2008 Tornado Chases in Southern Alberta

From the top of Moose Mountain I point to a developing supercellOne of the most exciting weeks for me as an amatuer meteorologist and storm watcher was early July 2008.  It was a week where I was in Alberta playing with the Joey Only Outlaw Band because of the Calgary Stampede.  A week long outbreak of severe weather hammered southern Alberta producing tornadoes and hailstorms which damaged hutterite crops in the foothills, destroyed grain bins in Taber and reaped a path of destruction across the province.  We were lucky on that tour to witness four different tornadic phenomenon first hand.

For the first half of the week we just kept being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  From a friends balcony in Calgary I watched a supercell to the north explode, it dropped tornadoes in the Red Deer area but we were not in a position to chase that day.  We stayed in Bragg Creek that very Sunday July 6th when another whopper of a storm developed over us and battered Calgary.  From a high hill we were able to watch the lightning storm in all its glory as the darkness of night took over.  Nanton wall cloud starts churning at 6:45The weather continued to worsen in southern Alberta each day, on the Tuesday we had nowhere to stay and were faced with the prospect of camping outdoors despite the terrible weather.  Wisely I convinced the band to camp in the mountain valleys of Kannanaskis that night where we witnessed the thunderstorms form just east of us that night, storms which produced intense hail and tornadic activity over southern Alberta again.  Tucked in that mountain valley we were safe though as the mountains prevented the storms from forming near us.

The funnel somes down!

The funnel somes down!

On the Wednesday (July 9th) we moved our posse down to Nanton Alberta.  As we drove down highway 22 that day another supercell exploded over us.  We pulled over in Black Diamond as the skies turned green and the ominous weather threatened to produce tornadoes again.  But alas we were not in the right place at the right time.  The storm motored east and we continued on to Nanton where we were able to witness a funnel cloud form far to the east of us as we sat in sunny skies.  We were not in a position to chase again.

The funnel reaches closer to the ground near Nanton Alberta

However Thursday July 10th would be a change in my storm watching fortune.  That afternoon our friend Lance Loree put my Outlaw Band to work on his farm pulling weeds while I used a chainsaw to cut fence posts.  While we worked in his field in Nanton I was able to watch a storm build all afternoon over the foothills.  The cell stayed in the same location all day growing taller and taller producing an anvil head, by 4pm soft bubbles began to form in the underbelly of the system and I began to be sure that this storm was going to produce.  I stopped working and sat on a round bale watching the system build and build.  It was a classic development that grew in a textbook fashion.  I knew I had time to go back to town, get a camera and get ready for a good storm chase.  At 5pm lightning began to discharge and the storm grew larger yet.

Staying behind the hail going to Vulcan Alberta

By 6pm I took a venture out west of town and parked the van near a farm and focussed my viewing on one section of the storm which was at the rear.  The storm began to spread out further toward the east while the main development stalled in the same location it had been all day.  I was being pressured to join Washboard Hank, the Loree’s and my girlfriend

Sheets of giant hail stones

for dinner but I declined and went for the chase instead.  My fascination wasn’t popular with my friends and nobody wanted to join me on the chase, they just didn’t believe me when.  I felt that this was the day I had waited my whole life for, that in a matter of time I would see a funnel drop down.

Leah faces the storm as the mirror reflects the high pressure behind us.

By 6:30 the wall cloud was clearly visible.  By 6:45 it was turning dark beneat and beginning to churn underneath as the photos show.  I moved the van about 2km closer so that I was right in the development zone.  Here I could feel the pressure dropping, the low pressure is an addictive thing to be in the middle of.  I rolled the window down and sat my ass in the door with the camera drawn figuring the was the safest way to avoid being struck by an errant lightning bolt.

I only take my eyes off the sky to look at the road, driving 45km to keep with the storm

This truck pulled up with big Native Tim in it, driving the backroads drunk after work, “he look, it’s the singing chef, what are you doing out here?”

“Tornadoes forming right behind you.”

Tim turned and looked at the sky, “holy shit,” he said, then continued to talk to me about all sorts of things for the next few minutes while I never took my eyes off the sky.

“Uhhh, Tim.”

“Yes.”

“We gotta move right fuckin now!”

I jumped into the van, turned the ignition and spun the tires flying up the road half a kilometer to the next road where I pulled over again with Tim and his co-worker right next to me.  That’s when we seen the funnel come down right over the very spot we had just been sitting, we had been right in the development zone but were now safe as the storm as we were now just south of the eastward moving wall cloud.  It was as though the dropping of the funnel set off the storm, the whole thing rocketed eastward at about 40kmh.  The funnel was a short lived one, I can’t be sure if it hit the ground or not for we never saw debris.  If it did touch down it was only for a matter of seconds as the funnel dispersed rapidly.  It looked like it had reached to the ground, but I don’t think it ever became a tornado.

Friday July 11th, a monster wall cloud descends near Nanton

I left Tim and chased the storm back toward Nanton where the rain turned to hail.  I ran in and grabbed Leah from the dinner party and pursued the storm eastward all the way to Vulcan.  We stayed in behind the storm where the pressure was high and the sun shone on us, yet less than a few hundred yards from us the hail fell with great intensity.  This was the way it went all the way till Vulcan when I decided that if there were to be any more tornadic activity in this storm it was going to happen much further east and would happen in the cover of darkness.  This was indeed the case as the storm hit Taber hard later that night smashing grain bins, wrecking irrigation systems and flipping debris all over.  We saw that damage first hand the next week when we drove through there on our way to Manitoba.

