March 28, 2007

Statistics:

Initial Target: Kearney, NE
Departure: Bolingbrook, IL 8:30 pm CDT March 27
Arrival: Bolingbrook, IL 7:30 pm CDT March 29
Intercepts: Goodland, KS
Tornadoes: 5
Hail: Non-Severe (pea sized)
Wind: Non-Severe (not measured)
Features: Tornadoes, Funnels, Striations
Miles: 1816

Summary:

Chased Moderate Risk setup in northwest KS, initially solo but later caravanning with Jerry Funfsinn.  Sampled three storms noting striations and a funnel before dropping south to tornado warned supercell.  Watched Goodland, KS supercell produce 5 tornadoes and a needle funnel including a rain wrapped tube with a rope tail, a sunset trunk, another tube-rope, a wedge, and a cone alongside the wedge.  Called it a chase when boxed in by supercells and squall lines.

Crew and Equipment:

Caravan included Jerry Funfsinn. Equipment consisted of a TH-F6A Tribander, and GPS/Cell Phone equipped laptop.  Photography by Skip Talbot and Jerry Funfsinn.  Video by Skip Talbot.

Video:

Goodland Tornado (5MB WMV)

Details:

I was on the fence with this setup initially.  It looked like a good dryline setup, with backed surface winds. However, the mean flow was out of the south and very strong.  Although this meant ample speed shear, I was worried there wouldn't be enough veering to produce discrete supercells, and that I would wind up on a training line instead.  Given the long distance to the target area, I also had to make a decision the night before.  Well, I had a flexible work week and the first week of April looked like a bummer on the models so I decided to go for it.

I bought a new air mattress and packed the van, leaving Bolingbrook at 8:30 pm Tuesday night.  I drove until about almost 1 am where I spent the night in the van at a rest stop just outside of Des Moines.  It took me awhile to fall asleep and I did a little tossing and turning, but the bed I made in the back wasn't bad.  I set my alarm for 7:30 so that I could make it to the target area by early afternoon, but it didn't go off.  Luckily I got up on my own at 7:40 and was up and rolling in no time.

I originally targeted the Kearney, NE area.  Instability on the night before model run was strong in this area, it was ahead of the dryline, and far enough north such that I could easily run south to catch cells that would be screaming north at speeds of 50 mph.  I made it to Kearney at about 11, stopping for food, gas, and data.  I grabbed a burger at the Runza (hoping that wasn't some sort of hint at what the food does to you later) and then got some free wifi at a Ramada.  The Day 1 mentioned capping problems in Nebraska that would delay initiation, and indeed the cumulus overhead were quite thick.  The RUC also kept the instability out of Nebraska and had a nice hole in the cap developing over northwest Kansas by 0z.  I had to book it south into Kansas.

The area south of I-80 in Nebraska is filled with little knolls and creeks.  It was pretty, but not the best terrain to chase in.  I passed a flock of wild turkeys along the way.  The hills gave way quickly to the flat lands of Kansas.

Near Norton, KS I noticed that, despite its ruralness, I had a very strong cell signal.  I pulled off at two intersecting highways to get data.  Conditions appeared excellent right where I was sitting.  Cape was over 3000 J/Kg already.  Although the hole in the cap was forecast more southeast of my position, I figured, given the wicked storm speeds, I would be able to quickly intercept and not fall behind if they did fire closer to me. 

I sat on the side of the road watching the data, waiting for initiation, and eating some chips and salsa.  It was a great spot, classic western Kansas.  I could see for dozens of miles in every direction.  The surface winds were blowing hard out of the southeast.

This desolate spot is where my greatest chase adventure yet began.

An SUV pulled up and parked in front of me.  It was Jerry Funfsinn.  Amazed at the coincidence of running into another Illinois chaser in rural western Kansas, we shared thoughts about the setup and then agreed to caravan from there. 

Jerry wanted to continue hurrying south toward the Colby area and I agreed.  The radar was starting to show some initiation and we stopped to figure out which target to intercept: a lone cell to our southeast that was caught under the cirrus deck, or a cluster of three cells to our southwest that were out in the open.

