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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Diary from the eye of the storm

For the next week, the BBC's Simon Hancock will be chasing storms through Tornado Alley, an area of high tornado activity that runs through the centre of the US. He has joined a professional team which hunts out tornadoes using hi-tech gadgets.

DAY THREE: THE SOUND AND THE FURY

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Driving through the eye of a storm

It is not often a seasoned storm chaser will admit to being afraid, but today our tour director Brian Barnes did just that during our search for the all-important tornado.

The experience happened just inside the Texan border as we drove right through the middle of a severe storm.

Hail from tornado alley
Hail battered the van

Rain and hail battered the van, while visibility was reduced to just a couple of feet, with our driver Paul often having to turn into the wind in order to keep the vehicle on the road.

Brian may have been nervous, but he didn't show it. It was only after dinner later that evening that we realised how close we had come to being tipped over as a result of the cyclonic activity that you get in the middle of a severe thunderstorm.

As one of the tour quite rightly commented: "Ignorance is bliss!".

Earlier, we had come very close to seeing our first twister, with weather conditions almost perfect, until another storm cell bowled into the one we were watching and ruined the moment for us - Brian explained what was happening in the video below.

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Brian Barnes explains how a tornado could be about to form

Unfortunately, despite being subjected to the might of the storm, we were unable to catch a glimpse of that all elusive tornado.

Sunset in tornado alley
Sunsets are spectacular in Tornado Alley

We did however see some hail - while it was not quite of the calibre of the baseball-sized hail that can occur during storm season, it would still be pretty painful if it landed on your head!

One curious feature of Tornado Alley is that while the sky on one side of you may be sunny and clear, the other side could contain a cloud straight from a Stephen King horror novel.

This was perfectly illustrated at the end of the day as we stopped to survey the storm damage in an Oklahoma field that had been hit by a twister just minutes before we arrived.

Facing the van was an amazing red sunset, while behind was one of the most intense lightning storms I have ever seen.

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Storm lights Oklahoma sky

Three days down and no tornado yet but we do feel we are getting closer.

Maybe all we need is a little luck. Fingers crossed!

DAY TWO: A TERRIBLE BEAUTY

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Kit for storm chasing

Note to self - if you are going storm chasing it might be a wise idea to bring a rain coat!

Today was the first real day of our mission to capture a tornado.

In an effort to travel in the tour van with as little kit as possible we took only the bare essentials to ensure we wouldn't leave our fellow chasers trying to avoid sitting beside us.

Storm chasing van
So far, tornadoes has proven elusive, but the team have witnessed beautiful sunsets

We headed off at noon and tour director Brian informed us that we would hopefully get some action later in the day around the Kansas area.

Part of the fascination with tornado chasing is the fact that they can be small, isolated events in a big area.

And as with a safari, you need to know what signs to look for - they need several meteorological factors in place to feed their energy-loving needs.

Knowing how they work and having the equipment to spot these factors is vital. Before we left, Brian gave us a tour of his arsenal.

Beautiful sunsets, but no tornado

So we were off, and we perhaps naively expected to see something immediately.

Brian hovered over his console the whole time, checking the data and listening to the localised storm warnings on his ham radio, which spoke of golf ball- and baseball-sized hail.

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The team listened to warnings over the radio

After several hours of driving, we noticed a change in Brian's demeanour and an intense look of concentration on his face as he repeatedly scanned the skies - as well as his PCs.

He went very quiet.

We were in between two severe storms, and he thought there was a good chance of tornado development and didn't want to be taken by surprise.

He explained later that he was continually calculating escape routes in case the storm turned upon us. In the excitement of the moment it's easy to forget what you're dealing with.

Another reminder of our predicament came as our storm tracking took us through Greensburg, a town which was levelled by a ferocious tornado just last year.

Greenberg after tornado
Greensberg suffered enormous damage after being hit by tornado last year.

In the eerie light of the storm it looked like Armageddon.

But by the end of the day, while we'd seen amazing lightning formations, spectacular skies and a beautiful sunset - a tornado had proven elusive.

Tomorrow we depart early from our motel in Wichita to pick up the trail again. Here's to another wet and windy day!

DAY ONE: EXPECTATIONS AND NAGGING DOUBTS

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BBC weatherman Daniel Corbett explains how tornadoes form

My colleague Alan and I flew into Dallas. As we picked up our rental car a video of an enormous tornado ripping up the land was playing on the news.

This surely augured well for our storm chasing trip - though Alan pointed out that celebrating this with the rental car company might not be the best idea.

This year's tornado season in Tornado Alley has been much more active than usual, some say because of La Nina conditions.

Almost every day in this region there have been countless stories of destruction, near misses and lucky escapes caused by these powerful meteorological phenomena.

We're hoping to catch a bit of this action.

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This amateur footage shows that the tornado season is well under way (William Hark)

We arrive in Oklahoma City and meet up with our tour group.

The tour is being run by professional tornado chasers Violent Skies under the guidance of Brian Barnes. Brian's father was a storm chaser and now he works with a mix of hi-tech gadgetry and instinct built up over the years.

At our hotel base camp, Brian took us through some of the meteorological features that he uses to figure out just where the tornado might be.

Storm chasing briefing
The Violent Skies team explained the dangers of storm chasing

He explained that he gets up every hour during the night to check on just what the weather is up to, and warned us to be ready to leave at a moment's notice if he spotted a window of opportunity.

His briefing also left us in no doubt about the potential danger of storm chasing, a point echoed when we went to the bar later that night and again found wall-to-wall coverage of tornadoes on TV.

We also met some of the locals who couldn't believe that we were coming to chase tornadoes while they had spent their entire lives trying to get away from them.

I think it's fair to say they thought we were slightly odd in this respect.

While their comments and the amazing footage on the local news gave us hope that we might get to see the power of the storm, it also made us think twice about just what we had let ourselves in for.

Tomorrow the chase begins.

Animated guide: Tornadoes

Original here

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