Day 15: Incredible storm structure over Greensburg, KS

supercell lightning

Today was our “Well, we can chase if there are any storms around Tulsa”-day, since we were all leaving around noon the day after. Although there was a chance for some sort of thunderstorms in Tulsa, the environment was best in north-east Kansas. We could not, however, risk being so far away from Tulsa so we chose the south central Kansas-target and sat down at Starbucks in Wichita. Oh, the amount of hours we have spent at different Starbucks this trip. Strong coffee and free Wifi attracts storm chasers as moskitos to a pair of legs on a Kansas country road at dusk!

I was quite busy going through all the photos from the day before and did not really mind the wait. Although the environment was not really tornadic I did not have great hopes, but the lesson learned from yesterday was to never give up so…we chased.

Finally, two storm complexes started firing. One around Salina (the northern target) and one around Pratt. The northern one clinged onto a boundary and really felt like the main target but we had no real option due to our flights so we had to choose the southern target and yet again bet on the outlier. I was feeling a bit uncomfortable hearing reports on the northern cell, thinking of the Big Chapman Miss last year.

Our cell looked good though but seemed to die off in an outflow burst some 30 minutes into our stop around between Pratt and Greensburg. It did re-organize and presented an intense lightning show for us, with an amount of positive lightning I have never before seen during daylight. It was impressive! One lightning under the meso started a fire causing smoke to go up into the updraft.

The storm shaped a perfect looking wall cloud with a tail cloud but did not really rotate much. As it was almost stationary we could just stand and watch it, so it was very pleasant. As it finally moved though, we were in for a treat of a lifetime.

We were quite limited to what we could chase since our 4WD was out and it was starting to get dark. We did not want to end up in the same situation as yesterday! So, we went for the structure shots and stopped on Highway 400. And, oh boy, what a structure! The supercell rotated rapidly and presented the most amazing storm structure I have seen in 7 seasons of chasing. It was like out of a photo book! Wow!

We could not follow it south over Greensburg due to the risk of tornadoes, the heavy rain and the dark so we decided to end of a positive note and head back to Tulsa. We drove through the MCS (stemming from the northern target) on our way back there and got back some time after 2 a.m. with a good mood and not too tired. My last thunderstorm of the trip woke me up at 6 a.m. and I spent a couple of minutes looking and listening before I fell back to sleep with a smile on my face.

Edit: More photos will come. My hard drive is full and I have a few hours of editing before I can import the last photos.

Day 14: High winds and almost the perfect tornado

funnel nebraska

We had a vote at lunch about whether we should go home to Tulsa or chase up north. Since we were driving on our spare tire and the setup did not look to good my vote was on going home. Akos, the constantly positive Hungarian, convinced us on chasing so we went up to chase northern Kansas. Since we had a long sleep in and had a relaxed lunch, we were getting up quite late. So, when a good looking storm started firing in central Nebraska and a brief tornado was reported it felt a bit bad that we were too late for the show.

There was, however, a smaller storm to our west within reach so we went for this outlier storm. It had quite a bit of interference with other storms in the beginning but once it got re-organized it really started cranking! It rather quickly got a rotating wall cloud and had small funnels going on when we got off the highway into the smaller roads between York and Grand Island.

At this time it was about 7 p.m. and the setting was perfect. We had the sun in our back, lighting the clouds up in perfect white. This LP storm was over green corn fields with blue skies here and there. The storm produced several small funnels and finally started pushing one towards the ground. It came as far as a third towards the ground before it dissipated. We would have been able to intercept a white small tornado, from a close distance with this beautiful surrounding – something that is at the the top of my storm chasing bucket list!

Instead, our storm was about to clash into the northern storm complex (that had a few brief tornadoes). We expected this to kill the storm but maybe, with a bit of luck, give it one last push and provide some extra moisture. That is exactly what happened.

The storm got into another gear just as the sun had set and it felt like it had rotation all over. Nothing that touched the ground though. Just as this happened our 4WD started malfunctioning as we drove on a muddy road. We managed to get onto a paved road with the 4WD still on as it was not able to turn off. At this point, it was starting to get dark and we started to drive out of the storm.

