I had been planning to go storm chasing for my 40th birthday with my wife for a while and booked a tour with www.weatherholidays.com run by netweather.tv over a year ago. A fellow photographer, John Finney, had been with this company twice and highly recommended them and gave me a few useful tips before i went (Like take 2 cameras as you don’t want to swap lenses as the sensors will get caked in dust!). I shot all of the wide angles on my A7R but as I was using canon glass used my 6D for quick telephoto shots out of the car, If I had native AF then it would have been my A6000 as back-up for sure :). Getting enough time off work meant going without holiday for 6 months. They were hard months to wait LOL. It is something I have wanted to do for a long time, especially after watching every episode of Storm Chasers with Reed Timmer, Sean Casey et al. Seeing the raw power and getting close was my main aim but it became so much more.
We left Heathrow on a 9 1/2 hour flight to Dallas in Texas, arriving at about 3pm. Stepping outside it clearly was not the climate we are used to in the UK, being a high humidity and at least 28 degrees. Paul and Nick from the team met us at the hire car lot, 5 min bus journey from the airport, and drove us back to the Best Western in Dallas. Unfortunately as I shut the boot lid I dislocated my thumb. Luckily is popped back but not before I went dizzy and wobbly. We checked in (didn’t unpack) and met the rest of the 8 people we would be travelling with for the next 10 days – the drivers and tour guides were David, Aaron, Nick and Paul who were to be a great laugh but also getting us into the action! We were travelling in 3 SUVs so plenty of room and acceleration!.
Of course this was going to be a trip with a difference. We were unlikely to stay in the same hotel/motel as we had to travel wherever the convective storms would be forming therefore we were not able to unpack; that was a shame! LOL. From the outlook Kansas was out first port of call. We travelled about 650 miles this first day ending up nr Wallace, Kansas, after stopping for lunch, to a fantastic lightning storm and sunset. We stopped off at a grain silo and railway junction. The storm was headed for us but luckily the hail and rain moved off to one side. One of those evenings where you could shoot until the light went. The shelf cloud which came over was breath taking, and as the sun set, the oranges which hit the silo and the clouds was some of the best I have ever seen.
With that we drove to a local 60’s diner in Goodland, who were not quite prepared for 14 hungry storm chasers. We had out fill of the local cuisine (burgers and fries becoming out staple diet :$) and then headed off to a local motel to put our heads down The storm was unplanned but a great start to the trip I have to say.
We started the day in Scotsbluff. The motels we were staying in were basic but quite adequate. From reports there are far worst motels to stay in and we didn’t find any unwanted guests throughout our stay. As with most of the days chasing we woke on the late side and had a limited breakfast and coffee before hitting the road. I have to say all the coffee I had was very week, I thought it’d be nice, shame, but the beef jerky was nice 😉 Our destination was South Dakota via Nebraska.
On the way we passed through quite a few isolated cloud bursts especially as the landscape is so flat you can see for miles. When the guides asked how far we thought the rising cumulus clouds were we said 60-70 miles, but they were so huge and you can see so far, they were over 150 miles away! We stopped half way to fuel up and get some food and ended up chatting to a guy who was an architect and his colleague designed Dallas Airport.
I have to say almost all of the locals we met were very open and happy to talk to us. However being storm chasers, people would ask us if there was a tornado coming, with one lady having been forced out of her home by an EF4 many years ago still brought a tear to her eye. The mornings out there were usually clear skies and high temperatures, especially out on the tarmac with the heat, of the day leading to the build up of convective clouds by the afternoons and the storms kicking off in the ‘golden hours’ in the early evenings, when the energy in the storms were maximal. We headed towards South Dakota in the afternoon.
We were heading for the enhanced risk of storms arising over Central South Dakota, along a stationery front that arced into North Dakota. This was after nothing in the North Dakota area which was starting to fire a lone Supercell. We stayed south of Murdo and waited. Paul did not want to go further north because we had 3 solid days planned in Wyoming and Colorado given the SPC‘s prediction of some nice storms to come!
