2012 Season-Opening Success in Southwest Oklahoma

March 21, 2012 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Summary 

SW OK
18 Mar 12

SHORT: Intercepted merging storms then resulting single supercell over SW OK, with spectacular structure and three short-lived tornadoes.

LONG: A little advanced planning made possible a splendid start to the 2012 storm-intercept season, on the 87th anniversary of the Tri-State Tornado.

Before Tornadoes

My daughter Donna and I headed out from Battlestar Norman at 19 Z, thanks to 1) her outstanding academic performance and judicious spring-break homework planning that freed her this time to chase, 2) her ability to drive to meet me at work, and 3) Greg Dial’s swapping shift hours with me from the previous day. It was a good day for some dad-and-daughter time on the highways and byways of southwest Oklahoma. We targeted the LTS/CDS area, well-advertised for a few days as part of a corridor of dryline supercell potential.
Forecast thinking was that early cloud bases would be somewhat high, but storms likely being discrete given the presence of modest capping and decent component of mean-wind orthogonality relative to the dryline. Low-level and deep-layer shear would be more than sufficient. Boundary-layer moisture would increase as storms moved off the deeper mixed layer air of the dryline environment, deeper into a moist sector.

As we cruised W across the N side of Lawton (S edge of FSI), we started to experience promising breaks in the low clouds, while the first robust reflectivity echoes sprang up SW of CDS and E of Crosbyton. I immediately targeted the northern echo because it would be moving into: 1) the forecast target area, with a somewhat more favorable environment slightly sooner, and 2) a better road network over SW OK than for the storm headed to the Crowell area. Both of these would evolve into supercells eventually, along with a third echo farther S.

As we approached Hollis, the small, young storm came into view, still well to our SW near CDS. Being a softie for abandoned structures of the Great Plains, I couldn’t resist parking at a wondrously decrepit old house, located 3 E of Hollis.

The westward-listing relic of the homesteading era creaked in the wind, as if mournfully moaning some of the last words in its long and mysterious life story. A loose strip of sheet metal on its roof flapped hither and yon in the prairie wind, its clanking noise advertising the structure’s vulnerability for all to hear, but with only us listening. Yes, the old house was well worth shooting, both in its own right and as a foreground for the approaching storm.

Moving generally toward us, the storm became better organized, until distinctively supercellular bands and striations materialized. We repositioned a couple miles east to distance ourselves from the vault’s lightning production, while its base expanded. Another rotating storm formed just SW of the Hollis storm’s flank and moved NE, dumping its own front-flank precip into the back edge of the first storm.

Cloud-base spin began anyway, along with intermittent pockets of faster rotation and rising motion with lowerings (looking W). The first serious occlusion wrapped a good deal of precip around the low-level mesocyclone, with a short-lived, conical, rotating lowering that might be termed a ragged funnel cloud.

Meanwhile, as our gradually merging storm(s) got messier, things got very interesting 60-70 miles to our S. The classical, flying-eagle reflectivity appearance of the middle (Crowell) supercell tempted me enticingly, especially when the red polygon showed up. Despite that storm’s digital allure, we stuck with the northern storm based on visual cues, even through its struggles with mergers and resultant HP-like precip cycles.

Here’s why. The storms’ merger cast a lot of messy precip across the scene, but somehow didn’t kill the initial supercellular rotation area. We would stick to our original target. This was purely an “eyeballs” decision. On reflectivity animations it did look like a disorganized mess. Visually, it still was conducting a series of occlusions. Good thing I trusted my eyes more than radar this time!

While I’ve found wireless radar access generally to be a benefit in the years since its availability, this event was a fine example of how onboard radar access sometimes can be a curse instead of a blessing. When visibility sucks, and all you have to work with is radar, you go for the storm with the best organization, if the environments are somewhat similar. In this case, however, the nowcast environment also was a little better for the northern storm in terms of slightly weaker CINH, and similar to slightly stronger SRH in another 2-3 hours. It was a gamble of patience that paid off.

First, however, the messy, temporarily HP storm character brought down contrast (wide angle view looking NW) as the whole process churned northeastward. A new area of rotation developed ahead of the old, rain-wrapped circulation, as the storm(s) gained distance from us. It was time to reposition N and E through Shrewder. This meant going N six miles on a narrow but hard-packed dirt road if we were not to lose visibility. One stop W of Shrewder afforded us a view of a new and old meso with rainy pseudo-nado (looking NW). Meanwhile, that portion of the second (merging) storm that appended itself to the flank of the first began to exhibit some wild striations nearly overhead to the SW.

