5/27/18-6/12/18 The Infamous Spring of 2018

This “chase season” threw me for a bit of a loop in a few ways. The past couple years has shown me that the hunt for tornadoes is truly my passion. This year, put bluntly, was like I had all this passion bottled up, yet was just hard-pressed to find my outlet again at nobody’s whim but nature’s herself. Before I start to sound jaded, however, this also came with a realization. I saw four… six? “tornadoes” on my favorite day this year. But that’s far from what made it my favorite. What made it this was the exhilarating feeling I got watching the herd of my Valpo undergrad friends literally galloping over the hill to where I stood. It was their tangible admiration of my newfound Doppler house on wheels. It was that they were seeing me purely in my element with my new family of friends with the same passion. It was that they reminded me of how damned fortunate I am to have had their experience, and to be having mine now. Even though reality hits hard at times, it was that moment when I realized that reality was that I am literally living my dream.

 

Well of course, 2018 shall be 2018, so I’ve decided to lump into this what little fools gold I could scavenge out of what has proven itself as a painfully trying time for those driving thousands of miles to view violent little swirls of water vapor. It was at times frustratingly hard to keep myself as soulfully connected to photography as I’ve been in the past, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t get to have my moments, nor that they were at all taken for granted.

 

 

5/27

Today was Day 0 of my trip out to the Plains with Texas Tech University. We called off operations as we drove up to Goodland for a promising next day. Great shear profiles were in place but underwhelming moisture suggested high base heights. Missing a few tornadoes near Cheyenne, WY was disheartening, but our enormous Mexican dinner was certainly not. As we walked out, we were treated to a beautiful mothership supercell right outside town.

5/27/18 tornadic mothership supercell over Kanorado, KS

5/27/18 tornadic mothership supercell over Kanorado, KS

5/27/18 tornadic mothership supercell over Kanorado, KS

At the same time it became tornado-warned, we high-tailed it to Kanorado and ironically performed an excellent 1/8-mile intercept of the first brief tornado of the trip before I could get my camera out for the beautiful mothership structure that loomed over us.

 

 

5/28

Day 1 of the TTU trip was the first day of the year I could be a part of where my tornado senses really started tingling. One of my favorite plays was in store, a quick hike into northeast Colorado as the DCVZ was in place with a strong outflow boundary draped atop it. Seasonably high moisture fueled a couple storm complexes, but what was surprising was the way these storms struggled to become supercells but instead rode down vorticity-rich boundaries and proceeded to whip up a “spoutbreak”. I observed 4-6 landspouts tornadoes, including a simultaneous cyclonic/anticyclonic pair, the anticyclonic of which was to the north. This exceedingly rare phenomena was captured fully on our radar scans! At one time there were three tornadoes simultaneously.

5/28/18 twin landspout tornadoes, both cyclonic (left) and anticyclonic (right), near Cope, CO

Seeing the Valparaiso University Storm Intercept Team there reminded me of how incredibly fortunate I am to be where I’m at today. Caught up in the moment and a bit far from the show, I grabbed one shot just to prove I was there.

 

 

5/29

Day 2 was a difficult day for decisions as an overnight complex of storms pushed an outflow boundary well south into the northern OK panhandle. We recognized immediately that the best long-lived supercell potential was far south along the dryline into Oklahoma, though tornado potential there was less than ideal with uncertain shear profiles and higher bases fueled by 2018’s characteristic extreme warmth. As we drove south from Goodland through southwest Kansas, however, an intriguing environment was taking shape. My previously uncertainty of tornadoes was challenged by the low-based, sheared and tilted cumulonimbus reminiscent of many of my favorite tornado days. It grew quite hard for me to leave this environment even if solely based on my intuition from this visual, but with fears of messy cell evolution we aimed our focus on a developing likely long-track supercell in the Oklahoma panhandle. Sure enough, a beautiful tornado formed without us after we left behind the Dodge City area, but the day was not done yet.