We got into the precipitation while driving and that’s when the storm got tornado warned, right where we were heading. We drove east towards Wilber to get south and out of the storm, in which we had no real visibility any longer outside of the frequent lightning strikes. There had been strong, radar indicated, rotation over Wilber so we were not sure if the town would even be there when we arrived! We had to go on the south road from Wilber to get on a west option. Everywhere the road network made it difficult for us to get south and out, and we had storms both to our east and west.

I am bit uncertain of the chronology here but somewhere at this point, we ended up in either an inflow jet or the RFD. The winds could have been as much as 100 mph when we turned the car to drive towards the wind. David (who was inside the El Reno-tornado) was an Ace in keeping calm and making good decisions together with Devin helping out with the navigation and Akos interpreting the weather.

Finally, we managed to get out of the storm, a bit shook up but nothing too bad. The storm never had a reported tornado but it could not have been far away.

We kept south and managed to stay ahead of the storm while making brief stops to take photos, even though it was almost keeping pace with us. The storm eventually became a strong MCS and turned south east towards Kansas City causing havoc. On our way in to Kansas, we saw some absolutely insane lightning, especially anvil crawlers in the mammatus. It was absolutely stunning!

Edit: I have some 200+ photos from this day. I will upload these photos as soon as I am done.

Day 9 and forward: Tulsa and some minor Texas storms

After our little rainbow chase on Day 8 we went back to David’s home in Tulsa and finally had a nice and easy down day. I knew I should not be hoping for down days, especially since the upcoming weather pattern did not seem to promising but still, it was well needed. I spent the down day catching up on work and editing photos from the last week’s storm chasing.

We did a forecast on Day 9 and it was not very promising but we still decided to go to Midland, TX, for a meager chance. Since we knew the rest of our stay would probably suffer from en Evil Ridge producing nothing but sunshine and blue skies we decided to go for what was out there. Even Alex (who woke up sick) came along and slept the fever off in the back seat.

inside david's car

hail guard
Inside and outside of the Toyota in which we chase. It has a really cool hail guard.

Day 10 turned out to be a blue sky bust so we just checked in at our hotel and relaxed. During the breakfast of Day 11 an old man at the breakfast tipped us about Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. Carlsbad Caverns is a huge cavern (cave complex) that was supposed to be amazing. It was also the place where the potential storms would initiate that day so we went.

The storms were actually firing up already before we got down in the cave so we felt a bit stressed about missing out on them. I thought the caverns were absolutely amazing but we still had to semi-rush through them. Later, when we realized the elevator line was 30 minutes to get back out we decided to more or less run out of there. It was supposed to be a “30-45 minute walk” out but we made it in 20 minutes, albeit sweaty and with panting breath.

carlsbad caverns

 

carlsbad caverns

 

caverns1

 

cave chasing
After we got out of the caverns there was literally a severe thunderstorm rumbling above us.

 

me
I came out panting with bat shit on my nose.

As we got out of the cave we were directly under a severe storm so our (well, David’s) forecast was pretty spot on. The storms of Midland, TX, however seemed better so we sped back there. At the time we were getting there the rotation in them were coming to a halt but still put up an amazing lightning storm!

lightning
Lightning outside Midland, TX.

 

lightning texas
These lightning photos makes up the best lightning photos I have ever done!

 

Day 12 was spent solely on driving the looong haul back to Tulsa, OK. We kept a good mood in the car and I laughed so much my throat was soar when we finally arrived late in the evening.

There might be one last setup before I go back home on the 8th of June but otherwise this second part of my chasecation looks like a Big Bust unfortunately. It seems I will be having the best start ever followed by one of the worst weather patterns ever! I would have been devastated if I would have arrived 5 days later!

“Chase” dates: May 28th through May 31st 2016.

Day 3: Tornadoes, lightning and flooding in Texas

Yesterday was an amazing chase day but the setup for Day 3 was looking even better! Our target area was the dryline in the eastern panhandle of Texas where we ended up in the early afternoon. The bases of the storms, however, looked ragged and dry while storms an hour to our east were showing much better potential so after some 30 minutes we decided to give up the dryline and chase those.

We caught up with the storms around 5 p.m. and picked the south end charlie over the northern storm that had already had a funnel cloud, according to reports. It was a rather wet chase where we often ended up in the strong forward flank downdraft that was rocking our van.

hail
Quarter sized hail from the day. One hit me straight on top of my head!

