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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Its structure was windswept and frazzled in a manifestation of the intense inflow winds that nearly kicked me down.
The rapidity of which it acquired and lost supercellular characteristics was uncanny, with one full cycle appearing to last under 15 minutes.
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.
Upon visual and recognition that a “zipper” effect of backbuilding cells was beginning, it became clearer that today was not a tornado day.
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.
A strong RFD surge spelled the end of this cluster but offered us some pleasant stormy views.
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.
This shelf cloud meant the day was over, right?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Inflow began to trickle into the base.
A full-fledged wall cloud was built. Even though the environment was not too optimistic for tornado formation, this certainly made us wonder…
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.
Unfortunately for our efforts, the wall cloud broke apart, and the storm disorganized.
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.