Cheyenne Wells to Akron, CO
14 Jun 13
SHORT: High-based, outflow-dominant storms.
Starting our annual Great Plains vacation the day before, we drove from OUN-ITR–a long haul. Morning this day found us in our favorite Burlington motel, the Chaparral Inn, realizing fully well that moisture was scant with the strongest deep shear located N of a slow-moving to stationary front over NE CO and NW KS. In short, it looked like a day when early towers might yield spouts, then it would be an outflow fest afterward. Hey, when dealing with the atmosphere, you can’t take more than you’re given.
First, however, there was some unfinished business to attend at the increasingly derelict “See Six States” tower, antique shop and very outdated tourist attraction near Genoa. The place, despite its schtick, is packed with history! Elke had spied a particular old bottle there last year that she regretted not buying; and sure enough it still was there, sitting on the same spot of the same shelf. The eccentric old man that ran the place, Jerry Chubbuck, was more than happy to sell it to her; he saw maybe one or three vehicles a day stop in, while thousands passed by on the nearby Interstate. [Sadly, Jerry died in August. What will become of that old place and its thousands of antique items?] I also had a little compositional photography in mind there (with permission) of some old bottles and the inside of the tower area upstairs. As we left, in early afternoon, convective towers began to build along the front to our ENE-SE-SSW.
Gradually and in stepwise fashion, we headed back E on I-70 then S out of ITR toward Cheyenne Wells, driving beneath the now high-based line of showers and storms. We never saw any spouts (updrafts were fuzzy, not firm, thanks to meager CAPE), but we did see a weak gustnado to the SE. In Cheyenne Wells, we had a great late lunch/early dinner at a small storefront cafe staffed and patronized by very hospitable people. My red-blooded, patriotic t-shirts, and the sociopolitical slant behind them, go over well in the Wells and in other small towns all over the Great Plains.
Several miles W of town, we stopped to observe and photograph an interestingly chaotic sky, before proceeding N toward lodging that would put us in position for the next day’s target area near the CO/NEb border. Also, on our way through the rain (coming into Cheyenne Wells), in town, after we headed E out of town, and in a second round of (heavier) storms near Anton, we PINGed the rain too. The green dots show our PING trails; we were the only PINGers in eastern CO for those storms. Finally, near AKO, we stopped to photograph the late-afternoon light with a background of dark clouds from the small Anton MCS.
It was a stress-free way to get into the swing of the trip. We had low expectations meteorologically, so this was a casually pleasant day of storm and landscape observing, food consumption, and visiting the old man’s fading attraction near Genoa, and for what may have been the final of several visits over the years to the See Six States tower.
28 May 13
High Plains Therapy, Day 5 of 5
SHORT: Absolutely amazing chase day, top-5 all-time quality. After a very leisurely and relaxing morning on cool side of boundary, and long lunch, intercepted stationary supercell with two tornadoes near Bennington KS. Observed violent and often large tornado from one spot for over 1/2 hour as it underwent multiple shape changes and precip wrappings/unwrappings to our W.
Fans of “The Matrix” will get this. Pretend you are Morpheus and I must select from five pills instead of two. You ask me, “What if I told you that you would be presented with five violent-tornado days in Kansas and Oklahoma this season? On one of these days you will be at work. On three others you will chase but see no tornadoes. Only on the remaining single day will you see the event…but you get to choose which. ”
YELLOW PILL: Photogenic sunset tornado in western Kansas and one or two others from same storm, with other messy storms nearby.
PURPLE PILL: Two raging, roaring beasts in the central Oklahoma Crosstimbers with occasional, briefly unobstructed but amazing views; sucker storms in Kansas.
BLUE PILL: One photogenic tornado, but it’s yet another deadly, horrible monster in Moore. A ghastly and unwelcome event, for sure.
GREEN PILL: Mostly very visible, sometimes rain-wrapped brute, nearly stationary for 45 minutes, at times audible; if you want, you could put out camp chairs and coolers, and have a five-course tailgate picnic while observing safely.
RED PILL: Huge, diffuse, erratically moving/expanding and highly dangerous mess that kills respected friends, nearly takes several others, and makes everyone you know profoundly saddened.
