June 22, 2012


Initial Target: Sterling, CO
Departure: Wall, SD 11:00 am
Arrival: McCook, NE 1:00 am
Intercepts: Sidney, NE Wray, CO
Tornadoes: 0
Hail: Non-Severe (not measured)
Wind: Non-Severe (not measured)
Features: Funnel, Striated Updraft Tower, Wildfire
Miles: 605 (3161 trip total)



Crew and Equipment:

Chase partners: Jennifer Brindley.  Equipment:  Kenwood TH-F6A Tribander, Dell Inspiron Laptop.  Millenicom 760 USB datacard and cradlepoint router, Holux 236 GPS, Canon 60D and EF-S 10-22mm

Additional photography courtesy: Jennifer Brindley Ubl




Jenn and I had spent the past couple days in South Dakota sight seeing, waiting for the chase setup on the 22nd. Shear and instability looked fairly modest for June, but models showed a bowing dryline across eastern Wyoming and Colorado with a weak warm front in southwest South Dakota, and a hint of disturbance aloft. Instability and shear combinations looked best in southwest South Dakota and this was our initial target leading up to the event a few days ahead of time. The modest parameters and uncertainty of storm initiation lead SPC to keep the tornado probabilities at very reserved 2%.

Jenn and I spent the 20th and 21rst in the Badlands. Viewing of the Milky Way was supposed to be exceptionally good with a new moon, clear skies, the milky way overhead in the middle of the night, and no light pollution over remote southwest South Dakota. We hiked during the day and picked out a few spots with interesting formations and then spent the night shooting long exposures and experimenting with lighting the foreground. This shot was lit with my car's headlights, parked at a distance so the lighting wasn't too strong.
Jenn found a rocky outcropping that lined up with where the Milky Way was rising. I lit the scene with a small flashlight laying on the ground, set the camera up on the tripod, scrambled up the rocks, had Jenn hit the shutter release, and I held still for a long exposure. The self portrait is one of the best shots I've ever gotten. 10mm, f/3.5, 6400 ISO, 30" on a Canon 60D and EFS 10-22.
While shooting, an extremely bright and fast moving star lit up the sky overhead. I pointed the camera straight up and was able to get about half of it before it faded. It was an iridium flare, which is a satellite momentarily reflecting a large amount of sunlight and making a bright streak across the sky.

We stopped at one last spot with some nice pointed peaks. A passing car happened to light the foreground, the angle of the light and duration that it was on the rocks was perfect.


We were up early the next morning, and after making a stop at the Wall Drug tourist trap, we set off for our target, no longer southwest South Dakota but northeast Colorado. Forecast instability was much higher on some of the short range models further south, while shear parameters were about even across the rest of the dryline. I should have figured that the warm front would still enhance the northern play, and a hand analysis of a surface chart might have helped me to recognize this. However, I also didn't want to chase through the Black Hills. While beautiful, the roads are sparse and the hills and trees prevent favorable viewing of storms. Eastern Wyoming look good too, and I knew the upslope southeasterly surface winds would aid initiation there, and saw chasers setting up there, but figured we'd get bigger storms further south. We spent all day driving through western Nebraska, finally making it into Colorado just as storms were firing.
We let the first storm mature some, meeting up with Dillon Killoren and another on a dirt road north of Sterling, CO before moving in for the intercept. The storm was quite high based, lacked a wall cloud, but was photogenic like most high plains supercells are. We crossed back into Nebraska stopped near a wind farm south of Sydney hoping the rain free updraft base would organize some more, before moving to keep up with it.
The base seemed to recede a bit, leaving behind a neatly textured surface.
The storm presented a hook on the radar, but the receding base was bad news for tornadoes. We let the storm slide off to the east and there was another hot on its heels. We could see the base as we let this one go and waited for its arrival.

A local had been under the second storm earlier and was eager to show me some photos he got an area that had tight rotation.

This storm presented better supercell structure than the first with an RFD clear slot cutting a nice notch through the base. The northern end of the updraft base tightened up as it approached our position, and a tiny point funnel poked out (just left of center), but the storm lacked the low level structure necessary to spin up a real tornado.

We let the storm pass overhead, the updraft base passing just to our south:
Photogenic convective above the updraft base:
Closer view:
A few moments later. The convection on the bottom was lit up nicely in the sunlight, the convective above it falling in the shadow of the anvil:

Jenn and "Nebraska Jones" in the clear high plains skies behind our storms:

Beefier supercells were firing in Colorado where we had just been. We raced south past Sterling and caught up with the back end of a tornado warned supercell as it was trying to cross into Kansas. We came in from behind the storm and drove down a section of highway that was covered in hail, which acted like marbles, making the road slick and hazardous to drive on.

