June 15, 2009

Statistics:

Initial Target: Hays, KS
Departure: Medicine Lodge, KS 12:00 pm
Arrival: Pratt, KS 7:00 pm
Intercepts: Kinsley, KS
Tornadoes: 1
Hail: Severe (2.00 inches estimated)
Wind: Severe (60 mph estimated)
Features: Tornado, Gustnado, Wall Cloud
Miles: 340

Summary:

Dryline and warm front setup in Kansas.  Targeted Hays, KS where dryline initiated storms would move towards better directional shear near warm front.  Ran south from Hays towards storms initiating near Dodge City.  Intercepted west of Kinsley, KS noting wall cloud.  Storm gusted out into massive HP supercell.  Noted weak leading edge tornado west of Kinsley before getting cored in Kinsley and dropping south.  Followed storm from south noting gustnadoes and massive dust storm.  Saw straight line wind damage and drove over downed power lines.  Attempted to punch core from south but hit tree debris and cracked windshield from golfball sized hail.  Dropped south and called chase off, heading to Pratt to get dinner and stop for the night.

Crew and Equipment:

Chase team included Adam Lucio.  Equipment:  Kenwood TH-F6A Tribander, Dell Inspiron Laptop.  Kyocera data card and router, Holux 236 GPS, Robotic camera dome with Sony XR-520V.

Details:

Monday looked like the biggest day of Adam's and my three days out on the plains.  We had a dryline setup in western Kansas with a warm front to the north and southwest flow.  We targeted Hays, KS where storms might be able to fire on the dryline and then tap the better directional shear as they approached the warm front to the north. 
 

After grabbing breakfast at the same diner we had dinner at the night before, Adam and I left Medicine Lodge and meandered up to Hays, passing through Greensburg along the way.  Much new construction had been done there since the F5 tornado leveled the town two years earlier, but you could still large scars and several blocks of empty lots.

 

Heading north to Hays under blue skies:

We made it up to Hays and stopped for fuel and a data check.  Storms were starting to pop 100 miles to the south near Dodge City.  Adam and I decided these were our storms, even after driving all the way north.  We headed south through Ellis for an intercept point west of Kinsley.

Our storm went tornado warned.  Coming in from the north, we had to race south to get ahead of the storm before it crossed our path leading to a dangerous core punch.  We passed a couple of horseback riders and I warned them there was a possible tornado in the storm coming up from behind them.  Soon afterwards a report of a brief tornado came in from Spotter Network.  We were missing it!

After dodging some dirt roads and beating the storm's core to our intercept point, a wall cloud emerged to our southwest.

There was some dramatic rising motion on the left edge of the wall cloud as it ingested rain cooled air from the precipitation core.
We moved south to highway 50 to get out of the rain and get a better view of the wall cloud.  Scud was racing around the base of the storm as it started to bow out, and there was a brilliant green core behind it.  The colors were amazing.  Looking west:
Looking south at the edge of the bowing out storm.  This structure typically indicates that the storm is gusting out, which makes chasing more difficult as any tornadoes would be blocked behind a wall of wind, hail, and rain.
Looking west as the gust front moves overhead:
Looking southwest towards the town of Offerle as the storm's base moves overhead.  There was lots of turbulent motion and what looked like a wall cloud forming behind it (lower right).
We would have continued to drive south if there was a good road that paralleled the storm, but highway 50 was the best option we had and it kept us right under the base in a rather precarious position.  As the storm passed overhead and fanned out, we could see large plumes of dust being kicked up all over the place.  Some were brief whirls known as gustnadoes (non-tornadic circulations in a thunderstorm's outflow).  One large plume really grabbed our attention though.  What looked initially like a plume of dirt kicked up by a rear flanking downdraft, turned into a large circulation with multiple internal vorticies.
 

At first site it looked like a large gustnado, but we could also see rotation in the base of the storm overhead.  After reviewing the video, Adam and I, along with other chasers that were nearby, concluded that this was a weak tornado.  The dust connected with the base of the storm, and there was a rotating lowering that persisted over the circulation.  This connection with the storm's base is what differentiates a gustnado from a true tornado.  You can see this lowering in the photo above, centered over the dust plume, which looks like a nub shaped funnel.  This tornado looked fairly weak as far as tornadoes go with winds probably in the range of 60-80 mph.  This is still more than enough to do damager, however.  The tornado persisted for several minutes before it dissipated just southwest of the town of Kinsley.

 

While this tornado was still in progress we had another, smaller circulation spin up to our southwest.  This more tubular circulation resembled a landspout and it looks like there might have been a point funnel in the base just to the right of this debris cloud, which would also make it a tornado.  We couldn't confirm the connection, however, so we counted it as a gustnado.  There were lots of these spin-ups and dust plumes forming all around us at the time.
While trying to navigate through the town of Kinsley, we made a wrong turn and the storm's precipitation core, which had been riding our heels for the past half hour, hit us full on.  We had to bail south out of town to get out of it, which cost us our viewing position for any future tornadoes that might develop.  We paralleled the storm on dry, dirt roads.  The storm's downdraft was fanning out all around, creating a huge dust storm.  We passed some downed trees, a large grain bin that been dented in, and before I could realize it, I drove over some downed power lines.  Luckily they weren't live!
 

Falling behind as the storm moved off to the northeast, we decided to take a north road option to see if we could core punch the storm and come back out in front of it on highway 50.  I wound up driving into blinding rains.  Tree branches started coming down around us as the winds approached severe levels, and I had to dodge a big tree that was down in the middle of the road.

 

I had enough and decided to turn around and bail south.  What a dumb idea it was to try and punch this core.  I wasn't done paying for it yet though.  The hail picked up as I turned around and the severe winds were blowing the stones sideways into the van.  The hail exceeded golfball size, which the van had survived in the past, but with the driving winds they had enough force to do damage and my windshield cracked when it got smacked in the upper right corner.
The storm was turning into a mess as it continued to gust out.  I called the chase off and we drove to Pratt to get some dinner and a room for the night.  We picked the wrong spot for dinner.  The Chinese buffet we stopped at had no food left.  We were treated to a nice mammatus display from our hotel room though:
 
Conclusion:

This was a fun and wild chase.  We caught a tornado although it was a weak one that we initially considered to be a gustnado.  Dick McGowan and Darin Brunin did wind up intercepting a larger tornado east of Kinsley that was embedded in the core of the storm.  If we had not made that wrong turn in Kinsley, I'm not sure if we would have emerged from the core and seen it ourselves or if we would have been stuck in the core right next to it.  i also had a few firsts on this chase, although they aren't ones to be proud of.  This is the first time I drove over downed power lines on a chase and the first time i cracked a windshield from large hail.  Across Kansas and Nebraska lots of storms had gone up with some of them producing photogenic tornadoes.  I was quite happy with our intercept though.

 

Lessons Learned:

  • Don't mess around in the core of an HP supercell.
  • Take the time to navigate and verify your route while under a storm.