May 23, 2008

Statistics:

Initial Target: Oakley, KS
Departure: Norton, KS 10:45 am
Arrival: Russell, KS 12:30 am
Intercepts: Ellis, KS
Tornadoes: 1
Hail: Severe (1.75 inch/Golf ball Sized)
Wind: Severe (60+ estimated)
Features: Tornado, Wall Cloud, RFB
Miles: 388

Summary:

Second day of plains trip with stalled trough and weakening surface low.  Targeted warm front/dryline triple point by Oakley, KS but intercepted south of Quinter with golf ball sized hail.  Noted wall cloud, but got stuck in mud and fell behind storm.  Tried to catch back up to HP supercells, but failed to obtain good visibility.  Dropped to supercell near Ness City noting very large wall cloud and huge chaser convergence but no tornado.  Ran east and north to beat the crowd and observed storm after dusk south of Ellis, KS with near severe inflow winds.  Observed power flashes from embedded tornado and ran north through Ellis to escape, but blasted by severe RFD with flying debris.  Observed storm from I-70 before getting grub in Hays and settling down in Russell.

Crew and Equipment:

Chase team included Chad Cowan and Nick Lockwood with Adam Lucio and Matt Fischer caravanning.  Equipment: TH-F6A Tribander, and GPS/Cell Phone equipped laptop.  Photography by Skip Talbot.

Details:

