May 31, 1999: Meade / Sitka, Kansas storm
You Should Have Seen the One That Got Away
Web Posted June 7, 1999 8:00 PM
I don't know which moment was more painful: when we heard NOAA Weather Radio reporting a spotter sighting of a large tornado on the other side of the storm, or when we got to our motel room that night in Woodward, OK, and saw the electrifying video of a large, stovepipe-shaped twister on The Weather Channel. A tornado that was mere miles from us. A tornado the beginnings of which may have taken shape almost directly over our heads.
were excited about the prospects this day. A significant weather event was in the
cards with a triple point intersection of a cold front, dryline and surface low pressure
system taking aim at SW Kansas and the Oklahoma panhandle. We were in the entrance
region of a jet maxima at 300mb, so in addition to our high surface CAPE, relatively
positive speed and directional shear, we had some upper level dynamics to assist in the
formation of severe storms. The Storm Prediction Center forecasted a moderate risk
of severe storms in the area, and so we left Denton, Texas the night before to get a head
start on the long drive ahead. As we left, I picked Liberal, Kansas as a potential
target knowing very well that conditions in the morning could change that bullseye.
Weather systems rarely act in precise accordance with the models or the wishes of the
forecaster. Still, Liberal seemed the logical place given the relatively good
agreement between models concerning the movement of the entire system. However,
this forecast turned out to be right for a few wrong reasons, which I'll discuss later.
We pulled into Elk city, Oklahoma at nearly 5:00 AM to grab a few hours of sleep before we hit the surface plots and models again in the morning. That done and after a hearty plains breakfast, we sailed for Woodward, Oklahoma, not as a target area but as a staging ground for the final interception of whatever the day would bring. Along the way, my chase partner Blair Kooistra noted the accus clouds overhead, a sign of turbulence in the upper levels.
At Woodward, we looked at charts and maps and read Dr. Eric Rasmussen's evaluation of the splitting jet maxima to the WNW and his conclusion that this could create a zone in between the split flow of the less than positive dynamics. So, he opted to direct his VORTEX armada to the NE corner of the Texas Panhandle, near Canadian, TX. We thought this was reasonable and reverse-engineered his forecast to see the split flow and buy the argument. We headed that way, too.
The VORTEX team launched a weather balloon around 4:30 PM and we listened in on their frequency to hear the results. When the data came back, they concluded the best chance for storms to fire was to the north some. It is very important to me to do my own forecast, badly or not, and I abhor the idea of tagging along without having convinced myself of the reasoning, however, I'm not going to argue with a team of research meteorologists who just launched a radiosonde. So we followed.
The storm erupts
As we moved toward the sleepy Texas town of Darrouzett, Blair pointed out a solitary cumulus tower to the NW. It went up fast and hard, impressing us immediately. Our concern up until this point had been whether the cap would break at all, so when it did, we knew this storm should certainly become severe quickly. The boundary layer pot was boiling.
It was hard to judge distance: when we first saw it, we thought it might as close as the Oklahoma/Texas border. Soon we revised that to the Oklahoma/Kansas border until we heard that this storm had formed 10 miles north of Liberal Kansas. So we went faster.
Around 6:00 PM, we arrived in Plains, KS at about the same time
as the storm. We noticed some interesting lowerings which were briefly rotational,
and had a confusing picture of storm structure before us, with either new updrafts forming
to the west and south of the original storm, or an old, shedded updraft skin still
lingering with the associated scud junk.
[Author's note: Many thanks to Blair Kooistra, my chase partner that day, for the excellent review of the chase he wrote that very night, which served as a primary source for this report. We'll get the next one, bud.]