Unique, bizarre chase day: 12 Mar 6

March 13, 2006 by
Filed under: Summary 

SHORT: Close, but ultimately futile attempt to intercept Six State Supercell in SE KS and W-Central MO. Observed sunset storms N of Ft. Scott, nothing outstanding. After dark, drove by/near what would become tornadic storms at night. Nice lightning and lighting in NE OK, along with some small hail. Giant smoke pall for final 60 miles.


For 2-3 hours after getting back (around midnight), I was reading news feeds, message boards, chase posts, rechecking the SPC site and various radar/satellite loops, and in general, trying to absorb the magnitude of what happened yesterday.

12 Mar 6 was clearly one of the most bizarre and thoughtfully evocative weather days of recent memory, and I was glad to be a very tiny part of it, despite seeing none of the 99 tornado reports (as of 9Z this morning). Almost all the tornadoes were in unreachable areas (for us), wretched trees/terrain, and/or after dark, so not seeing any of them from the biggest outbreak in years is no pain to me. Instead I’m *glad* to have gone on this trip.

We (Rich Thompson, my son David, and I) could see what would become the Six State Supercell initially when S of BVO, as a young, highly tilted, barely glaciated convective plume crossing from Osage County OK into KS. Rich also was looking at it on-screen. [I don’t yet have live Internet access on the road but Rich does, and he could use his Gibson Ridge + laptop + GPS + Blue-tooth compatible phone setup to download radar images of this cell.] After gassing up in BVO, we took off in hopes of getting even with or ahead of this cell.

By the time we got in KS, we knew the odds were stacked against us, trying to stay abreast or even slightly catch up to any storm on a day with such outrageous mean tropospheric winds. But with no other alternatives apparent, we forged forward, N then E then N then E then N then E across SE KS to Nevada MO, with steely determination. The problem was that it was racing along the hypotenuse while we were zig-zagging along the other two sides of triangle after triangle.

Out closest approach was near Ft. Scott where we actually had almost attained a good view under the base of this screaming ballistic missile of a storm. Then it finally got away from us between Nevada and Rich Hill MO. Coming from Norman, it was just too far, too fast, too diagonal with respect to the roads. I didn’t feel bad at all for missing the tornadoes, then, because we truly gave it our all. It was one of my most challenging strategic-driving experiences in 20+ years of storm observing, but better to try and fail than not try at all…as long as it is done safely.

The storm of interest fired in the area we expected (NE OK), and basically bisected our forecast target area from SW-NE — but waited until after it had gotten into the hills and trees of MO to start producing tornadoes of any substance. And it fired early — an hour or more before we expected! This is what put us behind from the start. Our spatial forecast, navigation, maneuvering, and avoidance of big towns were almost flawlessly executed — but simply too late in a temporal sense. Even then, I’ve got doubts we would go E of US 71 and follow the storm all the way past Clinton Lake. These things happen! It’s part of the swing of fortunes that characterize chasing.

We broke off. No new development was evident. [Rich’s data connection crapped out in SE KS and he never could restart it the rest of the trip.] We decided to head S toward I-44 after a food break, and hope something would go up along the dryline that we could see on the way home.

While eating in Nevada, I got simultaneous calls from Elke and Bobby Prentice, each informing me of development N of BVO, on nearly the same potential path as the earlier storm. But this time, we could and did park NE of it to let it approach.

By the time the storm arrived near our vantages at Prescott and Pleasanton KS, it was sunset, hazy, dimly lit, and some cirrus was lowering contrast even further. We watched the highly tilted/sheared storm (albeit with a base that was surprisingly wide to me), move from SW-W-N before it got too dark to see much. Lightning activity was on the rise, and I was somewhat concerned that either this storm or other stuff coming up to its S could get into the better kinematic environment farther E and crank up.

Alas, the concern wasn’t enough to act upon. Nightfall was nigh, we were getting bleary-eyed, and we deemed it best to head home. We might have been able to drop back E into MO and try a nocturnal bullfight approach such as what apparently worked well for Rocky Rascovich and Vince Miller, but simply chose otherwise. Not wanting to night chase in the horrendous hills and forests of MO, and get back home even later on top of our fatigue from the strenuous intercept attempt at the early stages of the Six State Supercell, we wandered S down US 69 toward I-44 to head for home. Somehow we managed to dodge several supercells along the way, which probably was a good thing.

