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In Tornado Alley

For extreme weather buffs, there's no place like the Great Plains in springtime, when tour companies hunt what most of us dread: twisters.

April 23, 2006|Robin Rauzi | Times Staff Writer

Newell, S.D. — THE first time we leave the van for anything other than gas, food or sleep is in a field in western South Dakota. We are maybe 100 miles from the geographic center of the United States, which looks and feels a lot like the middle of nowhere.

We've been cooped up so long that simply getting out to look at the sky is like arriving at Disneyland. The horizon is dark, except for one hole, through which pink light seeps. Five or six miles off is a yellow curtain that is probably hail.

The sky is sneaky. Clouds hold still, then seem to shift suddenly once you look away. The altered light makes the grass intensely green. A shelf cloud rolls toward us and dangles fingers toward the earth. It must be miles away and thousands of feet up, but it looks as if that storm cloud might reach down and scoop up the prairie, might pluck us from where we stand.

This isn't a tornado. Not even a severe thunderstorm. But for our group of tag-along storm chasers with Tempest Tours, it is a very convincing preview of coming attractions.

We had started out more than 1,000 miles and 30 hours earlier in Oklahoma City, and we would cover 2,000 more miles of Tornado Alley before the week was over.

There is no place on Earth where violent storms occur as regularly as in Tornado Alley. In this 1,500-mile north-south corridor in the middle of the U.S., warm air over the Great Plains and cool air off the Rocky Mountains roll around in one of nature's most powerful wrestling matches.

I was taught to avoid such weather. In the small Ohio town where I grew up, the tornado warning siren was tested each Friday at noon. Like all the kids at East Elementary, I practiced curling up nose to knees in the basement. I covered my head with my hands if there were a tornado. I did not go out and look at it.

Until now.


'The Show'

I first meet my fellow tornado tourists in a nondescript hotel conference room after a buffet breakfast in the lobby of starchy foods and watery coffee, the first of many to come. There are five guests including me, three journalists from the BBC, two drivers and Brian Morganti, our tour director.

After introductions, we sit through a safety lecture that warns us of the non-tornadic risks -- hail that shatters car windows, flash floods that submerge roads. Stay away from wire fences, we're told, because they can carry the electric current of lightning for two or three miles. Tornadoes, which have killed 49 Americans so far in 2006 cause 50 fatalities a year here on the mean. Like the others, I've made peace with any dangers. We've all signed waivers that absolve Tempest Tours of anything short of strapping us to a windmill in the path of a twister.

What we want to know is whether we're going to catch one this week. The group before ours didn't, although a few guests stayed an extra day and saw one in Kansas. Brian is realistic about our : We'll definitely see supercell storms and, almost certainly, rotating storms. As for an actual touch-the-ground tornado, he puts our odds at 1 in 3.

I've signed on with a tour group because my chances are much greater with it than without. Anyone can drive around the Plains and scan the horizon. But not just anyone has weather satellite data, can do a customized forecast and get in position to watch "The Show."

The Show, I learn over the coming week, happens only when the conditions are just right to create a supercell -- a thunderstorm that has a rotating updraft -- the only kind of storm that will generate tornadoes.

A supercell needs four things: moisture in the air; atmospheric instability, created by cold air aloft over warm air; lift so that warm air is forced upward; and a breakable cap. The cap is the trickiest. It's a layer of warm air that must keep the warm and cold air separate but just for a while, as the storm builds power. Then it has to break. If the cap is too strong, you'll get no storms. If it breaks too early, too many storms form, none of them dominant enough for a show.

The Show could be nearly anywhere in 10 states. Right now, it's eastern Montana and the Dakotas -- strangely far north for early June -- that look promising.

"If the weather gods are with us, that'll stay there a day to two and we'll ride it all the way back here," Brian says. If not, we'll maybe visit some national parks.

It's fair to say that no one in this room wants to see Badlands -- or any other -- national park.


Weather junkies

OUR 12-passenger van is wired. There are three ham radios -- one tuned to weather, one for communicating with other chasers and one for backup. Brian also has a laptop, which is running a GPS system, as well as Baron Threat Net, an XM-radio subscription service that gives him weather radar information. All his gear is configured to overlay weather data and the van's position so we can track our distance from a storm front.

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