TempestTours®   Est. 2000

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The Spencer Tornado Chase
By William T. Reid

Hey, why didn't someone tell me about Dakota magic before? I've been hanging out around the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles all these years, waiting for the Holy Grail of Tornados to unfold before me. Maybe I should trade in Amarillo for Aberdeen.

The 1998 chase season was weird. I arrived in Amarillo on May 14th, and soon learned of a tornado warning. YES!! Oops, the warning was for Agoura Hills, California. That is where I live. That is where I was less than two days prior. It looked like one of those years. It looked like El Nino was turning the chase season upside-down. I abandoned the Lone Star State and placed myself in Nebraska. A couple of days passed with nary a cumulus cloud, but then, suddenly, a major turning point! It was the ultimate right-mover, right there on my motel room television in Hastings. Newt Gingrich was doing the "Look Ahead" segment on The Weather Channel! I chased supercells on six consecutive days after El Newto's guest appearance.

I was in Ogallala, Nebraska, on Saturday morning, May 30th, 1998. With me were Cheryl Chang and Keith Brown. We three had been teamed up for about ten days, and we were treated to really cool storms on more than half of those days. Cheryl lives in Calgary, Alberta, and her first chase trip was nearing its end. Keith was looking at his last chase day, as he had to be in class at Norman on June 1st. Martin Lisius had met up with us the previous evening, and he was rather desperate to see a decent storm---a storm free of the smoke which was plaguing much of Tornado-less Alley this spring. On Friday, Martin drove from Arlington, Texas, to Big Springs, Nebraska, only to see some distant lightning after dark. Martin was a man on a mission on Saturday. Knock-knock-knock. "It's 7 a.m., wake up people! We have to drive to Iowa!"

Iowa, Illinois, Indiana...geez, what's the difference. They might as well be in Iberia. They're too far away. A chaser's got to know his limitations. I'm a High Plains chaser. There are haze and trees in Iowa. Too much of Nebraska is between me and Iowa. Wake me up at checkout time. I had to chase, though. The severe-weather setup looked pretty good. It was the last chance for Cheryl and Keith. There would be no storms for several days after today. Besides, what would Martin think of me if I wimped out? Keith joined Martin in his Explorer, and Cheryl and I planted ourselves in the Pathfinder. On to Iowa!

By noon we were in Grand Island, and Martin stopped at a Bosselman's truck stop to fill his laptop with unleaded data. The forecast charts continued to suggest that the center of the severe-weather-parameter universe would be near Storm Lake around 00Z. We could get close to Storm Lake by 4 p.m. if we continued our brisk pace towards Omaha. It would be nice to get out of Nebraska. Thick high clouds were covering the entire state, it seemed. There was a cap to break, and it was not going to break where there was no sunshine. Ain't no sunshine in the Cornhusker State.

At York, 40 miles east of Grand Island, Martin exited Interstate 80. Keith had been digesting the newly downloaded weather data, and a couple of NWS discussions indicated that a developing surface low-pressure system was moving east-southeastward through southern South Dakota. The low was forecast to be in extreme northeast Nebraska by mid-evening. We agreed that it would be propitious to place ourselves in front of this low, and to try to lose this depressing high-cloud shield. The moderate-risk area was in Iowa and Minnesota, but we were now playing the low. We headed north on U.S. 81 through Columbus and Norfolk, helped along by humid southerly winds.

Around 5 p.m. at Willis, Nebraska, the high clouds thinned considerably and some flattish cumulus were overhead. We were along an area of weak convergence, with southwesterly winds at Norfolk and southeasterly winds at Sioux City. The temperature was 82F, and the dew point was 72F. Had we found the spot where we wanted to be? On our hilltop near Willis we scanned the skies for convection, and waited. Nothing. Our chase prospects looked bleak. Keith muttered that it looked like a major Bustola Capola. NOAA wx-radio from the Siouxland said that storms could be expected after 10 p.m.---not good. Maybe our forecast had been bad. Maybe the mid-level cap was getting stronger. Maybe I should have stayed in Ogallala. It was 6 p.m. and time for drastic action, so Martin called Jason Jordan at the NWS office in Fort Worth. Jason said that there were some storms near Huron and Chamberlain in South Dakota. Wow---those towns are not very close, but at least the cells are moving east and southeast. We figured that if we were going to see any storms on this day, we would have to try to catch something associated with this activity. I had never chased in South Dakota before.