We decided on the lone cell to our east given that it was discrete and an area of good moisture, well east of the dryline.  We ran east after it, and then north a short ways.  We didn't quite make it to the base before we noticed that it was falling apart on the radar, and that the three cells to our west now merged into a nice flying eagle radar return.  We turned around and headed back the way we came making for the flying eagle.
The highway we were on was amazing.  It was flat, and vanished to a point on the horizon directly under our storm.  The anvil stretched far overhead and we could see the edge of the updraft tower as well.  It was the first, truly impressive, storm I had seen that year.
Closer to the storm we got a view of the RFB, still many miles out:
We stopped on the edge of the storm's core for some pictures, the RFB still a few miles to our southeast.  Looking back west as the anvil covered most of the sky now:
There was a good deal of scud under the base but nothing too impressive.  We noted that the storm was starting to fall apart, probably because there was a new cell directly south of it, cutting off its inflow.  Despite the radar indicating a mesocyclone on this storm, we decided to drop south to the storm below it.
In route to the storm, Jerry spotted a funnel in the distance under the base and I was able to snag a picture of it.  We found a north option and turned to keep up with the storm, which was moving rapidly north at 50 mph.  The funnel had since retreated and this storm was also starting to fizzle.  A classic supercell with a large hook and TVS was tornado warned about 40 miles to our south.  We decided that this was the storm to be on and hauled down to I-70 to run east and then find a south option.
On I-70 we passed a storm with a nicely striated updraft tower, the likes of which I had not scene since April 20, 2004.  We continued on, and I directed Jerry to exit at Edson.  There was a southern option here that would put us fairly close to the RFB, but it turned out to be unpaved and we were going to get flanked by the precip core as well.  We traveled south as fast as the gravel road would allow.  We started to get some rain from the eastern edge of the precip core and our gravel gave way to mostly mud.  I was having flashbacks of my February 28 fiasco.  Jerry and I made it through, my van slipping and sliding, but holding some traction without getting stuck.  The rain free base, was not rain free, but we stopped to film it when we found some drier gravel.
There was a rain free base with some dark lowerings that I was watching.  Jerry, however, saw a funnel drop in a rainy area to the south.  I spotted it emerge briefly from behind some rain curtains, but it was hidden again before I could get my cameras on it.  The funnel appeared to be well off the ground, but Jerry's video shows that it had a whip like tail that extended most of the way to the ground.  A tornado!
A view of the full updraft:

The tornado is still barely visible in this shot as the dark area in the center of the rain curtains.

The storm was moving away to the north/northeast.  Our south option had no exit so we had to turn around and go the way we came... back through the mud.  I shot a picture of a new RFB forming on the southern flank before we turned around to pursue.
Along the way a needle funnel dropped from the RFB.  I didn't see this one touch down so I'm not counting it as a tornado.  We kept moving to both keep up with the storm and put the funnel in the better contrasted area to the south.
The sun dropped below the base of the storm, lighting it up brilliant shades of red, pink, and orange.  It was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen while chasing.
To the north there was an interesting lowering with a lot of motion.  We watched it carefully for development while driving north.  The grain tower in this shot appears in several chasers' tornado shots of the beautiful trunk that was about to form.
Looking back to the southwest at this gorgeous storm base.  I said to Jerry, "Wouldn't it be awesome if a tornado dropped under that sunlit base?" and his reply, "Ask and ye shall receive."
Jerry obviously controls the weather.  We continued up the road, just over the I-70 bridge and a funnel dropped, lit up hot pink.  There were chasers, media, and law enforcement along the side of the road and we filed in next to them, scrambling to shoot the developing tornado.
A beautiful trunk descended from the storm, lit up with amazing contrast and color.  It was the most awe inspiring, mesmerizing sight I've ever seen.  I stood there speechless as I snapped a few stills and rolled the video.

(Click to enlarge)
 

 

Goodland Tornado (5MB WMV)
The pinks and oranges faded to a deep blue as the sun slipped behind the horizon.  The tornado retreated briefly, forming a stocky tube before descending again.
The end of the trunk quickly moved out ahead as the tornado started to rope out.

I walked up to Jerry just as our second tornado of the day disappeared.  We were both completely awe struck.  "That was epic!" Jerry exclaimed.

