Savoring a Delicious Morsel on the “Smorgasbord of Atmospheric Violence”

    “Experiences are to be savored for what they are, not diminished by comparison with those of others.”

      Chuck Doswell, 2005

Drawn northeast of Lubbock by early, lame attempts at thunderstorms, Elke and I had puttered around Matador, Texas, most of the afternoon. This was somewhat north of my forecast “best” area that I mentioned to Rich Thompson over the phone several hours earlier.

We lacked any outside information, since our HAM and weather radio antenna had dislocated from the radio without our knowledge; and voice phone coverage didn’t exist. Furthermore, we couldn’t see the beefiest southern storm(s), our view blocked for a long time by two nontornadic supercells that we briefly intercepted northeast then east of Crosbyton.

We knew the activity wasn’t moving particularly fast; so we went west to get a better visual concept of what was going on at the tail end of all the storms, relatively unimpeded by any other intervening cells. We saw a very interesting looking flanking line and backshear to a storm about 30 miles to our southeast and began cruising directly that way on a serendipitous road of fortune, FM-806.

Along the way we reacquired phone coverage and received separate calls from Rich and from David Fogel (each of whom was too far away to make it), informing us our new southern target storm, between Spur and Clairemont, was tornadic. Temporary frustration set in, as the show we were missing was precisely amidst my original forecast area as stated to Rich six hours before! [Lesson: Have more trust in one’s own forecast.]

We safely rushed southeast of Spur and pulled astern to starboard of the dominant supercell, hoping to see a tornado from that typically unfavorable position. As we climbed a hill, Elke noticed it…behind us! It was a beautiful, white, highly contrasted, scorpion-tail style tornado, dangling out the rear of what obviously was a remnant mesocyclone, deeply occluded and thrust way out of the back side of the storm. We stopped, taking a few pictures of the grand scene, but also taking the last minutes of the tornado’s lifespan to bask in the multisensory glory of the moment. We inhaled the smell of freshly rain soaked earth, heard the warbling call of the western meadowlark, felt the refreshing and surprisingly light breeze cooling our faces, and of course, watched the slow dance of the fading tornado — ghostly, ephemeral, capable of destruction, but to our gratitude, never doing any. It was a moment always to remain frozen in time, never adequately depicted by a mere two-dimensional photograph. I belatedly tried to shoot some video as the tornado faded away, but for once, didn’t mind failing to do so.

Through rain, we also witnessed the life cycle of the lone tornado from a new storm near Rotan (actual and enhanced digital imagery); but that was almost anticlimactic. Little did we know that a lightning triggered explosion would be the other indelible moment from the day!

Although we may have missed the profusion of tornadoes spun about by this storm before we arrived, I have no lingering regrets. I’m just thankful to have recovered to the area in time for this much! Tracking down a storm from the “wrong approach” gave us, for once, an amazing result. It was an experience too brief but never underappreciated, a moment that shoots high up through my unkept list of favorite ones from storm intercepts.

This one perhaps was more appreciated at observation time than my other photographed “Scorpion Tail.” The Clairemont vantage was devoid of lightning; whereas in 1999 I feared being turned into charcoal amidst a fusillade of lightning strikes, slamming away at disturbingly close distances and intervals. The 1999 event lasted longer. Problem was, I had to time my very few (and very quick!) photographic leaps from the vehicle to the recharging intervals of a storm that was firing its deadly bolts rearward, to points all around us, every ten to fifteen seconds.

My other really sharp, “white-tube” angle I’ve had on a tornado (near Preston OK, 26 May 1997) was also forever memorable for the tornado’s shape: a “python swallowing pig” appearance, with a fat, smooth bulge two-thirds down the condensation tube. Unfortunately it was rendered undocumentable and also poorly appreciated in real time by my inability to find a safe spot to pull off the road before it vanished. So yes, in a way this was a measure of redemption for that missed opportunity, but more than that, a moment truly outstanding in its own right, regardless of whatever else happened that we didn’t see or that anyone else did. Nothing ever can take it away.


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