I was rapidly running into a problem: I didn’t realize we were going to be on the road for multiple days – an initial deployment in central Oklahoma had led me to believe I would be sleeping in Norman on the night of May 22. Now it was May 24 and I was kind of already at the end of the contingency clothes I had packed. As long as this was the last deployment before we headed home, I would be fine, but spoiler: it did not look like we were heading home any time soon. Troughs like this will do that to you in May:
Another day, another briefing to talk about all possibilities. The gist of it: there was likely to be some sort of triple point a little further south on the Llano Estacado than the day before. To the north, a similar opportunity existed: possible supercells along the composite front/outflow boundary, that had sagged a little bit further south and would likely be the focus for CI in the afternoon. To the south, the surface low and dryline could potentially focus supercells near or just north of Lubbock.
If this look at least partially screams “Go to Fort Stockton” to you, it certainly did to me. But I guess the continuing fear with going to Fort Stockton was the loss of positioning for following days, which turned out to be moot when Fort Stockton would Fort Stockton again the next day.
Having removed that as a target, there really was only one obvious play to the TORUS team collected on the west side of Amarillo. We were going to be headed south along I-27 toward the north side of Lubbock. And likelier than not we were going to be doing it early in the day, since the lack of an EML in the pluvial-stricken Southern Plains was doing absolutely nothing to preclude early CI. So that’s how I ended up in a giant lidar truck heading southbound on the interstate past Palo Duro Canyon before it was even noon. Was I already a little tired? Yeah. The previous day’s deployment wildness hadn’t ended until late at night, and goodness knows I’d been up and at em early to be ready for the briefing at one of the many hotels that dot I-40 in western Amarillo (I couldn’t even begin to guess which hotel the briefing had been in at this point). So while I wasn’t feeling the bone-numbing exhaustion that would settle in by the end of Memorial Day weekend, on the Friday before Memorial Day fatigue was already creeping in. And some sort of fatigue with the supposed glamor of field work. I didn’t feel like a character out of the Storm Chasers episodes I used to record on Discovery Channel. If anything, I just felt grimy (having no clean clothes after today would not help).
Mike, Liz, and myself stopped for a quick Subway lunch at a Valero travel stop in Tulia, about 1/3 of the way down from Amarillo to Lubbock. The sky was refreshingly clear compared to the smokey views of the past few days. But, with a little bit of sunshine, a little bit of instability followed, and soon Mike was groaning at the specter of early CI and a possible sloppy storm mode. He had a point. How often does the MD for your area of interest go out at 1:00 p.m. in late May?
Storms going up over Lubbock necessitated a stairstep maneuver southeast to get out in front of them so that TORUS could monitor their progress across the Caprock. I pulled off of I-27 in the town of Plainview and we headed east-southeast on US-70. This was all-new terrain to me – while I’ve seen much of the Caprock region from the panhandle down to the Caprock Canyons region, the towns of Lockney and Floydada were all-new to me. The Plains ethos of the cities struck me the same way any of the West Texas towns I drive through do when I see them for the first time – this is the forgotten America, a forlorn sort of proudness I can feel emanating from the towns that only strengthens when backdropped against a storm. The blue skies were replaced by grey stratus that once again announced the central American smoke layer was back. Somewhere ahead of us, a storm was taking shape, but good luck making it out. US-62 began to transition from the flat, flat, flat terrain of west Texas to the rolling terrain and mesalands common along the Caprock. According to Mike, our target storm was supercellular and not looking bad at all. And best of all, the 75 mph speed limits of west Texas had allowed us to get ahead of it.