Immediately, the red pill is tossed, followed by blue. After careful consideration…
This was the day of the green pill.
Words cannot express how glad I am, several months later, to be able to say that–as frustrating as the yellow, purple and blue days (18-20 May) were at the time. The red day, I was at work and damned glad of it; I am quite satisfied to have been on the evening shift instead of tangling with El Reno’s tornadic phase.
Decisions and leisure
Before going to sleep the night before, in Smith Center, KS, I knew I had just one chase day left before having to return home for an evening shift on the 29th. Already seeing supercell potential for the 28th in two main areas–upslope flow with large hodographs but high cloud bases (eastern CO) and big hodographs, with low LCLs and high moisture along a boundary (in central to northeastern KS)–the choice from Smith Center was pretty easy. As much of a “structure guy” as I can be sometimes, this day I’d have to go for the conditional but potentially juicy tornado threat that was mostly on the way back to Norman. “If it stays capped, at least it’s just a few short hours home.”
Perusal of morning data and short-term progs confirmed that a front was stalling ENE-WSW across KS, obliquely intersecting a dryline that would mix E to somewhere not far W of SLN by mid-afternoon. Low-level winds and mass convergence weren’t particularly strong, but would improve through the afternoon as absolute and differential heating (lots of low clouds N of the front) augmented boundary-based left. The target was obvious–the SLN area or a tad north–only a couple of hours away, with at least 6-7 hours to get there. I liked that news.
Being north of the front, in cool air shaded by low stratus, I wasn’t in any hurry to bake under the high, midday, warm-sector sun of late May. Instead I pulled off a couple of times between Smith Center and Luray simply to open the windows, recline way back, and sit in quiet solitude: just me, the cool breeze, the green, undulating prairie, and songs of birds. So relaxing was one such stop that I actually dozed a little. There’s nothing like a stereophonic meadowlark lullaby to soothe the soul and cleanse the mind.
By the time I hit Luray, the stratus had become stratocu and was breaking into scuddy rags. As I fueled there, Tony Laubach (who was headed from SLN to Colorado) posted a message informing me of a horrendously long traffic backup along eastbound I-70 south of me, and W of SLN, and advised alternate routes. Grateful for the advice, I went down K-18 toward Lincoln, generally aiming for the Bennington area near US-81.
Still with plenty of time to kill, I had a long lunch in Lincoln, nibbling away on an Italian sandwich and salad buffet at Pizza Hut while checking obs, and also, checking in with the progress of my chase caravan partners. By this time, I was glad to be indoors; the boundary was nearly overhead, and temps were getting warm as the sun beat down outside. Objective analyses showed that deep shear was increasing, the front was quite vorticity-rich, mixed-layer CAPE was soaring past 2,500 J/kg, and the boundary only would get more unstable in the next couple of hours as it cooked. The dryline intersection was due south; so I eased on over to the US-81 rest stop near Bennington to stay downshear from that.
During my stay at the rest stop, the Dudes, Dudette and Dogs crew finally finished with their windshield replacement in SLN. That took so long that chasing in Colorado was absolutely out of the question–and what do you know, about the time they were ready, and while I was throwing rocks at the rest area and scanning the skies, big towers were going up all around SLN. Isn’t that convenient?
The deepest early towers formed almost overhead and started moving ENE along the boundary. I headed through Bennington toward Junction City to stay ahead of them, just in case they evolved into a storm, with an eye back toward that intersection near SLN. Way off in the distant NE, a huge pile of convection was visible through sporadic low clouds. On radar, that sucker was evolving explosively in just a few scans, from a cluster of echoes to a gnarly supercell with classic hook and tremendous, tornado-warned velocity couplet.
Only briefly was I tempted to go that way, however; the storm was over 90 miles away along an indirect route. Seeing Eddie Aldrine’s report of a large, slow-moving tornado near Corning (NNW of TOP) actually encouraged me for potential nearby. Surface vorticity and low-level helicity were comparable…and CAPE was bigger. If that storm could produce a fat, long-lived hose, surely anything that went up between me and SLN could be special. I stayed put near Talmage to monitor nearby towers and a few weak echoes newly developed just NW of SLN.
