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A daily blog from Storm Hunters Mark Robinson and Ross Giarratana as they chase severe storms across the Plains.

Storm Hunters in Tornado Alley: Where to go next

Storm Hunters Mark Robinson and Ross Giarratana
Meteorologists, Storm Chasers

Sunday, May 21, 2017, 2:10 - Severe weather struck the U.S. Plains late last week, with dozens of tornadoes reported. 

Weather Network meteorologists and Storm Hunters Mark Robinson  and Ross Giarratana  are in Tornado Alley to provide on-the-ground coverage throughout the week. Be sure to check back for daily updates on their chase!

RG - Day 6 (May 20): 

There was no risk of severe weather today across the Southern Plains so we had to think of other ideas that could keep up busy for the day. After discussing with the group, we decided to go back to Elk City, Oklahoma to see how clean-up efforts were going and to see if we can speak with anybody who was effected by the Tornado.

While we had plenty of footage of damage from Elk City already, there was another neighborhood that was heavily impacted from the storm that we haven’t been to yet. The homes were near a golf course within the Elk City Golf and Country Club and there was not a single home in the development that was not impacted from this tornado. Some structures sustained significant damage with roofs completely blown off while other structures making out fairly well with mainly just some roof shingles peeled off with other minor cosmetic damage.

We ended up speaking with a structural engineer and walked around the neighborhood to get a better idea of some of the damage we were looking at. We interviewed the engineer about several structures to talk about the reasoning why some structures look severely damaged while others sustaining minor damage. It was interesting to learn more about how structural engineers assess the damage after Tornadic storms to determine the wind speeds the tornado may have produced.

With the long-range forecast not looking favourable for severe weather to return in the near future across the Southern Plains, we decided to start heading back to The Weather Network Headquarters in Oakville, Ontario tomorrow. We will be starting the long trek back from Sayer, Oklahoma which should be around a 20 hour drive back.

RG - Day 5 (May 19): 

Coming off the heels of a significant severe weather outbreak in the Southern Plains, we were eager to capture more storms. While all the ingredients were not in place for severe thunderstorms, there was enough instability and wind shear to support an environment for some severe thunderstorm development. While modest in comparison to Thursday’s risk, there was still an opportunity to capture some storms.

The day started off at the Super 8 hotel in Blackwell, Oklahoma, where the group gathered together in the morning to talk about our target area for the day. We decided on the Wichita Falls, TX area which was about a three-hour drive from our starting location.

As we made the trek down to northeast Texas, we noticed that the cloud cover was a bit extensive throughout the duration of the trip. Typically, clouds will help to inhibit severe thunderstorm development as they will prevent the sun from heating the air near the ground, which would make the atmosphere unstable. Satellite imagery did suggest that skies were more clear over northeast Texas, so there was greater potential for severe storms to develop in the environment.

After arriving near Wichita Falls, TX, a line of strong to severe thunderstorms developed to our west and was heading towards us. Usually, when storms form into a line, it makes the storms more difficult to chase as opposed to isolated storms to keep a close eye on. The activity we experienced across northeast Texas did not end up being tornadic, but most of the storms still contained frequent lightning, strong winds, and hail, so there were still plenty of photo opportunities..

After several hours of chasing in this region, we decided to check out an isolated cell near Nocona, Texas. The structure of this storm was more impressive than the squall line we were tracking earlier, but we did not manage to capture a tornado with this storm. Despite the storm showing several cloud characteristics that usually precede tornadoes, it did not end up producing a tornado.

After a long day of chasing, I was hungry as there is not a whole lot of time to stop and eat food at places during storm chasing. The storms in the plains move quickly, and it is important to monitor their every move to properly keep up with the storms. 

Though we managed to capture a tornado yesterday, we were unable to celebrate with the traditional steak dinner after the tornado sighting, since all the restaurants were closed when we got back to town. Thus, the group ate their steak dinner Friday night at Sante Fe Cattle Company in Ardmore, Oklahoma, and I personally had the 16 oz Ribeye steak. The steak was cooked to perfection and it was exactly what I needed after another long day.

RG - Day 4 (May 18): 

The first thing I did when I woke up Thursday was check the Storm Prediction Center’s page for an idea of where the greatest threat of severe weather may occur. I noticed there was a “high” risk in place across northern Oklahoma and southern Kansas which is the highest level of threat for severe weather that the agency issues.

After seeing that, I started analyzing some forecast data on my own and noticed that several severe weather parameters were just on the high end of the scale so I knew the potential was there for a very active day. The potential for extremely large hail, damaging winds, and even long-track tornadoes was all a possibility given the atmospheric dynamics in place.