5/29/18 High-precipitation supercell with frustrating chaser convergence outside Buffalo, OK

Our supercell trudged onward into the Waynoka, OK area in a rather uncertain environment. It put on quite the show in morphology, as it became a beast of a rotating blob.

5/29/18 wind-whipped tornadic supercell near Waynoka, OK

Its structure was windswept and frazzled in a manifestation of the intense inflow winds that nearly kicked me down.

5/29/18 wind-whipped tornadic supercell near Waynoka, OK

The rapidity of which it acquired and lost supercellular characteristics was uncanny, with one full cycle appearing to last under 15 minutes.

 

 

 

6/10

After a couple more successful but rather non-photo-friendly days, we found ourselves in western South Dakota along a cold front. Thermodynamic profiles were at least marginally in place for tornadoes, but wind profiles ahead of the front seemed pretty underwhelming. Regardless, a stationary supercell did form on the cold front well away from the Black Hills and after bad road networks we got to the scene as another cell to its south became dominant.

6/10/18 Embedded supercell near Faith, SD

Upon visual and recognition that a “zipper” effect of backbuilding cells was beginning, it became clearer that today was not a tornado day.

6/10/18 Embedded low-precipitation supercell near Faith, SD

The quick zippering gave me a sight I have only rarely witnessed though, that of a developing extremely low-precipitation supercell. Strong, broad mid-level rotation was obvious, with no rain in sight.

6/10/18 Shelf cloud near Faith, SD

A strong RFD surge spelled the end of this cluster but offered us some pleasant stormy views.

6/10/18 Shelf cloud near Faith, SD

6/10/18 University of Michigan students admiring stormy skies near Faith, SD

As a side note, having a group of excited University of Michigan students along for the ride was both quite entertaining as well as fulfilling. It’s too easy to get caught up in the math and the physics and the nitty gritty details when you’re out for the sole purpose of collecting data. These guys kept me grounded when I needed to be, making sure I kept my energy where it should have been, on just admiring the sky and sharing my passion. So if you happen to read this, thanks for that guys.

6/10/18 turbulent swirl outside Faith, SD

6/10/18 shelf cloud approaches Faith, SD

6/10/18 shelf cloud approaches Faith, SD

6/10/18 shelf cloud approaches Faith, SD

6/10/18 shelf cloud approaches Faith, SD

This shelf cloud meant the day was over, right?

6/10/18 tight rotation and attendant funnel cloud associated with tail-end cell in a line outside of Faith, SD

Nope! As soon as we dropped our guard a rapid tightening of the line behind the shelf lead to a brief tornado-like circulation with a tiny funnel peaking its head out. A fantastic radar dataset of this was collected, and a unique rain-less view from behind was to be had.

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As the sun dipped below the anvil, a brilliant sunset followed. A faint glory can be seen on the lower right of the image, a bright patch in the amber waves of grain that followed my shadow around as I moved.

 

 

6/12

Waking up on Day 16, our last hurrah, it seemed the extremely marginal, messy setup around the Oklahoma panhandle wouldn’t be too kind to us. However, to our surprise a supercell spun up and sat stationary for a couple hours near Gate, OK.

6/12/18 twin shear funnels near Gate, OK

As soon as we punched south through the forward flank we were treated to a fascinating conveyor belt of shear funnels travelling up toward the mesocyclone. These two occurred in tandem.

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A third!

6/12/18 embedded supercell near Gate, OK

Though now embedded, the base of the storm crossed the road just north of us and moved westward, then immediately acquired supercellular characteristics again as it planted itself right in our view.

6/12/18 embedded supercell near Gate, OK

Inflow began to trickle into the base.

6/12/18 embedded supercell near Gate, OK

A full-fledged wall cloud was built. Even though the environment was not too optimistic for tornado formation, this certainly made us wonder…

6/12/18 embedded supercell near Gate, OK

6/12/18 embedded supercell near Gate, OK

6/12/18 embedded supercell near Gate, OK

We sat collecting valuable data of the forward flank streamwise vorticity current of this stationary supercell for over one hour, a dream goal we had since the beginning.

