March 22, 2011


Initial Target: Council Bluffs, IA
Departure: Westchester, IL 6:00 am CDT
Arrival: Westchester, IL 1:30 am CDT
Intercepts: Creston, IA
Tornadoes: 1
Hail: Non-Severe (0.75 inch estimated)
Wind: Non-Severe (not measured)
Features: Tornado, Wall Cloud


Early season triple point/dryline play near Omaha. Targeted Council Bluffs, IA for early afternoon initiation, but decided to relocate to Nebraska City for a play on Tail-End-Charlie where instability would be better. Cell initiated in northern KS in unstable airmass yet poor tornadic environment with large dewpoint depression and veered surface winds. Waited for storm in Nebraska City where airmass and winds were better to the east, noting photogenic yet very high base passing overhead. Pursued storm into Iowa noting attempts at organization and possible wall clouds between outflow dominant cycles. Lost disorganizing storm near Greenfield due to excessive storm speeds and dropped south to discrete, pendent shaped, tornado warned cell. Came out in front of RFB with RFD clear slot and moved east to stay ahead of fast moving storm. Noted funnel north of Creston, IA and stopped to watch brief, but high contrast, backlit elephant trunk tornado form. Pursued storm after tornado rope out noting an attempt to cycle the wall cloud before storm accelerated to the north and disorganized. Called it a chase near sunset despite impressive tornado warned storm to the south, and stopped for dinner with Adam Lucio in Des Moines before heading home.

Crew and Equipment:

Solo chase.  Equipment:  Kenwood TH-F6A Tribander, Dell Inspiron Laptop.  Millenicom 760 USB datacard and cradlepoint router, Holux 236 GPS, Robotic camera dome with Sony XR-520V. Canon 60D and EF-S 10-22mm



This was my first chase of the 2011 storm chasing season. March had presented a couple of modest setups in the Plains and a few more meager prospects in the Midwest up until this point. There was nothing that had really caught me eye yet. Finally, the models were showing a powerful trough ejecting across the plains and Midwest with a nice dryline and warm front, decent instability, and impressive shear profiles.

Early on the forecasting period, the models presented chaseable setups in the Plains during the weekend into the week in the Midwest. The earlier setups wound up not panning out due to lack of moisture return and capping problems, and Tuesday finally emerged as the big severe weather day for the storm system. A nice surface low was forecasted to move into eastern Nebraska during the day, advecting a narrow, but decent moisture axis along the I-29 corridor in southwest Iowa and northwest of Omaha. Shear profiles looked impressive with backed surface winds gusting to 20 knots in the warm sector and a 60-70 mid level jet ejecting over the warm sector by early afternoon. Instability was modest but more than adequate for supercells and tornadoes with models plotting values from 1000-2000 across the warm sector. Finally everything was in place for a chaseable severe weather event. I made plans to work during the weekend so that I could take Tuesday off.

The night before my first chase of the year is always exciting/anxious one. Its like Christmas Eve to me. You lay awake all night excited about what presents await you in the morning. I was actually able to fall asleep this time after tossing and turning quite a bit, but my slumber was cut short by the alarm at 5 am. I had packed the van and setup my gear the night before and was rolling out of the house by 6 am. The robotic camera dome that sits atop the roof of the van was packed in the rear of the van. I had just put it back together after fixing some bugs that crept in during the off season, and I was unsure if it was going to work or if I would even be able to assemble it when I stopped at my target area.

I stopped for gas just past the Quad Cities and assembled the dome and connected all the wires. It worked andI had working video from the roof of the van. I turned on my ChaserTV stream and let it go for the rest of the chase, not worried about bandwidth with my new Millenicom data card setup.

I made it to Council Bluffs by early afternoon where I topped off again and checked the data. I was sitting very close to the warm front and the triple point was not far off to the west. I had made it to my target, however, I didn't really like the local conditions. The clouds were low and thick and it was still pretty cool. To the southwest, the skies were clearing nicely and I could north-south aligned bands of cumulus building to the west on the visible satellite. Storms looked like they would initiate fairly far to the south along the KS/NE border and the instability looked to be greater with the ample sunshine, so I decided to relocate further south to Nebraska City.

Just east of Nebraska City on the Iowa side there is a large truck stop that is a favorite hang out spot for chasers awaiting initiation. There is plenty of room to spread out, food, gas and wifi. There is also a nice bridge across the Missouri River in case you need to run into Nebraska and good north/south/east highways as well.

Enroute a small storm had fired in northern KS. It was really struggling to get going so I decided to go ahead and stop at the truck stop and check things out. I was soon greeted by tony Laubach and his friend Jennifer Brindley.


