March 29, 2003 Virginia Storms

chase images and log by William T. Hark, M.D.


A cold front was approaching from the west. Thunderstorms were expected to develop ahead of the front in an area of warm and unstable air across central Virginia. Tornadoes and supercells were initially expected; however, as the day continued, the forecast shifted to linear storms with "damaging winds."

Since the best combination of moisture, heat and upper level support was predicted to be near Richmond, I decided to stay at home and monitor conditions. A band of showers passed through the city and the skies cleared allowing more daytime heating and instability. Dewpoints quickly rose to the upper 60's with a CAPE of 2000 J/KG through central Virginia in a north-south axis. I was concerned about upper level support and a possible inversion, but I was still hopeful. I watched for signs of development. A north-south line of very unimpressive showers formed across Richmond. I chatted with William Coyle of Virginia Beach (who was chasing near Emporia) and I watched the radar. Finally, I saw a section of the line that may become more isolated. I headed out the door at 3:10PM and targeted the Petersburg area. Passing through Petersburg on I-95, I encountered occasional showers. Nothing was developing. I stopped at a gas station with a Subway just off the 460 exit on I-295. They had table phones that I could use to collect data with my laptop. Near the exit, I could easily head in several directions if storms started to develop. A view of the radar showed a diffuse line of showers across my location. The area of development that I had targeted died. Nothing appeared promising; however, central Virginia was still in an area of unstable air. More storms could develop and I thought the region from Richmond to Petersburg was the most likely area for severe weather. The SPC downgraded their forecast for tornadoes to 2% just east and north of Richmond. I waited and checked data. Finally, there were some showers forming in far northern Virginia. I didn't expect anything, but I headed north on 295 in the slight hope that the storms would propagate southward. I stopped briefly to photograph a beautiful rainbow (1V) near the James River at 5PM. As I continued northward, I found out that a severe thunderstorm warning for Orange County, Virginia had been issued at 4:30PM. I was amazed and concerned that storms were forming quickly. I had to hurry. To, the north, I could see the edge of the storms (2V). At 5:17PM, a tornado warning was issued for Spotsylvania County. Arrrghhh. I was too far away. I called Chris Kridler and Dave Lewison who gave me nowecast advice. As I expected, the storms were forming a northeast to southwest line. I was too far away for the tornado-warned storm and would have better luck following a more southerly storm. Isolated storms, or the tail end of a line, have the best chance of producing tornadoes. I continued north, briefly stopping at a truckstop near Doswell at 6PM. I could see the probable tornadic storm (3V) to the northeast. The storm (4V) was too far away and would soon move over water. Another storm in the line became severe and was moving into Spotsylvania County. It appeared to be more isolated. I left the interstate and approached it from the south on Route 1. By 6:15PM, I was near Ladysmith. Finding a clearing to observe the storm was difficult (5V) . Finally, I had a good view of the storm (6V) at 6:20PM just inside Spotsylvania County. I encountered frequent cloud to ground lightning (pic#1; 7V) , (pic#2; 8V), and (pic#3; 9V), though usually just outside the view of my camera. I also saw another chaser parked along Route 1. (a rare sight in the East.) I drove further north watching the storm, and I was hit with pea to ?marble-sized hail. At Route 17, I turned around and ended the chase. I don't like to chase after dark. I crossed the line of storms and arrived at my house in Richmond in time to watch the line arrive. Richmond was pummeled with numerous cloud to ground lightning strikes that triggered power outages and a couple fires.

This was a fun chase to check out the equipment. No tornadoes but great lightning. Unfortunately, there was an unconfirmed report of a tornado touchdown near La Plata, Maryland, an area that has already been affected by two devastating tornadoes in the past. Thanks to Chris Kridler, Dave Lewison and William Coyle for nowcasting.

1V 2V 3V
4V 5V 6V
7V 8V 9V


(P -- Photo) (V -- Video Still)

Return to Storm Chase Photos and Accounts