For the seventh posting of “Sixteen Years of Virginia Storm Chasing” I’ve chosen a tornado intercept on May 8th 2008. Other than darkness defeating my handheld digital photos everything went well that day.
“The forecast models showed signs of tornadic promise the afternoon of May 8th with all the necessary ingredients: strong instability, lots of wind shear, lift, and plenty of moisture. My son, daughter-in-law, and I left home at 5:45 p.m. to squeeze through rush hour traffic and aimed the chasemobile toward Thornburg. After pausing there to recheck current conditions and radar we continued southwestward down Virginia Route 208, stopping once to inspect an otherwise nondescript convective tower that exhibited strong signs of both speed and directional shear.
This piqued our interest considerably as it was confirmation that any serious updraft could easily rotate and drop a funnel. We continued down Rte 208 to Ware’s Crossroad and then made our way through Mineral to the town of Louisa where we stopped to update our situational awareness. As my laptop was negotiating with a pay-for-access WiFi hotspot my son’s tiny cellphone screen revealed a storm quickly exploding further south. Thus we nixed the detailed internet check and charged down to Interstate 64.
Jogging west to the Zion Crossroads exit we turned south on U.S. Route 15. When we neared the village of Palmyra just after 8 pm we glimpsed a rain free base adjacent to a torrential rain shaft, spurring my internal severe weather antenna into high twitch mode. Sure enough as we crested a hill a large rotating wall cloud popped into view. We hurriedly parked south of town and scrambled out of the vehicle to track it.
As we trained various film equipment on the storm a stovepipe funnel dropped from the wall cloud and may have actually touched down as a tornado. However we couldn’t verify a touch down because of the ever present Virginia tree line that obscured our view. As darkness fell my handheld digital photos proved too blurry so I relied on a handheld video camera and the resulting single frame captures. This is one such frame capture of the funnel lit up by a nearby lightning strike.
After the rainshaft obscured both funnel and wall cloud (and began drenching us) we relocated north of town to re-intercept the storm. Here we observed at least one touch down in failing daylight, meaning we had bagged another definite tornado.
Somewhat confused as to which National Weather Service forecast office to inform – we were at the seam between all 3 Virginia offices – I finally reported our sightings to the Wakefield office which promptly issued a tornado warning for the Palmyra area.
As we watched the wall cloud retrograded to the southwest and faded while a new cell approached from the south, intensifying rapidly as evidenced by fierce and increasingly frequent lightning. Now enveloped in full darkness we chose discretion over valor and scooted north a few miles to see if the almost continuous lightning would help us spy more rotation. But by that time heavy rain had obscured all discernible features under the storm’s base.
Thus we rolled northward up U.S. Route 15 amid lightning flashing at all corners of the compass and arrived in Fredericksburg at 10:30 pm. We didn’t realize at the time this tornadic supercell had trailed us northward. It dropped an EF2 tornado in southern Stafford county a half hour later, damaging homes and rendering several dozen people temporarily homeless. It was a hugely successful chase but our enthusiasm was tempered by the damage inflicted on our nearby neighbors.”