The storm in northern KS was going up in an environment with decent instability, over 1500 J/Kg, but there was close to a 30 degree dewpoint spread and the winds were veered to the southwest. Both would severely reduce any chance for a tornado. To my east, however, winds backed to the southeast and the dewpoint spreads were a perfect 10-15 degrees. The storm was heading right for me, so i decided to hold my ground and let it track into the more favorable environment. While I waited I spotted several familiar faces coming to join the party: Adam Lucio sporting new hail guards (left), Scott Bennett, Mike Brady and Jeremy Degenhart. I met James Skivers and Brandon Sullivan stopped by later as well.

The powerful mid level jet took only a couple of hours to send us the storm that was 130 miles away. A shot of a wispy anvil, with turbulent mammatus, and striated yet high outflowy base as the storm approaches from the southwest:

One of my major upgrades for this season is my first digital SLR camera, a Canon 60D. I also picked up the EF-S 10-22mm which shoots incredibly wide angle shots that let me fit the entire storm into the frame as you can see here.

Adam checking data in his pimped out ride with dash cams, laptop, and new hail guards on the side windows:
I had just seen these guys a couple weeks earlier at my house as we got together for a party after watching Sean Casey's Tornado Alley IMAX movie. It was nice seeing everyone out on the chase though. Winds were gusting hard out of the south, not so veered as they had been, and the temps were up to 80. It finally felt like a real chase and I was starting to get excited.
One by one we started to scatter as the storm approached. The base of the storm went almost right overhead, which was amazing since we had been watching it from this fixed location when it was over 100 miles away. It approached with a pretty rear flanking gust front and precip core, but I could tell the base of the storm was way too high to be a tornado producer. That storm should be at least twice as low to the ground to have a decent shot at dropping a tube, which meant it was still riding in some hot, dry air.

The storm was screaming up at us rapidly, so I took off behind Scott, and was one of the last to leave the parking lot. The first chase of the year was on!

The base of the storm definitely lowered as it hit the more moist air in southwest Iowa. I zig-zagged north and east as I fast I could go trying to keep up with the rocket paced storm motions. Structure was not too impressive for the most part, but the storm did appear to cycle a few times and dropped what may have been a decent wall cloud:

The base of the storm fanned out as a big rear flanking downdraft came in behind it. The clear skies behind the storm lit up the rear flank and hail core a brilliant white color. My next east road option was inside that core, and I decided to punch right through. I hit some heavy rain and some half inch hail, along with a pretty rainbow as the sun peaked out behind the storm.
Emerging from under the core of the storm and looking to the north as it moved northeast away from me, there was some ragged lowerings starting to form on the underside, possibly another attempt at a wall cloud. The storm was also starting to look fairly disorganized, however. You can see the scuddy, turbulent appearance of the clouds that usually mean the storm is outflow dominant. It could still tornado, but prospects were not looking so hot. I was also losing ground on the storm, unable to keep up with storm motions that were probably approaching 50 mph to the northeast.

I passed Scott, Mike, and Jeremy but didn't want to stop for fear of falling behind on the storm. I spent a few more minutes after this shot trying to keep up with the storm, but finally decided it was time to let it go and pick out a new target. Just to my south, there was a beautiful, discrete, pendent shaped, tornado warned storm approaching Creston, IA. It didn't have a hook yet, and looked like it was still gaining some size, so it might be a bit before it was ready to produce, but its presentation on radar lead me to believe it would have much better structure.

It took only a few minutes to head south down the highway and catch the northeast moving storm that was heading right to me. I came out ahead of the forward flank and underneath a very dark rain free base with some half inch hail falling. I stopped to get a few pictures while getting stung by a few of the stones, before I decided I better be booking it east to stay ahead of this storm too.

As I raced east down a gravel road north of Creston, I found myself doing "stupid checks" to see what the storm was doing behind me. Adam Lucio coined the term after we were playing leapfrog on a storm in June of '09 and missed spotting a tornado that formed right behind us as we moved to keep ahead of the storm. Unfortunately, my stupid checks were too far to the north and I missed the first minute or so of a nice funnel that was coming down to my southwest, right in my blindspot as I drove east.



I made a turn north onto a highway, just northeast of Creston. I looked over my left shoulder, did another"stupid check", and finally saw the large cone shaped funnel that had been dangling from the base, on what looked like the forward apex of a nice donut hole shaped clear slot. I immediately pulled over onto the shoulder, panned the roof cam to make sure I had a shot of it and then got out with my new camera to start shooting some stills of it:

The pointy funnel appeared to point out away from the storm, probably being pushed by the rear flanking downdraft. It finally bent back toward the ground and condensed most of the way to the ground. The sun was just behind the storm creating some extreme contrast. A slender rope descended from the funnel down to the ground. My first tornado of the year, and my first Iowa tornado!