Right at the edge of the little town of Matador, we made our move. By now, the storm was severe south of Floydada and had earned itself a spot as our target. The day was off to a hot start indeed, and it sounded as though most of the TORUS platforms were going to be in place for a focused deployment. I made my way through a surprisingly tree( or at least shrub)-lined stretch of Texas State Highway 70 toward the littler town of Roaring Springs. The road bears slightly to the right as you drive south before bearing through a long, gentle left back to due south into Roaring Springs. I was sort of in charge of deciding where the truck pulled off, because as usual Liz was booting up the lidar in the backseat and Mike was busy with the computer program every vehicle had to communicate with one another. So with the memory of pulling off facing a higher hill on the other side of the road the day before and missing a wedge, I quietly kept going down the highway until we crested a small hill on the gentle return left curve and pulled off onto the highway’s ample shoulder. Somewhere to our west, a storm was trying to turn right and head towards us – I’d made sure to pull off not too far to the south for
selfish scientific reasons. However, at 3:12 it was hard to tell anything was coming our way.
Take a look at that scrub brush. That’s as green as the semi-arid West Texas Plains ever get, and it wasn’t done raining out there. To that point, I’d lived on the Southern Plains for three years, and the spring of 2018 (and even 2017 to a lesser extent) did not get anywhere near as much rain. The green-ups in those years were ephemeral at best. The green-up in 2019 was a jarring experience for me, especially when one factored in the abundance of wildflowers that just sprouted up anywhere they could.
Yes, I was hunting down pictures of flowers early on in this deployment. The urgency wasn’t necessarily there. Our storm was severe, but only just now was slowing down and turning hard right like they do when they’re getting ready to get down to business. By the same token, Liz didn’t have the lidar fully booted up and scanning the first VAD until 3:16. We could afford to be a little relaxed; there was time before the supercell was here.
Relaxation was very good with the slow regulator we had for the helium. Between that and the missing zip tie snippers, which I had left in a parking lot northwest of Canadian the day before (sorry Liz), we were hurting for equipment, but at least not hurting for time. I sat inside the balloon bag for a while in the shoulder, while massive vehicles (including some full-on semis) went blasting by on the road a few feet away. It was pretty impressive at least how quickly I got used to that particular experience. After a short 10 or so minutes, the balloon was inflated, the sonde was tied, and I was sending it to rise into the storm somewhere above the green scrub brush to the west. By now, the storm had closed the distance on us, more or less:
And the sounding terminated pretty early, unsurprisingly, as it entered the forward flank and probably got zapped or blasted.
Hard to say for sure, but that at least looks like a reasonably healthy hodograph, and decent low-level instability to boot.
By the time I took the above picture at 3:36, the lidar truck was just entering the region of the supercell’s greatest influence. Ceilings of high-signal data within the below-cloud layer dropped from 2 kilometers to beneath 1 kilometer over the course of a few minutes, and the inflow began to pick up and back from southerly to southeasterly. Low over the horizon, a hazy storm base emerged. It looked like a shelf cloud along the RFD gust front.
If it wasn’t something epic, it at least was a storm, and it looked like we were going to get a good cold pool sample. I stared at the shelf for a while, savoring the ripping inflow winds at my back, and gradually became aware of something. I turned to Mike.
“That thing is rotating.”
He looked at me. “No it’s not.”
But I insisted. The shelf cloud was no longer a flat, featureless shelf moving toward us. Instead, I could see a grungy backside to the storm base – a full bowl. More staring, and I realized the backside was moving right to left. Even more staring, and I realized the front side was moving left to right. Which meant…
Mike realized it a couple of seconds later. “Oh yeah.” Wall cloud, due west of us. All of a sudden, the leisurely data collection had turned into a storm chase. And the storm was heading right towards us.
