June 17, 2012


Initial Target: Sisseton, SD
Departure: Springfield, IL 6:00 pm June 16
Arrival: Watertown, SD 10:00 pm June 17
Intercepts: Watertown, SD
Tornadoes: 0
Hail: Non-Severe (not measured)
Wind: Non-Severe (not measured)
Features: Funnel, Wall Cloud, HP "Mothership"
Miles: 1066


First day in multi day plains run with Jennifer Brindley Ubl. Targeted northern stretch of I-29 in South Dakota for afternoon initiation of tornadic supercells. Intercepted tornado warned cluster of cells north of Sisseton, SD. Drown laptop from leaking roof and had to revert to iphone for data and navigation. Intercepted tornado warned HP supercell south of Sisseton, SD before racing east to stay ahead of it. Followed into Minnesota noting dramatic HP structure before heading back to SD for new development near Watertown. Intercept two classic supercells the first with a small funnel and the second a gorgeous red wall cloud before calling it a chase and heading to Watertown 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, Canon 60D and EF-S 10-22mm

Additional Photography by Jennifer Brindley Ubl




June 17 looked like the start of several good chase days in the northern plains. Jennifer and I had been waiting to do an extended chase trip and this was our chance. The first day out looked to open with a bang with all the ingredients coming together for a potent severe weather setup. The Storm Prediction Center issued a moderate risk, mentioning the possibility of strong tornadoes over eastern South Dakota and western Minnesota. The date has special meaning to me as I had one of my best chases two years on the same date, and Minnesota has experienced tornadoes or supercells on the previous four years on that date.

We left the night before so we'd be in position for an afternoon intercept near North Dakota. Meeting up in Madison, Jennifer and I headed across southern Minnesota witnessing some cool skies along the way. In western Wisconsin we hit patches of creepy fog in low lying areas near the Mississippi. The night would be clear and then we'd hit ghostly wisps, nearby street lights casting neat shapes and beams. Across southern Minnesota, Jenn noticed some light on the northern horizon and we stopped to see if it was the aurora borealis. Some long exposures from our camera brought out all of the colors. We stayed out until the first dawn light started to interfere with our photos before getting back on the road.

Well rested before we left, we were prepared for the overnight haul and made it to eastern South Dakota with plenty of time to spare. We stopped at a rest area with a scenic outlook on I-29 a few miles shy of North Dakota to get some scenery shots before heading back down to gas up and get ready for our chase. In the convenience store at the gas station, Jenn bumped into chaser Randy Hill. We chatted with him for awhile as I taped up the base of the acrylic dome I have on the roof of my van. Used as a video shooting platform while we're in motion, I had issues with it leaking since the initial build broke on its first outing in April. I hoped some of the duct tape would keep out the water, and it turned out I should have done a better job sealing it.

Cells started to fire to our east and we went in for the intercept heading east, north of Sisseton, SD. We were greeted by a rainy, shelfy looking storm that was mixed in with with several other storms. The lack of discrete cells with poor visibility is not what we wanted to chase. As we maneuvered for a view amongst the shelf clouds, we were nailed by a couple of rainy cores. We ducked south to get out of the way of one HP mess and that's when my monitor I have mounted up front went black. I thought the laptop it was connected to had gone to sleep so I asked Jenn to wake it up. Instead she found the laptop sitting in a pool of water. The water had been running down a rope holding the camera down and dripped onto the laptop shelf, flooding it. The laptop was toast on the first day out on our multi day plains run, and it was our main source of data and navigation. We pulled off the road as the storm passed to the north figuring out what to do next. Messing with the laptop a bit, it was obvious it was dead. We didn't want to just give up. Jenn pulled out her iphone and loaded up the Radar Scope and mapping apps. It wouldn't have the features or functionality of the laptop, but we could chase with it in a pinch. Jenn routed us south toward a developing tornado warned supercell.

We crossed the storm's path and got just south of it, coming out to this beautiful view with rolling green South Dakota hills and a multi colored HP supercell RFD core:
The gnarly edge of an RFD shelf cloud and supercell updraft tower above it:
Panning to the right, and looking northwest there was a massive inflow band/wall cloud feeding into the storm's core. If there was going to be a tornado, it would be right where that band feeds into the RFD core. Behind it was the cobalt blue core of the forward flanking core. The colors were amazing and I wish I had a wider lens than 10mm to capture the the oranges and greens of the RFD and deep blue of the FFD in a single frame.

Panning more to the right and looking north to capture more of the wall cloud structure and tail clouds feeding it, while Jenn does the same:

The storm was moving at a good clip and we had to do some side stepping to get to a highway that ran east from I-29. The first streaks of the rear flanking core started to envelope us but we made it back out ahead of the storm.

