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April 17, 2004 – Chase to Northwest Iowa

April…Warmer temperatures, green grass, birds chirping, and of course the beloved severe thunderstorms. Since there hasn’t been many chasing opportunities this year, I was very anxious to get out there on a so-called ‘real’ chase. I can honestly say there has not been a chase yet that I’ve looked at so many forecast models and weather data as this one. From the Day 10 GFS to the morning ETA/RUC models, I think I scoured everything I could dig up on this trying to find some answers. The best area to me looked to be somewhere in northwest-west central Iowa. The models were throwing up some crazy values that were almost too good to be true. CAPE values over 2500, LI’s -8 to -10, dew points in the mid 60s, and wind shear wasn’t too shabby either. All the talk around the chasing community was regarding the overstatement of the moisture return from the gulf by the models. The other issue was the beloved cap was expected to rear its ugly head over the target area. Blah!

Being a weekend chase opportunity, I decided to disregard these ‘minor’ details and give it a go and see what happened. If I expected to go that far, I figured I’d better get my transportation in optimal operating condition. On Friday, I took my car in for its very first oil change. (yummy synthetic too!) I figured it would help maintain the engine as well as yield better gas mileage. Anywho, after taking care of that I took one more glance at the models late Friday night. I decided to pick the Des Moines area to initially stop and get data, then go from there. I conveyed my thoughts to my EMT chaser pal Mike Cox who said he would meet me and go from there. So after fueling/bathing my car and grabbing a quick bite to eat, I departed Champaign around 8:30 AM on Saturday morning. I headed west on I-74 and made my journey across Illinois, anxiously awaiting my first chase to the state of Iowa. Around Davenport, I hopped on I-80 to make my trek to the west.

As I got closer to Des Moines, Mike called informing me where to meet him. I was only about 10-15 miles away at this point, so I switched over to the ham rig and made contact with him there. I met up with him at 1:30 PM and after checking data we decided to head north towards Fort Dodge. (this must be where my old van went to after I sold it!) As we approached Fort Dodge, Mike decided we’d head a bit further west which sounded good to me. We finally ended up in the little town of Rockwell City, about 25 miles west of Fort Dodge. We were getting fairly hungry, so we stopped at a Subway for some grub. After topping off the gas tanks, we drove down the street to the local park to check on weather data. Satellite was showing some scattered cumulus clouds trying to form over the area, but the cap was having its way with them. As we were sitting there, the SPC issued a mesoscale discussion for northern Iowa and southern Missouri regarding severe weather potential. (about time!)

While awaiting convective initiation, Mike and I got online and started instant messaging each other which we found quite amusing. 🙂 Since we were sitting in a park, we really couldn’t see much due to the foliage around us so we decided to head outside of town to get a better view. We could see the full effects of the cap, nothing could get fired up. While we were sitting there, I decided to try out my new anemometer. The winds were averaging around 15-20mph, with one gust of 27.5mph. We made a return trip back into town for a bathroom break then went back to the area where we just were to continue observing. To our north I noticed a tower starting to go up way out there. Radar was also starting to show some initiation, but it was way up by the IA/MN border. At 7:45 PM, the first severe thunderstorm warning was issued for Kossuth and Winnebago counties. Not too long after that the SPC issued the severe thunderstorm watch which did not include our location. Argh!

While we were pulling our hair out on what to do, a local cop decided to pay us a visit. He had seen us in town earlier and was curious what we were doing. The first thing he said asked was “are you guys storm spotters?” He was super friendly and we even showed him radar of the lovely cells to our north. Shortly after he left, some locals showed up asking us if we were chasers. Then they asked us if we’d ‘been’ in any tornadoes. While part of me wanted to pull out the Twister DVD, I just rambled on about my 2 intercepts in 2003. They finally left and we were back to enjoying the lovely cap. We contemplated whether or not to leave the current position and head north, but we both kept repeating to each other ‘never leave the target area!!!’ We sat there watching these cells grow on radar and could visually see part of them as well, but nothing was firing any closer to us. We watched the nice sunset and wondered if that would be the end of it.

I remembered my chase to the plains in 2001 that had a similar initiation after sunset, so I hadn’t given up on this chase just yet. Just after 9:00 PM, we assumed nothing was going to happen here so we were going to go after the stuff way up north. Just as we got on the highway, I swear I saw a lightning flash right behind us. I got on the radio with Mike and asked him about it, but of course he didn’t see it. (darn Iowa mirages) We pulled onto a country road to take another look at this thing and wallah, there was the lightning again! You can imagine how excited we were just at the fact that something fired up in our target area!

We busted out the tripods and starting shooting video of the lightning. It was really starting to crank up and it provided us with a nifty cloud-cloud show. We watched it on radar and it was getting stronger, eventually getting a severe thunderstorm warning issued on it. We headed east and then north trying to intercept it, all the while enjoy one heck of a lightning show. In hindsight, we should have just stopped and taken some pictures/video of this thing because it was the best lightning I’ve ever seen. However, in our quest to intercept it, it fizzled out and left us with nothing. In a last ditch effort to save the chase, we headed north to the main action. We heard several tornado warnings, but we just couldn’t get up there in time. We finally did make it to Mason City around midnight, but everything had died out or moved into Wisconsin when we got there. Since Mike had to be at work several hours later in Des Moines, we decided to end the chase and go our separate ways.

I sat there looking at data wondering what to do next. Should I spend the night and chase the moderate risk in Minnesota or should I just make my way home? I figured most of the action would be late afternoon/evening and that would make it impossible for me to get to work on Monday. My only other question now was do I get a hotel and drive back on Sunday afternoon, or do I make the half awake journey home right now. Not wanting to spend too much money, I decided to forego the hotel and head back to Champaign. I headed east on I-18 and then I-380 south. I kept thinking to myself that I must be insane to drive all the way back with no sleep, yet I continued my return home. I almost caved in once I got to Waterloo, but having to spend like $50 for a couple of hours of sleep just wasn’t worth it to me. I stopped at a couple of rest areas on the way back to refuel on caffeine and snacks.

Once I got into Illinois, I was really feeling fatigued and didn’t feel safe driving. I pulled off in some little town and rested my eyes for a bit, then continued on my way. This helped alot even if it was just for a few minutes. As I continued, I noticed the very nifty sunrise and just couldn’t resist taking any pictures. I pulled off at Galva, IL and finished out the roll of film and video tape. I made one more pit stop in Downs, IL. to get gas and the winds were really howling. (darn isobars) I finally strolled into Champaign at 9:00 AM and wondered why in the heck I drove all the way back. 🙂 After cleaning up and getting some food, I took a much needed afternoon nap and felt much better afterwards.

Final thoughts:
Whew, what a long chase! While the results of the chase weren’t what we expected, it was still a good chase. It was nice to finally meet Mike Cox and chase on his turf. 🙂 For my first Iowa chase, I was pretty impressed with the terrain as it looked much like central IL. I’m still trying to determine why the storms developed so far north, hopefully to improve target areas on future chases. I’m really looking forward to more local chasing during the rest of the season.

Total Chase Time: 25 hours
Total Chase Miles: 1035 miles

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