By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
It starts with the big floating chickens rolling in from Tucson, legions of fat, fluffy formations that have the weather wonks salivating over their radars.
Weather soldiers from around the Valley call the storm hot line for instructions: Be here at four, it says; there is activity to the south. And the very fact that these chickens are marching toward the Valley is enough to set the afternoon adrenaline afire. People drop whatever they're doing--cleaning apartments, booking flights to Reno, raising children--and hotfoot it over to the climatology lab at Arizona State University. A chase is on.
No one remembers that the weather gods have a nasty sense of humor and have been laughing at ASU geography professor Randy Cerveny's expense for three years. They have taken Arizona's premier weather event--the monsoon--and stripped it of its oomph. They have confounded the siren-sounders at the National Weather Service and flummoxed the folks from the National Severe Storms Lab in Norman, Oklahoma, flinging their fascination back in their faces. They have made it clear just whose party this is.
Cerveny, though, is no fair-weather fan. As leader of the Arizona Thunderstorm Chasers (AZTC) project at ASU, he is not about to call anything off. So here he is at the climate lab with the department van, ready to go. Because you never know: This could be the year things go back to the way they were, when storms were splashing down all over the place. The pattern says otherwise, but, let's face it, in the world of meteorology, the Arizona monsoon is one of the last unexplored frontiers, and the storms it produces are a weather nut's dream. Or used to be.
The storm chasers are students and former students and just plain weather fanatics, people who glean as much excitement out of a dust wall as others do from the final seconds of an NBA playoff game. They call up Cerveny's storm line every day. Today, they arrive at the lab one by one in their signature shirts. The light blue shirts show a van emerging from what appears to be a small nuclear explosion--an anvil-topped thunderstorm.
Cerveny himself looks robust and chipper. His hands are on his hips. His gaze is cast toward the southeast through the glass doors of the lobby. He is compact and athletic, decked out in shorts and hiking boots. His light blue shirt is like the others, except it reads: Director. This is the day he has been waiting for. When the local dew point hits at least 55 three days in a row, it signals the official start of the Arizona monsoon season. Today, July 12, is that third day.
He goes off to help gather the stuff they'll need on their mission--anemometers, barometers, a mobile weather station designed and built by former chasers. Others assemble downstairs, including resident weather aficionado and software engineer John Moore, who is one of these guys who actually travels to the Plains in the spring to hunt tornadoes.
The chances of rain are up to 40 percent. The chasers fit the van with weather-reading instruments--a propellered missile gadget on one front corner, something that looks like a beehive on the other--that measure wind speed and direction and relative humidity. A graduate student hands out AZTC ID cards in case authorities wonder what these nuts are doing running around in the rain with their oddball doodads--which has happened before, since one device looks like a gun.
Organized storm chasing has been going on in the U.S. since the late 1940s, when postwar military pilots had the time to spare. By the next decade, tornado-chasing pioneers were zigzagging the Plains from South Dakota to Oklahoma. But it wasn't until the National Severe Storms Lab (NSSL) created the Tornado Intercept Project in 1972 that the first organized ground-based chasing began. Now, maverick chasers (Spielberg is making a movie about them) risk their personal livelihoods every spring along Tornado Alley, which cuts through north Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and southern Iowa. Tornado Alley is not a good place to own a mobile home.
But storm chasing in Arizona? Isn't that a little odd?
Actually, no. Storm chasing is odd. Storm chasing in Arizona is only logical.
Today, nearly a dozen chasers show up at ASU, enough to send out two units, so Cerveny's car is fitted with a radio and a huge magnetic AZTC label. Some of them are assigned to "Stormbase," a position at the National Weather Service office (located inside the Salt River Project complex in east Phoenix), from where they can monitor radar and direct Units 1 and 2 toward likely storm locations.
"There was some action last night," Cerveny tells his chasers. "The East Valley got hit pretty hard."
Don't they know it. Their voices are tinged with envy as they provide commentary: "There were trees down in Mesa." "I heard a couple of planes got flipped over out in Chandler." "They had gusts up to 64 out there."