Once consulting with the team, we decided to target Arnett, Oklahoma for thunderstorm initiation. We ended up intercepting a supercell thunderstorm near Waynoka, Oklahoma that produced a tornado two times throughout the lifecycle of the thunderstorm. This ended up being the first tornado I had ever witnessed in person, and it happened to occur on my birthday which I found to be a great combination. (Click the video at the top of the page to view the moment I saw my first tornado.)

However, once this storm began to weaken, there were plenty of other storms in the region given the volatile environment that was in place for severe thunderstorms. The next cell we ended up targeting was near Seiling, Oklahoma and while we didn’t see a tornado touching the ground with this storm, it was still an incredibly powerful storm with tremendous structure associated with it. There were two more storms we targeted near the same area that also didn’t produce tornadoes, but ended up producing beautiful shelf cloud features.

Overall, there were 19 tornado reports across Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas and hundreds of hail and wind reports. It was an incredible experience to witness such powerful storms and it was wonderful to get the opportunity to view these storms on a day where the ingredients were all in place.

RG - Day 3 (May 17): 

The storm system responsible for the significant tornado damage in Elk City, OK lifted towards the upper Midwest leaving no severe weather risk for us to follow here in the southern Plains for the day. Thus, with the weather being quiet, we took a trip back to Elk City to get a better understanding of some of the damage that had occurred. 

This was my first time witnessing tornado damage in person and it was a very hard sight to see. Debris littered the ground across the community and a large amount of homes were either severely damaged or destroyed. 

While the damage was heartbreaking, I think the most unsettling part of the experience was witnessing all the residents in the community cleaning up the damage. It was certainly not easy to see people go through piles of debris in search for any of their belongings that they can salvage. Surprisingly, most people were in very positive spirit about the situation and were grateful to have survived the tornado.

But people in Elk City and many areas across western Oklahoma and Kansas face a significant threat of severe weather once again Thursday as another system develops. It seems that many ingredients are coming together to bring a serious risk of severe storms to this region yet again. Ample moisture flowing north out of the Gulf of Mexico will overspread the southern Plains Thursday coupled with strong upper level winds will support an environment favorable severe thunderstorms. Very large hail, damaging winds, and the threat of strong tornadoes will be possible with the set up for Thursday.

Since the risk of severe storms is in the general area as the activity we covered on Tuesday, it will put us in good position for the next round of storms Thursday with very little travelling. We will likely target NW Oklahoma Thursday where there is a high likelihood of severe storms. As mentioned previously, the activity Thursday has potential to be very strong and it is promising to be a very active storm chasing day. Stay tuned for our subsequent post to see how Day 4 ends up playing out for us.

RELATED: Tornadoes tear through Texas, Oklahoma Wisconsin: Two dead

RG - Day 2 (May 16): The day started off a bit frustrating as we were positioned west of St. Louis in Warrenton, MO and had noticed the greatest risk for severe storms had shifted further southwest than our previously targeted area. Turns out the greatest threat for severe storms looked for be in the Texas/Oklahoma panhandle region, but we were over 10 hours away from this region. 

While we didn’t think it was possible to make it to this area before storms developed, we thought we would at least give it our best shot. Once 3 PM came around, storms started to fire up in northern TX panhandle and shortly after became severe with tornadoes reported in the area. At this time, we were still several hours away and thinking we may be missing all the action today. 

However, as we arrived near Hammon, Oklahoma, we noticed there were two separate tornado-warned supercells south of us moving in a northeast direction. We decided to chase these cells and we started chasing the northern one first by approaching it from the south. While there was not a tornado associated with this storm, I ended up seeing my first Wall Cloud! After hopping back in the car, we had a decision to either continue to follow this storm, or have a look at the southern cell just south of it. 

We had noticed strong tornadic rotation on the southern cell and had a good feeling it was producing a tornado. Since we were approaching the cell from the north, we were not in ideal position for any tornado shots from this storm. We tried to maneuver around the storm to get to the southern side for some Tornado shots but we were running out of road options to safely get around it. 

However, we were just north of the tornado as it came sweeping through Elk City, OK leaving significant damage to the community. One fatality was also reported due to the tornado. We were literally on scene seconds after the tornado came through and did video updates from the scene. 


Below: Storm Hunters speak to residents impacted by tornado

RG - Day 1 (May 15): The first day of storm chasing was good! We drove about 14 hours so far, but we should be in fairly good position for chasing today. We are about an hour west of St. Louis and will be hitting the road shortly to try to intercept some storms across the Plains. Before bed last night, we were thinking south-central Kansas (near Harper) would be our target, but after some of the data we were looking at, we might head to the western Oklahoma/northern Texas Panhandle area where a 10% hatched tornado risk is in place by the Storm Prediction Center. We will discuss further about this at breakfast, but this area appears to be most favorable for discrete supercell as opposed to central Kansas where an mesoscale convective system may develop later today.

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