When you get in to late August and early September the summer starts to give way to fall in many parts of the country. Usually the ridge of high pressure starts to relieve and the heat gets displaced by colder air which arrives via a cold front. This was the setup on the day before Labor Day in Nebraska. Cold front chases are a little tougher because they tend to become linear fairly quickly and when that happens the tornado risk reduces greatly. So, getting out early and being right on top of the storms from initiation is of utmost importance to capture not only a possible tornado but to get the most photogenic shots of the day.
I traveled up I-35 through Kansas and arrived in Nebraska shortly after 1pm, and after I looked at the forecast models I decided to move further west than I had initially planned. I set up shop in Red Cloud, Nebraska and waited for storms to form. I chose a pretty good spot that day because it wasn't long before storms started to fire up just to the south in Kansas and quickly they moved northeast into Nebraska.
The storms stayed discrete for a short time as expected then moved to linear mode quickly. There was a short time where I got a wall cloud with some rotation in it, and it appeared it might have a shot at producing a tornado, but quickly dissipated. I landed a few structure shots and once I lost visibility to the individual cells I dropped south into Kansas to catch the southern part of the line of storms. I battled intense rain and quick moving storms the rest of the way, eventually stopping in Salina, KS to let them pass and got a bite to eat.
Here are a few of my catches from the day:
June 3rd, 2014 was the fourth chase day on our four day tour of the northern plains was a case of saving the best for last, at least in terms of quality of setups. A moderate risk was out for the afternoon, with a warm front hovering across Central Nebraska and feeding moisture to the north with dewpoints reaching the 70's in some cases. Storms were expected to be explosive, firing quickly and just turning tornadic just as fast. We reached Grand Island early in the afternoon and worked our way up to Loup, Nebraska waiting for storms to form. Finally by 3pm storms started to go up just north of Ord, although it was a messy storm on radar. We decided to wait for other storms to form. And waited. And waited some more. After a while it became apparent that it would be the only storm there would be to chase, and it also became apparent we would have a hard time staying in front of it because it was screaming to the southeast at 50 mph. It became a large linear rotating storm with no structure, and very low clouds that you could almost jump up to touch. It was a nasty storm, and if you were going to see a tornado (which had a pretty good chance of producing) you would have to be very close and that could prove perilous. Once met the storm just south of Ord, we immediately dropped to the south to stay ahead, then moving east along with it only to get sideswiped by intense winds and blinding rain. The fear that a rain wrapped tornado lurked in the rain was very real, and a couple of times we thought we might get caught up in an atmospheric blender. For a good 15 minutes heading east we got blasted, and it was one of the more intense moments in the last couple of years for me. Finally we reached a southward highway and reached a point we felt more safe, and watched the storm keeping our distance somewhat. I got a few photos from this chase, but the speed of the storms prevented most of opportunities I would normally have. Here is what I captured:
There's something about chasing the northern plains that is really special, even on the most marginal days. You can go into it expecting little or next to nothing from a storm, but walk away with one of the best days of the year. I traveled to Wyoming on Saturday, May 31st with low expectations. SPC had released a 2% chance for tornadoes on that day and usually that means you aren't seeing much of anything. I was super excited about being able to return to Wyoming to chase because I love the scenery, not just of the mountains but the sagebrush covered plains as well and I think I got my money's worth. We watched storms go up and down on radar, starting to grow then just as quickly die off. After sticking with one storm for a little bit it finally died and we moved north towards a more robust storm. We found a place to pull over and watch it, and it slowly moved east not in any hurry to do much of anything. The storm wasn't even severe warned when suddenly a small base dropped down from the storm and produced a gorgeous funnel. It was the equivalent of finding the needle in the haystack and was cause for much celebration. Here are the photos from Saturday's chase:
The month of May in Colorado can bring just about any kind of weather you can think of. Snow, rain, hail, tornadoes...you name it. On Wednesday, May 21st Mother Nature brought the fury to Denver and parts east. A supercell developed just west of the Denver metro area, moved through down dropping large hail and causing all kinds of damage, then moved east and brought reports of tornadoes near DIA. I was on the storm pretty close from the beginning, intercepting it just as it moved out of the metro area. I didn't see any tornadoes, and this year has been pretty slim for tornadoes overall, so I'm wondering if someone got a case of the "I want to see it, therefore I will see it even if it isn't there", which has seemed to plague many people this season. Anyways, I got a lot of images and it was a very picturesque storm in a beautiful part of the country. Here's what I captured:
Storm chases have been few and far between this year. Drought, cooler air and cold front after cold front have really robbed the atmosphere of the energy potental for severe thunderstorms. But, May 11th it was a different story. I had a couple of options: Drive to Nebraska for an enhanced risk of large tornadoes, or drive to central Kansas and possibly catch individual cells that would be more beautiful in structure, but lacking overall tornadic potential. Well, knowing that I had to be to work at 8 am in OKC helped make my decision, and Kansas it was. Overall, it was a tremendous day with tornado warned cells that dropped funnels and even a short lived tornado or two. Here's a pretty good photo summary of the day.
