by Blake Knapp
A wintery chill blustered through the morning air in Oklahoma City. A cold front had plunged through the metro the previous evening, bringing outrageously cold air with it, even dropping snow in the northwest regions of the state. Storm chasing hardly ever fills an expectation, sometimes failing to live up and other times creating new boundaries of the imagination. On the last tours of 2012 I experienced 110° heat – the start to the 2013 season was a shocking contrast.
Little Rock, Arkansas was the day’s initial target and shortly after 7am I found myself slogging east out of the metro on I-40 through the cold, dreary rain with the heat on and windows stubbornly fogging. Along the 340 mile journey to Little Rock I began to get to know our new tour guests, and Dave and I started to teach them the basics of reading weather models. Somewhere in western Arkansas we caught up to the cold front and overtook it, feeling a marked improvement in mood and optimism as we opened the windows and felt the rush of the warm, humid air on our faces. After stopping for a quick lunch we ended up just east of Little Rock at a Shell station in Lonoke, AR.
Storms began firing to our west, ahead of the front and we raced north to intercept them. As we made our way into the lower regions of the Ozarks, our visibility became restricted by the growing density of trees and hills. Internet data became unreliable among the terrain, and we only had intermittent radar updates on the storms to our west. A cell near Clinton, AR became tornado warned, with multiple reports of damage on the ground. A lack of roads in the area meant we’d have one shot at intercepting it. As it headed generally northeast toward the town of Mountain View, we approached from the southeast.
We reached town just a few minutes before the storm thundered through. We made an emergency pit stop then searched for a vantage point west of town. From an empty gravel lot, we observed two areas of rotation in the messy storm as it emerged over the mountains, throwing bolts of lightning to the ground ahead of it. Because of the mountains in the way, our view of the storm was severely limited until it was nearly on top of us. Moisture raced overhead towards the stronger of the two rotating areas and a lowering descended from the cloud base. Cold, clear air wrapped around the back side of the storm, and a pronounced clear slot notched into the clouds now almost directly overhead. The occlusion wrapped tighter and a funnel dropped from the storm, giving us a surreal view of a perfect spiral now just a few hundred yards to the north.
Trees would have blocked our view had we stayed any longer so we moved to follow it, heading back through the town, where tornado sirens sounded the dangerous storm’s arrival. Our view still blocked by trees and large, steep hills we pressed on, noting ever stronger inflow into the storm and rain curtains wrapping cyclonically around what we knew to be a tornado. We held our position just to the south of the circulation, knowing it was too dangerous to continue. The rain and road conditions prevented any further pursuit and we retreated back to Jacksonville, AR for the night. Though we weren’t able to see it on the ground, witnessing the birth of a tornado was a great way to kick off the 2013 campaign.