Meanwhile, the people and animals of the companion crew were on their way toward a meeting spot between Talmage and Bennington when the echoes NW of SLN went absolutely berserk! In what seemed like no time, the western sky grew dark with heavy anvil shading and a big supercell started to take shape W of Bennington. We joined forces and wandered N a little, thinking (erroneously) that the Bennington storm with the distant but big updraft base would move NE.
After a brief chat with the original Twister Sisters and another examination of convective trends, it became apparent that this storm was stuck in place, anchored immovably and telling us, “I’m not going anywhere. You have to come to me!”
Little tornado, big tornado
Back down to K-18 we dropped, then zoomed W toward Bennington. Rolling over some hills, we saw an odd protuberance just S of due W under that distant base…funnel! The condensation funnel briefly grew fully to ground contact…tornado! However, we didn’t dare stop to shoot, since this fleeting vortex likely was just a teaser. We knew what the Corning storm did with less, and didn’t want to be out of position for the big show from that big base.
So it was. We crawled through, then past, a nest of chasers parked and driving hither and yon, in and around Bennington. Easing a little closer, we found a relatively clean position with safe pull-off and southward escape option about 1.5 miles WNW of town along a paved, N-S road. Though a tree row was about 1/2 mile to the W, cloud-base rotation was increasing, and we dared not gamble on another vantage.
Just in time too…for enough low clouds dissipated around the storm to reveal nicely spiraling structure overhead, while a wall cloud began churning. We thought tornadogenesis was imminent every few seconds for another 5-10 minutes as the wall cloud (wide angle view) turned around and around and around at visual speeds I’ve only seen with tornadic events, with similarly rapid tail-cloud inflow. I tried to call this in to TOP, but got a busy signal.
Finally, a funnel formed on the left (S) side of the mesocyclone, quickly becoming an obvious cone tornado. A brief burst of CG lightning strikes a couple of miles to our E and NE sent me back into the vehicle, whereupon I got another busy signal on calling TOP. From here on, I called the updates into Hastings instead, for relaying to TOP.
A welcomed development: the lightning quickly calmed down, at which time I could have whipped out lawn chairs, sat back, kicked up my feet, cracked open a couple of cold ones, eaten a pizza or two, and enjoyed the view. For the next half hour, we stayed in that spot, watching the tornado grow in size, shape-shifting from fat stovepipe to barrel to wedge and everything between, a big doofus of a tornado lumbering slowly in a confined loop to our W, SW, W, and NW, getting close enough to hear but not to compel evacuation, nearly disappearing in precip then emerging again, more than once, until it ultimately got too rain-wrapped to see anymore. Then it kept going for awhile longer.
Being able to stay in one spot and watch a quasistationary, violent tornado go on (and on, and on…) in mostly uninhabited countryside…this was a completely unfamiliar and wondrous experience. Behind us, in Bennington, sirens wailed on and off for most of an hour, never needed but definitely justified–for the supercell could start moving anytime. Fortunately for the town, it didn’t, and fortunately for us, as we were between the tornado and those sirens.
Thanks to tornadic translation vectors resembling those of a two-year-old on a tricycle, I had time to call in several updates, take well north of 100 photos, post a live phone shot or two to Facebook, and just put the camera and phone down and stare with awe and appreciation at the atmospheric event unfolding just a couple of miles to the W. In fact, at one point, as the slow path loop got closest but turned northward, I closed my eyes for 30 seconds just to listen to the tornado’s deep, low voice and feel the inflow it was consuming, undistracted by anything visual. This, I promise you, was an ethereal, transcendental experience. How often will one get that opportunity?
Many moons ago, DF had vowed to release the cremated remains of his late canine chase companion, Thunder, into a tornadic supercell’s inflow. When I looked to the left and saw him shaking a bag into the strong, warm easterlies, and saw the ashes wafting westward across green fields toward that big tornado, I nearly shed a tear. Somewhere in doggie heaven, a big, goofy leonberger (who himself had seen more than a few tornadic supercells in his short life) was smiling and wagging his tail.
