By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
"It's gotten worse each year," Cerveny says. "I've wondered, if this continues, can we justify this, all the training? But you have to take the long-term view; there are still benefits."
For chasers, there is the knowledge, and then there is the utter spectacle itself, because knowledge does not explain everything.
About a quarter after five on the chicken hunt of July 12, the van rumbles to a stop at Coyote's Crossing, one of those mom-and-pop food marts outside Apache Junction. The connection to Stormbase has gone bad; there was something about a hail warning in Globe. The sky is blue-gray to the east and the floating chickens have spread out to the south on their way in from Winkelman.
Graduate student Nancy Selover, who is doing her thesis on storm prediction and trying to figure out how they move into and around the Valley, backs the van up to a pay phone.
John Shaffer, in his seventh year at ASU working toward a doctorate in geography, is concentrating on paleoclimatology, the study of weather over epochs as opposed to what he sees as the day-to-day futility of forecasting. "How can you predict the weather?" he shrugs. Now, at the phone, he's stumped again: "Anybody got any quarters?" he says. Pockets are scavenged for the change.
"We've got enough gas," Selover says. "Tell them we'll go wherever they want us to go." She looks back toward Globe. The clouds, mostly flat and lifeless, haven't changed.
Stormbase tells Unit 1 to wait, that rain is on the way. Selover parks the van about 30 yards from the store, near a tree. The gusts come in tiny bursts of barely six miles an hour. Student Delfina Olivarez, a single mom, goes out to check the humidity with a sling psychrometer, which works with a lariatlike whipping motion; Kristi Arsenault, a 20-year-old student interning at SRP, follows with a video camera, narrating the action. The winds are picking up. Something is moving in.
But by 6 p.m., it's clear that the real action is to the south, where the chickens are letting loose with a rain shaft that is kicking up a wall of dust. "It looks like a microburst," Selover says as the traffic whizzes by on Highway 60. "Get out your camera."
Dust flares across the lot, carrying the aroma of rain. A gust flips Arsenault's visor up over her head as she rolls the tape. "Wear one with a little strap under your chin, like Randy does," Selover suggests.
Little dark clouds hover above the van. Lightning pokes to the far south. Olivarez is out there now with the anemometer, holding it up like she's carrying a torch into a dark corridor, the little cups spinning as winds swirl up to 20 miles an hour. Jon Triggs, a sophomore, trundles out a rain gauge--it looks like one of those old coffee makers--to a spot about 20 feet in front of the van.
"It's getting close," Shaffer says. He heads out to where Olivarez has the gauge held high. "Twenty-five," he shouts. "Twenty-seven . . . twenty-eight . . ."
And that's as exciting as it gets. Things are dissipating. The dust wall to the southwest has curled up like a raised tablecloth. Shaffer is on the radio to Stormbase; they recommend the van head back to Phoenix. They mention that there are thunderstorms in Queen Creek, but that is too far away.
The van crawls back onto the highway. Near Silly Mountain, big drops of rain pelt the windshield. The connection to Stormbase has been lost again. Selover looks for a place to park. "First thing we do," says Shaffer, "is somebody get out with the rain gauge."
A dirt road, the road to Silly Mountain itself, graciously appears. Out go the gauges. Triggs measures a gust of 35 miles an hour. But again, it's over within minutes.
"Still no word from Stormbase?" Arsenault asks.
"Nope. We're on our own," Shaffer says. It is quiet, too quiet. "Marooned."
Unit 1, humbled, rumbles over to an old standby to check in, to that acknowledged outpost of weather chasers, a Circle K. Thirstbusters are procured. Shaffer is on the phone again. "We're dry, and there's shit all around us," a frustrated Selover reports from the van. "That was a little bitty gusher we were just in."
Upon the group's return to the fluorescent shelter of the climate lab, Cerveny proclaims the evening a success, meaning dinner at Perkins is on him tonight. The difference is that Unit 1 went to Game One of the World Series and Unit 2 got to go to Game Seven. The fatigued soldiers of Unit 1 say nothing as the Unit 2 squad recalls how it braved lightning and a dead battery in Chandler. Cerveny was out in the rain, fiddling under the hood, while the three chasers inside hoped someone among them knew CPR, just in case.
"We had a dual reading failure and survived it," says John Moore, the shaggy, long-limbed software engineer.
"We got three gustnadoes," says Charles Lucas, a tall, clean-cut redhead, referring to the tornadolike dust devils that often form along the leading edge of thunderstorms.
"One good one," Moore says.
"One real good one," Lucas says.
"We had one that really spun up."
"I was like, 'What was that?'"
"Best one I've seen in Arizona."
"That was a beauty. That was a nice microburst, too."