Upon seeing that, I knew the combined storm was evolving into a wedding-cake special, and we needed to get many miles farther NE to get enough of the storm in view for decent structure shots. We zigzagged through Russell and Mangum toward Brinkman, watching a couple more occlusions and short bursts of moderate cloud-base rotation. One stop near Russell afforded us this splendid view to the NW. We turned W from US-283 onto a paved road running S of Brinkman, looking SW toward the Reed area, and toward a stunning, sculpted supercell.

Tornadic Stages

While admiring the structure, I spotted something tubular emerging leftward (southward) from either within or behind a rain core under the base. Donna shouted over the wind, “Hey dad, is that a tornado?” I shouted back “Yes!” and managed to snap just one photo of the serpentine vortex (alas, with the 24-70 mm glass still attached…here’s a cropped version) before I reached into the car for the zoom lens. Time was 0004 Z. By the time I got the 300-mm lens on, the little tornado was gone, the area where it had been exhibiting only a scuddy lowering and some precip filaments. I don’t know how long the tornado existed before it popped out of the murk, but can’t imagine more than a minute or two. I called it in to the WFO, advising that the tornado had dissipated. [A couple of subsequent attempts to call during later events would be met with busy signals.]

Remarkably, this was Donna’s first tornado on a chase! She soon would add two more. Donna had been on 15-20 tornado-free storm intercepts with me over the years, and had seen three tornadoes while not chasing.
Staying in the same spot, we let the storm approach rather uneventfully, watching one more non-tornadic occlusion occur, then decided to head back east and gain more distance for structure shots. As I drove, Donna and I (she with direct sight, I via rear-view mirror) each noticed a smooth lowering forming in a somewhat rain-wrapped mesocyclone to the distant WNW. We turned around and pulled over at the first safe vantage, 5 E of Willow OK, right alongside Bruce Haynie and his chase partner Matt from LBB. The lowering was a funnel that rapidly became apparent as a tornado. Time was 0029 Z.

The condensation tube fattened into a tilted, tapered cone, while the clear slot eroded more ambient cloud material and a core dump grew to pseudo-tornadic form elsewhere in the mesocyclone area. A real tornado and a lookalike, all in the same view! Here was a 300-mm zoom at 0029 Z, seconds before the tornado appeared to dissipate.

Dense precip filled the entire mesocyclone below cloud base, and we started heading E again. We were just half a mile W of OK-6 and 7 N of Granite when another lowering showed up in the rain–tornado 3. This time, contrast was very poor, as was my attempt to photograph it (see deeply enhanced version). Time was 0039 Z.

Better vantages were had from both closer and farther away, and more to the NE. At this moment, I was located in that netherworld between close enough for a good shot of the tornado, and far enough to pull out structure. Sometimes a storm observer’s timing is off that way, but I’m not complaining…Donna got to see her third tornado of the day. Shortly after the tornado roped out (within a minute), we noticed a suspicious cloud lowering deeper into the precip, probably in an older occlusion. The feature was just too distant and low-contrast, beyond intervening trees, to determine its nature (severely enhanced crop).

Post-tornadic Period

On the way to Retrop, we stopped to view the majestic and now non-tornadic storm, exuding ghostly pastels in early twilight, here at wide angle looking NW with a mobile radar that wasn’t scanning. When we turned back onto OK-6 to head N, we saw that the radar truck was parked smack in the traffic lane–since then I’ve learned that they were broken down in that spot instead of stopped intentionally.

We stopped one last time, a few miles E of Retrop, to watch the storm go elevated and weaken in the deepening twilight. We were satisfied beyond measure with our first chase of the season, and fortunate to have experienced such a phenomenal storm with minimal hassle. We managed to avoid the worst of the chaser hordes, and saw generally safe behavior even in traffic.

Given the late hour by the time we reached the next sizable town (Cordell), celebratory steak dinner would have to wait until the next day. We did, however, enjoy some Sonic food, followed by a little more dad-and-daughter time on the couple hours’ drive back home.

[EDIT] Post-chase, I learned that my camera clock was 6 minutes slow. The clock has been reset, and the times above corrected.

November to Remember

November 13, 2011 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Summary 

Tornadic Supercell in Southwest Oklahoma
7 November 11

SHORT: Intercepted two nontornadic supercells and one tornadic in SW OK. Witnessed multivortex tornado move through wind farm, among others.

LONG: This has been a very fortunate year for me for storm observing, and a rare juxtaposition of a day off with a November chase day offered the promise of icing on the fine tornadic cake that has been 2011.

