Excerpt: Storm Chaser Reed Timmer's 'Into the Storm'


The mesocyclone, which is the rotating and rising air inside the cloud, is so powerful that it forces part, if not all, of the cloud to also turn. There's more to the spectacle, too. Miles in the sky, the warm and moist air that fed the growth of the cumulonimbus cloud has finally cooled, causing an upper layer of ice crystals to spread in all directions like a pancake. Now that same guy who was washing his car might look up and see a massive, glistening, flying-saucer-shaped, rotating cloud. If I were him, and this storm were real, I wouldn't be turning my back on the sky anymore.

The rogue cloud structure is now known as a supercell thunderstorm. Pregnant with moisture, wind, and both the warm air coming in and the cooling air spewing out its top and trickling down, the storm roars forth. Thunder. Lightning. Torrential rain. Cold cloud droplets turn into hail and get swept back into the updraft, only to attract more moisture and freeze again, cycling through until the hailstones grow as big as baseballs. Then they finally fall from the sky, kill livestock, smash windshields, and put holes in the roofs of buildings.

I imagine something else dropping from the storm's belly: a wall cloud. It's a signature, block-shaped mass of condensation produced close to the heart of the storm's twisting and ascending updraft. A wall cloud might be only hundreds of feet off the ground, and it can spin like a top.

Here the tornado science gets fuzzy. For reasons that aren't fully known, the wall cloud sprouts a thinner funnel that features an intensified rotation. Responding to pressure and temperature changes, the funnel lowers to the ground even as it sucks air upward. The spinning cloud might get longer and thinner, or it might not. Tornadoes can look like elephant trunks, stovepipes, drill bits, or wedges. They can be straight or crooked. They can range anywhere from three hundred feet to over two miles wide and can spin for a couple of minutes or an hour. They can glisten white in the sun or appear black in the shadows, although they can also turn shades of red, yellow, brown, and pink, depending on the color of the dirt and man-made materials they pull off the ground.

The F5 of my dreams doesn't do colossal damage to people and their property. I've seen all manner of such destruction: rain gutters peeled off by sixty-five-mile-per-hour F0s, large trees snapped in half by hun-dred-and-twenty-mile-per-hour F2s, and neighborhoods reduced to sticks and stones by a three-hundred-mile-per-hour F5. I've encountered semi trucks that have been lifted onto their noses and houses that ex-ploded under the force of the storm.

The F5 I imagine—a bright white stovepipe—spins in the open fields. I get close enough to hear its un-mistakable jet-engine whoosh. I smell the earth as the tornado slashes through shrubbery and trees like some giant-size lawn mower generating the unmistakable aroma of fresh-cut grass. I watch as the lone, imperfect cylinder unpredictably moves one way and then skips another.

When there's no more warm, moist air in the pipeline and the F5 has strangled itself by sucking in its own cold air, the once huge tornado turns into an ever-thinning, twisting rope before disappearing into the ether.

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