With darkness setting in Jerry asked if I wanted to let the storms go and shoot some lightning.  We went east on the highway a short ways looking for a good spot when Jerry pulled over.  I pulled along side and asked what was up.  "Another tornado!" he said.  To our north I saw it, backlit by the next flash of lightning was tornado #3.  I tried to setup for video again but it quickly roped out.  Jerry and I agreed to pursue the storm into the night as this was a rare opportunity to observe so many tornadoes at once.
We took a gravel road north out of Brewster and followed the storm from the south, back a few miles.  The lightning was phenomenal.  A bolt lit up the base, something dark was in contact with the ground.  I thought I was seeing things until Jerry started exclaiming WEDGE on the radio.
The next few bolts lit it up plain as day.  A huge, wedge tornado was under the base of the storm.  its a very spooky sight to be driving along in the darkness only to catch a glimpse of a tornado, wider than it is tall, on the horizon.  This tornado looked very large, and very powerful, and Jerry and I were deeply concerned that people could be in harm's way from this monster.  A CG bolt next to the huge funnel:
A very bright flash lit the base up white and fully illuminated the parent storm structure:
We followed the wedge for at least fifteen minutes.  Then the lightning started illuminating something new.  Our fifth tornado of the day was a cone tornado alongside the wedge.  Two tornadoes on the ground at once!  This day could not get more amazing.
The second tornado lifted after a few minutes but the wedge persisted.  We tried to keep up with it as the road turned to dirt, stopping every now and then for pictures. 

Winds howled out of the southeast sending tumbleweeds rolling across the road.  I nailed one of them with the van and it got caught in the grill.  I carried it for a mile or two until we stopped again.

Mudpuppy and the wedge:

We were now tracking the wedge for almost a half hour and it was increasing in size!  The base of the tornado was absolutely huge.
We came up to the town of Donald along highway 36.  The power was out and the sparse main street was dark with tumbleweeds blowing between the buildings, and a huge wedge looming in the distance.  It was a very eerie sight that sent chills down my spine.  I looked at the radar and realized we were in trouble.  The supercell producing the wedge was turning HP, rendering the tornado invisible in the rain.  Supercells had fired 30 miles to our south and were racing north to meet us.  There was a mature, very severe, squall line to our west and a new line to our east.  We were boxed in with dangerous storms all around.  I said to Jerry, "We need to get the hell out of here!"  We booked it east on 36 and punched through squall line getting some pea sized hail.  It was smooth sailing once we were out
We stopped for gas in Newton, gawking at our mud covered vehicles, before turning north into Nebraska.  Jerry and his mud covered truck:
The mudpuppy doing what he does best: being muddy
Its chaser tradition that, after you catch a tornado, you celebrate with a steak dinner.  Jerry and I had never had steak after a successful chase, and tonight we wanted to celebrate.  The small towns in Kansas had long since closed.  We made it up to Lexington, NE by midnight but even the fast food places were closed.  Jerry and I agreed to try Kearney, and if there was nothing there we would just call it a night and get food in the morning.  We spotted a Sapp Brothers before we got to Kearney and they had an 8 oz sirloin, choice of eggs, and hash browns on the menu.  We got our steak dinner!
I spent the night in the van at the rest stop just outside of Kearney.  I slept a solid 8 hours of deep, dreamless sleep.  I woke up, fully refreshed at 10:30 the next morning and drove straight back home arriving at 7:30 pm.
Conclusion:

The farthest I have ever chased and by many magnitudes the most successful, amazing chase I've ever had.  We witnessed five tornadoes and two funnels, almost twice the number of tornadoes in one day than I had witnessed in over three years chasing.  I full heartedly agree with Jerry's exclamation, "I love Kansas!"  Of the three target areas, the Nebraska panhandle, west Kansas, and the Texas panhandle, all were prolific tornadoes producers with most chasers bagging multiple tornadoes no matter where they targeted.  Unfortunately four people lost their lives in these storms.  Our prayers were answered though as none of the tornadoes we witnessed that night were responsible.  The wedge, missing the towns it was near, only damaged a few farmsteads and was thus only classified EF2.

I'd like to thank Jerry for his outstanding video coverage of this chase.  Without it, most of the tornadoes I witnessed on this day would have gone unrecorded.  His setup, including a mounted, high quality video camera is something I need to invest in so that I can properly capture the perfect chase when it comes along, and this certainly was the perfect chase.

 

Radar Analysis with GPS Overlay:

KGLD Animated GIF (2.5MB) Individual PNG Frames

 

Lessons Learned:

  • March or May, chase when you can for the magic can come anytime.
  • Invest in a dash mounted video camera.