Wednesday, May 7th brought another slight risk of severe weather in Southern Oklahoma and Mother Nature didn't disappoint. After driving down to just south of Lawton, OK, the first storm popped up and raced quickly to the north. With just about every storm moving to the north at warp speed, we decided to travel south down near Wichita Falls, TX where a slower moving, more robust cell had taken shape. We caught up to it at Henrietta, TX and the show was incredible. Afterwards we moved north to Waurika, OK and caught another cell that ended up being tornado warned. It had incredible structure as well and showed lots of rotation. Ultimately it didn't drop a tornado, but the scenery was fantastic.
Sunday, April 13th saw a sharp cold front move through the state and crash its way south, and out in front of it the ingredients for severe weather took shape and brought rain, hail, heavy winds, and even three small tornadoes. Oklahoma hadn't had a tornado warning in over 300 days, the last being the El Reno tornado day on May 31st. This time though it was much less of a risk, if storms fired at all. To the north in Oklahoma City a linear squall line broke out bringing pea sized hail and heavy rains, but to the south storms were expected to be more discrete as the dry line moved east ahead of the cold front. It pushed the triple point down to the Ardmore area and developed some impressive super cells that soon went linear.
As for my chase, I went south to Pauls Valley and hung around there for quite a while and then moved south and west to Ratliff City, then ended up east of Duncan somewhat. As the day wore on and storms were developing to the north I got impatient, concerned I wouldn't see any storms at all. I drove north and captured some pretty good photos at the south end of the line, but just as I caught tail end charlie, storms kept developing to the south and I quickly found myself along the front line of thunderstorms. Finally I dropped to the south and got on a tornado warned storm, but I was directly to the east and I couldn't get around to the south side before the storms filled in. Here are a few photos from Sunday's chase.
Officially it was the second chase of the season, but to me it was the first real chase of the 2014 Spring season. A warm front was advancing its way northward while a dryline was pushing its way eastward, creating conditions for a stormy day. A tornado watch had been issued for the area around 3pm and it would last until 10pm for a sliver of territory ranging from Western Oklahoma all the way up to Eastern Missouri, but there was no guarantee that there would be any storms at all. I drove north through Kingfisher, up to Hennessey where I made my first stop of the day. After looking at the forecast models again, I figured the storms would fire a little farther north so I drove up to Helena and ultimately ended up along the Oklahoma/Kansas border when the first storm developed. I raced north only to see it give way to a second storm that had developed to the southwest. I then drove west of Anthony, KS and waited for it to come to me. It was a fairly quick moving storm but was heading more n/ne so I was able to intercept it fairly easily. I ended up getting a lot of good photos and although I didn't see any tornadic activity the chase was far from a bust. I also ended up getting some video of a wall of dust coming at me from the downburst of winds underneath the storm.
Looking back at this day there are several memories that I have that will always stay with me. Probably one of the most frightening I've experienced as a storm chaser, and one of the tougher days in seeing the damage it caused. It started out pretty frantically. Early in the afternoon storms started to develop and it wasn't long before the tornado touched down southeast of Hinton and made its way northeast. I had positioned myself to the west of El Reno, at Exit 115 to be exact knowing it was heading in my general direction. As it moved closer you could hear the rushing sound as if a giant waterfall were miles away. It was tough to make out the tornado itself, by this time it had morphed into a gigantic wedge and wrapped in rain. These are the most dangerous of tornadoes because you don't know it's there until it's already on top of you. Watching to the southwest, I was able to capture a few shots although I was without a tripod, and there was very little light to work with (causing blurriness of the photos). Hearing the roar get closer and not fully trusting it would stay on path, I decided to drop back from Exit 115 and move back three miles to the first business loop exit west of El Reno. I was pretty confident that even though I fell back I would still have plenty of visual, whatever was available anyways.
