Saturday, June 5, 2004, called for a chance of thunderstorms in the Wichita area, but nothing special. I had planned to take the day off and was visiting my storm chasing mentor, Jon Davies, a renowned tornado researcher. Around 4 p.m. Jon noticed a small, isolated storm on radar just northwest of Sedgwick County. I was several weeks into test-driving a handheld weather-tracking device called Storm Hawk for WeatherData, Inc. This was an excellent opportunity to do a spontaneous test and have a little fun, so out the door we went.
Using Storm Hawk, we intercepted the cell in less than an hour. At first all we could see was a gray curtain of rain, but then something magical happened. The storm moved ahead of the core of precipitation. We were suddenly observing a highly picturesque, striated, low-precipitation supercell. It was one of the most uniquely shaped storms I had ever witnessed in all of my chasing.
Unfortunately, the lighting was flat and little color was present. But this storm was different. Unlike the majority of storms that move northeast, this cell was moving due south – and the sky was clear to the west. If we could stay with the storm, the sun would eventually set directly behind it. That might give me some color to work with, certainly better lighting.
In the meantime, we shot a few pictures, drove a few miles, stopped again, shot more frames, and gradually made our way south, patrolling the storm. Sunset was less than hour away and our anticipation was mounting. One more shot, I thought, and then we’ll blaze south and get out ahead of the mesocyclone. I pulled off the rural farm road at a graveled intersection. Suddenly, the ground beneath my front right tire began sinking near the edge of a culvert. I instantly yanked us into reverse and floored it, but it was futile. The rear of the vehicle went up, the front went down. The side of the road, soften by rain earlier in the week, had collapsed. With the storm continuing to move south, we would be out of position for the sunset. Our chase was over… or was it?
From seemingly out of nowhere, two van loads of meteorology students from my home state of Illinois suddenly pulled up. Paul Sirvatka, a professor of meteorology at the College of DuPage, had recognized us and our dilemma. Without even asking, more than a dozen young storm chasers piled out of the college vans and surrounded the front of my Explorer.
“All together!” hollered the oldest student. “Three… Two… One… Lift!” And suddenly, as fast as Jon and I had become stuck – we were free!
As we sped south, the sun began to set. We had less than 15 minutes, but that’s all it took. We pulled over, jumped out, and – while dodging hail the size of golf balls — set up our tripods. The view was spectacular. A rare, rain-free, isolated, saucer-shaped supercell backlit by the setting sun. CLICK. CLICK. On the second squeeze of my shutter, a lone, magenta-colored lightning bolt dropped from the storm.
The image represents everything I love about storm chasing: following a hunch, travel, science, friendship, fellowship, second-chances, serendipity, technology, art and atmospheric magic.
Location: Medicine Lodge, Kansas
Photograph Date: 2004
Medium: Chromogenic Print