elephant trunk funnel snaked all the way to the ground at times.

We jumped around a bit to sample a couple more tiny tornado-warned storms drenched in rain, until we realized it was time to finally dive down to the long-lived, “tail-end Charlie” supercell that had been cruising steady state for the last couple of hours in our direction. We started driving south, anxious to see an isolated, picturesque beauty of a supercell. We were not disappointed.

2/28/17 Supercell near Washburn, IL

It almost wasn’t surprising how perfectly sculpted it was, a rock-solid look revealing layers of rotation. This storm had to work with over 1500 J/kg of surface-based CAPE, around 60kt of bulk shear and upwards of 200m2/s2 of storm-relative helicity in the lowest levels; it had everything it needed.

We reached the top of the hill, and I began to get this amazing feeling, half relief that we had escaped the troubles now worsening in Ottawa, and half relief that we had this gorgeous sight in Washburn almost all to ourselves, with few if any people living in the path of what could soon be a powerful storm.

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Within minutes the scene was altered by a faint swirl of dust on the ground underneath the base of the storm. Timing had worked out perfectly – this storm had trekked hundreds of miles across Illinois; why it chose to wait until now to unleash its brief but incredible fury was a matter of luck.

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The dust thickened.

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A local left town as the dust loomed before it.

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Another one fled the scene.

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Thin ribbons of vorticity danced inside the dust.

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We decided to get a bit closer, just as the twister sucked a sheath of black dirt up around its dark funnel.

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Quickly it became a tangled mess of darkness.

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The cloud became massive as it sucked up everything in its sight. It became nearly impossible to hold the camera steady with inflow whipping into the circulation.

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A line of dust whipped into the tornado delineating a powerful “ghost train” rear inflow jet.

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It took on a thick cylindrical appearance as it began to shed off its curling cloak.

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The inflow tore into the tornado, wrapping up around it.

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It looked like a nightmare.

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Out of nowhere, a car shoots by before it, miraculously unscathed.

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As we looked overhead, the parent supercell’s mesocyclone curled perfectly around the widening ball of dirt, dust and debris.

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The long, tiny white barn in front of it was gone 30 seconds later with a roar like a vacuum picking up gravel.

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That barn is now inside. In a hurry we raced toward it, checking in on the house to make sure everyone was alright. Two barns were destroyed, but the house still stood stoically with just a few scratches and broken windows. Everyone was safe.

2/28/17 Supercell near Dwight, IL

We continued following the rotating storm. It corkscrewed and tilted forward as it glided steady-state for hundreds more miles, driven mechanically by powerful wind shear as if it was engineered to go on forever.

2/28/17 Shelf cloud near Streator, IL

Finally we allowed ourselves a more tranquil scene as the final squall line raced in a few hours later. Nothing really could last forever; the day could now be over.

9/9/16 Block – Homer, IL Tornado

At one point I remember being completely gripped by emotion as I stood there watching such a beautiful tornado as it just ripped one by one through house to house, shredding them into the air. I gasped out loud something along the lines of “This was such a perfect day, why does it have to look like this?”

This day was indeed a rare occasion in that I had not previously spent any time forecasting. As soon as I saw a confident update by the Storm Prediction Center warning for a small corridor of tornado potential, I dove into the data on the fly and determined that some way, some how I just had to be there. It just looked too promising.

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This was the scene arriving near the tiny town of Block, IL, south of Champaign. A decently sized supercell with extremely low wall cloud sucking in warm, moist air from practically the ground.

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Ragged.

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My eyes were trained on this lowering as the classic area for eventual tornadogenesis; however, my friend and chase partner Will Wight made clear that this supercell was actually breaking into two circulations, a tiny knot rapidly forming on its southern flank.

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We had less than 5 minutes notice after seeing this knot before a tiny circulation appeared on the ground less than a quarter mile ahead of us (just left of the silos and right of the trees). We reported the touchdown immediately to the National Weather Service, but we were directly in its path.

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The initial touchdown was spine-tingling and terrifying.

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It became a stovepipe in a hurry as it drifted into the fields south of Sidney, IL.

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It looks like a puddle of water underneath the tornado. That’s where it was on the ground. Just in front of us. And yet it’s an amazing feeling knowing you’re not in danger.

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Just down the road a bit.

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Trudged a bit farther away now.