But if they're going to catch any action of their own, they'd better move on out. The idea is not to go where the storms are, because individual storms die out within 30 minutes. But the updrafts produced by dying storms can help fired-up storm systems generate new storms--propagate--as they move, so the plan is to head them off at the pass. The ideal situation is to pick out the spot where two separate systems meet, because convergence can birth the mightiest storms of all, and the radar is showing a second system moving in from Globe. If the two collide, it will happen somewhere to the southeast.
Cerveny lays out the plan: Five chasers in Unit 1 will head east in the van toward Apache Junction, then possibly to the south. He and three others in Unit 2 will go south, figuring to cut east near Coolidge.
"We now have an official monsoon season," Cerveny says. The chasers scramble into the vehicles; the official time is logged as 16:37. The floating fowl are within striking range.
The monsoon is a shift in winds (it comes from the Arabic word mausim, meaning "season," or "wind shift"), although many people think of it in terms of heavy rain. This is probably because the most notorious wind shift of all, the Asian-Indian monsoon, is responsible for the most spectacular and prolonged rains in the world.
Though not nearly as dramatic, the same phenomenon occurs in northwest Mexico and then, to a lesser degree, in Arizona. Some in the weather community argue that the event should be renamed the Mexican monsoon. As the summer months near, primary wind flows shift from west to south, which alters the moisture conditions. Meteorologists distinguish between a dry and wet season since the storms associated with the monsoon usually don't let loose until early July.
Valley thunderstorms typically pop up in the mountains--the Mogollon Rim, Mexico's Sierra Madre--and then zero in on Phoenix, which means you can basically wait for them to come to you. Most erupt here between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. The ferocity of summer monsoon storms produces the intense downdrafts known as microbursts that, because of the dust in the area, make them more visible here than anywhere else in the country.
For weather wonks, beauty lies in such predictability and clarity. So in 1989, Cerveny and ASU's geography and climatology departments, along with the Phoenix office of the National Weather Service, launched the storm chasers project. But Arizona's model storms also hold mystery, and that is the allure that draws the storm groupies from around the country. It is why the wizards of storm chasing, Oklahoma's National Severe Storms Lab, came to the Valley in 1990 to participate in SWAMP, the Southwest Area Monsoon Project, and why the NSSL has stationed someone out here every summer since, despite the growing laughter of the weather gods.
How Arizona's monsoon storms happen is no riddle. Watching them happen is cool. The systems that produce them have a tendency to cluster, as if organizing for optimum survival. They can go all night. Once in a while, they'll even move against the dominant wind flow. But being able to forecast when they'll happen and where their upper-level moisture, the moisture that sets the stage for summer storms, comes from--well, that's the real trick. The bull's-eye pattern of the storms makes the Valley an ideal lab for study.
And so, they chase. Their mission is fourfold: One, they deliver on-the-spot observations that verify what the Weather Service guys think they're seeing on radar. For instance, a mean-looking storm cell thought to be approaching, say, Apache Junction might actually be practically on top of it, and the chasers can relay that information in time for a warning. Second, chasers' observations before, during and after a big storm are pondered by the Weather Service and often passed on to news outlets.
Data also are compiled to create a bank of information, a sort of library, for detecting patterns. And the project also is designed to give the meteorology students a chance to rub shoulders with agencies they might actually work for someday.
But beyond all that, there is the thrill of the chase, of facing the elements. "It can get exciting when you get caught in the downpours," says project assistant director John Shaffer.
And so the storm chasers are out there on the front lines, volunteers caught up in the battles that the Weather Service sees in shades of red and green on Doppler radar. They are the kids who would stay outside marveling at storms when everyone else had run for shelter.
Cerveny, a tornado-seasoned native of Nebraska, is 36 and single, which gives him the freedom not only to do a little science-fiction writing, but also to funnel $2,000 to $3,000 of his own into the project. With no state or federal money to play with, all of AZTC's doodads are donations, from the media or from Salt River Project, which is always interested in knowing about storms that could cause power outages. The first summer out, the chasers were armed only with a handheld anemometer, a $150 gadget the size of a transistor radio that measures wind speed.
