Day #10 of “Sixteen Years of Virginia Storm Chasing”: April 2011 was a bad month for tornado damage and deaths in the U.S. The 27th promised a chance at a productive chase so I jumped on the opportunity.
“My pulse quickened as I perused the forecast model outputs the morning of April 27th. The wind shear (change in speed and direction) from the surface up to 18,000 feet was noteworthy and the forecast storm rotation potential for late afternoon was off the charts. I was firmly convinced this was a Northern Virginia chase day but I wasn’t sure how early I needed to head out until the Storm Prediction Center posted a tornado watch just after lunchtime for the entire area. That moved up my departure time a couple of hours!
Given the predicted southwest to northeast storm motion I concluded that my best bet was to intercept cells just after they crossed the Blue Ridge mountains and track them as they developed across the Piedmont. Thus my initial target was the U.S. Route 29 corridor but as I motored west on Virginia Route 3 I glimpsed a serious looking convective tower to the south. Stopping outside of Culpeper just after 4:00 p.m. I checked radar and realized the base of this tower was over Interstate 64 and heading northeast toward Lake Anna. What really caught my attention was that (a) the storm was already severe-warned and (b) the radar indicated it was rotating. Abandoning my original target I charged south down U.S. Route 522, crossing in front of the storm in hopes of gaining position on its southeastern side. I managed to do that – barely – and wound up near the north end of Lake Anna with a terrific view of the approaching cell.
The rain shaft was just north of me as I sat directly under the rotating rain-free base of the main updraft. One good sign was that the wind was at my back as I faced the storm, meaning the system was sucking in low-level air and gathering strength.
After enjoying the view for almost 20 minutes I gave chase along the rural routes of the Spotsylvania / Orange county border area. I managed to keep the rotating base in view despite the ever present trees and winding roads but I struggled to keep up with the accelerating storm. Finally maneuvering my way onto Mine Road in Orange county I rambled eastward at the best possible speed but couldn’t get any closer as I witnessed this funnel due east of me at 5:30 p.m. (after coming to a quick stop in the roadway):
By this time the storm was tornado-warned but the further east I traveled the worse traffic became. To avoid the congestion I dove southward on Brock Road and continued to Todds Tavern in Spotsylvania county. Pausing there to regain situational awareness I realized I couldn’t catch back up with this storm. However I noticed another cell to the west that also looked very promising. A quick peek at radar indicated rotation on this new storm as well so I reversed course. Heading northward to the Brock Road / Rte 3 junction near Wilderness I spotted a large lowering under another rain-free base.
Now firmly in the midst of the burgeoning afternoon rush hour I rolled eastward on Rte 3 to a crossover near the Chancellorsville battlefield that afforded a clear view of the feature. As the cell intensified I phoned in a wall cloud and funnel report at 6:00 p.m. to the National Weather Service Sterling office which issued a tornado warning on the storm shortly thereafter. I couldn’t see the ground under the obviously rotating funnel so I couldn’t verify a tornado but I’d be willing to bet it touched down somewhere near the Rappahannock River:
After the funnel became rain-wrapped and disappeared across the river I trudged home amid thoughts of resting while editing photos and videos. However even more rotating storms approached after dark so I chased east of Fredericksburg but the tornado-warned cell I targeted fell apart before I could see it. If I had been adventurous enough I would have blasted northwest to chase yet another tornadic storm that roared through the Culpeper area that evening but by that time I was pretty much finished even if Nature wasn’t. April 27 2011 turned out to be the greatest tornado outbreak across the country since the infamous Super Outbreak of 1974.”