September 18, 2002

The first significant cold front of the season moved into Oklahoma this afternoon, with thunderstorms expected to fire along the front. I was expecting this chase day to be similar to Sep 7, 2001, hoping to catch a tail end Charlie at the end of a long squall line. After getting a quick look at data at the OU library during my break between work and class, I headed to class with a tenative target somewhere around Enid and Alva in mind.

After class got out at 4:30pm, I headed out to my car and immediately headed out towards my target. At this point I couldn't yet see any signs of storms over northern Oklahoma, but I could see the outline of a storm that fired well ahead of the front about 75 miles west of Norman. I was a bit surprised to see a storm here, and would keep an eye on it as I headed north on I-35 to Oklahoma City, and west on I-40 towards El Reno. As I approached El Reno, it became apparent this storm was a very high based LP supercell....which one would expect considering the temperature/dewpoint spread (temps in southwestern OK were around 100F while dewpoints were about 64F-68F). This storm was producing little in the way of lightning, and did not appear to be producing much in the way of precipitation. As a result I had a clear view of the updraft, which was even smaller in diameter than the LP I saw near Quitaque TX on May 23, 2002. When I stopped in El Reno to get gas at 5:30pm, the storm was to my southwest, with the updraft showing signs of shriveling up. Figuring the show was coming to an end, I decided to take US 81 north towards Enid.

As I headed north on US 81, I glanced back towards the southwest to catch glimpses of the LP - which continued to hold together and actually seemed to catch a second wind. As tempting as it was to turn around and head back, NOAA Wx Radio was broadcasting severe thunderstorm warnings for northern Oklahoma so I continued north. As the LP to my southwest disappeared in the haze, the storms to my north began to come into view. These storms were part of a broken line of high based cells which were racing northeastward along a southwest to northeast oriented front from western Oklahoma to the north and east past the OK/KS border. As I arrived in Enid at around 6:30pm, a severe thunderstorm warning was issued for a cell which was about 10 miles northwest of me. The storm was exhibiting some nice structure and greenish hues and spitting out tons of CGs, so I searched for a location with a good northwest vantagepoint where I could get some video. On the north side of Enid, I found a perfect place to watch the storm. What followed was one of the most surreal experiences I've ever had on a chase....

So I pull up into an empty parking lot on the north side of town to watch the high based storms off to my northwest and north. About 1/2 mile to my northwest was a church, a couple hundred feet to my west were some trees filled with loudly buzzing cicadas, and in between myself and the church was this open field that was filled with about 4,978,329 blackbirds. So as I'm trying to watch this forest green sky of death off to my northwest and red gustnadoes spin up off to my west, I notice some fascinating behavior among this gaggle of gathering blackbirds. Every minute or so, about 50-200 birds would simultaneously take off from this field and fly away, while about 6-20 would fly back towards the back of the pack. While doing this, the entire group of birds would ever so slightly scoot forward. Well before long this group of birds had progressed from this grassy field and on to the parking lot towards my car! In the middle of all this I noticed that the parking lot I was in belonged to a funeral home!!! At this point all kinds of thoughts began running through my's nasty hot and humid, there are a few thousand cicadas buzzing in the trees, the sky is as green as St Patrick's Day, I've got fire truck red gustnadoes fixing to crash over me, I got a billion blackbirds slowly hopping towards my car, AND I'm in a funeral home parking lot. If these ain't the bad omens to end all bad omens, I don't know if any are. Just as I was sure these birds were intent on attacking me, I notice that their numbers are beginning to diminish rapidly.....from 500 to 300 to 160 to 50 to 6 as more and more birds took off as if they were planes waiting to take off of a runway. Before long, the 6 birds flew away to shelter. After that, it was becoming apparent the gustnadoes were going to miss me to the south, and the main storm itself was going to miss to the north. So it turned out I didn't need the funeral home after all, and I was going to live to chase another day. But seriously, it was an exciting experience for someone whose enthusiasm for animals nearly equals their enthusiasm for storms.

Despite all the bad omens, the outflow boundary's passage was rather unimpressive with only about 25 mph winds and just a few sprinkles of rain. With darkness setting in soon, it was time to head home. The storms to my west treated me to an incredible lightning display throughout the drive back to Norman. The show was far from over after I got home. The storms arrived in Norman at midnight, blasting the area with many cloud to ground lightning strikes in rapid succession. In one five-minute span, the area within 1/4 mile of my apartment got hit 7 times. The power poles outside my apartment took several hits, with the resulting power surges causing my TV to shut off twice. Even my battery powered max/min temperature sensor, which does not operate on the household current, shut off three times -- apparently the buildup of electrons overwhelmed the instrument. Fortunately none of my appliances suffered any electrical damage.

This chase gets a 10 out of 15. That LP cell I blew off earlier ended up dropping softball sized hail in Caddo County, and a couple of brief tornadoes occurred to the north of Enid. But after seeing that amazingly coordinated bird evacuation, I'm not at all disappointed with today's results. Take a look here to see some video captures of the birds, as well as my TV getting zapped.

Total Mileage: 223 miles
Total Driving Time: 4 hours, 50 minutes

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