We expected a tornado to drop any second

The next day, Friday July 11th, the storms developed in a not-so-classical manner.  At noon I woke up after a night of hard drinking at the Washboard Hank show and right away seen that a supercell was developing over all of the southern Alberta foothills.  Already by noon it was ominous.  I went to the Auditorium Hotel and sat in the bar having a drink as the skies turned darker over town.  We turned the weather network on which was flashing red screens warning of severe weather for all of southern Alberta including hail and tornadoes.  I went to the window again and looked outside.  It was around 3pm and it was turning black as all hell out over the prairie.

The funnel starts to break up before all hell broke loose

It dawned on me that this storm wasn’t going to wait any longer to develop.  Often storms that produce tornadic weather don’t develop fully till late in the afternoon, typically 5-7pm.  I had started the day thinking this would be the case with this storm, but by 3pm I suddenly realized that it was happening and it was happening now.  Suddenly I kicked it into high gear, I ran out toward the van and just happened to catch the drummer of my band.

A bizarre funnel spins sideways out of the storm

“Kenan, storms coming down now, wanna chase with me, I need a photographer.”

He was keen.  The darkness was intense at this point, every direction we looked over the prairie all we could see was blackness.  The supercell blotted out the sun entirely and it felt like night was coming upon us sooner than later.  Immediately we tore out of town in the van, going by the gas station we seen a few cars that had pulled off the highway dented to shit by a hailstorm they had passed through north of us.

We decide to call it a day near Vulcan Alberta

We spun down the same backroads I had been on less than 24 hours previous till we were about four kilometers out of town.  That’s when we seen the wall cloud for the first time. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before.  The wall cloud was churning down over top a few farms threatening to drop what would have been a massive tornado. 

I think what prevented the tornado from taking shape there was the proximity to the Rocky Mountains.  That region has some sort of crazy weather trough, weather will often blow up or down the Rockies creating the chinook phenomenon.  Nanton was often dry when 30km to the east rain or snow would fall, it was these same forces that prevented a full tornadic development.  Nonetheless the wall cloud was massive, low and intense looking.  Kenan snapped three photos while I sped the Safari van westward hoping to get in behind the development which was moving east.

The wall cloud was at the epicenter of a long line of storms, the line must’ve been several hundred kilometers long and likely had several such low pressure epicenters.  The storm seemed to behave more like a hurricane, often a supercell thunderstorm would have the funnel developing in behind the storm whereas this appeared to be at the very center…as if the whole storm was churning in a mighty circle around it.  We couldn’t believe our eyes!

Suddenly the wall cloud stalled and began to break up.  Kenan snaped one more photo before the storm let all hell loose and nothing more could be seen.  Rain pounded so hard that nothing could be seen out the windows.  Lightning began to flicker in all directions around us, the intensity and closeness of the lightning was something else.  There was nothing we could do but pull over and wait for things to let up before we could resume the chase.  I wanted to take a leak so bad but there was no way in hell I was stepping out into the open prairie with such erratic lightning striking on all sides of us.  Many of the strikes were so close that there was barely a second between the flash and the thunder. 

Consider that sound travels a kilometer in about 3 seconds, many of those lightning strikes were less than 300 meters from us.  The rain and hail rocked us for about ten minutes before the storm began to move eastward of us.  We tore back to town and again I picked Leah up and we motored towards Vulcan hoping to locate one more tornadic phenomenenon. At one point we seen a strange funnel roll sideways out of the storms breaking up as it came to the earth.

Again we trailed the storm watching the hail right before as we remained in the high pressure zone in behind.  Soft bubbles formed in the underbelly of the storm but it was obvious that there was no tornadic activity in this sector of the storm to develop again.  There was no wall cloud, there was no hook behind the storm, there was no nothing.  Somewhere else somebody might get lucky, or unlucky…but we had seen all we would of this very violent and severe supercell thunderstorm.

Early the next week we seen a good early morning storm in Lethbridge.  Then we ended up in Riding Mountain Park in Manitoba the next week to catch a wicked early evening storm which packed more lightning and rain than their Alberta counterparts we had witnessed.  Leah and I spent much of that storm hiding snug up to a building as the rain poured into the eaves troughes and blew onto us.  Lightning rocked the region of Clear Lake thundering with such intensity right around us that it was unnerving.  That was pretty much the end of the storm season though we did catch sight of another funnel cloud in Manitoba in early September.  That one we seen from a distance of about 10km and it was difficult to percieve at first for all the people I was with, though I knew what it was immediately.

That funnel cloud came sideways out of the storm and I immediately called it out but was made the subject of many jokes..until it clearly straightened out and reached toward the earth.  There wasn’t much to see at that distance though, the best part of that storm wasn’t actually seeing it…it was that I had called it out four hours previous claiming that it was good weather for tornadoes when it was still sunny and clear out.  It was the soft round bubbles in the belly side of the cumulonimbus clouds that gave it away.

All in all it was a very excited summer for storm chasing.  It is my hope that our June and July tours this year into the prairies will be full of exciting thunderstorms to catch.  So far it has been a wild year for storm chasers in the United States.  As we do not enjoy the frequency of severe storms that the American mid-west does we must be all that more astute in watching and predicting the weathers behaviour in Canada.  With good eyes and good sense we may be lucky enough again this summer to see an amazing sight such as a tornado.

It’s just my hope that anything we do see carries a harmless course where no structures, no animals and no crops will be damaged like there was on that fateful summer of 2008.

July 6th in Airdrie Alberta, taken from http://www.flickr.com/photos/nikname/2763105123/

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About joeyonly

Dr.Joey Only will knock you out...and do it with country music!!! HIYAAAAAA!! View all posts by joeyonly

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