Pre-storm

For several days, a classical, spring-like, near-dryline supercell setup appeared to be looming…in autumn. Looking at the morning charts and RAOBs, the presence of very nearly surface-based effective inflow parcels even during early-mid morning (using FWD and OUN soundings) reinforced my main concern–the potential for early initiation, maybe too many storms too soon. Otherwise the foci for supercell and tornado potential looked fairly well-defined, the target area compact: approaching, progressive shortwave trough aloft with deep-layer shear strengthening throughout the day, adequate moisture return, backed winds, and enhanced low-level vorticity along an outflow boundary E of a dryline and cold front…all in the southwest OK/NW TX area.

After morning appointments (I try to avoid scheduling any immovable commitments for afternoons even in the “off-season”), visible imagery showed good clearing from the southern tier of OK counties (LTS-FSI) southward, and towers already starting to deepen in the weak CINH even before noon. The deepest warm-sector convection already was forming near 100W (TX/OK border longitude), with other clumps of shallower convection farther ESE over NW TX. Time to head out the door!

Early, non-tornadic supercells

Perhaps I left a little too soon; this is a longstanding bias of mine. Still, I targeted the LTS area via the NE (HBR) instead of E (FSI), in case any decent storm rode up the western fringe of OK and into the baroclinic zone. I’ve had a few successes with early-event tornadic storms tucked in the NW side of a SE-expanding storm regime, and a supercell SW of Mangum was getting larger.

By the time I reached Lone Wolf, on the way toward Mangum, a messy cluster of storms with some banding and supercellular tendencies had formed to the SW (wide-angle). I considered staying near there, and perhaps should have in hindsight, given a few observers’ later reports of a short-lived multivortex tornado with an eventual supercell SW of HBR. Instead, I headed to the western storm, somewhat concerned that my onboard thermometer indicated only the narrowest of slivers of diabatic warming between the HBR cluster and the now tornado-warned Mangum storm.

The western storm came into view NW of Mangum; I parked 2 WSW Brinkman to let the storm move just to my W and N. It was somewhat pretty, but not too promising. An earlier, distant wall cloud had vanished, and the storm looked rather strung-out. A new mesocyclonic cycle yielded a weakly rotating, nice-looking little wall cloud, but it couldn’t tighten up and produce. Moreover, the probability it would was dropping by the minute; inflow air was getting cooler! Naturally, the storm started to weaken.

By this time, a small cell I earlier had noted on radar, S of the Red River and S of FDR, had exploded and was taking on obvious supercellular signatures. I was out of position for anything it would do in the next 1-1.5 hours, and knew it. But I also knew it would have a long potential trek through vorticity-rich air of at least marginal buoyancy, all the way N of the Wichita Mountains, if no other storms erupted to its S or SE. For now and for hours, that southeastern storm would remain unimpeded that way.

I wasted no time in deciding to go toward the FDR storm, but two other supercells were in the way: one just SW of HBR (the early multivortex producer I missed) and the other slightly farther SW, also approaching HBR. My best chance at shooting the gap between these two supercellular obstacles and stay on course for the southeastern storm was to head back through Lone Wolf to HBR, around the northern flank of the southern-middle storm and S of the hook of the northern one (beautiful rainbow scene on their collective W side). I threaded between the two most dense core regions; but the gap was small and I did encounter some small to marginal-severe hail in the southern (nontornadic) HBR storm’s forward flank. Here’s a wide-angle look at the southern-middle storm between HBR and Roosevelt, looking WSW.

Turning S out of HBR, my timing looked barely adequate, and more likely too slow, to reach the FDR storm S of the Wichitas. By now, I already had heard of a couple of tornadoes it had produced; and the storm appeared to be trucking along nicely with a powerful low-tilt velocity signature. Instead of trying to stern-chase it on US-62, only to encounter a road void in the Wichitas, I chose to head E out of Roosevelt, skirt the storm’s northern flank, and wait N of the Slick Hills for the supercell’s business end to come toward me. I knew the massive, E-W oriented Blue Canyon Wind Farm was a couple miles S of OK-19 too, right in the meso’s path, and might provide an interesting foreground for whatever emerged from the rough terrain. It would be my first correct strategic decision all day.

Post-Wichitas phase of tornadic supercell

Heading E from Roosevelt, I could see some of the rear-flank convective wall of the FDR supercell to my S; while a very bright rainbow with secondary accompaniment festooned the fringes of its left-flank precip core. I zigzagged the necessary roads toward the area NE of Saddle Mountain, encountering more mainly sub-severe hail in the tornadic storm’s northern rim. The hook echo was very impressive on radar, when I had any phone data in this reception-deprived area, with one scan of ~100-kt gate-to-gate shear. By now, I was preparing for the possibility of a big tornado coming out of the mountains and through that wind farm.