6/12/18 embedded supercell near Gate, OK

Unfortunately for our efforts, the wall cloud broke apart, and the storm disorganized.

6/12/18 embedded supercell near Gate, OK

A variety of sawtooth-like details in the mid-levels were created as the storm became outflow dominant and our day was over.

 

Next time, plains, next time.

 

 

 

 

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6/12/17 Cheyenne, Wyoming Area Tornadoes

My heart started skipping beats when I realized I was just a man, nothing to the explosive manifestation of nature’s energy before me. Wind whipped into the storm from behind me as it angrily inhaled me into it; I felt surrendered and powerless… but also bliss.

Today set up as basically a guarantee to witness something quite interesting. I’ve also never felt more at ease that anything that happened would be far-fetched to have much impact on the lonely landscape. It felt painfully self-indulgent to actually be able to get excited about what I was about to see, and not have to worry about what it could do. I was beyond fortunate enough to be able to come back here so soon with the help of a team of excellent meteorologist friends.

The exact course of today’s events practically revealed itself as strong upslope flow against the Front Range was bound to give rise to thunderstorms in northern Colorado. Would these thunderstorms form, they would quickly begin to rotate through a very moist, unstable environment, unhindered at least until sunset as they trekked along a predetermined path into the Nebraska Panhandle. Once these did form, their fate was sealed.

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Initially a cluster of 3 supercells roamed toward Wyoming. Though the southern cell had the most long-lived potential and started out strong with a rapidly rotating wall cloud near Nunn, CO, we decided to position ourselves between all of them, keeping our heads on a swivel to see which one would spin up first. The two southern cells battled it out, each trying to mature faster than the other. A few funnel clouds drooped down as they competed, but none could sustain them.

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The northern cell near Burns, WY was now grabbing our interest with a deep wall cloud which quickly lengthened to the ground. It twisted and contorted before roping out, a sister funnel forming right beside it. The supercell died after this short but intriguing display.

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After the middle supercell began struggling as well, we made a hair-splitting maneuver to catch back up to the tail-end storm at Pine Bluffs, WY. It greeted us immediately with an ominous lowering.

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As we raced to Bushnell, NE to get ahead of it, inflow wind screamed into the rotating storm, breathing me in.

20170612-185108-1714_1It trudged on.

20170612-185133-1717_1Despite being so impressive, it could not seem to organize enough to try a tornado yet.

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As soon as I think this though, the madness begins. This supercell splits into two mesocyclones, a beautiful sculpted mothership in front and a blocky wall cloud in the back. A pair of inky, tentacle funnels emerge around it. If these 2 areas of rotation weren’t enough, the earlier middle supercell, once left behind, decided to tag along back into its domain, bringing that to 3, just north of Bushnell, NE.

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As menacing as the forward wall cloud was, it simply could not get the job done.

20170612-190417-1732_1The middle circulation gave it a try. It succeeded.

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A slender, soft tornado anchored itself to the ground.

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Suddenly it disappeared.

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Minutes later, a perfectly-shaped, backlit funnel emerged from the rear circulation.

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The now massive forward mesocyclone churned angrily, but let down only a thin, brief funnel as it approached Harrisburg, NE.

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Motion was so chaotic that a couple anticyclonic tornadoes planted themselves behind the main circulation.

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Dust was kicked up as the clockwise-rotating tornadoes connected with the ground.

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As the forward mesocyclone still could not get its act together, the middle mesocyclone suceeded again, producing a fleeting tornado with dual funnels.

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What the finale had in store was nothing short of mind-boggling. As the lead two mesocyclones pulled themselves more closely together, a third supercell from the north deviated down to join. The three then combined into one coherent, massive circulation. As we followed the mysterious, dark mess as it slowly trudged down the road, broken buildings, downed powerlines and a tipped over train as we neared Alliance, NE suggested that a few tiny tornadoes were still dancing around in that darkness.