Engineering was the way to go when Cerveny first went to the University of Nebraska. That's where the money was and where his friends were heading. But then, while doing an internship involving MX missiles, Cerveny caught a glimpse of all the Maalox and Rolaids stashed in the desks of his co-workers, and that was about all he needed to know about circuit diagrams.
He opted for his real interest--geography, specifically, meteorology and climatology. Weather changes; it operates in traceable patterns, but every once in a while throws you something off the grid. It unleashes natural forces that can be visually remarkable or terribly catastrophic and sometimes both. Those forces are constants in recorded history, and despite everything we know about them, we're still pretty much at their mercy. Severe storms run a global tab of about $20 billion in economic losses annually, claiming an average of 400 lives.
As a contributor to magazines like Weatherwise, Cerveny balances published research on scientific buzz like the greenhouse effect with bubblegum meteorology articles on weather's role throughout the ages. He has written, for example, that Columbus was pretty darn lucky to miss a hurricane while looking for the Indies and that Homer was either clairvoyant or describing real events in Odyssey, in which the narrator appears caught in one hell of a huge microburst.
Adjusting to the elements has come a long way since Galileo designed the first thermometer around 1600. The first barometer came 40 years later, and, by the mid-1800s, the United States had created a weather bureau to warn against severe storms. The first weather balloons were launched just before the turn of the century.
Then, in the early 1970s, Oklahoma's NSSL came up with Doppler radar, the latest major innovation in storm tracking. Doppler allows forecasters to monitor winds within storm cells, a pretty handy device when trying to anticipate tornadoes, whose compact rotation can be lost in the enormousness of a raging supercell thunderstorm. Phoenix was the first city west of Kansas to get the system, which looks like a gigantic teed-up golf ball and is positioned at Williams Gateway Airport.
"Doppler is great--for some stuff," Cerveny says in his office at ASU, where he arrives between 5:30 and 6 every morning to check out the latest radar images on the Internet as well as updates from Stormtrack, the Koran of storm chasing. "But it tends to show you too much information." He calls up the screen and points at some blue splotches to the west. "That right there--that's probably just chaff from the gunnery range," he says.
You don't just go right out and chase with Cerveny--no, first one has to be trained. The process begins in May when Cerveny does the storm-chase song-and-dance for a mixed batch of old and new weather soldiers. He suggest items to have ready for chases, which can be called at the last minute--things like a hat, a change of clothing, a good pair of shoes, a functioning watch, a water bottle. Practice runs are conducted in the following weeks, and chasers learn the roles of leader, driver, communicator and Stormbase navigator.
By the beginning of July, they are a synchronized, nearly militaristic unit. Pursuits can cover up to 250 miles in one night. Little chasing is done after dark: "Storm chasing's a dangerous activity," Cerveny says. "The one thing I don't want to see in the paper is the headline, 'Storm Chaser Killed by Lightning.'" Just in case, though, everyone signs a liability waiver.
The storm Cerveny remembers best took place in July 1990. It was the summer the National Severe Storms Lab came down with an Orion P-3 plane used for flying through hurricanes.
The day started with a 10 a.m. briefing by the NSSL guys. "Learning to forecast at the National Weather Service--there's an art to it, recognizing patterns," Cerveny says. "The NSSL people had these preconceived notions about what makes our storms work. They thought it was going to be a down day. We were skeptical, though, so we stayed on alert.
"Then, about four o'clock, a huge wall of thunderstorms developed north of Deer Valley, around Black Canyon City. It was a really intense line of storms. We sent one team north to Cave Creek and the second, mine, went west. So we got to Indian School and the Black Canyon Freeway, and we got out and saw this huge dust wall coming our way. We were trying to figure out whether to head north or wait for it. It was a really dark mass--it filled the north horizon. We decided to wait. The other unit could see a huge storm moving south, so they headed west and came in behind it, where the rain hit them.
