VERMILLION, S.D. - Storm chasers have a term for the dangerous place in some supercell thunderstorms marked by wind, rain and hail wrapping around a tornado's circulation. It's called the "bear's cage."
Seth Price, a recent Virginia Tech graduate, coined a term for what storm chasers from Southwest Virginia found late Saturday in extreme southeast South Dakota: "the teddy bear's cage." The 12-member team endured a baffling and frustrating day, finding only light rain showers under immature cumulus towers just before sunset. This despite successfully locating in the middle of a tornado watch more than 24 hours ahead of time and many atmospheric parameters that seemed favorable for severe weather.
The Southwest Virginia crew was far from alone. The message board on Stormtrack.org, a chasers' Web site, revealed scores of chasers huddled in truck stops, travel plazas and restaurants in Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa, waiting for nothing. Some chasers had gotten up before dawn in cities as far away as Dallas to drive north to an area where a cold front, strong shear or conflicting winds aloft, moisture and heating seemed to be converging.
Local weather service offices up and down the northern Plains warned of the potential of severe weather, including supercells with the possibility of tornadoes. With the exception of a few storms in central Kansas that dumped large hail very late in the day, it just didn't happen - and even that was outside of the tornado watch box that extended from near Topeka, Kan., to the Minnesota-Iowa border.
The Southwest Virginia storm chase team, composed primarily of high school and college students from the New River Valley, was among the farthest north of the chasers. Truck Haven, a truck stop just south of Sioux City, Iowa, became the base of operations for much of the afternoon, largely because of its free wireless Internet.
At 5:30 p.m., the team decided to go after the only convection being shown by satellite, which was a narrow line of clouds across the Missouri River in northeast Nebraska. They did find towering cumulus clouds arising over the rolling landscape, and hope was rekindled that the team would finally see something four days after its last successful storm chase on Tuesday.
But the cumulus towers only rose so high before stopping. Eventually, the team drove back to Sioux City and then north along Interstate 29 into southeast South Dakota, the 11th state visited during the trip, to follow the rising cumulus clouds.
They did see some striking late evening scenes of the sun peeking in and out of the bubbling clouds, but encountered only a few rain showers.
At Truck Haven, the storm chase team with its two heavily wired and antenna-topped vans drew much attention.
Julian Daly, a trucker from Omaha, Neb., on his way to Minnesota, admired all of the equipment, talking extensively with Price, the team's radio expert.
Another man walked by, saying cryptically: "You think this is top secret? I can tell you, this ain't top secret."
One man with a large black mustache stepped out of the truck stop and said: "You guys are either storm chasers, or you're waiting for the mother ship."
Perhaps the mother ship would be easier to find.