These roads were straight, baking and looooong. Miles of them….
Paul suggested that the area looked completely capped (A cap is a layer of air that prevents convection or limits dynamic lifting. Another way of describing a cap is that it is a layer of stable air aloft). With temperatures reaching the mid-90’s and cumulus disappearing we had a third option; there were storms coming out back out of Wyoming into the Nebraska Panhandle.
During the drive over, turkey towers were pointed out to us. These are large vertical rising hot updrafts making tall cumulus clouds. These can, if they have enough energy, pop through the capping layer, become more buoyant and turn into a convective storm. If the sheering winds differential is large enough the storm will tilt, creating a cyclic movement (rising warm air and falling rear cold air). There were miles of roads to cover in getting to most of the big cumulus clouds, rising from the Rockies.
We often, like this day, had quite a lot of waiting time and was nice to capture some local wildlife like this killdeer sitting on her eggs.
A quick truck stop to pick up food and drink. The mosquitoes here near the road drains were awful – I didn’t last long trying to capture this reindeer junk sculpture!
We headed back south and east towards Chadron and intercepted a nice HP (High Precipitation) supercell. It was the first time I had seen a sky filled with Mammatus. Amazing clouds which are are pouch shaped clouds that protrude downward from the thunderstorm’s anvil. They form as negatively buoyant moisture laden air sinks. The cloud remains visible until the air sinks enough that the relative humidity falls below 100%.
I thought I’d include a diagram of a typical supercell. Rather than copying the text from another link I though I’d include the link to explain how rising thermals, cumulus cloud formation, updrafts and capping interact with sheering winds to produce these powerful giants given the following event below! https://en.wikipedia.org/?title=Supercell
Paul said this was was a very outflow dominant storm. An outflow-dominant storm is a storm whose downdraft has taken precedence over the updraft. Usually, outflow-dominant storms are characterized as “HP” storms. They are characterized by a large area of intense rain and hail, with virtually no visible updraft base. An outflow-dominant structure is often one of the first signs of a classic supercell’s demise. The updraft’s power can be stymied if the storm moves into dryer air. Upper-level winds can also carry the downdraft right on top of the updraft, in turn choking it and creating an outflow-dominant storm. this one was was picking up sand and dust from the local sand hills area and pushing towards us so we so we headed towards Scottsbluff and Alliance.
As we headed south from Alliance we started to see the anvils from the LP (Low Precipitation) supercell. We didn’t have any chance at tornadoes that day as the team ishowed us that this was due to unfavourable thermodynamics. We parked up on a dusty dirt road, on top of a hill and watched this massive 50,000 ft high supercell rotate and do it’s thing while the sun set and bathed it with orange light – wonderful. It was our first glimpse of a isolated supercell and to date it’s one of the most impressive things I have ever seen.
Time for dinner then a late motel check in!
The day started with an enhanced risk of two tornadic supercells on the high plains (over 2000m) the first near Chugwater and the second near Denver. We chose the Wyoming risk as it was either to get to from Scottsbluff with favourable winds and dewpoints. Each day an initial Mesoscale Discussion is given my the SPC and then it is refined at about lunchtime for that day. The initial 3 day forecast is quite variable but as with all forecasts they get more accurate the closer you get. However it’s still down to part luck and part experience you get onto the right storm! We stopped for lunch in Cheyenne and watched the Turkey Towers on the Rockies as they were organising. However they were moving north, we were sitting east and we were waiting for most part of the day without anything getting close near to the front range.
As the the cumulus clouds rise due to rising air they eventually reach the warm or capping layer. The cloud is no longer buoyant and stops rising but as it pushes on that layer the surrounding moisture condenses forming capping or pileus clouds (pileus meaning hat or cap).
We messed around on the rail tracks while we waited for the storms to brew…
As we ventured towards our storms we had one of many pee stops, the second time we visited this shop it was in torrential rain but as you can see the storm clouds were looming!
