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The Chase of a Lifetime | June 7th, 2008 Tornado Outbreak

Today marks the 15 year anniversary of the greatest storm chase of my life.

It’s often hard to process the craziness of something that you’re experiencing in real-time, but 15 years later I’m not sure that I’ll ever top my experience on June 7th, 2008.

A little context is needed to setup the day. The period from late May into early June 2008 was one of the most active for supercells and tornadoes from the Plains to the Midwest over the last 20 years. By the 7th of June, I had spent much of the last two plus weeks driving back and forth from the Plains to Illinois documenting numerous tornadoes. The first week of June had already involved four separate all-night drives from Illinois to Kansas and Illinois to Nebraska and back. The evening of June 6th, 2008, after I got home from a local chase, I was done. Some of my Illinois storm chasing friends invited me along to chase the moderate risk in Iowa on June 7th, but I passed.

June 7th, 2008 was a down day when I woke up to thunderstorms at home in Urbana, Illinois that morning. I had a lazy morning at home, and put the Cubs game on early that afternoon. I decided at some point to get out my laptop and check on the setup in Iowa and see how my buddies were doing.

That was when I noticed a boundary draped across north-central Illinois from the large complex of thunderstorms that had woken me up that morning. The early June sun had come out and was cooking the boundary, and the environment across north-central and northeast Illinois was rather eye-popping. CAPE values were approaching 4500 j/kg, with 0-1 km helicity values in the 450 m2/s2 range. That’s weather nerd speak for “the atmosphere was ready to pop, and there was more than enough shear for rotating thunderstorms”.

Towering cumulus clouds were already beginning to bubble along the boundary to my northwest. If I drifted north on Interstate 57 I could meet these potential storms about an hour north of Champaign-Urbana, near Kankakee. A few early storm attempts went up near Pontiac, and immediately had the radar look of a potential big deal.

A supercell emerged from the pack near Pontiac and quickly produced a pair of brief tornadoes near Odell before I had visual on the storm. My first view came northeast of Kankakee, near the town of Wilmington, where an ominous black tornado emerged over the horizon lofting debris high into the air.

I frantically grabbed my video camera out of the bag, flipped it on, and pointed it at the tornado.


Remember, I wasn’t planning to chase today! My video camera was dead. My laptop, needed for GPS tracking and mobile radar in the pre-smartphone days, was also dead. Finally, I had a power inverter that was on its last legs. It would constantly have trouble drawing enough power, and when that happened it would beep loudly.

So here I am, a storm going absolutely nuts right in front of me, and I’ve got a car full of dead batteries.

I had to keep my video camera plugged in via its power cable plugged into the power inverter, which meant that I couldn’t get out and tripod the tornadoes. As a stickler for stable video, this drove me nuts. I was able to brace the camera against the car at times to stabilize the video, necessary because my hands were trembling with excitement early on.

I documented four separate large tornadoes over the next two hours, all of which were rated EF-2.

The first tornado I documented was the Essex-Wilmington EF-2 which had a path length of 13.2 miles, a max width of 200 yards, and was on the ground for 28 minutes:

Next was the Wilton Center EF-2, the widest tornado I’ve ever seen visually. It had a max width of 400 yards, a path length of 1.8 miles, and was on the ground for just three minutes.

The Monee EF-2 raised the anxiety in the car as this very strong tornado began approaching the southwest suburbs of the Chicago metro. This tornado was on the ground for 3.7miles, had a max width of 150 yards, and was on the ground for 13 minutes.

Finally, the Richton Park - Park Forest tornado touched down to my distant north and quickly crossed Interstate 57 before moving into densely populated urban areas and wrapped in rain, effectively ending my chase.

The supercell produced another two tornadoes in the southern suburbs of Chicago, but by this time I was attempting to work my way back south toward home. Many major north-south highways, including I-57 were blocked by tornado damage, making this journey a bit tricky.

Eventually I found my way across the path in southern Will County and picked up I-57 once again near Kankakee.

I did my first live phone interview with The Weather Channel along the way home, feeling pretty dang good about myself.

I didn’t sleep for two days after this event, no joke. How could I?

Circling all the way back - how will I ever top this experience?

An in-state storm chase just a couple hours away from home, a supercell that produced highly visible, large tornadoes on a machine-like cadence moving at only 20 mph, and thanks to a more obvious high profile storm chasing target in a neighboring state, I essentially had this storm all to myself. You treasure any one of those experience by themselves, but all of them together - it leaves me lost for words usually.

A new video featuring the entire storm chase, upscaled from 720P to UHD:


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