THE MOTHERSHIP

Yesterday was a weird day for storm chasers. We spent a lot of time camped out on dirt roads next to fallow fields and curious cattle in southeast Nebraska waiting for something to happen (photo below). Nothing did. Several storms rumbled and grumbled for a couple of hours, but just couldn’t get their acts together.

Meanwhile, over our shoulders, we watch a massive supercell blow up all by itself about 40 or 50 miles south, down near the Kansas border (photo below).

Finally, we throw in the towel on the nearby storms and decide to make a dash for the southern one. On our way, however, one the northern boomers decides to tease us with newfound energy. So we zig north. The storm goes flop bod. We zag south, the southern monster again our target.

We knew it would be dark by the time we ran our intercept, so I become Mr. Grumpy, kvetching—-silently—-about milling around in the blackness, after my bedtime, just to shoot lightning (of which there was plenty).

As we punch through the leading edge of the supercell to get on its southern side, the “viewing” side, Roger, our tour guide, says,”It’s got a hook!”—-the classic radar signature of a tornado.

We get south of the storm, turn east and run ahead of it, then pull off the road to watch. Continuous lightning illuminates the supercell, revealing a massive, rotating wall cloud. A “mothership,” Roger calls it.
The inflow winds whip at our backs, thunder ripples over the flat landscape and tornado sirens moan in the distance.

Suddenly, the wind changes, the outflow from the huge storm smacks us in the face. “Time to go,” Roger calls. We scramble back into the van and fly (never breaking the speed limit, mind you) eastward. Then the real excitement. “It’s got a funnel!” someone in the back of the van yells.

We stop again and pile out of the vehicle like Keystone Cops. Sure enough, less than a half mile away is the lightning-lit embryo of a tornado, a funnel cloud hanging from the mothership (photo below, courtesy of Gawain Charlton-Perrin). It’s not the little funnel that could, however, and doesn’t quite reach the ground.

Again the storm’s outflow rips at us and we scurry away, stairstepping our way east and north through the lightning-filled night, keeping a close eye on the roiling supercell. It cycles in and out of its tornado threat mode, but never quite makes it.

Still, it was exciting.

No more kvetching.

-May 3, 2012-

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