"All we had was our handheld anemometer. One chaser went out there, and he was yelling out numbers. Then he said, 'You gotta help me hold this.' So I went out there, and there we were, the two of us, with our backs to the dust, trying to keep the anemometer above us so we wouldn't interfere with the readings, and we're shouting out the numbers: '55, 56, 57 [miles per hour]'--and the last number we read was 59, when it just blew us over. It was like a big hand. The other guy's hat blew about two blocks down the road. A little after that, the cell was right above us, and we could see rotation. That's the closest to Midwestern weather that I've ever seen in the Valley."
Yes, the Arizona monsoon once lived up to its name. But lately, it's been a lame shadow of one, threatening to topple August from its first-place rating as Phoenix's rainiest month. July 1994 gave storm chasers nothing to chase at all; June and July of 1995 would go down as the driest ever. NSSL's Phoenix-based staffer, Chuck Dempsey, wonders half-jokingly whether the amazing Arizona monsoon is just one of those Western tall tales. For three years running, the weather gods have given everyone what Cerveny and Valley forecasters refer to as the dreaded nonsoon.
"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."
Cerveny is happy as sunshine. This was a five-run first inning. Usually, the first monsoon storms come in dry, he says, mostly lightning, but tonight was unusually wet. All in all, this was a good start to the monsoon season.
None of the rain, however, reaches Phoenix. The storms were headed that way, but then just dumped everything out and died before they arrived. It is a lamentable trend.
Dry is the way it stays, for days. The storm line offers nothing but bad news from Shaffer, Cerveny's assistant, as the end of the month approaches. It is Phoenix's driest July on record.
The chasers hear messages like:
"No chase. The storm will dissipate before it gets here."
"No chase. There's nothin' but junk out there."
"No chase. There is an unconfirmed report of a cloud over Safford, but we don't think it's gonna be worthwhile."
"It's 116 degrees with not a cloud in the sky. No chase. Repeat: No chase."
Then, on July 28, the temperature in Phoenix hits a sadistic 121 degrees. That evening, something extraordinary occurs.
By 8 p.m., the mercury has fallen to 101 while an unusually high supercell builds near the Arizona-Mexico border, the cradle of monsoon activity.
Around ten o'clock, the supercell crashes through the stable air at 60,000 feet up, it is that strong. The penetration snaps the layer of stable air like a rubber band. It sends a massive ripple far across the desert sky that shakes loose unstable moisture sitting over Phoenix.
The moisture spills like candy from a pi¤ata. But gripped by the intense heat, it fizzles, evaporates on the way down, leaving nothing but hot air. It compresses. It becomes a tremendous downdraft of air hotter than the surface air itself. It smashes into the ground like water from a faucet hitting the bottom of a sink, the same principle that results in microbursts and winds of up to 150 mph and deadly plane crashes and people swearing afterward that the rain was moving horizontally.
But this is a heat burst, and there is nothing but hot air spewing away from its collision with the earth. Waves sweep across the desert, gathering dust as they go, then tear through the Valley, packing overheated air and high winds that rip trees from the ground.
By 11 o'clock, the temperature in Phoenix has gone all the way back up to 114 degrees.
The same thing once happened in Portugal, Cerveny notes later, only much worse. It was in 1949, and there it is on page 255 of his copy of Time-Life's Mysteries of the Unexplained: The temperature rose from 100 to 158 in two minutes, killing barnyard fowl on the spot. Strange but true!
A half-century later, at a house on Oregon Avenue in north central Phoenix, the force of the July 28 heat burst wrenches an 85-foot tree from the earth and throws it across the road, breaking the foundation of an old stucco wall. The next morning, a Saturday, the home's resident finds underneath the wall a buried newspaper.
The date of the newspaper: Saturday, July 29, 1978. The knee-slapping weather gods have struck again.
Outside it is grayish brown, the color of an approaching dust storm, and all across the radar the cells are popping up in places that are just close enough to--yes! here we go!--well, shoot, actually not quite close enough, but they're getting there! We'll get a severe storm warning out of these things yet!
