3/30/97 GA/FL chase by Eric Gross



Well, yesterday dawned brimming with possibilities for some  strong to
severe thunderstorms across the Florida panhandle and south Georgia. With
action so close to home, I couldn't just sit there, so after church it was
chase time.

By noon the main mass of storms was still back in LA/MS/AL, but conditions
were looking ripe for some activity to break out in advance of this area.
Decided to set up across the Georgia line in the vicinity of Bainbridge,
where decent N/S and E/W roads meet.  Visibility was initially not very
promising, with the normal complications of hilly terrain and lots of trees
made worse by a heavy deck of low clouds -- if something went up, there was a
good chance I might not catch it.  After noon some spotty clearing began where
I was and to the north, and the air was getting really juicy.  As it turned
out, I had set up too far north, for a line of towers was going up just to the
south, stretching on a rough WSW/ENE line right around the GA/FL border; the
poor visability hid the developing towers just long enough to keep me from
getting an early jump. Went south on US 27 out of Bainbridge, coming in
behind a nicely developing cell located to the southeast. Got a glimpse of a
great dome-like anvil top glaring white in the sun before clouds obstructed
my view.  The precip shaft was getting an ominous HP look to it, and I
couldn't identify an updraft base, so I assumed it was either wrapped or on
the other side of the SE moving rainshaft. Didn't see much lightning.  After
crossing back over the FL border I sighted something resembling a very
thin, faint, nearly translucent rope-stage funnel cloud, right on the outflow
boundry.  Since I could not see the upper end of the tube connecting to
anything, I thought it might be scud -- but it persisted and didn't look or
behave like scud caught up in the gustfront.  The tube appeared to be bending
with the outflow.  Hilly terrain and trees prevented me from getting a view of
the horizon, to see how far down it extended.  It grew progressively fainter,
and after a couple of minutes I could no longer make it out.  I'm still not
exactly sure of what it was, perhaps some transient vortex associated with
shear along the outflow boundry; perhaps just scud.  In any event, by this
time the cell was clipping east Tallahassee and dropping quarter-sized hail,
and a severe thunderstorm warning had been issued. Unfortunately, the cell was
moving SE into Jefferson county and into a forrested area with few good roads,
so I gave up the tail chase.  Another cell had formed just to the WNW, and I
toyed with turning west onto US 90 and getting out ahead of it, but a quick
inspection showed this cell to be little more than garden variety.  So much
for round one; went home and took a break, ala TWISTER :)

The first line of storms moved to the SE and largely played out
by mid afternoon, but the larger area of rain moving out of LA/MS/AL was now
coming into the western Florida panhandle.  Lines of strong storms were
developing from mid AL/GA and propigating southwards, and a watch box was up
across SE AL and SW Georgia.  As late afternoon arrived it looked to me like
the activity should continue to develop southwards, and that once again
Bainbridge offered a good intercept point.  Back on the road, this time with
the wife at the helm.  Visability was again poor, with lots of high level and
low level clouds.  Sighted a promising-looking tower complex going up to the
northwest, with a dominant tower having a bulbous, mushroom cloud-like top --
right where I expected to find a tail-end charlie!  Lost view but proceeded
north on US 27.  Noted several smaller TCU to the WNW, with pronounced
bending of their tops off to the NE -- this boded interesting things, for
there was some obvious low to mid-level shear out there.

The overcast was thickening rapidly by now. Across the GA border and just
north of Attapulgus (I *love* that name) I sighted what I thought was a shelf
cloud dead ahead.  Couldn't see much for the hills and trees, but as we
crested a ridge it became obvious that it wasn't a shelf cloud, but a long,
flat beavertail sweeping in from the west and feeding into a rotating wall
cloud about a mile to the NE.  My wife (who has lovingly endured my interests
with severe weather)  immediately exclaimed "That's a wall cloud! I recognize
that from the videos! Wow!"  It was indeed a wow, especially since in this
part of the country  you are rarely able to see such things.  The wall
cloud was a large, inverted bowl, with the beavertail wrapping in from the
south and the striated northern flank of the updraft spiraling up in  into a
beautiful vault.  Temporaily lost sight of the base of the updraft behind
trees as we dropped down off the hill top, and when we topped the next rise I
could plainly see three conical-shaped cloud lowerings extending down from the
wall cloud, and rotating about a common axis. I checked myself to make sure
they weren't scud, but they persisted and continued to lower, extending about
a third of the way to the ground.  Unfortunately (terrain be cursed) I
couldn't see the ground beneath the wallcloud, to see if there was any visible
evidence of circulation on the ground.  Lost sight of the updraft base again,
and began seeking a place to pull off. Rising to the top a good ridge, Linda
pulled off to the side.  From this viewpoint we could see the massive
rainshaft just to the north and northeast, very purple/black.  The cell was
moving off to the east, perhaps just north of east, and the wall cloud was now
about a mile to my east. Right as I got out of the car an almost simultaneous
triple brace of brilliant CG  struck about two miles ahead, coming out of the
region bordering the rainshaft.  Mindful of being exposed on a hilltop
(fotunately there was a stand of high pines competing for being a lightning
rod)  and I ran to the edge of a fallow field for a better view.  By this time
the cloud lowerings were still present but greatly diminished, and I could see
no sign of a vortex reaching the ground beneath the updraft.  The updraft base
continued to rotate, but within a period of five minutes it was undercut by
outflow.  Lightning was now regular and getting closer, and the rainshaft
looked to be wrapping more this way.  Time to get out of Dodge.

Continued north on 27 into Bainbridge, just catching the trailing skirts of
the rainshaft and having several CG strikes within a mile of us.  Toyed with
the idea of either running north further to see if there was another cell up
the line, or heading east on 84, pacing this storm as it moved eastwards.
Visibility, however, was garbage, and it was beginning to get dark, and the
thoughts of continuing a chase in those conditions with HP storms about wasn't
too inspiring.  Called it a day.  Friends in the Bainbridge area later
reported brief, small hail in association with the storm.

This was my first glimpse of decent convection since late last summer, and its
return was very welcome!  The wall cloud was absolutely beautiful, and if I
stress that too much it's only because SE chasing rarely affords one such
sights.  Frustrations with terrain and visibility do get old, and one day I
dream of being able to chase where the land is open and flat and the horizon
is actually visible :)

Here's wishing everyone happy hunting . . .


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