The lightning at this point was IMMENSE. I have never experienced any lightning like this before, it was striking down left and right and literally shook the van when it did. It was incredibly powerful and I loved it!

When we stopped the second time it did not take much time before the storm was wrapping up and started to look more and more tornadic. We made a stop when the storm reorganized and creating a new base and that’s when we saw the first tornado of the day.

I really did not see it until Erik shouted “Tornado!” again. It was not fully condensed to the ground but rather a bowl with multiple vortices underneath. Those vortices wrapped up to become a wedge tornado that rather quickly disappeared into the rain where we could not see it any more.

plaska texas tornado
The tornado in the beginning when it was multivortex (having more than one ‘tornadoes’ on the ground).

 

plaska texas tornado
The tornado as it matured into a wedge. As you can see it is not fully condensed to the ground but there were constant fingers dancing on the ground.

At the time of the tornado I was expecting it at another place and had my wide angle lens on so my photos and video of the camera is a bit wider than I would have liked, especially since there was so much fine detail action going on underneath.

We regrouped and drove through some intense rain before we got up on a hill and saw the cell spawning a brief needle tornado for about 5-10 seconds. I did not have time to bring up my camera so I never caught it on camera.

The third tornado was at the same spot. I had some issue with my telescope lens not being able to focus on the low contrast targets so I was still using my wide angle to that distant tornado. It was cool to see a tornado, especially with all the lightning going though.

tornado plaska texas
The third tornado of the day. It was far away and shot with a wide angle lens so the image quality is not great.

 

lightning and funnel cloud
Lightning just when the tornado was just a funnel.

Soon thereafter our HP supercell spawned a fourth (!) tornado. This was a cone tornado but also very brief, not fully condensed and low contrast so it was not too impressive. Still, 4 tornadoes in one day! I did not expect that when we left the dryline earlier that afternoon.

tornado plaska texas
The fourth tornado is barely visible in this video grab. It shows as a cone a bit to the right and behind the central portion.

At that point we did not expect to see much more under the rainy conditions we had so we started driving out from the storms passing severely flooded towns. We were lucky to get out of there since many other storm chasers got trapped from fallen power lines and flooded highways!

We stopped at Childress, TX, and let the now congealed storm pass over us while having a late pizza at Pizza Hut. Childress was getting a LOT of rain and the lightning was hitting us hard. I feel asleep, dead tired, to the sound of crashing lightning.

Although I saw a record amount of tornadoes and the first wedge was quite impressive the tornadoes were not very picturesque and we were mostly under rain. This made the “tornado experience” rather mediocre and although that was really cool but what I really loved from this day was the absolutely incredible lightning!

lightning plaska texas
This lightning was the strongest lightning I have ever heard. I quickly got into the van at this point 🙂

There were 32 tornadoes reported that day. David caught a great wedge tornado in the northern storm and there were reports of tornadoes all the way up to South Dakota!

Chase date: May 22nd 2016.

 

 

Day 2: Extremely close to a tornado

One of the most common questions people ask me when I tell them I chase storms is: “How close have you been to a tornado?”. Up until now, my answer has been “I have been underneath one“, but I think I need to update that answer after Saturday’s events.

Day 2 was our first real chase day and the season really started with a bang! We knew the week would be great but Saturday was supposed to be a slow start but it turned out to be one of my best chase days ever!

Our target of the day was south-west Kansas and we set off to Scott City. We had lunch at Subway’s where I bumped into Scott McPartland and Dave Lewison (who took the photo picturing the tornado that used to be my “closest to a tornado”-record). I also met George Kourounis in the same tiny Subway who updated me on some of his amazing adventure stories, like standing next to a lava lake in Kongo. I love the fact that you stop in “random” places and meet up with people you know all over Tornado Alley.

We all preferred to wait for the storms out on a field so we went outside of town and waited. The cumulus sure took their sweet time to come which gave me a suntan while waiting under the blue skies. We had surface winds of something around 20 mph which almost made it feel like we were already in a storm. Crazy!

david williams storm chaserWe regrouped to a rest stop where I saw a familiar car with a hail cage coming in. David! David is my chase partner from last year and although I knew he would chase in the vicinity it was a neat coincidence that he, and his crew, ended up in exactly the same spot.

