Seven years ago today a tornado outbreak blasted through North Carolina, an event which I’d planned on chasing but was thwarted. So while I ponder the “what might have beens” for that day I am writing up yesterday’s chase here in Virginia.
The setup became more and more obvious as the week progressed. Shear and moisture were going to be abundant with the only question being how much instability would be available. Having tracked the model solutions throughout the week I wasn’t surprised when SPC issued the first Enhanced Risk of 2018 for portions of southern Virginia;
I picked up my chase partner at 1:00 pm and moseyed south to Martinsville. I was in hopes of discrete cells going up east of a squall line that was barging ahead of the surface cold front approaching from the west. We kept our eyes on cells moving almost due north out of North Carolina, finally choosing one complex to intercept.
We repositioned to a vantage point just north of Axton in Henry county and this was our view:
Scud was gathering under the rain free base at the southwestern edge so we were in hopes of this storm organizing and intensifying. But soon after this photo we had to move north in a somewhat vain attempt to stay out of the obscuring heavy rain. Storm motions all day were on the order of 50 mph so gaining and maintaining position was difficult at best.
Pushing northeast along VA Route 57 we briefly glimpsed a lowering underneath the eastern edge of the growing complex:
However this feature didn’t last long. The entire complex surged ahead of us as we strove to keep up by turning north at Callands and crossing the ridge line. We finally admitted defeat when we reached VA Route 40 at Penhook, where we diverted west to catch our breath and regain situational awareness during a comfort stop at Glade Hill.
Still keeping an eye out for discrete storms as the squall line slowly crossed the Blue Ridge mountains we noticed this next complex sweeping northward:
We scooted north and a bit west via US Route 220 to check out the western edge of this complex but its forward speed surrounded us with blinding rain before we could reach Wirtz. Pausing there to let this mess clear out to the north it became obvious that while shear was plentiful instability was too weak to enable this convection ahead of the squall line to intensify. At this point we hadn’t seen any lightning nor heard any thunder.
Therefore our final play for the day’s chasing was to find a promising section of the squall line to intercept…and boy did we ever!! This radar view was shortly after the cell near Greensboro NC went tornado-warned:
A very quick vector analysis indicated we could probably intercept this storm south of Chatham along US Route 29 so we boogied in that direction, arriving at our chosen vantage point just south of Tightsqueeze to this scene:
I had switched on the livestream while rolling down Rte 29 so the local TV station had access to our view. The tornadic circulation was just west of Danville VA at this point and roughly 12 miles southwest of our position. The rain-wrapped nature of the mesocyclone was obvious here but I hoped we could see a few details before we had to bug out northward.
Alas, we never did see any such details. This was our view shortly before we pulled up stakes to reposition north and east:
And this was the radar depiction (reflectivity and velocity) indicating the circulation located roughly 4 miles from our location…and approaching quickly:
We fled via Rte 29 to an exit north of Chatham where we turned onto a county road that paralleled the storm a few miles to the east of its path. Even though we passed several west-looking vantage points all we saw was heavy rain. Crossing VA Route 40 east of Gretna just as the circulation center passed directly over the town we continued north, turning onto Telegraph Road by which we hoped to maintain position on the cell as we desperately sought more open vantage points looking west.
We hadn’t gone far along that road when we came across this obstacle:
(The vertical black line is the chasemobile’s antenna. Since it was raining steadily I was leaning out the window with this in my field of view.) My guess is that this happened not long before we arrived at this point, perhaps from the rear flank downdraft (RFD) sweeping through this area just east of the mesocyclone.
Although we didn’t want to admit defeat at this point the resulting U-turn meant we were now far behind the rapidly translating circulation. We maneuvered our way back to Rte 29 and zoomed north but the chase was basically over at this point. The storm intensified again near Lynchburg with an awesome couplet showing up on the radar velocity scan. That signature corresponded with the tornado that caused quite a bit of damage just west of Lynchburg.
Even though we didn’t see any particularly interesting storm structure or details this was a successful chase. As I’d hoped we intercepted two discrete systems ahead of the line but they didn’t strengthen like I thought they might. Then, also as I’d hoped, we doubled back and re-engaged the chase with a (tornadic) cell on the leading edge of the squall line. We just couldn’t see anything given the rain-wrapped nature of things yesterday.
And we did provide livestream footage for the local TV station’s use during their tornado coverage. That counts a lot in my book even though we didn’t actually see the tornado.