As for the tornado at hand, here’s a selection of images every few minutes through the rest of its visible lifespan:
Thick cone, wide angle with ambient storm structure
Barrel under big wall cloud, opaque rain-wrapping
Very fat hose, descending reflectivity core shed
Absolutely classic pose–big tornado, big wall cloud, big base
Slight zoom view of wedge (could hear it at this point of closest approach)
Wedge with ragged, possibly multivortex filaments to its N, meso getting quite strongly occluded
Deeply rain-wrapped, barely visible thick, tubular cone with tail cloud nearby
Last certain view of tornado before wrapping precip got too thick, once and for all.
Closing it out
We waited a few more minutes of waiting for a visual reappearance, while precip curtains orbited very fast about an inferred tornado location. It obviously was still going, and would be for at least a few more minutes. However, we also knew that no tornado survives that deeply occluded and buried in precip for very long; one only can suck in so much heavy precip before the inflow air mass becomes too dense and stable.
Seeing the rear-flank cloud edge (and core) extend nearly overhead, we decided to go back through town a couple of miles and take a big-picture perspective. This storm now resembled a large, HP drum, maybe with a dying tornado still buried in there somewhere. Seeing some rotation in a cloud base ahead of the core, we went back through town again, observing a brief, rotating wall cloud that soon got undercut by outflow.
Thinking this storm might finally move off the hodograph origin, we went W and S on K-18 across Salt Creek and briefly observed the big, turquoise-cored HP storm from a roadwork area (looking NNW and looking SSW). Other cells were forming atop its outflow, but upshear, merging in and messing up the structure.
After jumping a few more miles to the SSW, we sat in the dimming daylight for one last look at the steadily disorganizing supercell, still in the same area and surely dumping astounding storm-total rains, before heading the few miles S into SLN for celebratory dinner. Good times with friends, followed by an uneventful 4-hour drive home, capped off a decidedly successful five days of High Plains Therapy. The next day–back to work, rejuvenated and alive with the passion for the smorgasbord of atmospheric violence!
Smith Center, Esbon & Mankato KS
27 May 13
High Plains Therapy, Day 4 of 5
SHORT: Wild day. Intercepted tail-end storm W of Smith Center KS that started CL and became messy HP, saw at least 3 tornadoes therewith. Fateful hail later encountered near Mankato.
Prelude to action
Three days of this weather pattern had graced us with some outstanding storm structure and lightning in Colorado, Nebraska, South Dakota and Nebraska again. On this fourth day of the five I could chase, we started out in Grand Island for what promised to be a fairly short trek into extreme northern KS–me in one vehicle and a lot more protoplasm in the other: DF and Samara, “Downtown” Brown, Ross da Boss, and intrepid leonbergers Porthos and Trego. In my vehicle–music, calm sailing, and the hum of the road. In theirs–canine farts…from very, very large dogs.
Strengthening deep-layer wind profiles, the best low-level moisture content of the warm sector so far in the pattern, strong CAPE, a deepening surface low over western KS, and a quasistationary baroclinic boundary near the KS/NEb border, all made the target zone fairly obvious. The dryline was a possibility, but with capping a major concern, so it was downshear boundary or nothing for us. Wind fields certainly would be favorable for supercells. Lower LCLs than previous days amidst enlarging late-afternoon hodographs offered some glimmer of hope for a tornado if the storms first formed, and the modes didn’t get too messy too fast.
Unfortunately, with such a readily apparent target would come throngs of actual and wannabe-chasers, likely followed by looky-here locals, and we knew this. Finding safe navigation options off the main roads would be important to minimizing the hassles and hindrances to safe storm observing posed by traffic jams. Yes, traffic jams in rural KS! How sad is is that we have to consider this anymore? Still, I wasn’t about to let that ruin my enjoyment and appreciation of what nature had to offer, if I could help it at all.
After a long wait N of Stockton, we finally watched several towers arise to our NNW and NW, initially elevated N of the boundary but deepening into cumulonimbi and backbuilding. Meanwhile deep towers fired to our S and SE, in the warm sector E of the dryline. The latter didn’t benefit from as much forcing for low-level mass continuity as provided by the boundary, but had access to higher surface-based CAPE, at least at first. We wandered S and E, monitoring and remaining in play for both areas, when the northern storm cluster finally backbuilt close enough to the surface boundary for Tail-end Charlie to get really happy.