Liz made the snap decision to keep the lidar running until the very last second, which admittedly was not far away. In fact, we really only had a matter of a few minutes after I took that picture. Others further to the south saw the specter that was looming over the highway more clearly:
But as for me, I was fumbling and bumbling to get the sounding equipment back in the truck before we got either washed or blown away. The balloon bag ended up carelessly in the truck bed. The stepladder followed shortly thereafter. I threw sounding equipment and snippers and zip ties into the backseat, then turned my attention to the regulator. Now we were down to a matter of seconds before the heavy rain (and possible tornado) engulfed our location. And in the pressure of the moment, when every second mattered? I folded. I fumbled with the wrench to get the regulator cap off, for such an embarrassingly long time that Liz (who was on the bed of the truck, getting ready to throw the lidar lid closed right when we were about to get the hell out of dodge) yelled at me to hurry up and finish the job. The wind picked up out of the west, bringing with it sporadic large drops of rain. Finally I got the cap back on the helium tank just as the heavens opened up on the two of us. We scrambled back into the truck in a howling, driving downpour and I immediately threw the truck in gear. Mike pulled up the mobile mesonet data on his laptop from the passenger seat while I stepped on it, and reported “at least a 53 mph” gust. Off to my left, I could see the clear air that the storm had just replaced, and the leading rain curtains wrapping from right to left. Was that the herald of a tornado?
In short, no. In the confusion of the moment, more than one person between Matador and Roaring Springs thought a weak rain-wrapped tornado had crossed the road somewhere near them. The storm was barely outflow-dominant, although mobile radars found a pretty strong couplet on the storm. Instead of ending up within a few hundred yards of a tornado, we found ourselves as unwitting in-situ probes into the RFD. The saving grace? Liz’s decision to keep the lidar lid open until the last second paid off immensely:
In the meantime, we had to figure out how to get back ahead of the storm. It wasn’t even 4:00 yet, and the just-now-tornado-warned supercell had plenty of time to do whatever it wanted. Unfortunately, our helter-skelter retreat southward into Roaring Springs jeopardized our ability to see what it would do next. This was Caprock territory, with a highly questionable road net, and indeed no east option existed out of Roaring Springs. Mike directed me south out of town and along FM 193 eastbound, a little farm road that wound through flat fields of wind turbines toward US-83. To the north, the murky supercell receded from view, and the only indication that the weather was anything other than cloudy came when I popped back ahead of the gust front and the sudden increase in ambient moisture instantly fogged up the windshield. I had to brake, wipe, and turn on the front defrost real quick before we could continue the pursuit.
And, as we rapidly discovered, the roundabout method to get back into position as well as the mushy overall wind profile meant that we weren’t going to continue the pursuit. The storm mushed its way northeastward, and when we got to Paducah the chase was over. I pulled into a parking lot near downtown and awaited further instructions. This let the three of us enjoy part of the Great Plains 2019 pluvial as a Noah’s-Ark-type storm opened up on Paducah. A young law enforcement official even felt the need to come up to us in the middle of the rain to ask if his town would be safe from whatever the deluge had to offer. The break also gave Mike a chance to get angry at whatever was going on in the broader world of TORUS deployments while we were focused on our little part of the world. Who knows why he was mad. Whatever it was, it gave Liz and myself a chance to watch him pace angrily around in a parking lot in one of the heaviest downpours I’ve seen in my life while cloud-to-ground lightning barraged around him. I never looked at Mike the same afterwards.
Ultimately, the day was over. Convection overspread the High Plains and made the travel back to our hotel block (once again, in Amarillo) a hydro-planey, ponding-on-the-road nightmare. My nerves gave out not long after we pulled out of the storms and towards the (once-again) retreating dryline, and I relinquished the wheel to Liz for an hour until we got back. The night ended much earlier than the previous one – early enough that I was able to get dinner with Elizabeth at The Plaza in western Amarillo and share a Blue-Moon-sunken “Lunarita” with Sean Waugh.
It had been a third deployment day in a row, and there would certainly be at least one more sloppy one in this area on the 25th before things shifted north and west on the 26th. Despite the fatigue from early starts and relatively late finishes, I was in high spirits, taking my cue from Liz’s satisfaction with our RFD dataset. Unlike the day before, I hadn’t missed a wedge, and unlike the day before that, it hadn’t been a total waste of time. Sure, when we went into the thick of it on May 24, we didn’t get close up with a tornado, but I went to sleep with my head metaphorically high regardless.