The supercell was pushing in fast from the west. Wind gusts were approaching a hurricane-like 100 mph (160 kph). The hilly landscape and limited highway network were not making things easy.

"This is not a scientific term, but it was a mean-looking storm,” said Adam Houston, an atmospheric scientist who helped track that supercell through the Black Hills of western South Dakota in June.

As the storm roared toward the small city of Belle Fourche, the researchers found themselves out of position. They raced through the town to catch up, dodging 1-inch hailstones and collecting a trove of hard-earned data.