June 11, 2004


Initial Target: Waterloo, IA
Departure: Bolingbrook, IL 10:00 am CDT
Arrival: Bolingbrook, IL 2:00 am CDT
Intercepts: Austin, MN 6:30 pm CDT
Tornadoes: 0
Hail: Non-Severe (0.25 inch)
Wind: Non-Severe (not measured)
Features: Whale's Mouth
Miles: 870


Conditions not ideal, but tornadic supercell potential forecasted.  Targeted Waterloo based off of morning RUC, where high CAPE and decent helicity intersected a warm front.  Continued north to Mason City from Waterloo after making data stop.  Supercell went tornadic 80 miles (by road) to our northwest.  Missed that cell and intercepted severe line just across Minnesota border.  No severe weather encountered, despite warnings.  Headed home before dark.

Crew and Equipment:

Chase team included Skip and Bob Talbot.  Equipment consisted of a NOAA weather radio, cell phone, TH-F6A Tribander.  Photography by Skip Talbot and Bob Talbot.


Looking at the forecast and my summer schedule, I knew that this was probably going to be my last chase of the season.  Iowa was setting up for a decent chase with CAPE up to 3000 J/kg, a warm front boundary, and decent helicity in the eastern part of the state.  I targeted Waterloo, where the highest CAPE intersected the warm front on the morning RUC.
I was able to talk Bob into going with me, and we left at about 10 am.  Traffic in the suburbs is horrible, truly a terrible place to start a chase from.  We got stuck bumper to bumper on 55 only a few miles from my house.  We got off in Plainfield and snaked our way to 80, probably not saving much time.  An hour later we were on open road an made it out of the county.  Shibster crosses the Mississippi for the fourth time this year.
We  made it to Waterloo and stopped at the library for radar data.  I saw two other guys leaving the computer lab, one had a gazetteer and was asking how to get to 218, probably chasers.  Anyway, here's what we saw at about 3 pm.  This archived image isn't quite as good as what the NWS site was rendering but you get the picture.  Several supercells complete with hook echoes and tornado warnings were already plowing the fields in northwest Iowa.  Some weak looking convection was about 70 miles to our north. 
So I was picking between storms we'd never catch and storms I didn't like.  I decided to head to Mason City hoping more storms would fire along the boundary in between these two areas.  Some convection building as we went north:
In Mason City we stopped at the Wendy's (my second time there this year) and asked where the library.  Well, after a wait and several employees who didn't quite know how to get there, we were on our way.  We followed their directions until we green signs for the library and followed those instead.  The signs appear to lead to nowhere, with only an art museum at the end of the trail.  After circling the city dazed and confused we started from a place we knew and started following the directions we got from Wendy's.  "Turn after the Midas, it's a big building, you can't miss it!"  Well there were big buildings all over.  The library turned out to be the art museum.  We got out just to be informed by an old timer that the library had just closed.  Doh!  Now we are in the middle of northern Iowa under a cu field with no direction.  Bob and I were scratching our heads deciding where to go next.
This is what we would have gotten had we seen the radar in Mason City, at about 5 pm.  It basically says, "duh!"  The supercells to the west and had merged into a severe yet hard-to-chase line, and an isolated supercell had emerged from the weaker convection we saw on the scope earlier.  I would have gone after that lone cell in a second had I seen it, but alas we wasted over a half hour in Mason City while this storm was building to tornadic levels.
A tornado warning went off for Howard County.  only a few minutes after we learned the library was closed.  We fueled up and then raced north out of the city.  Looking at the map, I knew that we were never going to catch this storm.  I decided we'd continue north into Minnesota and intercept some storms I could see off to the west, which was the line that I didn't get a chance to see on the radar.  As we crossed the state line, ominous mammatus passed overhead.
Now I knew we were missing the show.  The weather radio updated the warning, "multiple spotter and media reports of tornado on the ground."  Our storm didn't seem to have a workable rain free base (obviously because it was a line).  We forged ahead on 218 after some unidentifiable low hanging structure to our north.
The "Whale's Mouth," consisting of the mammatus covered region on the vaulted underside of a severe squall line.  We were literally being swallowed by the storm as a huge gaping mouth passed overhead.
Near Austin Minnesota we pulled over.  A tornado warning went up for the county with a tornado reported at highway 56 and interstate 90.  Well, we were just at that intersection and did not encounter any tornadoes.  We stopped next to a fire truck, doing some spotting, and got a few pictures.  Any sort of updraft region was shrouded in rain beyond recognition, but the mammatus overhead made for a dramatic contrast enhanced picture.
We let the core overtake us and got hit by some strong winds and pea sized hail.  Tornado warnings for this storm continued so we got on 90 and tried to get ahead of it which turned out to be futile.  Near Stewartville we passed an overturned semi on the other side of the interstate, however, I don't know if it was storm related.  I called it a chase at about this time and we headed south on 63.  Bob snapped a sunset shot, raindrops glinting on the window.
We broke south of the line between Waterloo and Cedar Rapids, looking back we could see a precipitation shaft backlit by the sunset.  We managed to stay out of lines that had developed in central Iowa and northern Iowa, had mostly a rain free drive until we got into the suburbs.

Chasing almost 900 miles and busting is one thing.  But chasing 900 miles and missing a confirmed tornado by about an hour, knowing you lost over an hour to traffic and bad directions earlier the day, really stings.  I was unable to find pictures of the tornado we missed but saw several spectacular (adding to my grief) tornado shots that occurred further west, with some chasers bagging between three to five tornadoes.

Lessons Learned:

  • Mobile radar data is a must for next season, I've had one too many "just narrowly missed the tornado" chases this year.
  • Target an area of convection over an area of no convection.