A fine viewpoint appeared ~5 SW Alden on OK19, with a surprisingly green field of winter wheat leading SW toward the ridge-top wind farm. The mesocyclone’s orbiting rim of cloud-base scud came into view to the SW, circulating at impressive peripheral speeds that I’ve seen only with tornadic settings. The meso was translating directly toward me, but still with plenty of time to spare and a good escape route eastward. Time to rock and roll. Alas, a furious bombardment of close CGs kept me under within the vehicle for several more minutes. A group of unrecognized chasers showed up at the same vantage, standing outside rather unwisely despite the occasional CGs still hitting within hundreds of yards.

Fortunately the electrical attack from above abated fairly quickly, and we all could concentrate again on the approaching mesocyclonic menace. I was very confident a tornado still was lurking beyond the ridge line near Saddle Mountain; and within minutes, that suspicion was confirmed! The visible condensation funnel of the tornado, still beyond the ridge, vanished from obvious view for a minute or two, the visible parts of the cloud base seemingly boiling with furious movements. The tornado reappeared even better. I strongly suspect this was the same tornado as before, given
1. Its temporal and spatial continuity relative to the ambient mesocyclone circulation, and
2. Later TV-chopper videos I’ve seen of the Saddle Mountain tornado, which dissipated right before reaching the wind farm.

A new, strongly rotating wall cloud formed N of the dissipated tornado and over the western part of the wind farm. In fact, its base was so low that the turbine blades extended into the cloud! The new circulation also extended E of the visible wall cloud, which seemed to subsist on recycling of rain-cooled air from the precip wrapping around the N and NW sides of the hook. This fascinating process was about to get more so, and fast.

On the E (left) side of the mesocyclone, slightly displaced from the lowest part of the wall cloud, a multiple-vortex tornado, containing a dominant central condensation tube, developed over the wind farm. This was obviously separate from the earlier tornado. Since some of my home’s power comes from this wind farm, I was hoping against its destruction; in fact, as the tornadic circulation continued to swirl through and around the turbines (wide view and cropped), I saw no clear evidence of damage.

Small suction vortices occasionally formed and pirouetted gracefully among the turbines (wide view and cropped), as the main cone became more sharply defined (wide view and cropped). The entire scene was strange and ironic — a wind farm under siege from the ultimate in “wind power” (wide view and cropped).

Through the whole ordeal, the disabled blades held firm, not budging nor popping loose, despite the undoubtedly intense mechanical stresses. The functional turbines seemed to adjust their alignment (with some lag) to the mesocyclonic wind shift, but of course, couldn’t do so fast enough at tornado-vortex scale. The blades’ rotation speed seemed to remain fairly steady, which fits the purposeful design of such machines to brake the spin rates in order to minimize damage in extreme wind. This certainly qualifies as extreme wind!

A powerful, precip-laden RFD surge hit the tornado, weakening it while sending the remains of the circulation careening ENE through the N side of the wind farm, at an oblique angle. A newer mesocyclone was tightening up rapidly, immediately (just over a mile ) to my SW, so it was time to reposition a tad east. While driving, a glance in the right-side rear-view mirror revealed a new, entirely separate tornado developing as a tall, slender tube. This pretty, partially rain-wrapped tornado (the third for me so far) only lasted a couple of minutes, dissipating as it reached OK-19 near where I had parked before.

This newest mesocirculation, with wrapping rain curtains, shot toward the NNE beyond OK-19. I headed E a little over a mile to OK-58 then N, watching it weaken as it obliquely approached the road to my immediate WNW. The mesocyclone dissipated fast. Still, rain curtains seemed to be moving fairly quickly in assorted directions around me. Frequent glances at the cloud base above revealed strengthening, convergent westerly flow. I soon saw why.

Yet another quick occlusion was about to occur, as another mesocyclone developed a short distance to the E. This was not the optimal position for any storm observer to occupy, so I searched for a good E option that would take me out of the backside of the hook. [Fortunately, the storm continued its trend of producing non-damaging hail with respect to my vehicle.] Now WNW of the new circulation, I turned E on E1380 Road toward “Pine Ridge”, a crossroads with neither a ridge nor pines. The road was reasonably well-drained, alternating between paved and hard-packed gravel with occasional shallow puddles, and was good to go at 50-55 mph in high 4WD.

Right after my turn, a fuzzy cone tornado materialized to the ESE, allowing a brief stop to photograph it before the rear-hook firehose started dousing me. The white smudge in the last shot, below and to the left of the tornado bottom, was a hail splash.

