In case you missed my Storm Chasing TV piece on Here & Now the other night. Here it is.
-ORIGINAL BLOG POST-
Following one of the quietest April's in U.S. history, I had completely prepared myself for a storm chasing trip with just a few storms and no expectation of tornadoes. However by the time I flew to Oklahoma City on May 12th, a pattern was change was underway, with an upper level trough digging into the Western United States.
Following two days of sightseeing and touring, the severe weather pattern kicked into the Plains. We chased in Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and of course Oklahoma. We saw some impressive and beautiful supercells, dust storms, golf ball sized hail and 6 tornadoes.
An EF0 at sunset, in an open field, in Kansas. Amazing.
Since I've returned, everyone seems to ask me the same 3 questions...
Why in the world would you go storm chasing?
I've always had fascination with thunderstorms. Being born and raised in Southern Ontario, I've witnessed some beautiful storms. However those storms are peanuts compared to the monster storms in the Plains of the United States. Then there's the 'Tornado Factor', because to me, there's nothing more stunning and powerful in mother nature. Never having seen a twister before, it's always been near the top of my bucket list. I know the danger that storm chasing brings, however the fascination and curiosity to see these one of these storms up close and in person, I felt was worth the risk.
What did I learn?
First and foremost, I learned a lot about storm chasing. I think most people think storm chasers are just weather loving, adrenaline junkie, cowboys. There's no doubt, that some of these elements are present in storm chasing. I mean you ARE chasing the most powerful storms on earth. However I also learned that storm chasers can be very important eyes on the ground, confirming to the weather office that a tornado has touched down and making certain people in the next town have advanced warning. Other storm chasers are in the thick of it, conducting very important scientific research on these unpredictable storms. Storm chasers are often the first on the scene following a tornado. The 'Storm Chaser Code', to abandon the chase and immediately become a first responder, was evident throughout my trip.
Personally speaking, chasing these storms, I learned so much about supercell development and structure. I also have a much better handle on the most important ingredients needed to 'cook them up'. I can tell you that standing less than 2 kilometres from a powerful EF3 wedge, I certainly developed a new appreciation for the power of tornadoes. We were so close, that at times I could actually see the individual suction vortices inside the main wedge. I also witnessed a horizontal vortex develop to the right side of the wedge, a true sign of a very powerful tornado. I was excited... and slightly terrified all at the same time.
We were standing less than 2 km away from this EF3 near Carney, Oklahoma.
Then there was Moore, a leaning experience like no other. My group was chasing a storm just south of Moore when the devastating EF5 tornado ripped through the town. We headed back to the Oklahoma City area and I flipped the switch from vacation mode to broadcaster mode. I met up with my CBC colleagues and headed into the aftermath of destruction.
The National Weather Service has rated the Moore Tornado an EF5, meaning peak winds between 320 and 340 km/h and makes it one of the strongest storms ever to hit the United States. The path of destruction was almost indescribable: two kilometres wide and 27 kilometres long. The tornado was on the ground for an astounding 50 minutes. I had never seen anything like it before. It was truly a life changing experience for me.
Looking at the rubble in the wake of the storm, to me there's little doubt that advanced warnings saved lives in Moore. The tornado struck on Monday, but I can tell you, even the week before, forecasters were talking about the potential for a widespread severe weather outbreak from Saturday to Monday, especially in the Oklahoma City area. On Sunday, numerous tornadoes dropped just north of the city, where at least one person was killed. On Monday morning, forecasters were again talking about the severe weather and tornado potential, particularly for the Oklahoma City area.
In the end, it was 2:40 p.m. when the first tornado warning was issued. It was only five minutes later that the tornado touched down in the Newcastle area as an EF0 and about 20 minutes later it began to move into Moore. A rare Tornado Emergency warning was issued at 3:01 p.m., which was 14 minutes before the storm ripped though Moore. These warnings prompt alerts on television, radio, mobile phones and of course tornado sirens. Tragically, 24 people lost their lives in Moore on Monday. However I believe the advanced warning systems and outlooks by forecasters on television, radio and social media, surely saved lives in Moore, Oklahoma.
As a Broadcast Meteorologist, I believe Moore helped me gain an all new appreciation for the importance of advanced warnings when storms, or severe weather approaches. Viewers, listeners and readers need time to prepare and it's our job to make sure they know something severe is on the way.
Will I go back and chase storms again?
Being in Moore, certainly had a big influence on me. However it was after my return home, that the now record 4.2 km wide, El Reno tornado tragically took the lives of 3 storm chasers. Those chasers included 30 year chasing veteran Tim Samaras, his son Paul Samaras and Carl Young. The tornado quickly changed direction, intensified and grew in size in a matter of minutes, which explains why the experienced storm chasers were caught in its path. The fact that these well respected and experienced chasers were killed, proves the true danger in chasing storms.
However, the reason we've learned so much about this record tornado, is because of storm chasers. It was storm chasers from the University of Oklahoma and their mobile radar, which has provided the information for the NWS to reclassify the tornado as an EF5. It was the mobile radar which measured peak surface winds of 476 km/h and these amazing radar scans, where you can actually see an eye in the tornado.
Long story short, I do hope to head back and chase storms in Tornado Alley, one day. For the many reasons I listed above, I still feel storm chasing is important. I'd like to return not only to observe and document these powerful storms again, but as a broadcaster, perhaps to tell some of the stories of these chasers, who put themselves at risk.