It is just after 6 p.m. on Sunday, July 30, at the Phoenix office of the National Weather Service, the agency entrusted with the role of sentry, to answer the concerns we have when severe weather approaches.
"There is no warning," replies fellow forecaster Doug Green.
Whoops! Forgot to send one in all the commotion! Let's see, we've got reports of downed power lines, a tree lying on Indian School Road--maybe it's not too late. . . . Are there any other systems? On the phone, now: Where are those downed power lines, anyway?--long pause--Hey, get this, guys: They say they're somewhere around S-R-P . . .
Sipple says the letters slowly, just to rub in the fact that the lines must be down right around the corner somewhere--and Doug, check out that mess on Doppler radar--are there thunderstorms in there or not? Get a warning ready!
No--greater Phoenix is pretty quiet right now. No reason to scare the hell out of everybody.
AZTC's Stormbase is about ten feet away from all this bustle, and tonight Stormbase is Charles Lucas, an America West reservations clerk who worked like mad to finish early and get over here once he heard a chase was on. Unit 1 is on Northern at around 107th Avenue; Unit 3, meaning John Moore and his chase-ready personal vehicle, is somewhere south of that. There is no Unit 2.
Lucas can hardly relax. He is rather excitable. His America West employee badge dangles from the arm of his shirt. You want to sit him down, tell him to take a deep breath. His job tonight is to guide the chase units through all the blowing dust, which is hampering visibility but bringing no rain as yet. For now, the best advice is for them to just hang where they are, because two systems are headed into the far west Valley and should converge nicely.
The Weather Service guys are acting like guys talking about the weather. They're still going back and forth about the storm warning. They'll debate anything. They've got theories. There's nothing weather wonks like better than to talk about the unsolved puzzles of the field. Where does all the upper-level moisture of an Arizona monsoon come from? Well, it could be the Gulf of California . . . but then again, it might be the Gulf of Mexico. Maybe it's both.
Or: Why do certain parts of the Valley get hit worse than others? Why does Union Hills always flood? Why does Deer Valley get high winds? Is it the topography?
When Littleton Elementary in Cashion had the roof of its fifth- and sixth-grade building torn off during class last year, they argued about that, too. Even the AZTC and NSSL guys got in on that one. John Moore says he was the first guy on the scene. The roof came right off, the ceilings caved in, and insulation was sprinkled all over the playground. Big wooden beams--ripped right outta there. It's amazing only one person was seriously hurt, a teacher who suffered a severe concussion when she was hit by a falling beam.
Was it a microburst? Or a tornado? Some witnesses reported seeing a funnel cloud, but if the Weather Service had a nickel for every time someone reported seeing a funnel cloud, well, maybe they'd all buy designer umbrellas. One of the NSSL guys finally wrote an analysis of how the 100-mph winds that also felled a milelong stretch of power poles on 107th Avenue could have been a weird combination of both a microburst and a tornado. Okay, fair enough.
But maybe the most burning question of all: Why has Phoenix missed out on all the rain? Why are storms dying out or changing direction before they actually get here?
On the radio, John Moore, Unit 3, crackles in to Stormbase.
"Unit 3, this is Stormbase. Go ahead."
"Just checking in to see if I missed anything. I was out of the vehicle for a while."
"No, it's still a waiting game at this point . . . that's what the NWS radar guys are telling me."
Lucas looks askance, holding the microphone at his chest. "It's frustrating," he says. "The conditions are there. There's a good dust line to the north. This one"--he motions southwest--"is dying out. We're set for convergence. One big one should form. But it hasn't. Or it doesn't want to."
