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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


A slender, soft tornado anchored itself to the ground.


Suddenly it disappeared.


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


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


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


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


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


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.


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.


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


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.



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.


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


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


The supercell trudged on as we approached Joes, Colorado.


It inhaled dust periodically.


Its core was mean and menacing.


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


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


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.


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


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.


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


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



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.


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.


Utica got all sorts of weather today.


Looking behind, a mean looking storm was developing.


Rain bands curved and swayed in the wind.


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


Rotation peaked and consolidated into a tiny funnel cloud.


Now the whole storm began to slowly spin.


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


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






2/28/17 Ottawa and Washburn, IL Tornadoes

I watched with instinctive terror what was tearing apart the field in front of me, a dark-matter dust devil maddeningly cycling away. Inky black dirt whipped into the tornado, cloaking it in ugly clouds that shed off into curling tendrils. It picked up its pace and stumbled angrily through the field in front of us as if in a temper. When we looked back, all that was left was a floating cloud of dust, like a demon banished with a spell.

The night before, sleep did not quite come easy. My mind was racing through the possibilities of what we could see tomorrow, with the unsettling feeling that large, long-track and even deadly tornadoes could be roaming by nightfall. After much deliberation, we chose a target of Ottawa, IL, close to a differential heating boundary reinforced by a couple morning storms. When we arrived, a number of cells had already fired. Three prominent clusters formed, the tail end of which seemed the most intriguing, just having that look like it could last forever. Keeping these in mind though, we chose to check out the northern cluster first, which was rapidly strengthening.


What struck me the most about this storm was the lightning. It was constantly rumbling, a strange sound in late winter. One of my chase partners let her hair down so we could see when the electricity in the air became a bit too much.

We fortunately chose not to gamble with this storm that would later produce an EF-3 tornado that hit the south side of Ottawa, IL. Following a high-precipitation supercell through a river valley with horrible road network and dense trees lead to deteriorating safety, so we decided not to keep up with it despite its obvious gearing up to produce a significant tornado. Mostly, however, it had that grungy, bland look to it that seemed uncharacteristic of such a day, and that suggested it wouldn’t be hard to find something more visually appealing.

As we fled south out of its grasp however, a twister seemed to drop out of nowhere less than half a mile from us near the town of Standard.

2/28/17 Tornado near Standard, IL

It was anything but “standard”,  a random spin-up along the rear-flank downdraft of the massive Ottawa beast. What appeared to be a tornado was just a tiny circulation around the main powerful mesocyclone.


The elephant trunk funnel snaked all the way to the ground at times.

We jumped around a bit to sample a couple more tiny tornado-warned storms drenched in rain, until we realized it was time to finally dive down to the long-lived, “tail-end Charlie” supercell that had been cruising steady state for the last couple of hours in our direction. We started driving south, anxious to see an isolated, picturesque beauty of a supercell. We were not disappointed.

2/28/17 Supercell near Washburn, IL

It almost wasn’t surprising how perfectly sculpted it was, a rock-solid look revealing layers of rotation. This storm had to work with over 1500 J/kg of surface-based CAPE, around 60kt of bulk shear and upwards of 200m2/s2 of storm-relative helicity in the lowest levels; it had everything it needed.

We reached the top of the hill, and I began to get this amazing feeling, half relief that we had escaped the troubles now worsening in Ottawa, and half relief that we had this gorgeous sight in Washburn almost all to ourselves, with few if any people living in the path of what could soon be a powerful storm.


Within minutes the scene was altered by a faint swirl of dust on the ground underneath the base of the storm. Timing had worked out perfectly – this storm had trekked hundreds of miles across Illinois; why it chose to wait until now to unleash its brief but incredible fury was a matter of luck.


The dust thickened.


A local left town as the dust loomed before it.


Another one fled the scene.


Thin ribbons of vorticity danced inside the dust.


We decided to get a bit closer, just as the twister sucked a sheath of black dirt up around its dark funnel.


Quickly it became a tangled mess of darkness.


The cloud became massive as it sucked up everything in its sight. It became nearly impossible to hold the camera steady with inflow whipping into the circulation.


A line of dust whipped into the tornado delineating a powerful “ghost train” rear inflow jet.


It took on a thick cylindrical appearance as it began to shed off its curling cloak.


The inflow tore into the tornado, wrapping up around it.


It looked like a nightmare.


Out of nowhere, a car shoots by before it, miraculously unscathed.


As we looked overhead, the parent supercell’s mesocyclone curled perfectly around the widening ball of dirt, dust and debris.


The long, tiny white barn in front of it was gone 30 seconds later with a roar like a vacuum picking up gravel.


That barn is now inside. In a hurry we raced toward it, checking in on the house to make sure everyone was alright. Two barns were destroyed, but the house still stood stoically with just a few scratches and broken windows. Everyone was safe.

2/28/17 Supercell near Dwight, IL

We continued following the rotating storm. It corkscrewed and tilted forward as it glided steady-state for hundreds more miles, driven mechanically by powerful wind shear as if it was engineered to go on forever.

2/28/17 Shelf cloud near Streator, IL

Finally we allowed ourselves a more tranquil scene as the final squall line raced in a few hours later. Nothing really could last forever; the day could now be over.