Posted By Taylor Kanost
When you imagine your dream vacation, what comes to mind? A trip to Hawaii? Backpacking across Europe? How about a two month journey across Tornado Alley chasing the most violent weather nature can offer? That was my dream, and it came true when I was given the opportunity to volunteer for the Center for Severe Weather Research this summer. The CSWR was founded by Dr. Josh Wurman, who has spent over a decade conducting groundbreaking research on tornadoes using his fleet of DOWs, or Doppler on Wheels. On May 3, 1999, one of Dr. Wurman’s DOWs recorded the strongest tornadic winds ever from the Oklahoma City tornado. His team was also a crucial part of the VORTEX 2 project that took place in 2009 and 2010.
This year, the CSWR crew, along with several volunteers like me, embarked on a seven week trip across the Great Plains for a scientific mission called ROTATE (Radar Observations of Tornadoes and Thunderstorms Experiment). The goals of this mission were to find out how strong winds at the surface are in tornadoes, as well as how these low level winds cause damage to homes and other structures. In order to figure these out, we used three DOWs, along with 22 tornado pods that measure wind speed, wind direction, temperature, and humidity at the surface. I was privileged enough to operate DOW 8, which was our rapid scan, close range radar. The goal of the project was to place these pods in the path of a tornado while collecting radar data with the DOWs. This would result in a data set that is unprecedented in the history of tornado research. Unfortunately, as we quickly found out, completing this task is incredibly difficult when the weather isn’t cooperating!
The first couple of weeks of the project were rather quiet, particularly for early May. Other than a couple of “bust” chases, our time was spent in Boulder, CO fixing up our equipment. Needless to say, we became a little restless.
Finally on May 19th, things came together for us. We ferried east towards southwest Kansas. Going into the day, we weren’t too optimistic considering we were chasing activity along a cold front and dew points struggled to reach the 60s in our area of interest. Fortunately for us, isolated storms developed near our target by late afternoon and the chase was on! Soon enough, our storm produced a series of land spouts, such as the one below.
In normal circumstances, we would have set ourselves up to deploy pods on these. However, the data we were trying to collect is for classic supercell tornadoes, not these land spouts that move erratically. On top of that, we were looking to do research on stronger tornadoes, in the EF2-EF5 range. Land spouts typically aren’t any stronger than EF1, so we decided to standby and enjoy the show! As it turns out, one of these land spouts produced EF3 damage, including damage to a wind turbine, as seen below.
Another week of inactivity passed before our next successful chase. On May 25, we once again found ourselves in Kansas. This day was different than the 19th because it was a “Bang or Bust” type of day, meaning, due to the cap, we could have either had a huge tornado day or nothing at all. Around 6 PM, the cap broke and storms rapidly intensified. After missing the first tornado of the day, we positioned ourselves perfectly on an isolated cell near Gorham, KS. It eventually put down this beautiful elephant trunk tornado.
As soon as it touched down we postioned ourselves a few miles away and started scanning with DOW 8! At the same time, our pod teams moved into position to deploy pods. Unfortunately, this tornado was on the ground for only a couple of minutes and lifted before we were able to collect any quality data.
Our day wasn’t done though. As dusk came and went, we had our sights set on a new cell near Russell, KS. This storm put down a tornado a mile or two from our location, so we once again started scanning. From this point, things became really complicated. It was our first (and as it turned out, our last) night chase and the movement of the tornado was completely erratic. At one point, the tornado zigzagged across the highway we were on a half mile to our south. Then suddenly, the winds picked up drastically at our location. We quickly realized that we were getting hit by the tornado! As soon as the vehicle rocked and my ears started popping, I quickly ducked to the floor. Seconds later, the driver’s side window broke! As quickly as the mayhem began, it became eerily calm once again. Afterwards, I was almost in shock, but I knew we dodged a huge bullet.
I was elated when I realized we just intercepted a tornado AND recorded data. That elation was short-lived though. As soon as we stepped out of the vehicle, we witnessed extreme damage to a home right next to us. After doing a damage survey the next day, we discovered that it was a modular home that was barely attached to the ground. The National Weather Service rated this tornado an EF2. The data we collected showed that we directly encountered winds in excess of 100 mph, which is in the high end EF1 range!
Although the data collected on that day was groundbreaking, we had terrible luck for the rest of the trip. We chased countless storms, a handful of which looked promising, but ultimately Mother Nature wouldn’t cooperate with us. It was disappointing for us, but at the same time we were happy for the towns that were spared from potential damage.
All together, we traveled nearly 15,000 miles for 258 hours, racking up a gas bill of nearly $57,000 (That’s your tax dollars at work, folks)! Here’s a comprehensive map of everywhere we traveled, from the Mexican border all the way up to Canadian border!
Despite the lack of weather, this was easily the coolest experience I’ve ever been a part of. If there’s any young meteorologists out there reading this, or even if you’re just a casual fan of severe weather, I’d highly suggest putting something like this on your Bucket List. There’s really nothing like Tornado Alley.