OKLAHOMA IS OK
Like so many things, the National Severe Storms Laboratory building was smaller in reality than in my memory. It was two years since my last visit, and the building still looked old, if perhaps more venerable. Inside, Jeff and I searched the guest log for the signature I scrawled there in October 1996. It was not to be found and that was distressing to me. We walked down the hallway, admiring the spectacular photographs on the walls, many taken by NSSL researchers and meteorologists, images of some of the most striking storms recorded on film. Around the corner to the right, behind the clearest glass Ive ever seen, worked the small group of men and women who were the Storm Prediction Center. They worked in a fishbowl, as if on display, their large monitors and dozens of computers examining weather data, radar images, and satellite shots for the entire United States. This group is responsible for forecasting the probability of severe storms everywhere in the nation.
As we stood and stared, a large, violent thunderstorm rolled through Maryland and the meteorologists in the fishbowl watched it carefully as it developed the classic "hook" echo, indicative of tornadic rotation. We watched as a meteorologist coming on shift sat down with a printed surface chart, and began doing a hand analysis with colored pencils, drawing isotherms and isobars, coloring in cold fronts and mesoscale features like pre-existing boundaries from things such as old thunderstorm outflow. These subtle intersections were the subject of some of the latest research in tornadogenesis, the process of tornado formation. Modern meteorology still has no conclusive answer to the question of why some thunderstorms produce tornadoes and some do not. What the people behind the disturbingly clear glass do is a combination of science and artan exercise where supercomputers running numerical weather models serve up the main course, and the dish is lightly garnished with magic and intuition.
"Are you the storm chasers from New York state?" a gentleman dressed in a short-sleeved shirt and blue jeans asked us from behind.
"No, were from South Florida," I said, hoping that would be distant enough to qualify us for whatever special privileges or perks might be awaiting the New Yorkers who had obviously called ahead. I kicked myself for not having done so. I wanted back there behind that glass--wanted to ask a thousand questions and listen to the chatter of the worlds most highly-skilled severe storm forecasters. The gentleman remarked about how one of the employees of the SPC had chased in the plains last year when a large, picturesque tornado went through downtown Miami. The individual worked for the National Hurricane Center at the time, and so lived in Miami. He had missed the twister, as I had that day. The South Florida megalopolis was no place to chase. This was appropriate since the impending chasers from New York, on their way to Norman under the clear, sun-drenched sky, had missed two days of tornado outbreaks in their own home state.
We met an old friend of mine at the building as planned: Clint Norwood was a professional photographer joining us to document the remainder of the chase. He hoped to get the material published and I thought he had a good chance, considering the intensity of the media spotlight on storm chasing in recent years. Clint is a gruff, no-shit-boys Texan and I looked forward to laughing at his biting commentary on the people and places we would see and things we would do. He loaded his camera gear into the truck and we headed out, moving with little confidence towards Tulsa, where we stayed the night before. Tomorrow looked grim, but the cold front was coming.