We didn’t leave our chase target and headed a little bit further north and east towards Torrington. At about 8pm Paul noticed a storm that had developed in front of the Rockies that was travelling north east and sat and watched this grow into a little LP Supercell. We saw no tornadoes but the structures were nice to look at and photograph near the town of Guernsey before returning to Scottsbluff.
As the storms lost their energy we ventured to the next motel and yes, another fry up. The sunset over the far Rockies was beautiful, I wished we could have ventured up into the mountains but perhaps that is one for another trip?
We awoke to find a report with two main risk areas. One substantial risk in Northern Kansas and Southern Nebraska; all parameters were showing a substantial tornado could occur if it could breach the capping inversion. The second risk would be the first of a two day Denver Cyclone event. This apparently commonly occurs at the start of June or late May. When a well-formed DCVZ (Denver Cyclone Convergence Zone) is present in June, there is a 70% chance of a tornado forming somewhere in or near the zone. Storms created by the DCVZ are a major concern for Denver, especially during the spring and early summer. Deadly cloud to ground lightning strikes, heavy rain, flooding, severe hail and tornadoes are all possible when this feature is present.
The day’s models indicated a nice Supercell just south west Limon. Paul & the team chose to go to Ogallalla for an early lunch and then have a think where my wife bought a nice T-shirt.
After a lovely Buffalo Burger in the Crystal Palace Restaurant, Paul studied the charts and the decision was made to set off back south west towards Sterling and then straight south from Brush. We could see cumulus towers in north west Kansas that were really struggling with capping, The Northern storm in Denver suddenly went tornado warned and we stopped for 5 minutes to take a look but Paul thought the storm looked starved of moisture. The Limon/Simla Storm looked a better bet with a large bowl lowering in the distance.
Although the northern storm was tornado warned, we left it, and headed south towards Limon, on route we saw the first of what would become a record breaking 8 Tornadoes from this storm which had now also gone tornado warned, a tall pencil cone tornado.I apologise for some of the image quality but shooting out of and sometimes through a car at up to 80 mph means even with a high ISO and fast shutter speed things are not the best LOL.
This one died off quickly but then a much bigger tornado touched down to the south west of Limon near Matheson, We stopped and got pictures of this one. This was such a buzz to see our first proper tornado. Most of them we saw on this trip were small ones between EF1 and EF2 but beautiful none-the-less.
The EF rating of a tornado goes from 1 to 5. “The Enhanced Fujita scale is s a damage scale and only a proxy for actual wind speeds. While the wind speeds associated with the damage listed have not undergone empirical analysis owing to excessive cost, the wind speeds were obtained through a process of expert elicitation based on various engineering studies since the 1970s as well as from field experience of meteorologists and engineers. In addition to damage to structures and vegetation, radar data, photogrammetry, and cycloidal marks (ground swirl patterns) may be utilized when available”.
We then dashed through Limon towards Matheson and Simla. Tornado number 2 lifted and we stopped just west of Matheson to look at the supercell’s structure. Paul had information that this Storm was anchored (pretty static) and was not going to move anywhere for the next few hours. This was great news as we could get closer and spend more time observing than chasing!
We then headed further west and then tornado number 3 dropped which was a big cone tornado, just to the west of Simla, with the storm was moving south east. The road we were travelling on would take us onto the north side of the storm but into a wall of hail. The 3 South road options were all soft clay and mud and so we decided not to take those in case we got stuck. The best structure of the day was however was on the north side.
The next 30 mins were the best of the trip as we arrived, loads of other storm chasers were parked up at the side of the road watching this spectacular supercell drop 2 tornadoes at once!
With Tornado number three to our South, another three Tornadoes dropped in the next fifteen minutes, two of them were anticyclonic (normally cyclonic in the northern hemisphere) land spouts with number 6, a thin rope tornado from a separate wall cloud. We parked next to a Colorado State Trooper who said he was happy for us to venture further west into Simla but interestingly turned everybody else around at this point. I emailed him this photo when we got back and I got a reply – “Thanks for submitting your photo to my organization and thanks for moving your car. LOL! Safe travels, take care! – Mike Schutte”
As we were shooting, the hail was starting to rain down on us, starting with five pence sized, then ten pence, then a few gold ball sized ones. I got hit on the back of my head and back a few times (like being in a paintball battle) and it was becoming very difficult to even stand there. As we left and got near Simla. along some mud roads, baseball sized hail starting denting the cars but luckily my GoPro on the roof was OK (although I need a new casing as it looks now looks like it has been sand-blasted).