We had to go quite a ways south before we could get to a road that went east for us to get ahead of the storm. I didn't recognize it at the time but we had a great view of the back of the updraft base and would have had a golden front lit tornado if the storm had produced. It did not, however. This area is often hidden by rain when viewed from an angle behind the storm, and I had assumed this was the case. We caught this column of dust under a flanking updraft behind our storm. It looked quite a bit like a landspout, which would be a tornado intercept for us, but we couldn't really confirm it, so didn't count it.

In the last of the light, near the Kansas border, we were able to get ahead of our supercell. It had a great striated updraft tower, and RFD clear slot, but never produced.

Jenn chatted with Tony Laubach. They were on the same storm as us earlier, but saw a nice little landspout. We heard that that the TVN crew scored a tornado a tornado in southwest South Dakota, which had been our original target on previous days, and we had driven right past the area that morning. Darn.

We tracked the storm into Kansas as it rode the Nebraska border. I was racing to get ahead of the storm and looked over my shoulder to see amazing banded striations forming as the storm started forcing up cooler, stable air. I was giddy to stop and shoot the storm. We dropped south a couple miles on a dirt road and setup our tripods for lightning and structure stills.
The lightning lit up the storm with otherworldly colors and structure. Bolts at different angle and different times in this long exposure gave the tops of the clouds a double vision appearance as the pattern moved and was exposed twice.

We let the storm drift off to the east and it looked for a bit like it would disintegrate into mush, but the lightning was still going strong.

Surface winds were howling here and we had to move down the road a ways as the blowing dust and sand was so bad it was screwing up my contacts.

Instead, some very pronounced "stacked plates" formed from the updraft tower and the lightning remained terrific. I capture a couple of cloud to ground strikes here, one of them a beautiful branching bolt.
A cloud to cloud bolt deep within the clouds makes the stacked plates glow:
The stacked plates became even more pronounced and I was able to grab another amazing CG bolt. The foreground trees added a great element to the photo as well. Jenn captured a similar (better) photo of the same scene and her photo was featured in an editor's choice gallery on the National Geographic website, and circulated in several online publications.
The storm drifted off and we decided to call it a chase. Unfortunately, the amazing lightning had lit a brush fire. Our highway followed in the wake of the storm, and we soon came upon the fire. A glowing appeared on the horizon, and we could see the flames and smoke as we approached. We pulled off the highway to take some pictures of it from a safe distance as fire crews were arriving on the scene.
Lightning from our storm lit up the sky in shades of blue, silver, and purple, while the fire glowed a brilliant orange and illuminated smoke in darker tones and the sky above it deep pink. The colors were beautiful.
A local, offended that we were gawking at the fire stopped and called out to us in a mocking tone, "having fun storm chasers?" We certainly weren't responsible for it, and with fire crews on the scene already there was nothing for us to do but watch and photograph what truly was a beautiful albeit destructive force.
Black smoke billows as the fire downs down a little, cloud to cloud lightning flashing in the distance:
The wind shifted and the smoke blew toward us. The air filled with a camp fire like smell and our clothes smelled smoky the rest of the night.
A longer exposure as the fire dies, the flames lit up the smoke and clouds above in orangy tones, the lights of an emergency vehicle visible on the bottom left:
As the fire started to wind down we took a couple more photos before calling it a night getting back on the road, heading into McCook, Nebraska for a room for the night. One last gorgeous shot as the lightning illuminates the sky on the right in shades of purple, and the glow of the fire lights up low clouds in the foreground a burnt orange.



We abandoned our original target for one further away, and missed a beautiful front lit stovepipe. I was quite frustrated by that, but at the same I couldn't complain as we had an amazingly photogenic chase with several gorgeous supercells and the first wildfire I'd ever seen or photographed. SPC's 2% verified nicely with basically just the one isolated tornado up in South Dakota. The rest of the plains failed to produce. It was the end to an amazing several days on the northern plains and we left with a ton of great photos. A tornado would have been the cherry on top, but it was still one of my best marathon chase trips.


Lessons Learned: 

  • Do a hand analysis of a surface chart when target areas looks about even, the setup isn't obvious, and you're thinking about switching targets.

  • Watch for fires after lightning strikes in dry areas.