The storms were struggling and I lost faith in that we would actually see something until one finally started to get organized and quickly turned into a great supercell. The chase was on!

The storm was absolutely stunning already from the start, the structure of it was just amazing and it felt like it would drop a tornado any second. In fact, it did, and we missed it – at least to the point that we could not directly see it from the point we were at and we had a really good view, but it was brief (30 seconds), low contrast and behind a rain curtain.

First tornado Leoti, KS
According to the reported timestamp of the first tornado, this is likely the funnel or the top part of the tornado as it was occuring (see just below the wall cloud, right of the rain curtain).

 

Leoti, KS, supercell
The AMAZING structure of the Leoti, KS, supercell. I lucked out by getting a lightning in this shot.

We regrouped from our structure view to get closer into the base in order to see potential tornadoes better…and got more than we bargained for! While chasing inside the bear’s cage Erik suddenly shouted “Tornado!” but from my side in the car I could not see anything – well, I saw something but I could not tell it was a tornado really.

leoti, ks, tornado
Screen grap from my GoPro dashcam where you can see the tornado. Bare in mind that this is highly wide-angle and this tornado was far closer than it seems.

The tornado was coming closer and we stopped to let it pass in front. I quickly (2-3 seconds at most) got out to shoot the tornado only to realize it had changed its path and was coming right at us. Erik was shouting “We need to go!” and I was back in my seat in milliseconds and we raised away. At that point I could see the circulation on the ground just outside of us and it was really, really close. Less than 100 yards! Erik slammed the gas pedal and drove off as I filmed the tornado passing just behind us!

The tornado was merely a spin-up and was dissipating while it was approaching us only to die off a few seconds after. It would not have made any significant damage to us but it was still an incredible adrenalin rush! Off course, it was too close for comfort and nothing we planned to do although Erik and I were well aware of the risk. 61 year old tour guest Dave was a little bit more concerned about the safety aspects of it though.

tornado 2 leoti, ks
The shot I took while hanging out of the car. It is rather crappy, especially due to the rain drops, but there was no time to be picky at this moment.

 

The morning after Erik found this video, made by Tim Purington. The white van in the video is ours and you can see me get out of the van to photograph and then see the tornado pass a few seconds later:

We continued north only to get our south escape route trapped by a truck who had decided to turn around on this little highway resulting in a perfect block on the road. Our east route was a muddy road we did NOT want to go to and north was the mesocyclone and hail core. We stood in that intersection with 4-5 other vans (including Charles Edwards Cloud 9 tours and, off course, Scott McPartland and his friends – it’s a small chase world).

At that point we started seeing some intense rotation just to our north and I had no doubt the storm would produce a tornado just to the field north of us but it never did. High on adrenaline I was actually a bit dissapointed but it was probably for the best.

The storm started to dissipate a bit as the sun was setting so we went south again to shoot lightning and more structure shots. The storm kept on delivering in terms of beauty when the sun was shining on the most amazing mammatus fields I had ever seen.

mammatus
Fantastic mammatus clouds lit up by the sunset. This just blows my mind!

We photographed lightning for some 30 minutes and then called it a day. And, what a day!

Powerful lightning

 

leoti lightning

 

lightning

Chase date: 2016-05-21

My best lightning shots

It was not until my third storm chasing tour where I bought a tripod in order to be able to take some lightning shots. I bought it at WalMart for about $15 and it was among the cheapest ones but it did the trick. Using the BULB feature on my Canon I was able to take these lightning shots. The most difficult thing was to catch the lightnings in the frame, many of these photos were cropped to a fraction of the original size since the lightning appeared in a corner almost every time.

Outside of cropping and resizing, these images have not been improved in Photoshop.

 

Double lightning
Double lightning

 

LIghtning
This lightning was nearly missed and appeared in the bottom right corner. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the entire lightning but is still one of my best lightning shots.

 

Lightning bolt
Also one of my best lightning shots, a bit better framed than the one above. I love how you can see the redish light in the cloud.

 

Long lightning bolt
I like how you can follow the full length of this lightning bolt, and how it kind of makes a turn to the right.