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This image was taken a mere second before the farmstead in front of it was ripped apart into the air. A large piece of debris from the tornado’s previous target still floats in the air. No one was injured.

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Feels like a nightmare.

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We followed the tornado as it became nearly stationary before continuing on into what we thought was mostly-uninhabited farmland south of Homer, IL.

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A lot of the traffic here appeared to be locals, waiting as the now tiny tornado crossed the road and ripped one-by-one through a few farmsteads that were just unlucky enough to be in its predetermined path.

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Just the fact that this tiny circulation managed to tear through so many things was painful to watch.

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But at the same time it was so beautiful.

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Suddenly in a tizzy it erupted into a swirly drill shape.

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Too amazing to take your eyes off of.

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But debris still swirled around the ground.

It took awhile to adjust to what we had just seen. It was the most perfectly-executed intercept of an amazing tornado I have been a part of, but having to watch it do what it did was sickening. And yet this is what I love doing.

 

 

 

8/24/16 Kokomo, IN Area “Surprise” Tornado Outbreak

“Don’t be afraid to be wrong”, my professor told me before he challenged me to leave his class to test my knowledge and gut feeling while fueling my passion. Was I right? I can’t say. Never thought I’d be witness to one of this area’s most unexpected outbreaks of quite massive tornadoes.

Despite no mention of tornadoes, my friend and I’s faint worries were proven with a destructive tornado touchdown in Kokomo, IN and we set out to pursue a second developing line of mini-supercells. The environment was terribly moist and lacked significant instability and deep-layer shear, but with cloud bases almost on the ground and low-level speed and directional shear quite high, we recognized a threat of a couple weak mini-supercellular tornadoes. We had not quite considered wedges, however.

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The first storm we followed initially was an obvious target, a long-lived mini-supercell trudging ahead of a line of storms. After a painful haul filled with blinding downpours and anticipation, as soon as we emerged from the rain we were subject to this jaw-dropping monster lurking a few miles ahead. This is it, my first “wedge” tornado, a condensed funnel wider than it is tall. Thankfully, due to lack of strong wind dynamics this day, the actual damage path was significantly smaller than it visually suggested. This was just northwest of Kokomo, IN, mere miles from the earlier tornado.

As the tornado became rain-wrapped, we recognized that our chances for safe spotting were about over for this storm. A second supercell followed behind it:
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On such a “soupy” day, beautiful storms are often hard to come by. This day was an exception though, spitting out classic structures one after another.

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As inflow strengthened and the circulation visibly tightened, I became extremely worried that the Kokomo area was in for its third significant tornado.

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A slender tornado inched its way down briefly in the lower left third of the photo.

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Thankfully, we were able to follow it out of the populated area without it producing a strong tornado, but the bowl-shaped lowering above gave rise to some of the fastest spinning motion I have ever witnessed.

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Clouds were in rotating knots.

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It is now we believe our third tornado formed just north of Sharpsville, IN. The strongest rising motion from the ground I have ever seen arose from the solid vertical wall of cloud on the lower left.

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This unknown mass was contorted in ugly, ripped shapes.

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It became tighter then wrapped in rain.

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It was now obvious a rain-wrapped tornado spun furiously in a ball of rain.

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As the rain cleared, a murky cylindrical tornado appeared.

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It became lopsided, then quickly dissipated.

Just as it disappeared, we noted the storm next in line appeared ready to produce a tornado. A confirmed tornado was reported, but we missed it en route.

The day was quickly turning into an unexpectedly dangerous nightmare.

We eventually caught up to this third supercell and followed it closely, meanwhile watching behind it as a fourth beautifully sculpted mini-supercell erupted. We reassured a few frightened locals as best we could, but we just did not know anymore what the day had in store.

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Next time we looked back on the fourth supercell near aptly named Windfall, IN, it was a frightening beauty.

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All storms seemed to look the same this day, a never-ending army of mirrors. There was something strange and unreal about them.

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This was likely the closest near-miss of the day, a gorgeous ground-scraping rotation near Windfall’s windfarm. No tornado.

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Worried that a fifth supercell was forming behind it, we left the former storm for a better view near Hobbs. Something was in the air, as this next storm also failed to produce a tornado despite very strong rotation.

As darkness grew, we were forced to leave, as the mini-supercells failed to produce anything in the way of lightning to aid our spotting.

Of course, we had to dodge a sixth tornado-warned supercell through Tipton, IN.