Back on the road again, I carefully approached the mesocyclone and tornado from the W, watching the latter dissipate and the former rotate intensely as it crossed E1390 about a mile away. This circulation moved N, and yet another one (the eventual Ft. Cobb tornado producer) developed just to its E. By now, the storm definitely was translating poleward and speeding up, getting away from me even as I drove the short few miles to my N turn on N2550 at “Pine Ridge”.

Seeing occasional multivortex filaments form under the new circulation (the Ft. Cobb tornado), I stopped briefly to photograph the storm structure with the mesocyclonic cloud base below (deeply enhanced crop-n-zoom). Heading N toward Ft. Cobb, I could see occasional plantings of full ground-cloud condensation; but every one of the 4-5 times I tried to pull over and photograph them, the condensation would go away. Daylight and contrast each grew dimmer also.

After escaping Ft. Cobb, I drew closer to what was left of the circulation near Albert, its cloud base still rotating and low-hanging in the twilight, but obviously weakening. I couldn’t complain much, though, I had found my fifth tornado of the day, a pretty remarkable feat considering some poor tactical decisions early in the afternoon that caused me to miss a fantastic tornado show SW of the Wichita Mountains.

Epilogue

The trip back was mercifully short, as the former FDR-Ft. Cobb supercell got absorbed ingloriously into a building band of storms near Okarche. How often does one arrive home by 7 p.m. after a multi-tornado intercept? Despite what I had missed, these were my latest tornadoes seen in a calendar year, and multiplied by six the sum total of lifetime November tornadoes.

To make the day truly unique, I got to experience an earthquake too. Not long after settling in at the house, a low, thunderous rumble and weak vibrating of the house signaled the magnitude 4.7 aftershock from the Sparks earthquake swarm that had been rattling off and on for several days. I had felt the Oklahoma-record magnitude 5.6 shaker a couple of nights earlier while in a cabin at Greenleaf State Park (my first ever). With multiple earthquakes and tornadoes witnessed in a 3-day span, it was a marvelous time for an earth scientist in Oklahoma. 2011 also has been, by far, my most prolific tornado year.

As with the 20 June tornado-fest in Kansas and Nebraska, I sent an itemized table of tornado times and estimated locations to the WFO, with embedded links to many of the same photos as above. That table includes times, locations and links to the photos. What had been listed as one tornado on coarse-resolution maps, from S of the Wichitas to OK-19, should become three in the final record. The tornado log file is in the public domain, and linked here in MS Excel format, freely accessible for anyone interested.

Spring 2011 Grand Finale: A Tornado-fest

September 9, 2011 by · Comments Off on Spring 2011 Grand Finale: A Tornado-fest
Filed under: Summary 

NW KS to south-central NEb
20 June 11

SHORT: Food, fishing, baby-bird rescue and a bunch of tornadoes…on final chase day of the vacation and season for us, with three tornadic supercells in northern KS and southern NEb.

LONG: Awakening to a windy, moist, scuddy morning in Alma, NEb, beneath a rip-roaring ENEly low-level jet, Elke and I knew this could be a productive storm day, but had no idea that it would land in the top few of our entire storm-observing careers. Indeed, if you include the calendar day–having witnessed the second of two spectacular, lightning-illuminated supercells after the stroke of midnight (story here), there is no question that his goes down as an all-time top-5-class chase day for either of us.

Pre-storm

After looking at morning charts, I targeted two plays:
1. Mid-day tornado potential in the “bent back” region of the occluding surface frontal zone, W of the dryline and near the surface low. Even by mid-morning, this regime was taking shape in west-central KS and moving directly N toward us, with only some diurnal heating and a storm needed to engage intercept mode.
2. Late-afternoon potential on the nose of the dry punch, near the dryline/warm-frontal triple point, over east-central or SE NEb. This is the regime I had in mind for a couple of days, but forecast backing of flow with height in the midlevels (a harbinger of linear storm modes) had me concerned.

Obviously, given where we were, #1 was a no-brainer as first choice, despite my historically lame fortune with “cold core” supercell regimes. If that option either busted or died out early enough in the afternoon, the rather slow eastward component of the deep-layer cyclone’s motion meant we could blast east, preferably on a road suited to it like I-80, and intercept the dryline storms.

With that strategic concept in mind, and a lack of food options in Alma, we headed for HDE to eat late breakfast/early lunch, then to a nearby city park to bide some time reading (Elke) and fishing (me) before storms went up.

