Eight Emotions While Tracking One Giant Supercell

By Logan Dawson, SOARS Protégé​​

Friday, May 31, 2013, is a day that I'll remember for the rest of my life. I didn't see my first tornado, but this was my first encounter with an Oklahoma supercell thunderstorm. I experienced so many different emotions during the day, and I'll try my best to summarize those here.

I'll start my story around noon when the MPEX field campaign ground teams met at a Braum's Ice Cream in Chickasha, Oklahoma. The plan was to eat lunch there and wait for an isolated supercell thunderstorm to develop.

Uneasiness. As the afternoon progressed, it became clearer that the atmosphere was primed for significant tornadoes and severe weather. While waiting in the parking lot, plenty of local folks came by to ask us about how bad the storms would be. People seemed very on edge after the destruction they saw from the Moore tornado. One man had heard that the situation was serious. He told me, 'y'all fixin' to get busy today, son.'

Impatience. Waiting in the Braum's parking lot seemed to last forever. On days like this, a cap of warm air prevents thunderstorms from forming until later in the day. This cap makes the atmosphere become more and more unstable. About three hours passed before we decided to reposition ourselves west in Anadarko, OK.

Anticipation. After arriving in Anadarko, we could see cumulus clouds beginning to tower higher and higher. The initial towers didn't persist, but we knew the real deal was coming soon. The day started slow, but it went FAST once the action got going.

Terrified. It was clear that our target storm was organizing near I-40 west of Oklahoma City. We tore north from Anadarko towards the interstate. Approaching this beast of a thunderstorm from the south was terrifying. There was something about the way the sunny sky to the south and west made the darkness to our north look more frightening.

Awe. After the initial fear passed, I couldn't help but to be amazed by the sight before me. I'm used to supercells and tornadoes after growing up in Alabama. I've seen pictures in textbooks of classic supercells also, but there's nothing like seeing the entirety of an Oklahoma supercell with my own eyes.

Researchers launching a weather balloon during a storm
Launching a weather balloon during the MPEX field campaign
Credit: National Severe Storms Laboratory

We launched our first balloon around 5:00 pm and headed east on a state highway about 10 miles south of I-40 west of El Reno. Without even looking at the radar, I could see that the storm had taken a jog to the south and was getting closer to us. From this highway, we could see the storm rotation, but we couldn't see the tornado through the darkness underneath the cloud base.

Sickened. Further east, we turned south onto US-81, the main road headed south out of El Reno, to get further away from the core of the storm. Traffic at the junction was incredibly heavy. At first I thought this was 'chaser convergence' (what happens when a large number of storm chasers crowd roadways near a storm), but then I realized that most of the cars headed south were probably people who decided to flee the storm. My heart sunk.

Numb. The next few hours were a big blur. In our vehicle, the combination of the radio blaring media coverage of the storm and the constant noise of the data receiver was a sensory overload. We would launch a weather balloon, and then zoom off to our next launch location to get another one up 30 minutes later. At 9:00 pm we launched our last balloon south of Anadarko.

Hunger and nightfall began to set in. Because of the amount of damage and flooding around the Oklahoma City metro area, we decided it was best to avoid the area. This meant a much longer drive to Perry, Oklahoma, where we had hotel reservations for the night. Dinnertime didn't come until 10:30 pm.

Exhaustion. At 12:30 am, we finally reached our hotel. I was physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. It was finally time to rest and use the next day to process all that we had experienced over the last 12 hours.

Logan Dawson
Logan Dawson is a third-year SOARS protégé and a graduate student studying atmospheric science at Purdue University.