A black funnel with glowing edges and tip against a bright, sunlit sky:

A wide angle shot of the "Mudpuppy" with dome cam pointed at the tornado:

My position wasn't the best, with my view marred by power lines and some buildings in the foreground obstructing my view of the bottom of the tornado. Ideally I could have been a couple miles closer, and to the south where I would have been afforded front row seats to a beautiful white tornado lit up by direct sunshine. Still though, this was a great catch for the first chase of the year. Tragically I had bumped the manual focus ring on my DSLR so none of my stills of the rope turned out, but luckily the video did a nice job capturing the moment. Still much to learn and much practice needed!

Video capture as the tornado takes on a trunk like shape with a ropey end:

I probably should have moved in closer to the tornado when I first spotted the funnel, however the tornado didn't last long. It had been down only a couple minutes before I could tell that it was starting to rope out, and it didn't last much more than a couple minutes after that. As it roped out though, the circulation tightened, with the condensation funnel widening a bit at the ground with a nice glowing color, and a twisting knot in the middle of the funnel:


The tornado lifted and the funnel went horizontal to the ground. As it dissipated, it turned into a translucent tube:

I spent a couple minutes fumbling with my spotty internet connection and reported the tornado on Spotter Network. The region of the storm that had produced the tornado was now passing almost directly overhead, and I could see rapid churning motion in the clouds above. The sun dropped below the base, and I was practically blinded by the intense light and extreme contrast. I quickly got back on the road to get out from under the base to where I'd have a better view.

The storm appeared to be cycling a few minutes later, with a large bowl shaped wall cloud starting to form. I believe there may be a small rope like funnel that formed in there, evident on my video, but it was quite brief and could have just as easily been a scud finger. The storm started to accelerate, pull away to the north, and disorganize just as the last one had done.
I stopped racing like mad and decided to follow from behind at an easier pace, noting that I would have trouble keeping up and that the storm was probably done. The sun was also starting to set and I had a long drive ahead of me to get home and work in the morning. Meanwhile, another discrete storm with a nice hook was churning away to the south. I considered going after it, but figured I wouldn't get on it until after dark, and that I better start heading back so that I'd get home at a reasonable hour. Sunset skies under photogenic cumulus bases:

Looking south at the back end of the tornado warned storm. Reports came in of a few funnels and a nice wall cloud, but no tornadoes that I'm aware of.

I caught up with Adam Lucio as we headed toward Des Moines and we decided to stop for some dinner at an Applebee's on the west side of town. I celebrated with steak dinner and Adam got chicken wings since he stayed on the north storm. It was a good time as we shared stories from the chase before heading back home on 80, punching through a squall line that had gone up while we were eating.

As I came up on the back end of the squall line in the dark I thought I could see something underneath the storm. Of course I start seeing funnels everywhere after I spot a tornado on a chase so I was probably just seeing things. I checked the radar and the part of the line I was looking at was tornado warned. Still though, it could have been anything in the dark (like a telephone pole) so I doubt it was actually a tornado. I punched the line just before the Quad Cities after getting some gas and it was smooth sailing the rest of the way home. I made it back to the house by about 1:30 am, with plenty of energy left after what had been an amazing chase.

There is a running gag with storm chasers that Iowa is cursed. Its impossible to get a tornado there. I had chased Iowa 24 times since I started chasing and had never seen a tornado in the state, and loved to perpetuate the curse mythology and general loathing for the state. This chase blew me away though. On what was a modest, early season setup, I had come home with a very photogenic backlit tornado. Not only was it my first Iowa tornado, but the fact that it was also my first chase of the year made it even more amazing to me. The Creston, IA tornado wound up being by far the catch of the day, with some chasers who were closer getting incredible shots of the rope like funnel. My internet video stream from the camera dome managed to stay up for most of the chase, and at one point I had a couple hundred viewers, and my video was even aired live on the Weather Channel. All in all an amazing day, with no casualties, and little damage that I'm aware of. The blob of tornado reports on the storm reports map is probably all just the one Creston, IA tornado as many chasers in the area were on it and reported it.


Lessons Learned: 

  • Check and recheck your camera's manual focus ring.
  • Do even more frequent "stupid checks," and watch other parts of the storm as well
  • Relocate to a spot where you can get a decent shot when you first see the funnel coming down