Virginia Chase 6/15/98 (Wall Cloud, Tornado Warning, Funnel, Hail)

Yes, one can chase in Virginia! As of late Sunday night, I realized that Monday was going to be a good Virginia chase day. A surface low was moving eastward from the western Ohio Valley with a cold front stretching from western Kentucky to central Texas. Dewpoints were expected to be high and there would be steep lapse rates. There was a Day 2 MDT risk which was expanded to cover most of Virginia on Monday, 6/15/98. CAPES above 3000J/KG were expected and "favorable shear profiles for severe thunderstorms and possible supercells/tornadoes."

CHASEDAY: I had my gear already prepared when I left for work on Monday in Charlottesville. (Get your atlas if not familiar with VA.) I knew that there would be almost no CAP and convection would start early. I had a research patient in the early afternoon and knew I would be delayed. By 1PM, the mostly clear skies were becoming obscured with low cumulus (Cu) and temperatures and dewpoints were quickly increasing. A severe thunderstorm watch was issued for west central VA including Charlottesville. It was a race against time. During a break, I checked the models and surface conditions to pick a target area. The highest CAPES were forecast by both the RUC2 and ETA to be in SE Virginia (Emporia and west to Norfolk). Upper levels were not great but the highest winds were forecast to be along the VA-NC border, especially the 500mb on the RUC2. Both models showed high storm-relative helicities in SE Virginia. Unfortunately, central and SE Virginia do not have stations that send up weather balloons thus I had no Skew-T's to help me. Upper level maps did suggest a jet max that went through central VA around Richmond if one extrapolated. By about 3:00, towers were visible in the distance and the Cu was decreasing in the Charlottesville area. Gotta leave quick! At 3:45 PM, I was able to leave. A final check revealed a severe thunderstorm warning for western Fluvanna county. Surface analysis showed dewpoints in the low 70's for SC and SE Virginia. Temps in the low 80's. No moisture convergence in Virginia on DuPage's 18Z analysis. The most recent radar showed a storm to the SW of Charlottesville at 3PM. The visible satellite image showed storms developing in a line from SE of Charlottesville to the SW and also some to the north. The whole central and eastern Va was under a severe storm watch.

I left my apartment at 4:30 PM on I-64. My goal was to eventually head south and get ahead of the storms to the southwest. I expected the storms to move into a favorable environment for intensification. To my SE, there was a large storm which I would have to pass through since the road also went to the SE. Visibility was great with mostly clear skies and easy to see towers. The storm was crisp but appeared somewhat multicellular and I figured the more severe/ possible tornadic storms would be in south central Va. I had two choices: go through the storm and head to Richmond (60mi) then south on I-95. Otherwise, I could turn south on 522, miss the nearby storm and possibly get caught west of the storms to the south on poor roads. At 5PM, I pulled off on 522 to consider my options. I was already in some rain and CGs from the closest storm. I was still too far to get NWS radio. I checked my portable Casio TV for the Richmond stations to see a weather update with radar but there had been a shooting in a school and all the coverage was devoted to it. They were blowing off the weather with a large storm headed toward the northern part of Richmond. I gave up and headed into the storm toward Richmond on I-64. By 5:18, I had to pull over in a rest stop because of heavy rain in Goochland Co. Then I heard there was a tornado warning issued for eastern Goochland County for a Doppler indicated tornado. After a few minutes, I continued to the SE on I-64. Visibility was terrible because of the rain though I did see a nice rainbow ahead of me. The storm was moving east at 30 miles per hour and I figured the main part had passed to my north. At 5:30, I turned onto I-295, goes east and then around the eastside of Richmond, bypassing the city and heading south. It connects with I-95 south of the city. I-295 bypasses the downtown traffic and would put me in position to view this storm and then go south. Large numbers of people taking shelter under overpasses slowed my progress. The people taking shelter partially blocked Interstate 64. The area was still under a tornado warning. By 5:50, I was heading east on 295. Visibility was still poor. Suddenly, the rain worsened and became mixed with hail. The pieces were initially pea sized, then increased to a few nickel sized which is large for Virginia. The wind increased and suddenly shifted to the east. I was worried. The storm may have right turned or I might have miscalculated the core's position. There was still a tornado warning in effect. I looked around and there was no cover and no exits. I cursed my stupidity. I figured if things got worse, I'd pull over and bail in the nearest ditch. Then, the rain stopped and I was outside of the storm. I watched it for a while on 156, then continued south on I-295. At one point, I saw a wall cloud under the ?main updraft. It was not rotating though there may have been a brief funnel on the edge of it. By the time I got the video camera on it, the ?funnel had vanished. In Virginia, it's hard to find good safe places to pull off. At this point, the storm seemed to be weakening, and it was moving into an area with a poor road network. I had to stop the chase when it became obscured in haze and rain.

Entering the Goochland storm heading east on I-64
Wall cloud east of Richmond from the storm originally in Goochland, Co.

I headed south to intercept another storm that looked good on radar and was in my original target area. Finally, the TV stations were broadcasting weather updates. The storm was east of Brunswick County heading east toward Emporia, Virginia. As I got closer the storm seemed to be backbuilding a little but clearly I would have to turn east to catch it. A large cloud-ground lightning bolt arched away from the back of the storm and into a clear area. Anyone who was in the target area of the lightning bolt would have had clear skies overhead and would have thought the storm had past. Lightning danger does not end when the storm passes and the sun returns. By 7:10 PM, I had turned east on 58 near Emporia. The storm was already about 20 miles to my east. Unfortunately, by 7:45 the storm was more south and it was beginning to fall apart. Road options were poor. While on Route 58, I did see this weird little funnel hanging off a high-based Cu to the ENE of the storm. The Cu was completely separate from the storm. The funnel lasted for about a minute and vanished. I did verify rotation with videotape. At this point, I broke off the chase and headed home. I was treated to a couple more storms at night that provided a nice lightning show.

Heading south on I-95.
Storm east of Emporia, Va.
Brief funnel approximately 20 miles east of Emporia.
Computer enhanced photo to show detail of the funnel.

No tornadoes, but a fun and educational chase. I was surprised that there were no tornado warnings issued for the storms to the south in my original target area while there was a Doppler indicated tornado on the Goochland storm. The models indicated better conditions in SE Virginia. But I guess one doesn't live by models alone. I think the Richmond storm was able to draw more energy since it was more isolated. The other storms had to compete with each other for energy. News accounts described rotating debris and funnel clouds associated with the Goochland Co storm but no confirmed tornado.

V - Video still from Hi8
P - Photo from scanned print (Kodak Royal Gold 100)

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