June 17, 2010


Initial Target: Worthington, MN
Departure: Montello, WI 7:00 am CDT
Arrival: Montello, WI 2:00 am CDT
Intercepts: Albert Lea, MN
Tornadoes: 8
Hail: Non-Severe (not measured)
Wind: Non-Severe (not measured)
Features: Violent Tornado, Funnel, Wall Cloud, RFB
Miles: 845


Dryline/Coldfront setup across western Minnesota into North Dakota. Targeted Southwestern Minnesota for the shear and instability combination. Departed from the cabin in Montello and made it to Luverne, MN by early afternoon. Storms fired well to our east and tracked northeast after them before dropping down to Tail-End-Charlie southwest of Albert Lea near the Iowa border. Observed some pointy lowerings before a new storm to the south became dominant. Witnessed multiple tornadoes, including simultaneous tornadoes, and multiple wedge tornadoes including one violent EF4 that tracked north of Conger, MN and west of Albert Lea. Lost the storm while driving through Albert Lea, but intercepted again north of town noting another tornado before storm transitioned into an HP mode with amazing lightning and green core. Celebrated with streak dinner in Albert Lea before heading back to the cabin for the night.

Crew and Equipment:

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






Thursday's setup looked like the best shot at tornadoes since May 22. A sharp dryline/cold front was forecast to extend from central North Dakota down through western Minnesota into Iowa with a strong shortwave jet ejecting across western Minnesota and backed surface winds. The surging dryline and forcing made me wonder if the storms could stay discrete long enough to produce tornadoes before they merged into a big line. The next big question was which end of the setup to play.

My data card wasn't working and my phone, which was just a backup, wasn't tethering, so I had no data. Not wanting to chase without data I almost teamed up with Adam Lucio, but instead grabbed Danny Neal who wasn't going to chase because he had to be back by Friday. I agreed to have him back by Friday and we'd use his datacard for radar updates. Adam and his girlfriend Deb, Danny and I headed up to my family's cabin up in Montello, Wisconsin the night before. It put us four hours closer to the target area, but also committed us to the play in southwestern Minnesota as we wouldn't make the storms firing earlier and much further north in North Dakota. Our target still looked great though with stronger instability and better speed shear.

We were up at 6 am and headed over to Sparks Grill for breakfast and then blasted down 90 across southern Minnesota. We stopped in Luverne, MN where it looked like the dryline was setting up. Danny's datacard didn't work in my router and his laptop wouldn't charge on my inverter, so we basically had no data except for radar summary graphics on his phone's tiny screen. Adam wasn't faring much better as his Sprint mifi wasn't working and his ATT cell coverage was poor. While trying to find wifi we spotted storms going up way off to the east. We raced northeast after them fearing that we had permanently fallen behind and would miss the show. Looking east at the back end of a severe warned thunderstorm:
We punched the line of storms noting a big RFD clear slot yet high rain free base. Tail-End-Charlie was starting to look decent way down in northern Iowa, however, so we raced south to intercept that. We heard tornado reports coming in on the way down and again we feared we had missed the show. We blasted east on 90 to get ahead of the storm and clipped the core with some gusty winds and small hail. Heading south towards the town of Kiester, we got a look at the storm's base. A pointy lowering came into view which got our attention, but was probably just the back end of a wall cloud being pushed out by the RFD. The base quickly became wrapped in rain as another storm from the south pushed north, consuming this storm.
We headed back north a ways hoping to get downstream of the storm as the merging storms organized. Several miles to the south, through the rain, we could see the base and as we drove along Danny spotted a funnel starting to develop. I didn't know whether to pull off to shoot the developing tornado or keep going so we could get closer. I wound up swerving between the lane and shoulder, while Danny was hanging out the window video taping, with Adam behind us bemused by our erratic behavior. We kept going up to the next south road option while Adam stopped to shoot the tornado, and our caravan was split. Heading south we got some decent glimpses of the tornado before it dissipated.
Excited with our tornado intercept and relieved we hadn't missed everything, we started to move in closer for a better view. A new cone tornado started to develop, partially rain wrapped (right) while a satellite tornado also formed out ahead of it (left). With simultaneous tornadoes on the ground we could see this storm was going bonkers and would be a tornado machine.
A bolt of cloud to ground lightning cross the satellite tornado before it ropes out.

We dropped south until we were about even with the storm. There was still a lot of rain falling at our location but inflow into the storm was picking up dramatically. We saw what initially looked like a big wall cloud, but through the farms and trees we were able to make out that it was in contact with the ground and with violent motion. We had a wedge tornado.

We watched the tornado for several minutes as it churned. A large inflow tail cloud was feeding into it on the north side.
We let the storm approach our location and it did so with dramatic contrast and stunning structure. The wedge tornado was beginning to dissipate on the back edge of the storm (left) as the old mesocyclone died, and a new mesocyclone (right) was spinning up east northeast of it.
With amazing speed the new circulation condensed down to the ground as a brilliant, white cone tornado with the old tornado still in progress. We had simultaneous tornadoes on the ground again.
The cone tornado started to retreat within seconds of its formation as the other tornado completely dissipated.
The tornado retreated into a big bowl shaped funnel. The mesocyclone above continued wrap up as its rotation increased, however.
This is one of the most amazing sights I've seen while chasing and definitely the best storm structure. As the mesocyclone ramped up (top), the wall cloud or tornado cyclone (middle) lowered with stronger rotation, and then almost instantly a large white stovepipe tornado condensed beneath it all (bottom). Three tiers of spinning storm structure, each rotating more strongly than the one above it. I was completely blown away at this point but the storm was just getting started!
The wall cloud continued to lower and increase its rotation as the white stovepipe underneath turned into a collection of multiple vortices widening into another wedge tornado. As the storm passed us to the north we got back on the road to pursue it.
We moved north and east to follow the storm. The above tornado had dissipated but a new funnel started to lower with a large dusty debris cloud underneath before it fully condensed, leaning almost backward.