I didn’t get too many casts into the lake because of a sad sight I found underneath a tree: two dead baby robins, blown out of their nests by one of last night’s supercells, and one still alive and shivering with hypothermia. After some deliberation about what to do, we noticed other robins and nests up the tree. Elke, who has a longstanding soft spot for baby birds, warmed the featherless little critter while I shimmied up the tree in search of a suitable nest in which to place the orphan. We got it in a snug nest (albeit alongside a much larger and older baby), hoping its new sibling could keep it warm and the new mama would feed it. Chances are it didn’t survive; but we tried.

First tornadic phase: “Long Island/Stamford” supercell

During the avian-rescue experience, a storm had formed (early, as cold-core storms often do) and quickly had become supercellular near HLC. By the time I got a good radar read on it, the storm already was tornado-warned. Though it was moving our way, we still were in HDE, well to its NNE, so…back S through Alma we went, and across the KS line. Mike U already had seen his festival of tornadoes by the time we caught the storm S of Long Island KS, but it was far from done.

Terrain in the area was somewhat choppy and frustrating to navigate, so we settled for the first decent hilltop view we could get, 3 S of Long Island. The supercell was moving toward the N and NNE at various times, with dark murk inside, a tall precip cascade on its SE (rear-flank) edge, and clear, blue sky to its E (our SE). Surface winds blew from the ENE to NE, as they would throughout the duration of our engagement with this supercell. We and the storm were a little leftward of the track of the surface low!

In the murk–and curiously, in the forward-flank interface region ahead of the main mesocyclone, we saw a small, tightly rotating wall cloud emerge, with a pencil-shaped tornado dangling beneath (photo: as seen and super-enhanced versions).

The tornado lasted about three minutes and dissipated, before a different, seemingly shallow, front-flank mesocirculation started spinning like mad to our W. That planted a dusty multivortex, which also was low-contrast (photo: as seen and super-enhanced versions). Whoa! I had based our intercept positioning, relative to the supercell, on the likely track of the primary mesocyclone, which stuck out eastward from the SE side of the north-moving storm.

By now, I had figured out what was going on, but that didn’t make it any less surreal. Pearls of enhanced rotation were forming and spawning front-flank tornadoes, along a necklace of very rich vorticity characterizing the inflow-outflow interface. A conceptual model of the situation looks something like this 2-D cartoon. Why this supercell was going nuts with front-flank mesocirculations, whilst most others don’t, is a question I’ll leave to the numerical modelers for the time being. In the real world of a storm intercept, this presented a strategic quandary, in that getting closer to the front-flank tornadic necklace also meant getting in the path of a rain-wrapped HP mesocyclone of a fairly fast-moving supercell.

As the second tornado churned northward, in step with storm translation, another suspicious feature caught our attention (Elke actually saw it first). A wide view of the storm (photo: as seen) shows the precip-wrapped, main mesocyclone to the left, and at far right, the dusty multivortex. Right before taking that shot, we spotted a dark, smooth, persistent, and reasonably wide lowering in another area of front-flank rotation, buried somewhat back into a precip-filled notch. That made ground contact, with rapid rotation of cloud material above and around the tapered-barrel shaped tornado. We had two ongoing, plus one that likely was underway in the main mesocyclone but not yet visible. More on that beast later. As for the two we knew, the arrows point to the visible tornadoes in this super-enhanced/zoomed version of the last shot.

We had a peculiar situation at hand.

After a few minutes, we lost sight of the southern front-flank tornado as it buried itself in precip, while the leading one narrowed and proceeded toward the N. We headed N too, crossing the KS/NEb state line about the same time as the leading tornado to our W (photo: as seen and super-enhanced versions).

Once that dissipated, we still had an original, dominant mesocyclone to our SSW, in which we couldn’t see anything thanks to persistent, rotating moat of heavy precip that cloaked the mysterious tempests of danger lurking within. This situation was getting weirder all the time, and was about to become truly bizarre.

I drove through Orleans and a few miles NW on US-136, which angled us closer to the front flank and somewhat in the path of the big meso. Lo and behold, just ahead of the rain-wrapped main meso, a tall, skinny, dusty tornado came into view to our WSW (photo: as seen and super-enhanced versions). This definitely was separate from the previous tornado, and probably just S of the KS/NEb state line. Meanwhile, a new and relatively robust shear-zone updraft to our NW (separate from the dissipated dusty tornado #2) started spinning frantically, and beneath a shallow, bowl-shaped and rapidly rotating lowering, spun up another short-lived, dusty tornado (photo: as seen and super-enhanced versions)! After the latter tornado dissipated, the prior, dusty tube seemed to spin down gradually instead of roping out, as if it simply lost its will to rotate.