Overshoots and thick towers pumped through the persistent southern storm as we turned N out of Osborne toward Smith Center. We got a good view of the initially high base while approaching Smith Center, then set up just W of town with just a few minutes to observe the broad but increasingly well-organized updraft region before the flanking gust front would reach us.
An otherwise undistinguished area of the cloud base roughly in the middle of the last shot, between precip areas, started to rotate quite noticeably. Why? We didn’t notice any particularly telltale signals, such as an antecedent RFD cut or obvious occlusion process. Maybe this was the stretching term at work–a “nonmesocyclone” tornadogenesis process in a supercell, fortuitously located under an elongated updraft area and ravenously sucking a straw of horizontal vorticity. In any event, a weak tornado formed–a dust whirl under the little area of cloud spin, so feeble at first that it took us a couple of minutes of staring to be sure. There was a minute or two gap between obvious dust whirls, but with continuity of cloud-base rotation above, I considered it one tornado with a vortex too weak or too vegetated at the base to raise dust in that intervening stage. Off and on, but mostly on, the little tornado that could stayed visible, lasting for six minutes before being plowed under by the rear-flank gust front of a low-level mesocyclone deepening to our N.
With the supercell changing character and moving abeam of us, it was time to “head east”–and I don’t mean the ’70s rock band. The warning and tornado report attracted swarms of chasers and pseudo-chasers from several counties around, many of whom could be seen on Spotter Network animations about-facing to this storm as soon as the red polygon appeared. US-36, E of Smith Center, turned into a long, eastward-slogging train of vehicles paralleling the storm just to its S and SE. For a little while, we were caught up in that mess, and had trouble finding good vantages.
We needed one when an area of low-slung scud to our N and NNW, under a cyclonically turning inflection notch of the updraft-downdraft interface, started turning itself as it rose off the ground. The persistent, obviously but slowly rotating cloud column was in contact with both ground and cloud base for about a minute. The whole very weakly tornadic circulation (located just N and NE of Bellaire and NW of us ) lasted about 3 minutes.
Farther N, the storm cranked up a robust mesocyclone, but one hard to see from the S, through intervening precip. Finally, this storm was getting serious and bidding bye-bye to the “cheesenado” phase. Our vantage wasn’t ideal, and we wanted to get E and N to reposition ahead of the new, deepening storm-scale circulation. Several minutes of waiting for a hole in the US-36 traffic didn’t help. As a result, we did get N on the alternating paved/dirt road into and out of Esbon, but not in time to see most of the lifespan of the big, rain-wrapped tornado NW of town.
Instead, we popped N out of Esbon barely ahead of a deep, dark, circular drum of rotating precip, churning menacingly and moving ESE directly at us. With no vehicles driving toward our position (but several high-tailing it away!), and a narrow but very passable road upon which we had just driven as a return/escape outlet, we safely executed requisite 5-point turns to flip back southward and, as a Texan like me would say, “Git the hell outta thar!” After they finished the turn and as I was amidst that process, I heard Keith yell over the radio, “Tornado to the west!”
Sure enough, inside the orbiting moat of heavy rain, I could make out a low-contrast, wedge-shaped mass of darkness, itself rotating furiously. Seeing that the E rim of the meso still was W of us, though not by far, I radioed to the now rapidly fleeing Dudes, Dudette and Dogs vehicle: “Go ahead south! I’m gonna take 30 seconds to shoot then I’ll get the #%^! outta here!” As I parked and jumped out, the mass (which indeed was the infamous Lebanon-Esbon tornado) narrowed to a barrel shape, then by the time I did shoot, a thick cone, getting lower in contrast again (enhanced version of last shot) and still densely swaddled in precip.
