Yesterday turned out to be the best chase of my life! Originally I had not planned on going, and saving money up for a possible week long chasecation after the semester. Around mid-week, however, models indicated a significant chance of tornadoes in Iowa along the warm front. With that being less than a 10 hour drive, and me having a light weekend as far as school work goes, I figured I could make it! As the day approached, however, the northern target continued to move further and further to the west. Since I had already committed to going with another chaser, and the warm front was now the same distance away as the dryline target, I decided I’d rather play the dryline target in Kansas. Salina, KS was the initial target.
A High Risk was issued by the SPC 2 days in advance, which is extremely rare. It was being hyped up as a major outbreak, due to the parameters in place. Strong low-level jet bringing in gulf moisture, a deep low pressure system in Nebraska, the dryline enhancing ascent, and upper level support from the 500 mb jet all were included in the recipe for strong tornadoes. The first Day 1 Outlook yesterday morning placed the greatest tornado risk in eastern Nebraska, and northern Oklahoma/southern Kansas.
However, I didn’t agree with this when I looked at the models. None of the high-res models were bringing significant instability into Nebraska, and with the morning convection making its way north, I figured the cloud cover and rain-cooled air would contribute to a lack of instability for the northern target. In the past, I might have been more swayed by the SPC’s outlook. I was proud of myself for sticking with my own forecast, and I still thought central Kansas was the best place to be. Salina was still my target at this time. Eventually on the 1630z outlook, they expanded the 45% hatched tornado threat into central Kansas.
Initiation happened very early in western Kansas. We were expecting this to move out of the area, and the main event to be later in the afternoon/evening. However, these original storms gained strength. A PDS (Particularly Dangerous Situation) Tornado Watch was issued early, 10:45 am CDT, and included our Salina target.
More storms fired to the south along the dryline near Dodge City at the time we got to Salina. You could feel the tension building in the car as none of the storms ongoing were looking like anything warranting a high risk, and we wondered if this was going to be the biggest bust ever! We decided to make our way southwest to intercept a couple of developing cells off the dryline near Dodge City. Both cells became tornado warned, and produced tornadoes as we were en route. We dropped south on I-135 to McPherson, and then continued west toward Great Bend on Hwy 56.
The two cells were set up perfectly to go after the northern cell, then blast east and south to get on the southern cell. It couldn’t have gone any better! The northern cell near La Crosse lost a lot of punch as we finally approached it. We questioned whether to stay on it, or go ahead and get to the southern cell, which in contrast was gaining strength. It was likely this southern cell was taking all the available convective energy, leaving the northern cell with nothing to build upon. We sat a distance away from the northern cell, within view of the base. After a few minutes, a wall cloud developed rapidly, and we headed west to intercept. Before we even got to it, a funnel came down, sat about halfway to the ground for a minute, and then touched down. It wasn’t on the ground long before lifting back up, and the cell completely dissipated. It wasn’t much, just a brief, skinny tornado, but it was such a relief to actually get a tornado after going a lot further west than originally planned. At least the day would not be a complete bust, and now the pressure was off!
After that tornado lifted, we headed east on SR 4 to get ahead of the southern cell. There had actually been two cells with this one that had merged, and for a while maintained two areas of rotation, both of which were producing tornadoes, or at least reports of tornadoes. When we got to Frederick, we dropped south on SR 14 just enough to stay out of the hail core, which should be right along the path of the area of circulation.
We sat there for a while as the meso approached us, finding it difficult to see the wall cloud as it was behind the rain curtains for a while. Finally I looked up and saw a lot of rotation directly above us! In looking back at the location of the tornado, however, it appears this may not have been the wall cloud. The actually circulation was about a mile to our north, but even being that close, we could not see it because of the heavy rain wrapping around it. We then got hit with the RFD winds and heavy rain and decided it was time to leave that spot and continue east and north to keep up with the storm. The east-west road we were on was dirt, and with the heavy rain I didn’t want to take a chance trying to catch up to the storm on a dirt road, so we dropped south to Lyons to get on Hwy 56, then went north on 22nd Rd. Though it was somewhat obscured by rain still, a large wedge tornado came into view to our northeast! We continued east on SR 4 when we got back to it, which was perfect for following this tornado that was moving northeast, because right at Crawford the highway curved to the north. Around this area we were about a mile from the tornado, as we witnessed violent rising motion, and multiple suction vortices whipping around the tornado. Eventually we stopped on the side of the road and filmed the tornado as it moved away from us. The really odd thing about it was that you could tell it was violent, yet it seemed so calm. You can hear birds chirping in the video, and there was very little wind behind the storm. The tornado was on the ground for about an hour before lifting just south of Salina (thankfully for the residents there!). But it wasn’t done yet!
After all of that fun, we ended up back on the interstate, I-135 north to Salina. Luckily the tornado lifted before reaching Salina, and the storm didn’t re-cycle and produce another tornado until it was northeast of Salina. From I-135 north we could see a funnel wrapped back in the rain, but from our vantage point could not tell if it was on the ground or not. Based on NWS surveys, it did touch down before crossing I-70. When we got to I-70 and headed east, we saw the strong rotating wall cloud and a bowl-shaped funnel with debris on the ground. After taking a north route at Soloman, the funnel became fully condensed to the ground. This one ended up putting on quite the show as it stayed on the ground for 20 minutes, and became an elongated rope before it dissipated.
By that time it was almost dark, I had a splitting headache and needed to use the restroom, so we called it a chase and headed home. I did complete the entire drive back, getting home about 7 am for a grand total of 26.5 hours and 1,636 miles in the car!
A couple additional comments regarding yesterday. I have to give it up to the Kansas State Police, as they did an excellent job of leading the convoy of chasers, not letting anyone get too close, and not letting a traffic jam put chasers and residents in the path of these tornadoes. It had to take a lot of coordination to block off the path of these storms. They were fair with everyone, allowing the chasers to do their thing and stay safe at the same time. Great job Kansas State Police!
I also learned just how dangerous chasing can be. Not because of the tornadoes. Rather because of the aforementioned chaser convergence. I saw the guy in front of me nearly run off the road into the ditch, and the same guy later slammed on his brakes to avoid hitting a down power line, which almost caused me to run into him. Though it was a good thing, because I did not see the power line either. Definitely noted for the next chase if I’m driving through the damage path. Aside from that, there was a lot of reckless driving as chasers jockeyed for position and stopped on the side (or almost in the middle) of the road. There were numerous times when people in front of me suddenly decided they wanted to stop, and I had to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting them. I also never knew when someone was going to come flying up behind me. I don’t know what the point of acting like that is. At best they advance a couple cars. It doesn’t make that big of a difference in the quality of the video you get, so why not just be safe and stay in a line?
Here is the video: