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.
It trudged on.
Despite 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.
The 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.