We headed south out of Simla, down the western side of the storm where we saw tornado number 7 whilst driving, a brief small cone tornado which was behind a rainbow. After emerging from the hail and heading back to a tarmac road we saw our final tornado of the day, a short lived one on the left after the storm had split in two.
We then stopped to take a few pictures of the structure and I did a time-lapse of it on the GoPro ad we were all grinning and talking ten to the dozen abut what we had just seen and driven through. This was a record in one day for any of the NetWeather tours. And finally we had seen what we came for, and a bit more! The rotation on this one was breath taking as you can see from the gopro timelaspe (I got a £8 plastic gopro sucker mount from Amazon which worked well!).
Final pictures of some of the structure from the south and the chase vehicles in front of a sky full of mammatus clouds.
We headed out from Limon for the start of ‘Denver cyclone day two’ were told it would kick in early in the day, we drove to a truck stop and waited. We left after a quick breakfast and reached the target in 45 minutes. There was a tornado warned supercell already to our south west and looked like an HP. We watched this storm hit some sort of boundary and die away and so did the following two storms. The radar suggested otherwise but that, apparently, is the nature of storm chasing. There was a big clearance area to our east and things were just starting to form with punching cloud tops; we head fast east towards the new risk area
We rushed towards Anton and core punched a tornadic supercell which was heading north east which was quite exciting. We were greeted with torrential rain wall and golf ball sized hail; the radar reflectivity to our south was getting stronger all the time. The base of the storm came into view and with that a large cone tornado heading straight towards us, we were now in the ‘bears cage‘ just to the north of the tornado and the crew said this would be a very close intercept. The image below was taken at high ISO and the skies were almost black. The tornado was rain wrapped leading to very poor visibility and contrasts.
We stopped in the path of this tornado and watched as it pass just behind us by about 200 yards. RFD winds were shooting hail at us but it did not stop us getting pictures. It was difficult not to get wet and the inside of the SUVs and my Canon 6D suffered a bit of water ingress but a bit of drying off later sorted it out! To be honest I didn’t realise how close we got until I looked at my images.
This tornado quickly died but there were reports of a rapidly rotating wall cloud on another supercell that had just gone tornado warned to our south east near Stratton. The only route was north and then slice down the forward flank. Once again we were being hit by golf ball sized hail but once we were south at Kirk the rain stopped and a lovely funnel cloud came into view. Later reports suggested this had touched down a couple of times.
We carried on south and stopped with the funnel cloud literally over our heads near the town of Vona. We were hit suddenly but a massive RFD and looking up through the sunroof there was a huge bowl shaped mesocyclone above us! As the say in the US, AWESOME! A much larger tornado was just around the corner so we got back in the SUVs and headed under the mesocyclone and out the other side; Another tornado crossed the road behind us.
Once south of the mesocyclone the rotation and collar cloud were rotating very very fast. Suddenly a wonderful cone tornado dropped and crossed the road where we had just been standing!
The dry RFD winds were very strong as you can see from my wavy hand-held video. Excuse the swearing I was a bit excited to say the least!
This tornado became rain wrapped and headed east we core punched again but alas we didn’t manage to see any more.
We booked the Ramada Inn at Sterling as we headed north and and managed to hook up with one more tornado warned supercell as it got dark. The winds picked up and as the sun set the blues of the wall cloud and yellows of the setting sun were amazing.
On leaving Sterling there were two main risk areas again, the first was an enhanced risk in eastern and north eastern Nebraska; the second was again in Colorado. Paul said these were now post-frontal upslope storms, most of our moisture (generally required for super cell development) in the high plains had been lost but there still was some in a corridor between Denver and Goodland. We chose Colorado again as it took us closer towards our final destination, Dallas, rather than further from our departure location.
