Historic Day Likely in Oklahoma 5/20/19. We are not chasing it. Why?

The quick and easy answer is — I could find no way to accomplish it safely.

When I went to bed last night (Saturday, 5/18 after we finished chasing the squall line in south central Kansas), I planned to spend much of the evening writing an Insiders Briefing discussing the process we use to make a chase target choice. With the main risk in Kansas being flooding, I thought it would be in interesting change of pace for those who are really into weather and the site.

But we pulled the plug on chasing Oklahoma about 9pm Sunday. I thought it might be illustrative if I explain our thought process getting to that decision.

Disclaimer up front: I make no judgment of any other chaser or team’s decision to chase or not chase this event. For me and the three people I’d be responsible for in the truck, this just didn’t fit the risk profile.

Strike 1: forecast widespread precipitation in the warm sector ahead of the main event

Here’s a selection of model forecasts for tomorrow. I’ve tried to keep it light with my naming of the image loops because this is a serious situation. The GIFs may not all animate, so I’ve also provided the download link for each.

GFS: If the first round doesn’t get you, hang on there’s another round that may
HRRR: Are we getting a storm outbreak or an acne outbreak this morning?
HRW WRF-ARW: how ow many rounds at the plate does this batter get? Oh, and let’s give Kansas some too in the middle of the night!
HRW WRF-NSSL: Round 1, 4pm; round 2, midnight; round 3, 5am

A mess like this means we have to be on the constant lookout for storm interactions, mergers, splits, and the effect they have on the environment. The environment in one 3-5 mile square box may be markedly different from any of the eight boxes surrounding it. For safety sake, that means playing/working further from the expected tornadic storms.

Strike 2: low visibility, very low cloud bases

These images show 1pm forecast temperature and dew point

1pm forecast temp at OKC, 73 degrees give or take
OKC 1pm Dew Point, 73 degrees give or take

What do you get when the temperature and dew point are the same, or within just a couple degrees? Fog, mist, and cloud bases in the hundreds of feet (like 500 feet or less) at these temperatures.

As I heard from someone else “we’re going to be crawling around under these bases looking for the wedges.”

As in, crawling on our hands and knees.

It also means for our own safety we have to play further from the storms.

Strike 3: Traffic, Chaser Convergence, Lack of Options

This is really the one that made the decision for me. Let’s set aside that the models basically rake storms the length of I-44 — one of the most classic setups for major tornadoes in Oklahoma. Let’s set aside that the Oklahoma City metro has its own traffic problems and slowdowns. Now add a couple thousand storm chasers…and those are just the ones who know about storms enough to pass the test to beacon their location on Spotter Network.

So we’re going to have these….

In these conditions…

With chaser traffic like this…

Combine all those things and I evaluate our risk of becoming part of the problem as too high to be acceptable. If I lived in the OKC metro I would be out, but that’s because for me being out in a tornado is a more realistic expectation than staying home. But I live in Wichita, and I’m not going to put myself, those in my vehicle, and others on the roads at risk of getting forced into a place I can’t get out of.

There is a bit of light in the forecast, though

How can I say that when SPC has a HIGH risk posted? Because that high risk currently does not include the Oklahoma City metro. That is not in any way to say that lives in rural Oklahoma are any less valuable than those in the city. It’s an acknowledgement that because of the lesser population density there are fewer people total at risk of having their lives changed today. However, as you’ve seen in the models above, the MODERATE risk area does include both Oklahoma’s metro areas.

Here’s the (very strong) wording from SPC about today’s threat:

An outbreak of strong tornadoes and severe thunderstorms is expected today across parts of the southern and central Plains. In addition, many of the storms will have very large hail and wind damage. The severe threat will be concentrated from west Texas and the Texas Panhandle eastward across Oklahoma, Kansas into western Missouri and western Arkansas.

And the graphics:

SPC Categorical Severe Storm Threat:


Light Green/Yellow: Slight    Brown: Enhanced      Red:  Moderate     Violet:  High

SPC Tornado Probability

Probability of any tornado within 25 miles of a point

Green: 2%     Brown (most of Kansas): 5%

10% probability of EF-2 or stronger tornado within 25 miles of a point

White overlay from Texas panhandle to far southern Kansas, covers most of Oklahoma.