Friday looked like it would have similar opportunities as yesterday with the dryline and warm front in similar positions and the upper level trough not going anywhere.  Today we decided to stay a little closer to the triple point where the low level shear would be better.  We'd also be upstream so we could easily drop to a more southern target if we had to.
We headed down to Oakley, KS after catching a neat morning storm near Colby that was hiding in pea soup fog, that had a nice whale's mouth and sunny blue skies behind it.  We stopped at a little drive in fast food place for a bit time where Adam Lucio, Matt Fischer, and a female companion met up with us.  Rock hard convection was going up all around us with one cell going severe warned as it passed to the north.  We knew it would be quickly crossing into stable air though so we let it go and waited for more development further to the south.
The dryline started to fire well to the south and east of our position so we went for it with Adam and Matt caravanning behind us.  We took 70 to the Quinter exit and headed south on a gravel road for the intercept.  Along the way we got into some big hail that we would later find out was golf ball sized.  An unorganized wall cloud came into view.
Chad pulled us into a small mud drive to turn us around to keep up with the storm, and made the same mistake that I made on February 24 last year.  He swung out into the grass to turn around.  Sure enough we sunk right into the mud and got stuck.  A few chasers parked nearby got out and helped push the van out, which was quite fortunate.  Adam and Matt, however, followed right in behind us, and with their rear wheel drive Astro, pushing just wasn't cutting it.  Then a cranky old farmer pulled up in his pickup truck, upset that we were in the grass and not on the road, and that we were tearing up his crops (although there were no crops anywhere near our vehicles, just a muddy field with sparse grass and a bunch of building debris).  He then seemed quite upset that his tax dollars were going to fund our storm chasing until we told him otherwise.  After some more complaining,  he charged Adam $100 to pull his van out of the mud with a chain attached to his truck.  It was an unpleasant experience, but we could have been stuck there a lot longer.  The wall cloud organized a bit while we were fooling around in the mud, but it didn't produce and was well off to our north by the time we got out.
Not more than ten minutes after we were back on the road, something happened amongst a caravan of three chasers just ahead of us and the rear vehicle went off the road into a six foot ditch.  We stopped to make sure the driver was alright, and he was.  He had a four wheel drive truck with high clearance, but that wasn't going to be enough to get him out.  I believe he spent much of the night there.  While stopped we found the ground littered with golf ball sized hail, which we clipped on the way down there.  The mudpuppy living up to his name:
We detoured a mile to the west to get a little closer to the storm, ever weary of the road conditions, but the mudpuppy held up well on the gravel roads.  A good vs. evil shot looking north:
Looking northwest at the rain free base (RFB) and what appeared to be a nice bowl shaped lowering.
Same view a couple of minutes later with some curling outflow:
We continued north past I-70 to keep up with the storm, but it had since turned into a high precipitation (HP) beast.  After a futile attempt to pursue the fast storm while it began to deteriorate, we decided to fall back to a supercell near Ness City which looked great on radar.  Mammatus overhead:
Just west of Ness City we got a view of the storm, which had since also turned into an HP beast.  A rather sculpted base covering the updraft tower with anvil overhead:
The east west highway running through Ness City was loaded with chasers.  It was by far the biggest convergence we had seen on the trip, including the DOW, TIV, and Discovery Channel crew.  We got out ahead of them a couple miles and watched a gigantic wall cloud move in on us.
Light was fading fast and we had very little contrast under the wall cloud with the massive amounts precipitation behind it.  The DOW team sent their scout vehicles into the storm, not much further ahead of us to deploy their probes, and then fell back.  That made us a little uneasy of our position, as well as the intense cloud to ground lightning that was striking all around.  Before the storm could munch us we booked east for a north option as the rest of the caravan did the same.  We took a north option that would keep us ahead of the storm for quite awhile, while most of the caravan took the north south highway through Ness City.
After nightfall we stopped just shy of Ellis to watch the storm.  The supercell had a huge bowing rear flank and an intense embedded couplet.  The most intense inflow winds I had ever felt came howling out of the east, and tracked straight into the direction of the couplet.  The wind was absolutely insane.  We had to lean into it to stand and shout over it.  We estimated it was 50-60 mph, which is nearly severe levels.  Then we saw power flashes just to our east- northeast.  There was a tornado embedded in that storm rolling over transformers and power lines.
The rear flank gust front was bowing out right for us, and there was another couplet behind it to the southwest.  We decided to flee and escape to the east on I-70, which meant driving north through Ellis.  Screen shot from Chad's video:
The rear flanking downdraft, or perhaps the outer, rear edge of the embedded circulation caught us just as we rolled into main street.  Sirens blaring, suddenly the power went out, and debris flew across the road in front of us.  It was an intense moment with much swearing and nervous shouting.  You can see a large piece of the flying debris centered here a few frames after the last screen shot:
After our hair raising encounter driving through Ellis, we booked east on 70 and stopped on the side of the expressway a few miles outside of town to watch the storm.  Traffic was minimal at this point because of the storm.  We saw what may have been a couple more power flashes as the first embedded couplet passed to our northwest, and waited for the second couplet on the back end of the storm to track by us, but we were never able to visually identify anything with it in the darkness.

We called it a chase and our two van caravan headed to Hays for some dinner and lodging.  Because of the storms there was only one restaurant open: Applebee's, and every chaser within several counties had converged on it.  The staff was overwhelmed, but we were seated after only a few minutes.  I got cold mashed potatoes instead of a baked potato, and they ran out of tall beer glasses, but it didn't matter after the long hectic chase day.

Every hotel was booked for miles, but we were able to find a motel on Google maps in Russell that said they had vacancy: The Prime 8.  They were located on the outskirts of town and were deserted.  We had to wait while a woman prepared our rooms, where we learned the motel is so named because they have caged monkeys in the back.  After the woman found out we were storm chasers she told us she shared a "similar" hobby: ghost hunting.  Queue the Bates Motel music.
Conclusion:

Our mud incident cost us a few low contrast tornadoes that other chasers bagged, however, this was my first chase that encompassed every facet of severe weather from our golf ball hail, to the embedded nocturnal tornado, and severe inflow and outflow winds.  Our wild moment in Ellis made the chase.

 

Radar Analysis with GPS Overlay:
KDDC Animated GIF (3.5MB) Individual PNG Frames

 

Lessons Learned:

  • Instruct the others in your caravan the hard lessons you have learned while chasing, especially the ones about driving in mud.