Whither the main meso? At long last, we started seeing the answer as a rapidly rotating, nearly ground-to-anvil column of rain and hail churned toward us. Something very menacing, dangerous and unsavory began to appear from within the whirling dungeon of heavy precip–a big fat tornado (photo: as seen and super-enhanced versions). Look behind and above the tree row. I think what we’re seeing here is not just the rain-wrapped low levels of the tornado (dark wedge below cloud base, with helical scud coiling about).

Also, note the convective column containing the tornadic circulation (and not much larger in width than the visible tornado down low!) bending above and to the right. This is NWward with height on a N-moving storm, looking SW. [Conceptually, turn your usual NE-tilt on an E-moving storm leftward 90 deg as in the 2-D cartoon ]. In essence, you’re seeing the tornado-cyclone from ground into the mid-upper levels of the storm, visually. Yes, it was convective-looking, but corkscrewing pretty fast visually. Alas, even the mid-upper part didn’t shed its cloak of rotating rain curtains for very long; mostly it had been a bear’s cage from ground almost to anvil, for much of this storm’s lifespan in my view. I’m glad the curtains parted just long enough to reveal this fascinating deep-layer structure–and of course the hefty hose beneath.

My question: Was this the continuation of the Mr. Umscheid’s wedge from way down by HLC, or a separate tornado? Some shots by Walker Ashley seem to indicate a smaller barrel====>cone tornado earlier in this meso’s lifespan, and farther SW in KS. If so, either
1. Walker;s tornado expanded again to a rain-wrapped wedge shown here, or
2. This was a new one.

Whatever the case, the main-meso tornado likely had been ongoing for a long time, given that we had observed tremendously rotating rain curtains around the area for many minutes. This clearly was a very large, well-formed and mature tornadic vortex by the time we finally could see it. The entire tilted cloud column was rotating rapidly.

Wrapping precip again obscured the tornado within two minutes, or about the time it crossed into Nebraska. Orbiting rain curtains continued around the mesocyclone for several miles N toward Stamford an perhaps beyond, until the entire supercell evaporated from below and died W of HDE.

I read reports of “skipping” tornado paths with this storm in this area, which is bogus on two fronts:

    1. By definition, a tornado cannot “skip”. If it’s not on the ground, it’s not a tornado.

    2. Semantics aside, there simply was no “skipping”. The various different tornadoes in this area near the border, lined up similarly, probably gave the illusion of “skipping” of damage.

After the initial storm died, we got fuel in HDE and then couldn’t flank the downshear Elm Creek storm. We knew it was tornadic based on spotter reports and the SRM signature, but it was planted squarely on the highway to our N, near I-80. The first storm had put us out of position to see the business end of the Elm Creek supercell, so we jumped on the Interstate with its 75 mph speed limit and pressed the pedal hard in an eastward run for the second target area.

Second tornadic phase: “Hampton and Bradshaw/Stromsburg” supercells

Visually, a series of deep, glaciating towers to our ENE-E-SE looked reachable and was growing. By the time we passed the HSI/GRI exit, an unbroken wall of dense cores loomed to the E on radar, their convective towers lit by a blend of direct and filtered sunlight. My hope was that, despite the linear mode, a “tail-end Charlie” would roll up toward I-80 after I could penetrate the line and get into the inflow air. Linear storms don’t tend to hurl gorilla hail; so I was at ease with cruising up to the back and shooting through a relative gap.

That’s exactly what we did, except that the southern part of the line was breaking up into more discrete (and disturbingly, rotating) cells right as we started the penetration. We took a pounding from marginally severe hail, gazing southward through precip to see if anything could show up in the nearest area of rotation S of the Interstate. As we cleared precip and a ragged base came into view adjacent to the core, Elke saw a brief needle funnel 4/5 of the way to the ground. That might have been a tornado; though flooded fields precluded appreciable dust generation. No debris was visible beneath.

As we neared the Hampton exit, another core loomed to the SSE, moving N. We continued to press E, getting pounded by still more hail. Clearly the line had broken up into closely-packed supercells and we needed to get out of their way! A few minutes after we cleared the N side of the intensifying precip area, I glanced behind us to see a barrel-shaped, rain-wrapped tornado in the S part of the same core, about to cross the Interstate (photo: as seen and super-enhanced versions). That was a little too close for comfort, though we really had about 5 minutes’ cushion. I pulled off the road, jumped out, and gestured wildly at some westbound traffic not to go that way. Fortunately, they slowed down and pulled aside.

