Open Season on Great Plains Supercells

Yesterday (2-23) I went on the first storm observing trip of the season, and my earliest “storm chase” in any year, a jaunt with Ryan Jewell and Rich Thompson to the southeastern Texas Panhandle. We observed a messy but interesting supercell for a couple hours before sunset.

It was more than a bit odd to be cruising past dormant grass, leafless trees and barely above-ground winter wheat on the way to the beckoning dryline; but when a day off that’s devoid of immovable commitments coincides with a potential for visible supercells, it’s imperative for me to get out there, no matter what the calendar says!

Once the novelty of intercepting storms in February wore off, the trip was much like the old “first chase” days of yore — more often than not trips toward the SW down I-44 and US-62 out of Lawton. That’s a route I almost can do blindfolded given the hundreds of times I’ve trekked it on storm days during the past 22 years. Despite that familiarity, every season-opening run down through those parts calls up the same sense of anticipation as the first ones back in the ’80s: the long-awaited birth of a new storm season now underway, the unknowns of adventures to come, that edgy little burst of anticipation of the first deep dryline towers in the western sky. All this builds as the Wichita Mountains, one by one, pass bow-to-stern off starboard, the Plains open up, the skies get bigger, the horizons expand farther. Best of all, a passionate friendship with the ceaseless grandeur of the Great Plains itself renews again as old companions should — right where it left off before, just on a new day.

Whatever the 2007 storm observing season may reveal, we’ll be here to share it, once again and every time. We may see no tornadoes or dozens. We may chase through New Mexico, Illinois, Montana, Minnesota or some or none of the above. We may see giant wedges, fleeting gustnadoes, or neither. We may spend hours amongst crooning songbirds and waving wheat as a sculpted Colorado supercell drifts slowly by. Perhaps we’ll instead hammer hard through the woods and hills of eastern Oklahoma or Wisconsin on another “chainsaw chase,” for a fleeting glimpse of that elusive “tree thrower” tornado. Maybe a huge nighttime supercell will march across the northern sky somewhere over Kansas or Nebraska, flickers and tendrils of lightning stabbing inward and skyward from its massive cylindrical cloud structure that best resembles a gigantic cable spool. Perhaps, somewhere between Clovis and Hereford, the sunset sky will shine utterly ablaze with mammatus — golden, then orange, then deep crimson — above the sweet earthy smell of rain-soaked soil and the celebratory chorus of thousands of western meadowlarks. Who knows? The only guarantee is that we’ll experience things we never have before, in the process learning that much more about storms, land, sky and life.

Join Elke and me for both prosaic and pictorial recollections of every storm intercept sojourn, as in the past few seasons, through our storm observing BLOG: Storms Observed This Year. 2007’s first entry is online, with photos, and the other entries still are there too from since we started that BLOG.


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