We did it all wrong. We all knew that the weather service appreciates an advance call from chasers before they visit. I thought Eric had done this; he thought we had. It is considered good form to send only one or two members of a large chase party into the weather office. But everyone headed for the door, no one volunteering to sit in the parking lot and wait. We also knew that a doughnut or two could go miles in here, and generate good will that the chaser community could use these days. We had nothing. We hadnt called, we were all coming in and we bore no gifts. We did it all wrong.
The receptionist smiled warmly and invited us into the lobby.
"Let me get someone," she said and walked back to find a staffer to deal with this posse of early morning storm hunters.
"Hello, Im Jason Jordan," the man said. I remembered having heard the name before, from one of the brilliant documentaries about storm chasing written and directed by Martin Lisius. In that film, Jordan was a sophomore at Texas A&M, pulling up alongside other chasers to snap some pictures. Now he was a member of the priesthood. Local boy makes good. Way to go, Jason, I thought, as Steve explained what we were doing here and very politely asked if we could see the latest analysis from which to compose our forecast. Jordan led us to a large meeting room with a window facing the Operations Room. Out there, large monitors displayed radar, satellite and other imagery. A television on the wall was tuned to The Weather Channel. I thought this was amusing, since so much of the TWC information is reliant upon offices like this one: the channel watching the offices who in turn watch the channel. An mobius loop. What else would a room full of weather weenies watch?
Jordan brought in a long sheet of paper, with maps of the atmosphere at different levels. Steve pulled a large set of colored pencils from his pocket and went to work. A hand analysis is one of the most revealing, educational, and plain fun things chasers do. It requires a careful examination of the data. As isobars and isotherms are drawn and plotted, frontal boundaries and other surface features soon show the careful analyst that which is not initially seen. The atmosphere reveals herself to the careful hand. Like a detective dusting off clues, Steve began to see patterns, and explained as he worked.
MOVE TO THE FRONT, PLEASE
Steve and I first met in person in Chicago several months before at a severe weather conference. There, we attended a lecture by Dr. Charles Doswell, one of the most respected severe storm researchers in modern meteorology. Dr. Doswell is boisterous, cantankerous academic, loud and irreverent. He demanded prior to the conference that attendees bring colored pencils that day, and as we entered the auditorium in the early morning, he made another request.
"I want everyone to sit up front," he said. "Im not going to start until all these seats up front are filled. And for those of you that know me, I mean what I say."
Some of the attendees complied right away and moved closer. Others stayed in the back, not knowing what to make of this tall, bearded man with the white cowboy hat.
"Again," he said calmly, "we will not begin until everyone is up front." Doswell surveyed the room and decided that too many were hiding in the rear. At the top of the hour, the time the lecture was to begin, he pulled a newspaper out from a stack behind him, opened it to the Sports section and leaned against the stage. The last dissenters came up front.
Doswell took us through the exercise of hand analysis, explaining how this task was still more important to a good mesoscale forecast than all the powerful graphics and computer models at the forecasters disposal. It was an eye-opening experience. It made a deep impression on Steve and me. While I had found the time to do a few hand analysis since the conference, it was clear now that Steve had been vigilant in his practice, and he moved over the map without hesitation.
Some of the staff wandered in and out of the room as Steve analyzed the position of the cold front. It was now south of the metroplex, and a shortwave, which is a disturbance in the air flow of the upper levels, moved over northern Mexico. The air south of the front was still very warm and humid, and more tropical moisture was drawn up by the minute. At the surface, he analyzed a low pressure center along the front, and made a guess as to its movement that day. It was one of our keys. The long-time Meteorologist in Charge of the Ft. Worth office, the venerable Skip Ely, came in and took a look at Steves work. He commented on the long drive had in store if we to pursue storms this day. We moved out into the Operations Room, and were soon invited to gaze at the water vapor loop, which is a satellite movie of sorts, showing the position, concentration and movement of water vapor in the atmosphere. It is useful for identifying features like the upper level disturbance Steve spotted in his hand analysis.
Soon we were back on I-35, racing south through Ft. Worth. We were all in my Cherokee now, except for Eric behind us in his car. We drove through my childhood: Waco, Temple, Austin. A few hours and we noticed a line of cumulus clouds reaching for the sky to our south. The cold front. We caught the front in downtown Austin and pulled ahead of it. An older car, a Dodge, pulled alongside us with a large rod on the antennae with what looked like a tennis ball strapped to the top. Caught in a traffic jam, we rolled down the window and asked what the hell it was.
"Lightning detection system," the driver answered. "We can detect any strike within 50 miles. Where are you guys going?"
"South of this front," I said. "Gonna try to get out in front of it." This was a silly answer. Of course we wanted to be south of the front. Thats where the storms would fire. These chasers from Indiana were asking for our target area: in which specific city did we intend to wait in ambush? We didnt have one was the reality of it, although wed discussed San Antonio. We wouldn't get that far.