June 12

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by Hummer Storm Chaser

We’re Under Fire

Hail damage on NSSL probe minivan
NSSL minivan probe vehicles

In the Men In Black movies, the secret government agencies that track fictional aliens drive immaculately prepared Suburbans or Crown Vics. Government storm trackers, from the National Severe Storms Laboratory, a division of the Department of Commerce under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, cruise around in instrument-laden minivans. Sometimes these minivans get stuck in soft shoulders of small roads, as the CSWR team has twice pulled them out of the goo during the 2009 tornado season.

Other times, the poor minivans are subject to hailstorms while they poke into the storm and gather data on their mobile mesonet roof-racks that contain both propeller anemometers and sonic anemometers, temperature and relative humidity J-tubes, and temperature and relative humidity straight tubes. Data from these instruments is recorded into small black boxes attached to GPS, which records time and place.

The mobile radar trucks scan the storm with high-resolution radar, accurate enough to tell a water droplet from a bug, and tell the mobile mesonet minivans and other probe vehicles where to safely drive without danger of running into a tornado. But hail is a different issue—it can hailstorm miles away from the twister, under the big wall cloud that makes up the base of a supercell.

During these missions, drivers such as post-graduate scientist Sean Waugh wheel these minivans in front of storms to gather data. Often these vehicles suffer the wrath of the storms. After the EF2 tornado in La Grange, Wyoming, Probe One minivan driver Waugh explained how the windshield on his government minivan was so severely damaged that he had to drive the minivan with his head poking out the driver’s side window just to get it to a repair shop.

“The noise was sick,” recalls Waugh. “When the hailstones hit the metal and the roof, they sounded like big crashes, but when they hit the windshield, they made a kind of a thud noise. It wasn’t very loud. But each time they hit the glass, pieces of the windshield showered us, and I was covered with glass pieces. They were all over the floor and the seat.”

The NSSL minivans have budgeted two windshield replacements per season of chasing, because it is expected that while driving through the precipitation of a supercell, hailstones can range in size from pea-size to grapefruit-size. The larger hailstones are dangerous, and would likely cause severe injuries if driver and passengers ventured outside their vehicles.

“There was water and glass leaking into the car from the windshield,” recalls Waugh. “I was sitting in glass. Every time the hail hit, glass would spray into the car. I thought ‘Here I am passing the TIV going towards a tornado. I never thought I would be doing that.”

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