August 13, 2013

Arthur to Grand Valley, ON – Part 1

For days Wednesday had been shaping up to make for a potential chase. A cut-off low was swirling over Hudson Bay with a strong upper jet poised over Southern Ontario. Good low-level moisture would be in place with CAPE forecast to approach or exceed 2000 in some parts, and a cold front would move through in the late afternoon or evening.

My excitement for a decent setup was dampened by the showers and storms that moved through that morning. So often the case in the province, early morning convective systems slowly drag on through, clouding over the day and all but killing instability and the promise of a good storm. For a few anxious hours I loaded and reloaded the visible satellite loop, hoping to see signs of a clearing trend.

I did.

By about noon I was liking a triangle between Sarnia, Grand Bend and St. Marys for sometime around 6:00 pm. HRRR was showing an isolated cell blowing up east of London by late afternoon, and so initally I considered targeting Brantford by about 4:00 pm. This would allow me to catch any isolated storm ahead of the front before booting it west toward Lambton County for the main show later in the evening. However, as the afternoon wore on, I became more and more torn between the Lambton target and a new one – Wellington County. There, models were also blowing up storms by early evening, but helicity was better. Though I was worried that this more northern target might not destabilize in time, more and more I was becoming inclined to gamble on the better chance at a rotating storm.

At 2:30 pm I set out toward the town of Preston just to the east of Kitchener. There, I would have a number of different highway options that would take me in just about any direction as I refined my target. An hour and a half later I was there, liking the looks of the CU field building to my northwest and the increasing parameters showing up to my north; SigTor was now at 2 and Craven Brooks was at 25 and increasing steadily. Committing to the northern play, I set off through Kitchener and Waterloo, heading toward Highway 12 and my new target: Arthur.

I drifted north on 12 toward the intersection of Wellington Road 7, where I parked to watch the towering cumulus build slowly to the west. Though it took some time to develop intitally, to the west of Arthur the storm exploded. Its transition from a garden-variety thunderstorm into a supercell happened quickly. It developed an impressive and low, rotating base and I watched as a lowering formed and a wall cloud developed. It was around 5:15 pm.


The storm passed near town with a large, broadly rotating wall cloud, travelling more or less on top of Highway 9 as it moved to the east. I dropped south on Highway 6 and then made my way to Sideroad 25 which headed northeast toward Highway 9. This allowed me to stay with and approach the wall cloud while maintaining escape routes that led off to the southeast.

As I approached Wellington Road 16, the first wall cloud occluded as a dry slot cut in, forming a new, tighter wall cloud that began to spin rapidly.

It took almost no time for the first funnels to form. They were whispy and finger-like, reaching toward the ground as they rotated around the base of the now front-lit wall cloud. At this point my view was still fairly distant and obscured by trees, preventing me from being able to see whether or not the rotation had reached the ground, however the footage and accounts of other chasers later confirmed that this indeed was the moment of the first touchdown. It was 5:45 pm. I snapped a few shots before racing onward for a closer vantage point.

It was looking northward from Sideroad 25 just past Wellington Road 16 that I first saw the debris swirl at its base: tornado! I pulled over as the funnel cloud condensed downward becoming a beautiful, white elephant trunk. Almost unable to believe what I was witnessing, the tornado rivalled any I have seen in Kansas. A flock of seagulls burst into the air from the field ahead of me as I snapped photos and watched.

After a few minutes I decided to once again reposition. The tornado was about a kilometre to my north and moving to the east. I decided that I could safely continue northeastward toward Highway 9 and closer to the tornado. I continued on, parked, and witnessed incredible upward motion into the violently rotating twister. Here, I recall thinking that if this were just a few kilometers to the west, EF2 or EF3 damage would surely be taking place through the town of Arthur. Thankfully it was not.

Arthur ON. August 7, 2013

This EF0 struck between Arthur and Grand Valley, Ontario, on August 7, 2013

Arthur ON. August 7, 2013

The EF0 twister became a cone tornado as it travelled from Arthur towards Grand Valley, on August 7, 2013

After several minutes I again decided to reposition closer to the tornado. I drove to the intersection of Sideroad 25 and 7th Line, and jumped out to watch and photograph as the funnel tightened and became more tapered.

After a minute or two the condensation cloud retreated upward, though debris continue to swirl at its base. I hopped in the car for one final approach, driving to within a quarter of a kilometer of the tornado. It crossed the road ahead of me, a whirl of dust, dirt and leaves with a perfect white cone hanging above. Then, finally, after over 15 minutes of tearing through the fields and farmland east of Arthur, it was gone. The funnel cloud withered to a harmless little rope, then retreated for good back into the cloud. It was 6:05 pm.

All in all, this was the most exciting, successful, rewarding day of my emerging storm chase career. Capturing a tornado in Ontario is not an easy feat; there aren’t many to begin with and most are extremely short-lived and often hidden, wrapped in rain. To top it all off, it passed harmlessly through forest and farmland, not causing any major damage. This was a very special tornado and a chase I will never forget.

To find out why I have no video of the Arthur tornado, read my next blog post titled How I Destroyed My Video Camera And Ruined The Footage Of My Life. Stay tuned.