From the mini-recorder: "Thursday June 4 10:30AM and I think Im running out of tape. But uh, were in Tulsa Oklahoma again. But were leaving now. And were headed towards North Texas. Target area is Wichita Falls, or just west of Wichita Falls, if we get that far before we run into the storms. We are still playing along the same boundary, the same cold front thats now stretching from the Texas panhandle to the Red River valley up through central Oklahoma into Northern Arkansas curving back to the south through the Ohio Valley and all the way out to the Carolinas. Still a big temperature gradient between the two airmasses. Theres an upper level disturbance thats forecast to come from the southwest and move through central Texas err, excuse me--west central Texas, southeastern Oklahoma, northwestern Arkansas and thats what were hoping will break the cap. So, overcast in Tulsa right now about 72 degrees, light winds from the north, dew points probably in the 40s if even that high. Were on the cold side of the front, so were headed southwest."
This day I broke my rule of doing my own forecast and living with it. I didnt really have a forecast, and read carefully over and over the Storm Prediction Centers rationale for the moderate risk area drawn over Northern Arkansas. We didnt want to go there. Clint knew the place, he said, and remembered the hills and Ozarks as being real limitations on visibility. I visited the website of my friend Steve Miller, a Texas storm chaser who had studied the severe storm and its environment long before I knew why the sky was blue. While he is not much older than me, his understanding and intuition for forecasting severe weather, especially in Texas, impressed me greatly. Steve has a severe storm outlook he posts to the World Wide Web each day. Today, he forecasted storms would fire in and around the Wichita Falls area. While the capping inversion in the mid-levels was undeniably strong, Steve presented a careful and detailed argument that the tremendous instabilities, generated by high temperatures and moisture content, along with powerful convergence of surface winds in tandem with the disturbance aloft, would break the cap.
BIG STORMS TODAY, Steve posted above his outlook text. In bold green font, this was the loudest declaration of confidence Id seen from him. He was sold. I reverse-engineered his argument: examining at the features he mentioned. If I wasnt the author of the forecast, I was determined to understand it. It was sound. It was Texas. We were on our way.
Speeding through Oklahoma towards north central Texas, the cell phone rang.
"Hey bud," Steve said. "Where are you?"
"Outside of Oklahoma City. We should be in Wichita Falls in about three hours"
"Alright. Ill give you a call when I get there," he said.
On April 10, 1979, Wichita Falls, Texas was devastated by a monstrous tornado that churned through the town destroying $840 million worth of homes, cars and businesses. Among the survivors were the Aunt and Uncle of Jeff Sagely, a high-school classmate of mine. Just a boy, Jeff and his parents drove to the smashed community a few days after the storm to bring supplies to their relatives. The sight of the place left an impression on Jeff that made him question the sanity of my pursuits.
"Steel beams were twisted like pretzels," he often told me. "Ive never seen anything like it."
MEETING OF THE MINDS
Of course, there was no sign of that damage now, but the sense of the past and memories that surely still linger with the people of Wichita Falls were on our minds as we drove slowly through the town and turned south. We found a gas station, free from obstructions to our view, and waited. We set up the laptop and downloaded surface observations, trying to find the dryline. The dryline is boundary, much as it sounds, between moist air and dry air, and, in this part of Tornado Alley, is often a focusing point for thunderstorm development. We hoped as Steve had argued, that the instabilities and convergence at the intersection of the cold front coming from the north, and the dryline marching in from the west, would be enough to break the cap.
We realized that the air around us was becoming less and less humid, and it was cooler. Jeff thought we were behind the dryline, the wrong place to be. I wasnt so sure, and thought it best to wait a while longer and see if anything developed to our south. A few minutes later the phone rang.
"Where are you?" It was Steve. I told him our location exactly and he confirmed that we were indeed on the wrong side of the dryline. He had made contact with another chaser, Eric Nguyen, near Bowie, Texas, 40 miles or so to our east. We sped away towards them, and soon noticed towers going up in front of us. The dryline was working its magic.
I drove faster than I had so far. I wanted to get ahead of the dryline, and catch up to our friends before the storms forced them to move into pursuit. If that happened, we would likely not see them again. Just outside Bowie, at a truckstop Steve said to look for, we saw the group. I turned sharply and parked beside Erics white Honda Accord.
Chaser convergence is a term storm chasers use for a gathering of their own that is often unplanned, or at least with little notice, and is one of the favorite features of any chase. Meeting others with the same strange habits and obsessions, talking about what the atmosphere is up to, and the prospects for the day creates a kinship that is unique.
Besides, other chasers have different, if not better gear. And the combination of resources can be very helpful. This was the first true convergence of my young chasing career, and I thought it was very cool to pull alongside folks who were watching The Weather Channel on a portable television connected to a small satellite dish on the ground. Eric was seated in a folding chair watching the broadcast. Clint flew from the truck and shook hands in between photographs.