March 12, 2003

Today I was ready to get out on the road again. The setup for severe weather wasn't the greatest, but today was one of those days you chase when you haven't heard thunder in 3 months nor seen a good cloud to ground lightning strike in 5 months. 60 degree dewpoints had returned as far north as southeastern Kansas ahead of a front which was draped from northwestern Oklahoma through southeastern Kansas and southern Missouri. Winds aloft were rather weak over this area, with the main jet stream far to the north across the Northern Plains and upper Midwest. Weak as the winds were, they would allow any storms that fired along the west-east oriented front in southeast Kansas to travel along the front. Fairly cool temperatures in the mid-levels of the atmosphere (about -18C at 500mb) also suggested storms today would be hail producers. So I left Norman at 3pm and headed towards southeastern Kansas, expecting to see at the very least an elevated hailer north of the front.

Getting out of Norman took a little time thanks to a wreck on Hwy 9 at the McGee intersection, but once I got past that it was smooth sailing up I-35 all the way to the KS/OK border. Along the way, I started to see signs that today might end up being one big bust. A thick cirrostratus deck had spread across the sky, dramatically reducing cumulus development. In addition, stations across northeastern Oklahoma and southeastern Kansas were reported rising pressures and southwest winds. Things started to look promising as I approached the US 160 exit, as I saw towering cumulus going up underneath the cirrostratus deck about 50 miles to my east. I got off the Kansas Turnpike at the US 160 exit, and headed east on US 160 to head towards developing towers.

With the cirrostratus deck blocking out most of the sunlight, I was doubtful these towers would hold together. But sure enough, the towers managed to punch through the cirrostratus deck. It was interesting to see the bright white sunlit tops of the towers through the deck, while the lower 3/4 of the tower was gray and unlit. There were several towers developing along a north-south line from Greenwood County to Chautauqua County, with the most well developed towers in Greenwood and Elk County. The Greenwood County storm matured first, although the Elk County storm wasn't far behind. The Elk County storm was closer, so I decided to focus on this one. When I got to the kink in the road near Burden, I saw my first CG of the year from this storm. YES! Then about a mile up the road, I saw my first deer of the year, hopping over a barbed wire fence with the ease of an Olympic hurdler. Now I was pumped. So I continued east on US 160, watching this storm as it continued to develop and produce more lightning. As I approached Moline, sunset was fast approaching. I could see the storm's updraft to my northeast set ablaze in a glow of pink, while the towers to my southwest exhibiting a pinkish outline against a brilliant blue sky. This was a photo opportunity waiting to happen, but US 160's steep shoulders are forbidding when it comes to pulling off the side of the road. Fortunately I was just a couple of miles away from Moline, where hopefully there would be a suitable place to pull over and get pictures and video. But as soon as I found a place to pull over, my window of opportunity was coming to an end - as low clouds and decreasing light were spoiling the fantastic sky scenes I was treated to just minutes earlier. I stopped in Moline to shoot some video of the fading pink sky, then continued east to catch up with the storm.

Darkness fast set in as I left Moline, but in the dwindling light I began to see some nice structure in association with the storm. The storm featured a nice vault region and inflow stinger, which showed up quite nicely when illuminated by lightning. This storm was headed through some rather hilly terrain with few roads though, so I decided to let it pass through that terrain, and hoped to catch it when it emerged in the better terrain and road network in Wilson and Montgomery Counties. Yes it was going to be dark, but after coming this far I was determined to get as much as I possibly could out of this chase. West of Independence, I thought I was going to get more than I bargained for, as there was a FIRE raging just south of the road with no emergency vehicles in sight. Since I had seen lightning in this direction earlier, I thought this blaze was lightning triggered. Upon closer inspection, this was clearly a controlled burn. I then proceeded to Independence. At this point I was at a half tank, and not knowing where I would be or what time it would be when my tank neared empty, I decided to top off the tank. Winds at Independence were roaring out of the south, and with tornado warnings issued for Woodson and Allen Counties and an east wind being reported at Chanute, it was clear I needed to head north. From Independence, I took US 75 north, with storms to my northwest and north producing continuous lightning. I began to encounter rain not far to the north of Independence, and as I approached the Montgomery/Wilson County line I started to get into some pea sized hail. Around this time (just before 8pm), a tornado warning was issued for Wilson County. Sure enough, lightning was illuminating a wall cloud about 5-10 miles to my northwest. I periodically pulled off to the side of the road just south of Neodesha to watch this wall cloud and look for power flashes. All I saw was some low hanging scud. Eventually precip curtains began to wrap around the meso, which obscured my view. I then headed north through Neodesha, with the intention of trailing the storm and looking for some hail it left behind. But instead the hail came to me, as I started getting clobbered by marbles and dimes just north of Neodesha. Winds gusted out of the west to about 40-50 mph and rocked my car hard. At this point I had gotten my hail and wind fix for the day, so I decided to call it a day and head home. I headed back south through Neodesha through the blinding rain and pea sized hail, and even got hit by a few stray quarters just south of town. I heard a few truckers daying over the CB radio that they had seen a tornado on the ground as I was heading back south on US 75. They had probably just seen the low hanging scud I saw earlier. Things were mostly calm once I got back to Independence, and stayed uneventful until I approached Oklahoma City - where I was treated to an amazing display of anvil crawlers from a departing line of storms which passed through a couple of hours earlier. Crawlers continued to streak across the sky and illuminate a field of mammatus when I got back to Norman just before 1am.

This chase gets a 10 out of 14. I got more than my money's worth of storms AND food today. I had a late dinner at the Ponca City Burger King, where I got a King Supreme Value Meal for just $3.29, or 70 cents lower than the advertised price. When I got my food, I discovered there was a Whopper in the bag along with my King Supreme meal. Stuff really is better when it's free....

Video captures

Total Mileage: 534 miles
Total Driving Time: 9 hours, 54 minutes

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