Meanwhile a newer and rapidly strengthening mesocyclone was whirling with considerable vigor to the N, raising dust and sucking it in, wrapping big gobs of precip, who-knows-what going on inside. I could have sworn I saw some vortices merry-go-rounding in there, but contrast was too poor to say for sure. No tornadoes showed up in storm reports during that phase, but at a minimum, it was a very intense “meso on the ground”. The southern, older, tornadic and deeply occluded circulation still was moving generally toward me, the tube narrowing to the extent I could ascertain. [Storm surveys later showed the Lebanon-Esbon tornado dissipating right before it reached my road.] Still, not wishing to play chicken with a beast like this (the storm always decides who wins that game!), I jumped back in and gunned it southward also. Everything since the 5-point turn occurred in less than 45 seconds, 15 longer than estimated: stop, jump out, shoot WNW at occluded/tornadic meso, run across the street, shoot N at new meso, run back to vehicle, throw ‘er into gear, slam the pedal down and bust south.
Apparently, my storm-intercept companions used a great deal of haste in their escape; for by the time I reached the next intersection, they were out of radio range. While I turned E to stay ahead of the rear-flank gust front of the new meso, it turns out that they had kept going S back toward US-36. My east road, though gravel and dirt, was outstanding and very firm for a few miles, allowing me to gain a welcomed cushion by the time I reached Burr Oak. There, I briefly stopped to examine and shoot the main mesocyclone area to the NW, now deeply wrapped in a north-Texas-style HP stormzilla.
Opening up some space between me and the rear flank also became crucial when two things happened at once, E of Burr Oak:
1. A heavy shower that had formed to the S passed directly over the road ahead, and
2. Preceding the next paved N-S option, I encountered a 2-mile stretch of the same “road”, which previously had been a deeply rutted strand of slop, and now was being rendered horrendous by the shower.
Thank God and Ford for high-clearance 4WD and the ability to use it properly. Prior practice mudding and sand-driving paid off here; lower-set SUVs (4WD or not) and any sedan would have ended up high-centered past the axles in that nightmarish quagmire. There was serious white-knuckle driving down a certifiably awful track, among the handful of worst mapped roads that I’ve experienced. I was counting the tenths of a mile on the odometer, trudging along through the viscous morass, not daring to stop lest I lose momentum, wheels flinging giant gobs of goop every which way. At least there were no other chasers on that wretched stretch…for good reason! Somewhere in that ordeal, I got brief coverage and a phone call from my comrades, but was in no position to stop and answer, requiring full-on concentration and the use of both hands for every millisecond.
Finally I emerged on to the hard, dry N-S road, likely shedding well north of 200 pounds of mud to rain and centrifugal forces as I zoomed off southward toward Mankato. One last look back N at the HP storm gusting out, then a peek at a new Cb forming to the SE, and what appeared to be a newer, elevated supercell to the W (atop outflow from the big HP), dictated the next step superbly: get SE.
Upon reaching Mankato from the N, I got back into reliable cellular coverage and re-established phone contact for a meeting E of town. By this time, the elevated supercell was moving into Mankato. Thinking we had a decent shot at a spectacular sunset on the back side of the convective mass, and that most of the core of the ESE-moving storm would clear town by the time we went back through, that’s what we tried. We tried too soon.
Skirting the N edge of the main core, we encountered mostly heavy rain and marginally severe hail, except for the large ice bomb or three that bounced high in the air off the ground. Well, a few bounced off vehicles too. They took a 3-incher to the windshield, and I heard and felt one or two really fat ones clunk the roof where decent dents later were seen. Fortunately it was over quickly, but we were just a little too hasty going in. I took the blame for this bad call, because (clearly wrongly) I thought the meat of the core was S of US-36. The Dudes, Dudette and Dogs crew were upset, and rightfully so.
Unaware to us at the time, and purely by serendipity, this would turn out to be one of the best things to happen to us all, because it forced them to limp into the nearest big town (SLN) to get a windshield replaced, effectively nixing their prior intentions to chase in Colorado the next day. Meanwhile, the sunset wasn’t calendar-worthy, thanks to light blockage over most of the sky from clouds farther W, but was beautiful and enjoyable nonetheless.
As for me, I didn’t feel like driving all the way to SLN in darkness and deer crossings, and instead got a cheap room at a little motel in Smith Center in time for a late dinner. Though this chase now will be known forevermore as the ideal setup event for the nest day’s feast, in its own right it was a fine fourth part of five in the journey of High Plains Therapy.