Nights of Wind and Days of Darkness

About Return Flow

by Roger Edwards

In the springtime, large upper air troughs and cyclones cross the Rockies and Great Plains, drawing warm, moist winds northward from the Gulf of Mexico, across much of Texas and Oklahoma. As the season proceeds, cyclone tracks tend to shift to the northern Plains and upper Midwest, causing humid southerly winds in their warm sectors over much of the central U.S. We meteorologists call this process return flow, since the balmy breezes often begin over the continental U.S. land mass as cold polar air, which is then modified by the subtropical seas of the Gulf, Atlantic and/or Caribbean over which they move. After a period of offshore flow behind a cold front, the winds veer in response to the next system approaching from the western U.S., and the heated and moistened air rushes landward again. Sometimes, return flow even includes a swath of purely tropical air, pulled across the Gulf and eastern Mexico from the Caribbean.

Weather forecasters pay close attention to return flow, because of all the hazardous things which can happen as a result: fog, low clouds, thunderstorms, tornadoes, even icing and snowstorms in winter and early spring. But for me, return flow has a meaning beyond the science -- a harkening back to sights, sounds and smells of youthful weather watching, to great thunderstorms of the past, and an invigorating refreshment of that undiluted hope for violent storms to come.

Throughout childhood, I lived in various rental homes in an old Dallas neighborhood where the streets followed a perfect north-south and east-west grid. I don't remember not knowing my directions well; and when that gusty southern breeze came up Skillman Street from Live Oak, my mood never failed to warm with the wind. A wonderful pattern revealed itself to me as early as age three or four: A moist south wind meant big storms and weather bulletins the next day. By first and second grade, when I already was singlemindedly determined to have a career in severe weather, return flow brought the pleasure of unrestrained anticipation, an immersion in the fuel of potential. It was a harbinger of exciting things from the sky -- lightning, thunder, heavy rain and wind -- and maybe even big hail, if I were lucky. That was nothing short of nirvana.

On the night of May 25-26, 1976, as on many nights before, a warm, moist wind gusted through the tall pecan trees behind my duplex. The low-pitched whooshes carried my sleepy, barely nine-year-old mind away into one of the many fascinating thunderstorm or tornado dreams that I had as a child...pleasant dreams about violent weather which repeat themselves to this day.

Eighteen hours later, while tossing a football onto the roof and catching it (a favorite way to play for hours at that age), I noticed the sticky feel and fresh smell of the wind's moisture were each a little stronger than usual. Off to the west-northwest and beyond all the low clouds racing northward, the hue of the sky became gray and grew dimmer. Within the pall, distant thunder rumbled and lightning flickered faintly, then more vividly as time passed. The game of "roof football" was forgotten somewhere in the hypnotic call of the darkening skies.

I stood enraptured in my front yard, as a degree of atmospheric power I had never seen slowly unfolded through all my senses. On that late afternoon, the light of day only came from the southeast, an eerie effect of the approaching storm. The old wood-frame houses and deep green trees took on a surreal glow, stark against a menacing backdrop of steely gray-blue that just kept getting impossibly darker. Every few minutes, a blazing, forked, staccato stroke of lightning pierced the gloom, launching an explosive report of thunder across the skies like a rifle shot. I knew this had to be special!

Our TV was busted; so I went inside to flip on the radio. The high-pitched buzz of the Emergency Broadcast System went off immediately, followed by the DJ reading the tornado warning for Dallas County. A funnel cloud had been reported in Irving, near Texas Stadium. I was intimately familiar with Dallas geography even at that age. The tornado definitely lurked somewhere in that thundering wall of blackness to the west-northwest, hidden beyond the tall sycamores and pecans that lined Concho Street. Before the DJ was done, I began to hear the low pitch of the Civil Defense siren activating a block away to the northeast in Tietze Park. The siren grew louder, then softer, then louder again, echoing through the neighborhood. It stopped, then started again. Not a soul was on the streets. The only noises were the gusty southeast wind, occasional booms of thunder, and the haunting wail of the siren. This was for real!