I watched the storm move to the northeast as I fell back into El Reno and eventually worked my way up Highway 81. Just north of town the tornado had already moved through, stripping bark off trees and knocking down power lines. By this time I had also lost my data connection, so I had really no way of knowing exactly where it was other than watching the rainy mess and hoping that nothing was inside the rain curtain I was about to enter.
I drove under a leaning power line and headed north on 81 trying to stay up with it. As I worked my way north I was enveloped in rain and strong inflow winds, literally pulling me sideways. This was one of my scariest moments, mostly for not having my bearings and not knowing where I was in relation to the mile wide beast that had just gone through. I did a full stop on the highway and thought about turning around and heading back south, but wasn't sure what was coming up so I decided to keep heading north. I eventually found an underpass and stopped for a few moments to decompress and gather myself.
This is the pixelated video from my live stream that day that recorded my scariest moment in chasing.
Afterwards, I made my way east, well behind the EF5 tornado that was still marching to the northeast towards Guthrie. I saw houses torn apart, the smell of propane filled the air and debris littered the yards and had collected along the fences. Everyone in this area had survived, but further to the east the storm had claimed lives.
The road east had already been closed off by emergency personnel, so I worked my way back to the south hoping to catch the storms moving though Norman and eastward near Shawnee. I was a few minutes late though, and narrowly missing catching a strong rope tornado that obliterated a semi truck as it sat on the side of the interstate. I managed to catch a cool few photos before calling it a day. A day I will never forget.
It's been five months now since an EF-5 tornado ripped through Moore, OK killing 24 and devastating the community for the second time in 14 years. I was on the scene as the tornado touched down, and this is the first time I've sat down to write about what I saw that day.
I had set out west of OKC on Sara Rd. expecting something to happen somewhere between Yukon and Duncan, a fairly wide corridor but felt I could maneuver to where ever I needed to be. At 12:30 pm I was staked out watching the skies on a warm and humid day that had the feel of severe weather and the expectation of tornadoes. As the afternoon progressed a severe storm had popped up to the south near Duncan, and my first reaction thinking I was too far north to get to it, and I would end up too far away to be on the storm. There was not a good route directly to the south, only high traffic routes that zig-zagged down full of stop lights and left turns. The storm was moving to the northeast though, and if there was a shot to catch it, it would be to the south near Norman. I decided to move south, and that took me east on I-40 and south on I-35. About the time I got to Norman, another cell had developed to the west, a rather large cell that was growing in intensity. I decided at this time I'd head west and try to stay on this cell while it was still west of hill and tree country. This took me west on Highway 9, and north of Newcastle. As I made my way into my position on Highway 37, the cell had started developing a hook on radar and visually a wall cloud had appeared just to my south.
The storm was moving to the northeast with the wall cloud rapidly rotating, and I felt it was just a matter of time before something produced. I headed back east on Highway 37 watching the wall cloud, but hanging back just a bit so I wasn't underneath it if and when something came down. I followed it for a short time when all of a sudden a small funnel appeared out of the base.
The tornado touched down 45 seconds after the photo above was taken. I was streaming video at the time and was shouting for anyone watching to notify anyone in the area at tornado was on the ground.
I kept rushing to the east and I came upon a group of highway patrol and other response vehicles. Unsure if they would let me pass or not, I pulled over. The tornado was growing very quickly, and had gone from a small rope to a stove pipe in less than a minute. It was 1 minute and two seconds between the time the photo above was taken to the time I took the photo below.
I told the patrolman next to me that I was a storm chaser and asked if he was okay with me moving past this point and following the storm. He said he was good with it and asked that I make sure to stay out of the way of the responders, which I had no problem with. It wasn't long after that though the tornado passed I-44 and moved into Moore. I followed as far as I could, but the traffic had built up on I-44 and was also backing up on Highway 37. Unable to follow any further, I tried to make my way back east, but the traffic had come to a halt and moving a mile took at least 10 minutes. Finally, I was able to make my way back to where the damage had taken place in Newcastle, pulled over and offered to help with anything that was needed. After another hour I decided to try to make it back home, taking an alternative route back towards Mustang, but ended up helping a group of people push a lady's car off the road and into a parking lot because it had overheated from sitting so long. Eventually I made it home, but I couldn't stop thinking about those who were in its path and the lives that had been lost.
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