Then again, maybe, if weather dudes Jim Howl and Royal Norman of KTVK-TV are right, it can't. Something they call the urban heat island is beating it senseless. Why is Phoenix not getting rained on the way it used to? Because of the concrete and the reflective glass and the people and the automobiles that have piled into this Big Bang metropolis over the past decade and spawned a dome of heat that is bumping monsoon storms aside, or just plain sucking the life out of them. The storms march toward the Valley and suddenly shoot their wads in places like Mesa and Chandler and Wickenburg and Fountain Hills. Surface temperatures are hotter where asphalt is than where desert is, and the same principle extends upward. Now, these little storms that are getting pulled around at the whim of upper-level winds just get thwacked aside. And no gorilla monsoons.
The Weather Service guys don't buy this one at all. They and the TV forecasters aren't always on the same cloud, anyway, and the educational--their word--information they send forecasters often just gets ripped up and thrown in the trash. This is the sort of thing that can draw the line between meteorologists, the ones with the framed degrees, and weather forecasters like Howl, who supplement whatever weather education they can get with years of experience spent in a place.
Monsoon storms, the degreed ones counter, are not so tiny. They are massive forces, sometimes packing more energy than an atomic bomb, occasionally moving against the wind flow, and you're going to tell us that something like a heat dome is going to knock them aside, much less kill them right where they stand?
Weather Service forecaster Hector Vasquez says it's more a matter of storms being drawn to other moisture, which has not tended to be in Phoenix.
Says Howl, who has pushed the heat island notion on KTVK newscasts, much to the Weather Service's annoyance: "I've seen them issue severe thunderstorm warnings for the East Valley, where the storms are moving toward Phoenix, and then in 15 minutes they cancel the thing. Now why wouldn't that storm come in here? . . . I don't think they want to say, 'Oh, we have a heat island,' because being an official agency, there's no official research done on it."
Vasquez: "When [Howl] says the Weather Service is not convinced, he's talking about me."
But Cerveny isn't keen on the idea of heat islands, either. "It's a possibility," he says. "But I think it's relatively remote. The energy associated with thunderstorms is so immense that a city is not going to make much difference. But that's why we do research."
Whatever is going on, it looks like it's happening again. Lucas gets on the radio. "It's not real promising right now," he says, slowly, like a surgeon bearing bad news. "The convergence--if anything was going to fire, it should have fired by now. Anything in the Phoenix area is down to nil."
The silence is pregnant with disappointment.
Finally, Moore rasps in. "Roger. We copy. That's about what it looks like out here now. There's nothing except lots of dust and blowing wind."
Lucas: "Is Unit 1 still with me? Or did they go off the air?"
Moore: "My guess is they went into a Circle K or something."
"The shutdown of the project rears its ugly head," Cerveny complains through early August. "This isn't even the nonsoon. It's a no-soon. It can't get too much worse."
Storms are pinwheeling around the Valley, skipping Phoenix altogether. As of August 8, the city has had no measurable rainfall for 92 days. There is a stretch of 17 or 18 days in which the temperature surpasses 110 degrees. Ducks are keeling over from heat botulism. On the storm-line message for August 9, Shaffer reports: "No chase. To quote Ed Phillips, it is rather anemic out there."
The start of the semester approaches, signaling the near end of the project, since people no longer will have time to chase. They have lives, after all. Few of the dispirited volunteers are calling the storm line as it is.
But on August 15, a Tuesday, Cerveny sounds the trumpet one more time. The weather gods taunted them a couple of days earlier with a storm that jelled right over Phoenix--as opposed to moving in, which would have given them something to chase--and dumped the first big rain of the season in the city's northeast and central neighborhoods.
Cerveny and Moore sit in the van and await the diehard few chasers who dare to show. "It doesn't look that good," Cerveny says. "But we'll see. You've got all the ingredients except the stirring rod. You gotta have the upper-level dynamics."
He and Moore walk to the edge of the lot, where they can see entire waves of floating chicken armadas, decoys sent out by the weather gods, filling the sky like hot-air balloons. But the instability above is gone, the upper-level winds that could create openings for them to move up into, to build into gorgeous towering cumulonimbuses--the fluffy, besotted bouquets that keep rising with the hot air until, finally, tens of thousands of feet high, they just can't hold any more.
