May 12, 2011


Initial Target: Hebron, NE
Departure: Kearney, NE 5:00 PM CDT
Arrival: Westchester, IL 9:30 PM CDT May 13
Intercepts: Tobias, NE
Tornadoes: 0
Hail: Non-Severe (not measured)
Wind: Non-Severe (not measured)
Features: None
Miles: 848


Unexpected chase across central NE after two day plains trip was extended after vehicle break down. Watched developing storms from Kearney, NE that went tornado warned, but unable to pursue. Left Kearney by early evening after van was repaired and intercepted severe warned cells in southern Nebraska noting little structure. Storms congealed into MCS so called off chase at dusk and headed to Lincoln for the night.


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, Robotic camera dome with Sony XR-520V. Canon 60D and EF-S 10-22mm

Photography courtesy: Jennifer Brindley


Thursday, May 12 was the third day in what was supposed to be only a two day plains trip. Jennifer Brindley and I were stranded in Kearney, Nebraska after the van lost an entire wheel on the chase the day before. We slept in at the hotel and then had a leisurely breakfast at the Egg and I. Some parts had to be located for the van, so we knew we'd be stuck in town for awhile longer. We just hoped that we'd be back on the road by some time that day. We checked in with Turner's body shop and then walked to the center of town to kill some time. Kearney has a nice, well kept downtown section with a couple dozen interesting shops.

By afternoon a cumulus field had developed over town. A large tower started to go up just north of town, and we saw it develop into a mature thunderstorm and go tornado warned as it drifted away from us to the north. We were mere miles from an intercept on a tornado warned storm, but were helplessly stuck in Kearney with no vehicle.

Brindley and I watched the storms from a park on the west side of town that had a view of the sky, before we headed back to the mechanics shop to check on the van. The van wasn't quite ready yet, and while we waited a gust front from the storms to the north hit. A blast of cold air slammed the door shut and grey, grungy clouds rolled overhead.

The awesome folks at Turner's shop worked past their normal closing time, trying to get us on the road the same day so we wouldn't have to spend another night in town. They even took my credit card number on faith that it would work, after their card reader shut down after hours. The mechanics had discovered a wide variety of problems with the van as expected. The brakes had been worn down to the drums. The mechanic suspected that the lugnuts on the rear wheels, which had been recently loosened to replace the tires, were slightly loose and needed a couple months to settle. The bad vibration from the transmission and getting stuck in the mud on May 10's chase had further loosened them to the point that they eventually came off. The shop replaced the brakes and repaired the wheel to a state that we could safely drive home on it, although it would need more work later.

We were back on the road just before 5:30, and since the van had been repaired and there were storms going up all around us, I decided that we might as well chase them. Our original storm that we watched from town had long since congealed into a messy looking line. There was a new tornado warned cell about 50 miles to our east somewhere in the vicinity of Lincoln, NE, but there were plenty of cells nearby that looked like they would quickly encroach on the cell, and that too would become a messy line before we could intercept. To the south, however, there were new cells initiating in northern Kansas that were discrete and looked promising, although they needed some time to mature. An outflow boundary from the storms to the north over central NE was surging southward. I hoped that the storms would interact favorably when they collided with the boundary, using it as a source of enhanced lift and directional shear.


We headed south and east out of Kearney, stair stepping along highways through Minden, Ayr, and Fairfield. We picked the middle cell in the series as it looked the strongest, and planned on intercepting it as it hit the outflow boundary. We raced along the highway trying to get out from under the grungy cloud cover that was overhead, originating from the fast moving outflow boundary. I knew we had to make it out into the sunny, warm skies to the south as the outflow boundary would eventually cut the storms off from unstable air and choke them.

We passed some very photogenic skies along the way, with the sun poking through holes in the turbulent cloud bases.



Coming up to Tobias we started to get a view of our storm. Approaching the north moving storm from the northwest. We didn't have much of a view of a rain free base. We dropped south before Tobias, with the intention of letting the storm move north where we could then fall in behind it, getting on the rain free base. Another storm fired off the flanking line immediately behind our storm, however, forcing us to shift our target to the southern end of the new storm. Before the two cells completely merged I could make out the base of the first storm through the rain curtains.

We stopped on the side of a dirt road to let the storm come to us, just getting clipped by the western flank of the precipitation core with a smattering of rain.
Some locals drove by and stopped for a word, allowing Brindley to get one of her "locals portraits."

Looking south at the western flank of our storm with dark precipation core to the left and anvil stretching overhead:

Streaky rain bands:
Rainbow between cells:
Banded rain curtains on the southern flank of a severe warned thunderstorm:
Gorgeous rainbow on the backend of an otherwise featureless storm:

After finally making a move for the southern flank of the cell, we discovered that there really was no rain free base. The storm was raining right through its updraft base and would probably kill itself in the process. Our chase prospects were not looking good. We drove back north along the eastern flank of the storm noting little in the way of structure before we started heading east toward new cells that were firing along the NE/KS border and in the general direction of home.

Nothing could get organized, however, and by sunset it looked like our chase was over. We stopped for Subway in Wilber, NE and watched the radar while we ate our sandwiches to make sure there was nothing worth going after, but there was just a messy cluster by this time. With darkness setting in, and still way out in eastern Nebraska, there was no way we were going to make it back that night so we got a room in Lincoln, NE and made the long trek back on I-80 the next morning.


This chase was not planned, and a bonus after being forced to spend an extra day out on the plains as the van was getting repaired. We were able to catch some photogenic sights as we intercepted some severe warned cells, but we caught little in the way of supercell structure. The one tornado of the day that was caught by chasers (including Adam Lucio's group) was a partially condensed landspout on the tornado warned cell to our east just as we got the van back. There was no way we could have intercepted it in time, and it wasn't the most spectacular landspout so we weren't too upset about missing it. We were just happy to be headed home finally and in the same vehicle.

Lessons Learned: 

  • If you've got some time to kill central Nebraska, Kearney is a nice place to hang out