As we paralleled the storm from the south it started to take on a classic mothership appearance with a huge striated meso and rear flanking shelf cloud. What I found particularly interesting was an inflow tail that was reaching out to either the forward flank of the storm or another nearby supercell. Like two pointy fingers or hands reach out to embrace each other, the ends of the inflow tails connected in a convective embrace. You can see the mothership meso on the left here, the faint outline of another storm (or forward flank on the right), the inflow tail connecting the two and mammatus stretching overhead underneath the anvil:
We pulled off the road to shoot the mothership as it was getting quite dramatic:
We went a bit north trying to get right into the inflow notch so we could catch a glimpse of any tornadoes under this HP beast, but all we saw was this great supercell structure:
We lingered a little too long and then tried to outrun the storm before it swallowed us up. The storm was rapidly expanding to the southeast, so simply outrunning it on an east road wasn't working as the storm was encroaching on us from the north. We came in behind a convoy of radar trucks and mobile mesonets that was stopped on the road and we were momentarily slowed down by them. We were able to pass them, but the slight delay cost us our position ahead of the storm and we were swallowed up in the rain and howling winds of the storm's RFD. We were able to get to a south highway and outrun the storm, but the convoy behind us must have had quite the ride in that core.

Our storm was merging with a line and turning into a messy complex. Meanwhile discrete supercells with nice hook echoes were initiating again in eastern South Dakota. We abandoned our storm and decided to make for the new development.

Jenn routed us down there with her iphone and put us right under a block wall cloud with small point funnel. We approached the storm from the north and crossed it's path at fairly close range. It was stressful racing the storm and being that close as it might be getting ready to produce. Combined with the stress from having to use the phone for all of our routing and data, we were pushed to the max coming in for the intercept. However, I wanted to get south of the storm to clear the rain, get into better lighting, and make our nice east road option.

Looking overhead as we pass under the wall cloud:

I was hoping we were just in time for a front row show to a developing tornado, but the small funnel quickly roped out. You can see it here above the large tree on the left as a thin wisp:
The interesting points of our updraft started to lay down horizontally instead of having that nice vertical shape you'd expect from something that's about to put down a tornado. A second supercell was hot on the heels of this one and we could see it's updraft base starting to come into view on the horizon, glowing gold in the low sunlight.

Since our storm spit out a funnel, I was not about to give up on it. We tracked east with the storm a couple miles, paralleling it just to the south. Our nice paved road turned to gravel and then deteriorated even further. We'd have to drop south again if we wanted to keep chasing it and not worry about getting stuck. While we were making that decision, the updraft completely filled in with rain and we lost our view of it. Looking over my shoulder at the second supercell, however, I could see a big scuddy wall cloud starting to develop and the lighting was just gorgeous. We decided to let this one go and reposition for the second storm.

Looking north-northeast at the spiral bands in our supercell's small updraft base before it fills in with rain:

The second storm arrived with amazing color and structure. I've seen few storms that were as pretty. The harshness of the sunlight made it difficult to photograph, and I further mucked up my shots by leaving the camera in a high ISO mode, so the camera couldn't drop the shutter speed properly and I wound up with several over exposed shots.
Jenn running up to the fence where I was shooting the storm, while another chaser shoots video in the background, mammatus stretching overhead from a distant storm:

Supercell updraft tower and wall cloud lit up pink in the setting sun:

Now would be the time for this storm to produce a tornado. I've dreamed of catching a pink tube.

Supercell passing to our north. Ah, the colors!
The rear flanking downdraft made the base fan out.
The colors started to fade and it looked like our storm was done. No pink tornado. Maybe next time.

We followed our storm for a short distance but the road turned into two grass filled ruts. We called it a chase then.

The sunset was a trippy mix of turquoise and pink, with some low cumulus and mammatus overhead:

Our hectic, stressful chase of disasters and tense moments was over. Jenn cooled her nerves with a cigarette and we unwound from the day shooting the beautiful post storm sunset.

We headed into the nearest decent sized town for dinner and a room for the night. The local pub/restaurant we picked was short on beer offerings and it took our waitress a while to remember all three of them. "We have Miller... ...Miller Lite (as the neon Miller sign illuminates us) ...and Heineken." I tried my laptop again hoping it had dried out some and might miraculously work. It would show the BIOS for about a second before switching off, and it was also leaking water. Not good.


Despite the disaster of frying my laptop and the following stress from having to use a phone for data and navigation, this was a great chase, having caught the hint of a funnel, and absolutely gorgeous supercell structure from several different storms, and even an aurora on the way out. Any tornadoes that did happen were brief/small so we didn't miss much of a show. Laptop aside, the chase was a success. A computer repair shop in Watertown was able to swap the hard drive from my laptop into Jenn's as it was the same make and model and we were rolling the next day with all the software we needed.


Lessons Learned: 

  • Pay attention to where your laptop is, and what condition it is in.

  • Have backup devices or sources for data and navigation ready to go at a moment's notice.