Despite what the movie Twister and the TV series Storm Chasers might suggest, it is actually common not to see tornadoes during the average storm chase. Also, according to Mizzou storm chaser Seth Colston, storm-chasing is 80% staring at weather forecast models and 20% looking at storm clouds.
On April 27, I went for my first storm chase with three members of the Mizzou Storm Chase team. It was the day when a tornado ripped through Arkansas starting from about 7 p.m., killing 17 people in the process. We were not chasing that tornado. Arkansas was not within our search radius.
We were mostly in southwestern Missouri, constantly scooting from one plain to another, chasing storm clouds that looked potentially capable of producing tornadoes. It was quite the countryside sightseeing trip: I saw many grazing cows, unending hilly roads, fields of tall grass, tractors and many other objects associated with rural areas. I also saw many gas stations. I realized that when storm chasers don’t have a fruitful day, their chase is essentially a combination of a countryside-sightseeing road trip and a tour of various gas stations. And did I mention that cell service is bad in the south?
Along the way, we encountered various thunderstorms. Rain, hail and 60 mph wind frequently battered the black metal shell of the Chevrolet sedan we were in. We saw lots of lightning, too. But in the end, we saw no tornadoes. Sure, a few storm clouds we were following actually formed a funnel and looked like they would eventually produce a tornado. But more often than not, they were duds. Either they did not experience enough rotation or they did not absorb enough heat energy from solar radiation.
The closest thing to a tornado we saw was a funnel cloud (the stage right before a tornado touches down) hovering close to Prescott and Hume, Mo. (See first photograph.) We saw it at around 6:15 p.m. from a gas station off of Interstate 49. It was only three miles away then, but it was hard to spot the funnel cloud (for me at least). Being experienced tornado spotters, my three companions could easily see it.
In total, we spent 13 hours and 30 minutes storm-chasing. We met at the MU Agriculture building for a final pre-chase meeting at 8 a.m. When we got back to Columbia after the chase, it was just past 9:30 p.m. The driver also spent about $60 on gas. Yet in the end, we only saw a funnel cloud. No tornado. I learned that expecting disappointment is a huge part of the storm chasing experience.
Experienced storm chasers will agree with my observation. According to Zach Paul, ex-storm chaser and chief meteorologist of KRCG 13’s weather station, most chasers don’t see a tornado when they go chasing.
“They will see thunderstorms, but the odds of getting a tornado for every thunderstorm is low,” he says.
You see, tornadoes require four ingredients to form.
1. Moisture – This is self-explanatory.
2. Trigger – Such as a cold front, dry line, or any kind of thing that will cause a vertical motion in the atmosphere.
3. Wind shear – This is comprised of speed shear and directional shear. Basically, how the wind changes speed and direction as you go up.
4. Instability – As you go up, you want the temperature to be decreasing at a certain rate. Meteorologists like to use what’s called the “dry adiabatic lapse rate” to measure instability. The ideal situation would be to get a rate of decrease by 18 degrees Fahrenheit per 2/3 miles upwards. But most of the time, meteorologists won’t get that.
The storm clouds we were observing on that day must have lacked at least one of the ingredients listed above.
We missed a tornado in Nevada by about 30 minutes. It appeared at around 6:35 p.m., and we were in Nevada at around 6 p.m. Had we been more patient, we would have caught it. Still, we saw a funnel cloud in the end.
Storm chasing is fraught with this kind of disappointment and potentially unfruitful mileage numbering in the thousands. This is the reality. Don’t believe what you see on TV.
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