May 23rd, 2019. Day 4 of our 2019 chasecation. Only a few days after the infamous and frustrating “high risk bust” in Oklahoma on May 19th (which remains the worst chase day I’ve had), we found ourselves in the Texas Panhandle under a Moderate risk – having driven all the way from Missouri the preceding day, where we had successfully chased the deadly Golden City tornado.
We based ourselves in Perryton, only a few miles south of the Oklahoma border, and in traditional chaser fashion took up residence in McDonald’s (cheap coffee, fast food, WiFi… heaven!).
McDonald’s in Perryton, TX, with a developing severe thunderstorm behind, 2:27 PM.
By around 3:30 PM we were extremely close to a severe thunderstorm, but the visibility was terrible. Anyone who chased during this period will recall just how much haze and dust there was, and we were filled with the same frustration we felt back on the high risk day. Eventually, we gave up on this storm due to an inability to see anything noteworthy. It went on to be tornado-warned shortly after we abandoned it, so we thought we had made a huge mistake…
How close we were to the storm vs. the seemingly quiet grey skies we could see…
However, by 5:30 PM a new tornado-warned cell had developed further south, and we were ready and waiting – along with a huge number of other storm chasers which included the TORUS field campaign and Reed Timmer! We were in a perfect position and very hopeful, but yet again visibility was extremely poor due to the haze. Several possible wall clouds were noted amongst the murk, but the comparison between the NWS warning of a “very dangerous storm” and what we could actually see was stark.
The Dominator, and a healthy looking tornado-warned storm on radar – but not looking at all interesting in reality!
So, we gave up on this storm and headed a bit further south and east, now concerned that the storms would grow upscale into a linear mode – though we were far enough from the KAMA radar that there was quite a difference between the radar reflectivites and the ground truth (always worth remembering the beam height!).
At around 7 PM, we pulled over to look west and re-think our plan. At this point I’d pretty much lost hope, and I was chatting to a fellow frustrated storm chaser about the haze. Suddenly, one of my chase team (thanks Rounak!) suddenly cried out “THERE! ON THE HORIZON!” (make sure you read that in an Australian accent).
Our first view of the tornado (looking W from US Highway 83 N of Canadian) as it appeared on the horizon in the wilderness, and the accompanying radar presentation. Note that the storm was not tornado-warned whilst a large tornado was already in progress, highlighting the need for spotter observations.
Sure enough, a big wedge tornado had dropped to the ground and emerged out of the murk, and out of a region where there were so few roads it was almost impossible to actually be close enough to see the tornadogenesis. After grabbing a photo and quickly tweeting NWS Amarillo (important storm chaser duty), we all hit the road and bolted north to get close to the tornado – filled with awe and adrenaline that there was actually a big wedge on the ground and we were about to get really close to it! *cue classic excited girly noises*
By 7:09 PM we were just NW of Canadian on Highway 83, and now very close to the wedge. This is where the whole experience became surreal, and the reason I’m writing this blog. Here I was, standing under a kilometre away from what must have been, at that time, the most violent atmospheric phenomenon on Planet Earth. Wind and rain were lashing us, and right in front of us was this huge tornado churning along through the high Texan plains. It was making an incredible sound which I can’t quite describe, but I think at the time we described it as “eating”.
A collection of photos of the Canadian wedge tornado taken around 7:11 PM.
Some might have felt fear, others might have felt satisfaction or scientific curiosity.
I just remember feeling completely transfixed. I remember other members of my crew shouting that we should go because we were probably about to become too close, but finding it very difficult to tear myself away from it no matter how close it was becoming.
The tornado felt strangely personable. Now, I’m aware that’s a strange thing to say, and you might roll your eyes reading about a meteorologist having a moment like this. But in that moment I felt a transcendental connection to the atmosphere which I’m sure I won’t ever forget. I am now finding that it is difficult to put it into words.
Maybe it was a rush of knowing that the thing I love most – the atmosphere – was producing a deadly amount of vorticity right in front of me. Deadly, but in a peaceful way – tornadoes aren’t malicious, because the universe isn’t malicious (I’m sure this is almost a quote from Interstellar). Maybe it was the realisation of a life-long dream to get close to a wedge tornado.
It is moments like these why I chase storms. To be right there with the awesome power of nature, and to be all-encompassed by such a tremendous, indescribable feeling. I’m not religious, but I’d like to think this is what seeing God would feel like.
The tornado was rated EF2, but NWS noted that it may have been stronger during its time out in the open fields.