I woke up well-rested in Dighton, Kansas. This was our final day roaming the plains on a 10-day adventure to see whatever nature threw at us. Stakes were high; the last 9 days were about as disheartening as they come.
The tornado outbreak sequence of late May 2019 was among the most impressive of forecasts by professionals in the climate field since forecasting as a science began. Weeks ahead of time, the signal was recognized of a potentially exceptional onslaught of dangerous severe weather and tornadoes across the Great Plains, an area rather void of tornadoes the past few years. What did this mean for researchers and recreational spotters?
Our appetites would be fulfilled.
Or would they?
These 10 days were amongst the most grueling and discouraging of opportunities to see tornadoes that I could think up. Taunting us constantly, tornado after significant tornado did ravage the Plains as forecast; however, between overabundant moisture making for grossly un-photogenic storms, thick smoke from fires down south hindering our visibilities, flooding rains rendering the roads to our storms impassable, and immense storm chaser traffic competing for the prize, we were hard-pressed to get the experience we wished it would be.
The endless streams of other storm chasers not only hindered us from finding our dream storm, but impeded professional research groups from collecting potentially revolutionary observations, turned middle-of-nowhere country roads into standstill traffic jams, clogged small towns, disabled cell phone networks, and caused accidents that diverted local emergency managers from attending to the damage caused by the storm itself. It was truly an icky feeling winding up a part of this on a heated day in central Oklahoma, myself a part of the problem.
To add salt to the wound was the news, after almost every day of unsuccessful adventuring, that a powerful tornado come nightfall had hit this town, or that town, dead on. By the time it was over, nearly everyone I knew had known someone impacted by deadly, destructive tornadoes. It was a truly sobering week, and I just wanted it all to stop.
I began to fear that the magic was lost in the avenue to my passion.
We woke up in a Level 4 of 5 risk for significant tornadoes in western Kansas into eastern Colorado. Everything seemed set for yet another outbreak of tornadoes; but something didn’t feel right. Like the last few days, the setup and evolution of storms seemed messy and unforgiving for people like me who just wanted to have a pretty storm to themselves for a few hours.
At the last minute, my chase partner and I decided to go south – very south. We drove and we drove… we drove for nearly eight hours; the hoards of others fighting for their storm in a high-stakes environment became but a distant memory as we found ourselves once again in the barren west Texas that I’ve called home.
This decision we made to leave the most tornado-prone area in favor of fleeing down the dryline to a place where even getting a storm was uncertain was among the most audacious forecasts that could have been made.
But there she was, enticing us to explore her outside Dora, New Mexico.
A twisting beauty, she floated toward us rather menacingly, coiled up and ready to strike. Right on cue, we witnessed a brief bout of dust that signaled our first tornado had been seen. And she was just getting started.
The wide, barrel-shaped mesocyclone hung over the barren countryside. What we didn’t realize is that another was waiting behind it.
Angrily she wrapped and folded herself into a fit.
The foot of a mountainous updraft now stood over an unsuspecting farmstead.
A wall of water surged skyward.
It then flung northward and gasped its last breath, allowing us a last look at its shriveled beauty.
In a stubborn rejection of its fate, it left us with this fleeting funnel before disappearing.
Rapidly our heads shot back to the west. Where did this one come from?! Another more vicious mesocyclone had spun up behind our backs as we were distracted by the seemingly harmless beauty of the first. This one meant business, breathing in the remains of the first, only to strengthen itself further.
In just 20 minutes time we beheld the entire sky begin to rotate. A stadium of water vapor encapsulated our surroundings. We were in its hold.
In chaotic, multi-vortex fashion, the wedge-shaped lowering made contact with the ground.
It was as if all the power of the atmosphere had become focused to a single point on Earth.
I put down my camera and just watched in awe, surrendering myself to the rushing wind at my back. It seemed we were the only ones to witness this moment, with the only sound the whirl of the powerlines above us.
It trekked northeastward.
The magic was back.
The motion as it flung around ribbons of vorticity resembled that only seen in the more intense of tornadoes.
The sky grew dark.
The sun started to set.
The sky bled deep orange as it inhaled dust from the desolate landscape.
After nearly twenty minutes, it finally began to lose its grip.
It twirled in this shape for almost ten more minutes as it relentlessly refused to give up; meanwhile we scrambled to get ahead and see what it would do next.
For the next hour or so, we trekked alongside the storm as it became a big tidal wave in the growing darkness. It juggled two circulations for most of the time, spitting out an occasional weak multi-vortex tornado as it crossed into Texas.
Just when we thought it was over with spitting out tornadoes, a lightning flash nearly made my heart stop when it revealed a tall cone tornado down the road near Muleshoe, Texas. I struggled to capture it before it disappeared, but I did catch another smaller one as the storm approached Springlake.
As if this perfect storm hadn’t given us everything, its last gift was posing for my first ever photograph of “twin” tornadoes, for a total of a lucky 7.
Exhausted and drained, we said our departing words to this perfect storm and headed for home as it cycled on into the distance, dropping at least one more tornado that we were simply too spent to see.
There was a certain point when I assured myself, I could die now and be fully fulfilled after experiencing the waking dream I did today. But who am I kidding… I’ll spend the rest of my life chasing after it again.