BELLEVUE, Neb. - Storm chasing is more chasing around than storm.
By 8 a.m today, a 12-member storm chase team will have been gone from Southwest Virginia for a full week. In those 168 hours, fewer than 10 will have been spent actually chasing storms - and maybe as few as four, if Saturday's expected severe weather in Nebraska and Iowa fails to materialize. When the team pulled into the Omaha, Neb., suburb of Bellevue late Friday, it had traveled more than 3,000 miles through 10 states. The storm chasers have been in Kansas three separate times, and in Nebraska twice.
Going into Saturday, it had caught just one storm.
"They're getting a real picture of what real storm chasing is like," said Dave Carroll, the Pulaski County High School meteorology teacher who annually guides high school and college students into the Great Plains in a quest to observe severe weather.
"I thought it might be a hair easier," said Anthony Phillips, a Pulaski County High School graduate who is interested in becoming a meteorologist. "I didn't know there was so much of the Midwest spread around, I guess."
The nine students on board - six in various colleges, three at Pulaski High - have become nomads in vans. Riding in vans is by far the most time-consuming activity of the chase trip. Lots of countryside, most of it far different from Virginia, passes by.
Through Friday, just one storm had, but it was certainly memorable.
On the team's first real chase day on Tuesday, it intercepted a developing storm over southwest Nebraska, following it into central Nebraska. The team observed a rotating wall cloud, or a counterclockwise-spinning cloud mass hanging below the thunderstorm base that sometimes signals the possibility of tornadoes. Earlier, while following the storm north, members of the team may have spotted something that was a weak tornado, observed as a dust whirl by spotters closer to the storm.
Then, while returning south to Lexington, Neb., the chase team vans got caught in a four-minute barrage of hail. Via ham radio, chase team radio expert Seth Price reported the quarter-size hail to the National Weather Service in Hastings, Neb., which issued a severe thunderstorm warning for Dawson County, Neb., based on the report.
But since that catch, the chasers had two "bust" days in southeast Kansas when a stable layer of warm air aloft known as the "cap" was too strong to be overcome by otherwise favorable factors for storm development.
The team used Friday strictly as a travel day to get into position for Saturday's possible thunderstorms in the Omaha area.
Ethan Knocke, a Virginia Tech graduate student who has a degree in meteorology from Penn State and serves as one of the group's lead forecasters, sees victory even in the apparent defeats.
"The forecasting was right; Mother Nature just didn't cooperate," he said. "Forecasting success means something if you put yourself in the right area."
As time goes along, Carroll is getting more of the students involved in the forecasting. Real-life experience with forecasting is the chief aim of the trip. Seeing a tornado is a bonus, if the forecasting is right and other things fall into place.
"In college, I was slammed with all these formulas, diagrams and theories, but I couldn't picture this stuff," said Knocke, on his second storm chasing trip with Carroll.
"Just being out here a couple of days, I feel like I'm a semester ahead of everybody already," Jacob Carley said, in an audio update on roanoke.com on Thursday. Carley is a meteorology student at the University of North Carolina-Asheville.
The chase team is expected to return to Southwest Virginia on Thursday or Friday. Before that happens, there's a possibility of two or three more days with severe weather potential, as a strong jet stream aloft pushes cold fronts and upper-level lows into increasingly warm and humid air across the northern Plains.