No, the clouds this evening have hit a ceiling. They're flattening out, short and squat, pushing up with their puny strength. "You almost feel sorry for them," Cerveny says. "They're working so hard and they're not gonna do anything."
You almost feel sorry for Cerveny, too. No chasers are showing up; it's as if no one is taking the project seriously anymore. Then again, it is a workday, and everyone is trying to get his life in order. . . . "I used to be such an optimist," he says. "This summer's really killed it."
"I would've thought the last four summers would've done it," Moore says.
But then Lucas, the redhead, and a typically late guy named Bruce Friedl show up, ready for action. Into the van they go and over to the National Weather Service office, where they are revived with news of a bubbling system to the northwest. Soon they're rumbling down Interstate 10, and it isn't long before a killer dust wall is snaking across the freeway about ten miles ahead of them. It is a fascinating sight.
"Look at that!" Cerveny says. "Whoa, Nellie! Report that: We are seeing some major outflow crossing the freeway."
By the time they notice a stream of rain shooting down from the west, the storm chasers are practically salivating. "We're gonna get wet!" Cerveny says. "Maybe it wasn't such a bad idea to come out, after all."
Lucas pipes in from Stormbase: "We are now showing a severe thunderstorm warning for the metro area, with winds up to 50 miles per hour."
And the chickens are getting bigger all around them. The geography professor and the software engineer are ecstatic. Look at this guy, they exclaim, meaning a bubbling, towering "cue"--look at that guy! Where did that guy come from? That's impressive. This word, impressive, is the weather wonk's way of saying, "Holy shit!" They constantly say things are impressive. And though they haven't seen it yet, an enormous monster clucker is in the works behind them, to the northeast.
An hour later, they're tracking it, east on the freeway in the car-pool lane, a soaring cluster that just keeps blossoming as it moves toward Fountain Hills. It's a kernel of popcorn popped beyond imagination, its base dark and mean. The Weather Service guys issue severe thunderstorm warnings; the thing is 45,000 feet high now, and they say they wouldn't be surprised to see a tornado actually spurt out of this one.
Glances are exchanged in the van.
Cerveny: "It looks impressive, but not that impressive."
Moore: "Maybe it'll be a really small tornado."
Heavy rainfall spills from the base in a yawing purple bubble, somewhere beyond Fountain Hills. "Whoo!" comes a cry from Stormbase. Lucas, excitable as always. "Unit 1, this is Stormbase."
Moore picks up the mike. "Go ahead, Stormbase."
"You should be running into this wonderful outflow boundary. Good stuff should be popping up all over the place!"
Moore doesn't care about the dust kicked up by falling rain anymore. That's all this lame summer monsoon season has given him and everyone else. "I want a tornado," he says. "Screw the microburst."
On the narrow roads of southeast Scottsdale now, looking for Highway 87, and as they turn a corner, there is the abandoned, graffiti-spattered hulk of a former Circle K. You can feel the chasers' flags going to half-staff. "Oh, that Circle K closed," Cerveny says. "Our old standby."
Moore is speechless. Finally, he says: "It's got an impressive amount of graffiti on it."
They drive and drive, but now the storm seems to have stopped advancing. The chicken has roosted. Without the usual capping off that signals maximum growth, it just started dying. From the west, a beautiful orange sunset casts the system's shrinking performance in a pinkish purple glow. "It's getting weaker," Moore says. "Once again, storms all around, and no rain in Phoenix."
They have covered miles of interstate and rural roads and now find themselves at the edge of civilization, out where Fountain Hills ends on the way to Payson. The storm has died, right in front of them. For a chaser, it is a horrible sight.
"This thing," says Moore, "is pretty well toast."
A couple of days later, on Friday, August 18, Cerveny calls an end to the project for the summer of 1995. Classes begin Monday. Whatever's killing off those floating chickens, it's getting pretty irritating.
That weekend, the biggest storms of the summer dance across the Valley. The heat island is drenched. It rains like hell. The thunder, somehow, sounds like roaring laughter.