Over time this complex beast of an “ultra-cell” grew downscale into a classic supercell, still flitting away through the Nebraska Sandhills after dark. It became sculpted and flowed almost like a dress in the wind, but it still spat lightning at all directions in a tantrum.

After 3 states, 3 supercells (the 1 lasting 12 hours), and 8 tornadoes on 1 hour of sleep, it was bedtime.

5/25/17-5/31/17 “Kanorado” Area Tornadoes / Supercells

Set yourself free.

Whatever you’re pursuing has the power to do this. It can certainly test your perseverance, buckle your strength and hurt you along the way. But in the end, when you know what you love, passion wins.

The Plains are only one thing that makes me feel free. It brings me back to an almost primitive feeling that I am free to wander. In my final Valparaiso University Convective Field Study, this was in search of the violent yet picturesque storms that never fail to bring me back to my zen. Though we crossed through 10 states, most of the interesting days this time were found between northeast Colorado and northwest Kansas, conveniently right along the I-70 corridor.

5/25:

On the first “chaseable” day of the trip, despite a rather unexciting surface pattern, a promising wind profile and extraordinary model consensus kept our hopes high. Today was likely one of my favorite forecasting successes; in the morning, I was able to nail down (with some guesswork of course) that I wished to be in Oakley, Kansas by 6:00pm. Come 6:20pm, we had made it to the south side of Oakley with a powerful supercell bearing down on us.

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After struggling to keep ahead of it, we were now positioned with a pair of developing tornadic circulations almost due west of us.

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Then came one of the rare instances that I felt in danger. A group decision was made to head north into Oakley to escape the tornado, assuming it was moving due east right at us. I began fearing it would instead take a sharp left turn and barrel right toward the town we were headed to. Fortunately, we made it through town safely. However, Oakley was indeed hit by the tornado mere minutes later.

 

5/26:

This day featured much the same weather pattern, promising that a similar storm would travel down roughly the same area. Knowing this, we headed into Colorado and watched as a beautiful storm took shape off the Front Range.

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After struggling chaotically to organize itself, it quickly became a supercell near Last Chance, Colorado.

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Front and center is what could be considered a failed tornado attempt.

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The supercell trudged on as we approached Joes, Colorado.

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It inhaled dust periodically.

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Its core was mean and menacing.

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Inflow bands into the storm had a dramatic stepped or tiered appearance, choppy like the ocean.

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Once the storm passed over us, the sky was filled with dark drama.

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We then decided to drive out ahead of the beast to Idalia. The view was incredible, with rotation evident clear up and indefinitely over our heads.

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The storm was sucking a dark band of clouds into its belly.

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It became a monster as we dove south ahead of it. After several failed attempts at producing a tornado, we believed it was time to just sit back and enjoy a beautiful, non-threatening show.

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As soon as we let our guard down, a hazy, hard to distinguish tornado was reported deep within the storm.

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It was briefly more visible, but the parent storm itself still stole the show.

 

5/31:

The last “chaseable” day of the trip, we were greeted once again with conditions coming together for a beautiful storm, this time nearly stationary, over northwest Kansas.

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A few showers began to form. This one got rather intense, a shaft of hail barely a quarter mile wide. For the little town of Utica, this meant sunny skies for the eastern residents and dented cars for the westerners. This is why forecasting is hard.

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Utica got all sorts of weather today.

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Looking behind, a mean looking storm was developing.

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Rain bands curved and swayed in the wind.

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Closer to the storm, rain bent inward into its core as it developed rotation.

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Rotation peaked and consolidated into a tiny funnel cloud.

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Now the whole storm began to slowly spin.

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It struggled to retain supercell characteristics, but was regardless beautiful, a UFO hovering over the fields.

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My time here once again has reminded me that my heart is in the Plains.