While we were waiting around we did get a glimpse of Sean Casey’s crew and the TIV but no sign of the Dominator.
We got a few nice lightning strikes as the storm came into the wind farm which made for a nice back drop.
Our first storm of the day went up just north of Limon after stopping for lunch. This storm rapidly turned into a Supercell and to everyone’s surprise turned tornado warned. Unfortunately it was travelling at fair speed at 45mph to the east which was too fast for us to catch up with in reality.
Our only option to follow this storm was along a network of dirt roads. We had some amazing fun along nearly 100 miles of dirt roads, at one point David’s Tahoe slid into a ditch and we spent 10 mins trying to get it out LOL and the chase was lost. We also crossed the minor damage path of the tornado from the previous day as well south east of Anton which brought things into perspective. Most of us thought we saw a reported tornado through a rainbow but we were not sure!.
As the storm was moving away rapidly we decided to drop the chase on that one and intercept another forming from a new line of storms coming east towards us. This was a little LP (Low Precipitation) supercell but it too died off but we did get to see a nice shelf cloud and some lightning before sunset in Kanorado.
The cloud formations and colour were amazing that day. One I will not forget. The turquoise you see in the image are real. The walls of hail generated in the clouds as the updrafts sink and cool refract the light and, like you see in frozen/glacial ice, give out a blue/green colour.
We left Burlington with the SPC indicating a large general area for storms from Wyoming and Nebraska in the north to Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma in the South. We headed south east into Colorado and then east into Kansas towards Liberal. A few storms went severe a few times but we didn’t see any super cells and the shearing winds etc. were no tot be.
We travelled through horrendous downpours with some hail in them as we headed towards Shamrock for the evening. The predicted storms never really arrived but we did witness a lovely gust front / outflow boundary as we arrived at the motel and later, as we left yet another fast food restaurant, a few nice lightning bolts and torrential rain.
The last couple of days were spent travelling back down to Dallas and we were well away from any exciting weather, a bit of an anti-climax but we knew it was coming. These storms are cyclical, as the energy dissipates, it take time for the heat and energy to build up again and thus you often get a few days of stable weather before they kick off again. It was a time to relax, take in the scenery and some calm fluffy cumulus clouds.
On the last day we visited the NWC in Norman, Oklahoma. “The National Weather Centre is part of the University of Oklahoma, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and state organizations that work together in partnership to improve understanding of events occurring in Earth’s atmosphere over a wide range of time and space”. We were unable to get a guided tour but we did get some visitors passes and had a look around….Our flight home however was a surprise. We got our seats changed but this time we got upgraded to business class, lovely food and a flat bed to get some shut eye. What a lovely end to the trip!
All in all this is one of the best trips I have ever been on. On the bad side there was a lot of travelling (which we were prepared for), fast food and waiting. But to be honest these were not really issues given how interesting touring over 4000 mile,s taking in over 7 states, it actually was. A diverse landscape, and although the US is dominated by the car to get anywhere, the roads were very quite and drivers quite polite.
Seeing the tornadoes were great, but for me and my wife, the amazing storm cloud structures, thousands of lightning bolts and severe weather including huge hail stones were the best parts. The people we met up with were like minded and we continue to be friends in the future. I’m not ruling going again either! I’d like to thank Paul Botten for using some of his online blog to re-create my diary, Arron Hiscox for his GPS tracklogs and David and Nick also for great company and inside knowledge during and after the trip.
If anyone is interested in knowing more about tornadoes then this is a great resource: http://www.spc.noaa.gov/faq/tornado/
Also if anyone is seriously considering a trip like this the weather holidays team (part of netweather.tv) are a great, low key but highly experienced UK based team and would recommend them to anyone from the UK going out storm chasing: http://www.weatherholidays.com
To view the images in full resolution you can visit the gallery page here. http://www.richardfoxphotography.com/storm-chasing-image-gallery/