2011 has been one of the most active Tornado Seasons ever recorded in US history. The 2011 Tornado Super Outbreak occurred from April 25 to 28, 2011 with a total of 334 confirmed tornadoes, an estimated 344 people were killed as a result of the outbreak and the total damages exceeded $10 billion.
Last year we filmed and photographed several tornadoes, and was excited to go back to Tornado Alley from May 6 to 12, 2011. Our goals were always are to position us ahead of the severe thunderstorms to document the storms, to warn local authorities whenever needed, and to help storm victims as first on the spot.
This was a 6-day storm chase with only a two-man team, my friend Jeremy Dawson and I. The Storm chasing vehicle with metal armor needed a lot of work so the first day we hung out at the auto repair shops, the oil change place and Walmart parking lot until 4AM.
The next day we drove 650 miles north from Oklahoma to Valentine, Nebraska. At 3AM I got pulled over by a cop car driving 80 miles an hour, without insurance papers or car registration. After an hour of storm chase talk with the cop lady, we finally continued our journey.
The next morning it looked like the storm had more chance to develop 4 hours south of us, than up in our current location of Valentine. We drove 220 miles back south and positioned ourselves until the storm would develop. Around 4PM we noticed a cumulonimbus cloud started to develop, this is a towering vertical cloud that is very tall, dense and often involves thunderstorms. These clouds can further develop into a super cell, a severe thunderstorm with special features.
Right at that point 4 hours north of us severe thunderstorm started to develop in our previous location of Valentine. This storm looked a lot more promising than the storm we were hoping to develop down south, so we decided to speed 4 hours up north again, pedal to the metal. It was so frustrating seeing a Tornado Watch being issued for the dryline at our initial location in northern Nebraska. 2 tornadoes touched down before we were able to make it over in time. By the time we arrived in Valentine the sun was setting, and the storm had moved 80 miles north with 25 mph.
These supercells usually produce large amounts of hail, heavy rainfall, strong winds, and substantial downbursts. To get ahead of the NE moving storm, we had to punch the core of the super cell. As we approached the cell, the lightning intensified to several times per second, it’s a crazy light show to see.
Jeremy found a shortcut on the map, so I had to drive our heavy chase vehicle onto a small dirt road, straight into the lightning hell of the core. I drove as fast as I could, about 40-50 miles an hour, however the dirt roads turned into mud baths and the visibility was extremely low.
The cloud-to-ground lightning was hitting to our left and right within close distance, the flash was super intense and the thunders extremely loud.
A leader of a bolt of lightning can travel at speeds of 140,000 mph, contain 100,000,000 volts of electricity and reach temperatures of 54,000 °F.
The area around Winner consists of grass hills, without any trees, so our massive metal vehicle with 8 foot tall radio and satellite antennas would be an easy target for a cloud-to-ground lightning.
Normally when a bolt of lightning strikes a car, the outer surface and frame of the car will carry the electricity. It often discharges through one of the tires leaving the inside occupants unharmed. Our storm-chasing vehicle however, has a ton of extra metal racks for the radars, radios, satellites, tools, etc so the risk of a lightning strike going directly through the inside of our vehicle would be a lot higher, which wouldn’t be good.
We tuned the radio to a static noise channel. Each time a lightning strike was a few seconds away from hitting, the static sound would go up in tone. Jeremy instructed me that if the static radio sounds becomes a really high sound, I’d have to let go of the wheel and pedal because there was a decent chance of getting hit by lightning.
The adrenalin was definitely flowing in our vehicle once the static sound went up to the highest level, I quickly let go of the wheel and gas pedal, and the lightning hit very close by. This ended up happening 3 times in a row before we were able to get ahead of the storm.
By the time we got ahead of the super cell, it was nearly midnight and the storm wasn’t capable of producing any tornadoes so we called it a night.
With storm chasing you need to make constant decisions about which storm to go after, how fast and which direction the is storm moving, and what the target area is. Often there are 2 or 3 storms with similar potential and you just have to make the decision and go for it.
The first few weeks of May were remarkably quiet with only a few confirmed isolated tornadoes. Unfortunately we didn’t get to see any tornadoes on this trip, we were 30-50 miles out when several small tornadoes were on the ground.
About a week after I left Tornado Alley, a major tornado outbreak took place from May 21 – 27, 2011, which caused 180 tornadoes. Time for me to get back in the study books to learn more about severe weather, and to pass my spotter network exam.
Below are a photo and video from our previous Storm Chase. You can read more about it here