Probability of any tornado within 25 miles of a point (shown overlaid by the significant tornado risk area)

Yellow (entire significant area outside the red and violet): 10%        Red: 15%        Violet:  30%

SPC Large Hail Probability

Probability of hail 1″ to 2″ in diameter within 25 miles of a point

Brown: 5%       Yellow: 15%     Red: 30%     Violet: 45%

Bone-color overlay: 10% probability of hail larger than 2″ within 25 miles of a point

I didn’t run a wind image, but it’s just as ominous.

I offer my prayers and well wishes to those who will be impacted by these storms, to the chasers who choose to document this event, and to the emergency responders and recovery workers who will be called to “do what they do” in the upcoming days and weeks.

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Severe Weather Awareness: The Rain came Down, the Water Came Up

Flash flooding is consistently one of the top storm-related killers each year. In 2016, floods closed many roads in Sedgwick, Sumner, Cowley and Butler counties following a couple of very heavy thunderstorm complexes in the late summer, and one person died. Simple action can save your life the next time you encounter high water.

112 Comments

  1. according to the SPC it looks kinda “hairy” to our SW in the Texas panhandle and SW Ok. I have not seen them post a 30% tornado risk in a while.

    1. Are you going? They are predicting 4000+ j/kg CAPE. My truck is broke down and my gf is sort of afraid of these situations. Hint, hint. If you go and need an extra set of eyes let me know. I have been chasing since I was old enough to drive and am certified with the NWS and have a spotter #

  2. Thank you for taking the danger and high traffic volume into consideration. While many school districts are closed many people will be trying to get home from work in rush hour traffic.

    1. Amy Crandall Herzog you are correct, Amy, this is the Marquette tornado. I never knew who to credit it to. I’ll be happy to edit the post and give you credit for it if you’d like.

    2. Storm Chaser Scott Roberts not my picture. I live just to the southwest of this monster that went through my yard 7 years ago but I definitely recognize it!

  3. Respect.
    Work smart, or don’t work.

    Miscalculation in this stuff means you pay with lives. That’s steep currency to be trading with. Hope others heed the warning.

  4. Wow! What a great read, Scott! And your comment about traffic in OKC…? Spot on. I hope I never again complain about traffic driving from west Wichita to east Wichita. ?

    1. I say watch the radar and keep an eye on the National Weather Service Norman website. The local meteorologist did a live on fb a little bit ago and he showed all the bands/waves starting up in our area after 1 pm.

    2. Cathie, I would not drive south today at all. I expect that by afternoon will be staying to see flooding. There’s a decent chance the turnpike will flood again, and the further south you get the more likely it become that you find yourself stuck on the road without many options for cover or evading severe weather. That said, I wouldn’t want to make the trip tomorrow, either. I don’t know it will even be possible due to flooding. Wednesday would be my choice if I had to make the trip.

    3. Cathie Hartenstein Chaffin According to this mornings forecast if you can’t be in OKC by 2 pm I would wait till after 6 pm tomorrow.

  5. Safely ??? Go big or go home !!! I’m gonna do what I always do…. see you in the “” bear cage “” brothers….

  6. A wise discussion and wise choice. There are so many amateur chasers that it has become a circus. Sooner or later there will be a serious number of fatalities…….

  7. Professional choice. Risk management and safety is always at the forefront of a professional’s mind during go/no go decision making.

  8. I dont know why anyone would be doing a big explanation about OK today…if I wasn’t nailed to my chair in Arizona id be in Texas right now. The 12Z HRRR doesnt look ‘messy’ at all down there…same parameters. Southern end storm. Close to dark but thats the best time anyways. To each his own…ive certainly had lousy luck with high risks…ill just be living vicariously with the ones on the isold sups today…be safe!

  9. La Guera Alex Ultreras Manuel Jr Ultreras David Ultreras Manuel Ultreras III make sure David and Pa doesn’t chase any tornadoes this year please haha.

    1. Kayla Zettlemoyer I knew it looked huge on the weather raider when the weather man was showing the raider indicated tornado today.

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