March 17, 2004

The first chase of 2004 came as quite a surprise. The season was slow to start as repeated intrusions of cool air ravaged the moisture supply over the Gulf of Mexico. A cold front came through a couple days earlier, bringing some chilly air with temperatures on the morning of St Patrick's Day bottoming out in the upper 30s here in Norman. But the warmer airmass from the Gulf region advanced northward quickly in advance of the surface low, with temperatures making it into the low 80s by afternoon! As moisture supply from the Gulf region was poor, dewpoints only made it into the 50s, allowing only scattered high based cumulus to develop over the area during the afternoon. Since I had to work until 5pm, I was not expecting to chase today. That quickly changed by late afternoon, however.

Just before I got off my shift, I began to notice highly sheared towering cumulus struggling to break the cap to my southwest. Some of these towers briefly anviled out before fizzling out. This is a sequence I have recognized prior to supercell development in the path, and I wondered if an LP was about to develop very close to Norman. So after I got off work, I drove home and kept and eye on the turkey towers to my southwest. I then went on the Internet to check data and noticed a dryline mixing eastward through southwest Oklahoma towards I-35, and a surge of upper 50's/low 60's dewpoints coming north towards southeast Oklahoma. At 6:15pm, I went out to check my mail and noticed that all the cumulus had fizzled. Realizing that's usually a sign that something has popped, I take a look to my southeast and see a huge tower going up maybe 25-30 miles away! It looked a giant orangish pink cauliflower against a deep blue sky, one of the most spectacular views of a storm I've ever had from here in Norman. I knew I had to get pictures of this, so I grabbed a videocamera and an atlas and searched for a spot southeast of Norman to get some video.

At around 6:45pm, I found a spot off US 77 southeast of Noble to get video of this low-topped, high based storm. Sunset was just minutes away and the tower wasn't looking as impressive as it was just minutes earlier, but my window of opportunity was slamming shut. I took some brief video before the sun went down, then decided to head back home. But just before I got to Hwy 9, I see lightning light up the updraft! By now the storm was at least 40-45 miles to my east-southeast, and moving away from me at about 35 mph. But since I hadn't chased anything in over 6 months and didn't need to be at work until 11am tomorrow morning, I thought what the heck and high tailed it east of Hwy 9 after it. As daylight dwindled, I watched as the storm split - with the left split fizzling and the right split maintaining its course and spitting out in-cloud and cloud-to-ground lightning every minute or so. I followed this storm all the way to Horntown, gaining quite a bit of ground in the process, but by the time I got here I was out of good road options and the storm was still a good 15-20 miles east of me so I decided to turn back. But just northeast of Horntown on US 75, I stepped out of the car to take a look at this thing. Even in near total darkness, I could still hazily make out the low topped updraft against one of the starriest skies I had ever seen. The croaking of 20 million frogs to go along with this scene made it for a relaxing way to spend a St Patrick's Day evening. Lots of frogs were out and about hopping across the road, which at times were pretty tough to avoid hitting. Much like later on that evening driving past O'Connell's in Norman on my way home, where I had to try hard to avoid hitting the drunks stumbling across Lindsey St.

Video captures

Total Mileage: 173 miles
Total Driving Time: 3 hours, 34 minutes

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