What appeared to be a big, low-visibility and significant tornado (as it turned out to be!) was almost upon the Interstate (photo: as seen and super-enhanced versions), and I was hoping nobody would drive into it. Enough precip wrapped around the tornado that we couldn’t see it with our eyeballs as it crossed I-80 (photo: as seen and super-enhanced versions), though it narrowed somewhat to a stilted stovepipe and became more visible again between I-80 and US-34 (photo: as seen and super-enhanced versions).

The Hampton tornado appeared to hook NNW and move away from us. Our last view of it (photo: as seen and super-enhanced versions) came with a troubling realization: we still were getting peppered with precip, including increasingly large hail! The real tail-end Charlie still hadn’t reached I-80 yet; and indeed, another core was moving overhead with a low base diffusely visible to our SSE. Time to high-tail it east again! As we pondered getting off the Interstate at the Bradshaw exit, Elke looked out and up to see rapid cloud-base rotation nearly overhead, atop that very exit. We kept going!

Behind and slightly leftward of us, the tornado first appeared in the rear-view mirror while driving out from under the meso. A small dust plume spun up just N of I-80. Above that loomed a rotating cone funnel that extended about 1/3 down from cloud base. We zipped a mile or so E, then pulled safely off the road to watch. This tornado was highly visible and quite photogenic, a marvelously sheathed column into which the condensation funnel seemed to poke, spike-like. “Finally,” I thought, “all these tornadoes today and we have a high-contrast specimen!” I said something more coarse, but fortunately, cannot recall precisely what.

Without an immediately available north road, we watched for a few minutes as the tube widened and retreated northward away from us, a wide-angle view revealing more of the tail-end supercell’s swirly updraft structure. Although rather distant, we had the tornado in view all the way through JYR and up US-81 to a point 4 ESE of Polk, where we pulled over briefly to watch it rope out to the WNW. This was our longest continuous view of any of the day’s tornadoes: 18 minutes.

A new lowered base even farther N told me this storm wasn’t through with cyclic tornado production yet. As it was moving N rather quickly, slightly ahead of abeam to port side, the town of Stromsburg and its inevitable slowdown dead ahead, we had to get moving for any hope of seeing the next hose. A few miles S of Stromsburg, we saw the newest and last tornado of our day emerge from the haze, to our NW.

Of course, traffic slowed to a crawl in town, a chain of cars inching N at about half the posted 25 mph speed limit, some slowing down or turning indecisively as if thoroughly bewildered. Townsfolk stood in at least half the yards gazing in various skyward directions, not sheltered, despite the ominous wail of storm sirens. I thought, “They’re safe and don’t realize it yet; but if the tornado were headed into town, we would have multiple casualties amongst all these unprepared and confused citizens”. What I actually said might have been a tad less civilized, so it’s good that I can’t recall that.

By the time we got extricated from Stromsburg and headed N for a few miles, contrast improved enough to pull W half a mile and get a few decent shots, including this one looking NW across a corn field at the stout, grinding vortex. Motion of the ragged cloud base around the top of the visible tornado was impressively speedy. Driving a few more miles N on US-81, we finally got roughly abeam of the tornado again, only to see it rapidly narrow and then rope out.

Just in case the storm would cycle once more, we headed up an unmarked road off the east bend of US-81, in the general direction of Duncan. Alas, the supercell quickly displayed a rain-wrapped, outflow-dominant structure, and would produce no more tornadoes. We turned around to head back to JYR, photograph a couple of elevated cells (looking E and looking N from the S side of JYR), grab a room, and get some celebratory steak dinner before restaurants began to close.

Epilogue

A hearty meal was in order too. During a long storm-intercept day, we successfully had observed at least 8 and perhaps up to 10 tornadoes, from three different supercells, in two separate forecast targets and meteorological regimes. All I can say is, wow…only 3 May 1999 clearly exceeds this for my one-day tornado total. We don’t chase just to see tornadoes–far from it, actually–but you bet we’re appreciative of them for their rarity, uniqueness and power–the dichotomously ironic “Beauty of Atmospheric Violence” that is the title for my storm-photography shows. Best of all, nobody was injured through all the whirling mayhem of the day.

It was an amazing grand finale to an unprecedentedly bountiful 2011 Great Plains severe-storm vacation (and season)!

I had called in several of the tornadoes as soon as safety and cell signals would allow, a few while they still were underway. Within a couple weeks after we returned, I processed the day’s images (before all others from this vacation) and sent an itemized table of tornado times and estimated locations to the affected WFOs, with embedded links to many of the same photos as above. That table includes times, locations and links to the above photos. The tornado log file is in the public domain, and linked here in MS Excel format, freely accessible for anyone interested.

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