In the wake of a devastating EF-4 tornado Tuesday that tore through the western suburbs of Kansas City, a tour company got an unwelcome surprise.
Silver Lining Tours, founded and operated by Roger Hill and his wife, Caryn, released a statement Wednesday describing a “very unfortunate incident.”
“While chasing the Lawrence, KS tornadic supercell, we were hit with a rain-wrapped satellite tornado 2 miles southeast of the parent circulation,” the statement read. The sudden gust knocked two vans off the road, rolling them and leaving one upside-down. The other two vehicles in the chase caravan escaped unscathed.
Hill refers to a satellite tornado that blindsided his crew in the heavy rain core. These quick-hitting, generally narrow vortices sometimes flank the largest, most intense tornadoes. They revolve around the main area of rotation in the storm, the erratic pattern they carve out akin to what you’d see if you put a marker on a bicycle tire spoke.
Only minor injuries were reported in the incident, which has sparked renewed discussion on the safety and ethics of “tornado tourism.”
Satellite tornadoes are extremely difficult — to nearly impossible — to predict. Although they have been studied, there aren’t methodologies for forecasting them in advance. It’s a game of “nowcasting,” so to speak. One wedge tornado may be accompanied by two or three satellite funnels, while another similar tornado might have none. And with heavy rain, hail and wind reducing visibility to 100 yards at best, hoping to spot one orbiting a rain-wrapped tornado would be futile.
They can’t be seen on radar, either.
“The overall circulation was so strong and so broad that seeing such small scale vortices is probably not within the ability of our radar,” explained Chris Bowman, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Kansas City. “For something like that, you’d need a Doppler On Wheels (DOW) mobile research unit.”
The Silver Lining Tours statement cites the tour caravan as having been roughly two miles southeast of the main circulation when it was struck. It was located on Highway 59, a north-south paved road. At the time, the company was heading south — away from the main tornado — to continue their chase eastward.
Some speculated the caravan’s vehicles might have been overtaken by the rear flank downdraft. That’s an area of downward-rushing wind and cold air that surges around the backside of the rotation. But the fact that only two of the four vans were affected suggests whatever happened occurred on a highly local level — lending support to Hill’s claim to having been broadsided by a satellite vortex.
However, there remains some disagreement in the storm chasing community as to whether the caravan was intercepted by a satellite tornado, as Hill claims, or the periphery of the main funnel.
The National Weather Service in Kansas City is investigating whether the main path of the tornado as measured ought to be extended eastward given new reports of damage. But it doesn’t plan to investigate potential satellite vortices.
Hill’s company is one of many that offers the general public a front-row seat to witness Mother Nature’s beauty and fury unfold. A quick Internet search reveals at least a dozen companies that advertise similar experiences, which rose to prominence in the early 2000s. Many meteorologists even contract out their services, offering to be a ride-along co-pilot/guide for wealthier patrons wishing to chase from the comfort of their own vehicle.
According to its website, Silver Lining Tours has been in operation since 1998. Founder Roger Hill holds the Guinness World Record for “most tornadoes sighted by one person,” which stands above a whopping 650.
Hill has been highly regarded across the storm-chasing community as a veteran of the field. In his statement Tuesday, he wrote that “we still do consider ourselves careful chasers.”
“Let this serve to all chasers as a reminder that this CAN happen to you,” read Hill’s statement, which emphasized the company’s commitment to safety. Hill was not available for comment.
In the meantime, Hill has no plans to alter operations, saying he is thankful for the “outpouring of private messages and phone calls” he received. “Our tours … will continue for years to come. I’ve been bucked by many horses, and the only thing to do is get right back on.”
Friday evening update: This post was updated to note some storm chasers do not agree the vans were hit by a satellite tornado but rather intercepted by gusts along the periphery of the main funnel.