A spectacular CG display over Ottawa County and NE of TUL ensued, and we went through a skinny linear segment on I-44 containing a lot of small (1/2 inch type) hail and CGs. Breaking out of the segment’s W side, a tail-end storm (which turned out to be a tornadic supercell) was seen perhaps 25 miles SSW with it innards strobing, anvil edges glowing ghostly silver beneath the moonlight…just beautiful. Within minutes, given differential motion of storm and chase crew, that storm was SE of us and we were on our way home.

How bizarre and unique it was to leave the hail, then within an hour, enter 60 miles of smoke! I never have penetrated so much smoke for so long anytime, much less returning from a chase. Turns out this smoke, which still hangs thick in Norman as I write, emanates from absolutely immense fires in the Panhandle that have covered several *hundred thousand* acres yesterday and this morning alone (update: more than 660,000 acres/1000 sq miles). Our severe weather and tornado outbreak, while epic, may not have been the most disastrous weather event of the day associated with this system.

To put this in perspective,
1. The Panhandle fires, so far, have killed more folks than the tornadoes yesterday (pending final Storm Data), and
2. The legendary 2002 Chediski-Rodeo fire in AZ took ***three weeks*** (from ignition to containment) to scorch less acreage! [Chediski-Rodeo was a little under 500,000…as of now, 660,000 acres have cooked in 24 hours in the Panhandle).

Of course the fuels and wind conditions were much different. But huge swaths of the Panhandle have been reduced to ash, leading Rich and I to speculate about the possibility that a big tornado out there anytime before full green-up may lead to soot-rain on KC (the analog to the red rain downstream after the 3 May 99 hoses).

And yes, folks, the smoke from these fires roughly 200 miles away reduced visibility to 1-1.5 miles in OKC as we passed through (barely could see downtown buildings from the I35-I40 “Ft. Smith Junction” just E of downtown!).

Back to the Six State Supercell. After my initial report, Bobby Prentice examined radar data determined that the first echo popped up over Noble County OK, at 1726z (1126 a.m.) on the 12th. The final echo disappearance was over Jackson County MI, at 904z (304 a.m.) on the 13th. Supercell path length was 690 nautical miles over 17-1/2 hours, with a mean bearing from 245 degrees at 39 kt! [Thanks Bobby for providing that info.]

I reckon it has happened before, but I know of no supercell that has traveled so far, and perhaps, lasted so long. The only others that might come close temporally, in my memory, are the Beloit KS monster (15 Jun 92), at about 12 h, and the Kress-Turkey (29 May 1) at 10-11 hours. Neither traveled so far.

The parent supercell for “Tri-State” (18 Mar 1925) ***may*** have approached the distance covered, if giving it the same pretornadic existence as a convective plume before producing its memorable tornadic event(s). That’s a heavy assumption.

Meteorologically speaking, some prime suspects in these storms’ failure to produce daytime hoses in KS appeared to be slightly over-mixed moisture (Td less than 60 F by late afternoon), weak dryline convergence for many hours after the Six State Supercell peeled off it, and the extreme shear that seemed too strong for the CAPE for a long time.

Storms that hit the warm frontal zone (or in the case of the Six State storm, stayed in it a long time) went berserk. Likewise with storms that went into slightly lower dew point depressions, somewhat more backed flow, higher 0-1 km SRH, and LLJ-enhanced storm-relative inflow after dark (MO, NE OK) — but still with some SBCAPE. But our preferred time/space window — daylight hours W of the MO jungles — simply didn’t work out.

In any event, I feel privileged to have witnessed (from varying distances) the start and first couple hours of what may be the longest lasting, longest track supercell ever known. Then, to drive back in hail, followed by transecting 60 miles of the largest smoke plume I have ever witnessed…I can’t imagine this sequence of events unfolding again.

It’s yet another in the ever growing list of uniquenesses and adventures that make chasing not only something that I love to do and want to do, but that I *must* do. [Yes, the last two words were borrowed from the talk of the ever eloquent Dave Hoadley’s, the day before yesterday in the Metroplex.]


[Edited 3-13 for added info from Bobby.]


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