The tornado was moving east, they said -- toward North Dallas, away from my location. I knew we were probably safe; so, disobeying my mom's command to stay inside, I went back out front to watch. A thin, horizontal band of daylight showed up under the dark storm base, low to the horizon and visible only between a couple of houses to my northwest. After a few minutes, a low-hanging, unmistakable silhouette appeared from behind a house. The stubby, cone-shaped funnel moved east, its bottom slowly pulsating. For a second, it lit up from beneath in a blue-green flash that I knew was not lightning. The funnel briefly narrowed and stretched its tip below my line of sight; then I lost it behind more trees and houses. For several minutes, I couldn't see the tornado at all, generating an intense new form of frustration that I wouldn't experience again until several adult storm chases!

By this time, my mom was at our screen door, screaming at me to get inside. I screamed back that it wasn't going to hit us, then ran half a block east to Skillman -- a wide, four-lane artery which gave me a good view to the north. My next and last sighting was the ropy gray funnel a few miles to the north-northwest, tilted westward and barely visible against an only slightly darker gray background. [By then, the damage had already stopped.] The Dallas tornado of 26 May 1976 wasn't a killer and only caused F2 damage; but for a kid already fascinated by tornadoes, it was the highlight of a lifetime. And it all began with that breezy lullaby the night before.

As childhood went on, I spent many evenings at the library downtown...reading Weatherwise and what I could understand from Monthly Weather Review, checking out Flora's Tornadoes of the United States at least 30 times, photocopying tornado pictures from any source, spinning miles of newspaper microfilm reels in search of tornado and hurricane stories, and making hundreds of notecards with information on historical tornadoes. An atmospheric scientist and storm observer, put here on earth for this purpose, was being unleashed; but on another level, that rebellious little boy with a deep love of return flow never grew up. Neither did that infant who would crawl to the door to watch the lightning, who would babble with glee instead of jump and flee when a blinding flash detonated a wall-rattling eruption of thunder nearby. As an older child and teenager, I was energized by the smell of Gulf air laden with 60s and 70s dew points, knowing that somewhere (hopefully where I was), that moisture would form severe weather.

I recall many times seeing large chunks of scud race overhead at night, bottoms lit by the city glow, as they rode the low level jet to an ultimate destination of mayhem. Then, the following evening, I would hear of severe storms and/or tornadoes somewhere in Oklahoma, Kansas or northwest Texas, half-rationally fantasizing that very air I breathed the night before went into those storms' updrafts. If I were exceptionally lucky, I would get to see an anvil edge, as I did with the Wichita Falls storm on 10 April 1979. Or even better, great storm structure, as I saw with the distant but brilliantly sculpted rear flank of the Paris (TX) tornadic supercell of 2 April 1982. The day in '78 when we got hail up to baseball size, after a night of hearing that south wind roar through the trees, I wished our freezer had more room than it did for all the hailstones I was stuffing inside. Even the windy squall lines we would more often see were great thrills.

The time couldn't come soon enough when I could get in my own vehicle and see for myself those distant thunderstorms so ominously described in Harold Taft's 10:15 pm TV weather reports -- convection born from the previous night's warm winds. Even now, when that humid south breeze cranks up after dark and scud roars northward, alternatively hiding and revealing the moonlight as it did through the bedroom windows of my childhood, the low gusty pitch of the breezes whipping through the heights of trees, or the dawn's light bathing fat chunks of fractus roaring up from the direction of the Gulf, I experience the same exhilarating rush of anticipation. Often, it means a road trip tomorrow: sojourning in my dreams and then in reality to a place beyond the horizon, where I can indeed feast on the smorgasbord of atmospheric violence.

"A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning."

        Wanderings, Hermann Hesse

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: This essay began in a personal e-mail to David Fogel as a more condensed description of one seed of my lifelong passion for severe weather. David is a good friend, fellow storm chaser and highly talented professional writer who persuaded me to share the story. Many thanks also to Elke Edwards for her keen proofreading and revision ideas.

Roger's Rants (online essays)

SkyPix weather photo gallery

Roger & Elke's Storm Observing BLOG

Roger Edwards Home Page

Text Copyright © 2001 and 2009 Roger Edwards. Photo Copyright © 1992 Roger Edwards. All rights reserved.