We stopped to shoot the tornado. A transformer exploded as the tornado approached.

Another exploding transformer:
The tornado was markedly increasing in size. We now had a very large cone tornado. It looked like it was heading for the town of Conger, and we feared for the people there. Cone tornado with a bolt of cloud to ground lightning in front of it:
Moving north and east to keep up with the storm we came up to the town of Conger and saw, much to our relief, that the tornado had crossed north of town. Conger with a huge cone tornado looming in the background:

East of town we stopped to shoot the tornado. Fellow Illinois chasers Brandon Sullivan and Jesse Risley pulled in behind us.

Ahead of the tornado a rope, satellite tornado formed:

As the wall cloud turned it opened up and we could see the large cone tornado inside still with a large swirling debris cloud underneath.
Moving east to keep up with the tornado, it started to widen into a barrel with a spiraling rings of condensation wrapping around the tornado like garland on a Christmas tree.
We continued east making for a paved county road that take us north towards the storm. Trees blocked our view for a minute or two and when we came out into a clearing we could see the tornado had widened into a mile wide wedge.
We turned north to get closer to the wedge tornado. We were only a couple miles west of Albert Lea now and we feared this tornado would strike the north side of town and we'd have a major catastrophe.
The tornado instead started to turn left and tracked more on a northerly course, a sign that it was beginning to dissipate.
Our highway came to a T intersection where a cop had closed the road. He frantically exclaimed that the tornado was heading right for us, but it was actually moving away from us now as it continued to turn left. A line of a half dozen chase vehicles formed behind the road block, but the officer let us through. With no better option, Danny and I decided to shoot right through town and catch up with the storm on the east side of town. We got one last look at the tornado over our left shoulder as we bolted east into town and the tornado drifted northwest into the rain core and dissipated.

We made it through Albert Lea amazingly fast. The streets were mostly empty and we caught all green lights. The few cars that were on the road were ignoring most of the traffic laws, running lights and speeding.

East of town we lost our visual on the storm's base as it seemed to be wrapped in rain. We raced east to get ahead of the storm, fearing we were still in the path, and came across a pickup truck stopped in the road with a couple of guys watching the storm. We stopped and I asked them if they were chasing or spotting. "We're planting" came the reply. I warned them of the big tornado behind us and advised them to head south away from the storm.

We dropped south a couple miles to make sure we were out of the path before the base of the storm came into view several miles to our north. The two farmers caught up with us and pulled in behind to watch the storm with us. As we watched we could see a large funnel starting to drop. Danny and I turned north for the intercept.
Another large wedge tornado came into view. Multiple wedge tornadoes in one day was a first for me and after all the simultaneous tornadoes and satellite tornadoes we had lost count of how many we had seen.
We approached the tornado and saw it was now a large cone tornado. It got darker and darker as night started to set in.

The tornado roped out as it dissipated still a couple miles to our north.

The lightning on the storm really ramped up with an incredible electrical display. Bolts of cloud to ground lightning were striking almost every other second with booming thunder.

The storm was now transitioning into a beastly high precipitation supercell. Off to our west we could see some funnels on the southern flank of the storm, but they didn't appear to touch down. As we watched the big mothership meso approach with a bowing shelf cloud underneath, Jeff Duda and co. pulled up next to us. As I shook Jeff's hand between the vehicles, a close bolt of cloud to ground lightning struck with thunder that sounded like a cannon had gone off. It made both of us jump. With darkness setting and the storm going HP, we transitioned into a structure chase and kept ahead of the storm a few miles before we turned north at Blooming Prairie to see if we could get one last peak at the storm.

In Blooming Prairie the sirens were wailing and a massive green core approached from the west. We stopped for a couple minutes to get video of the sirens and the shelf cloud and green core before we ducked south to avoid getting cored.

Austin was just down the road including an Applebee's, and it was not even 9 pm yet. We'd be getting a celebratory steak dinner! Danny adding some window art to the Mudpuppy as we stopped for gas in Austin:

The Mudpuppy with camera dome on top:

Adam and Deb joined as at the Applebee's for dinner and we saw a couple other groups of chasers had converged on the joint as well including Jeff Duda, Simon Brewer, and Justin Drake. Adam, Danny, Deb, and I shared stories and it was a great ending to an amazing chase day.

Adam and Deb followed us back east after dinner but broke off and got a room in LaCrosse, WI while Danny and I continued on to the cabin, making it in at about 2 am.


With initial concerns about targeting and fearing that we had fallen behind, this chase became one of my best of all time. I saw more tornadoes on this chase than I had seen on any previous chase including multiple wedges. Tragically, the large wedge tornado that passed north of Conger and west of Albert Lea was rated EF4 with a fatality and devastating damage to several homes and farms. It was the first deadly tornado I've witnessed and it was a sombering experience hearing the damage reports come in. The tornado was up to a mile wide at times and had rolled a car 3,200 feet. The tornadoes we tracked were part of a much larger outbreak across Minnesota and North Dakota with several dozen tornadoes including a total of four EF4's. It was the worst tornado outbreak the area had seen in decades.



Lessons Learned: 

  • Make sure you have working data before the chase.