April 9, 2015


Initial Target
Storm Intercepts
Iowa City, IA
Lawrence, KS 8:56 AM 4/9/2015
Clear Lake, IA 8:10 PM 4/9/2015
Ainsworth, IA
0 mph
RFD Gust Front, Wall Cloud


Cold front setup over eastern Iowa. Targeted south of Des Moines for 18z storm initiation and 21z mature supercells south of Iowa City. Intercepted severe warned line west of Ottumwa and followed to Ainsworth as HP supercell developed. Left disorganized complex due to commitments in Minnesota before storms organized and produced on IL warm front.

Crew and Equipment

Chase partners: Jennifer Brindley Ubl. Equipment: Canon 60D, Canon t2i, Canon EFS 10-22, Canon EF 50mm, Sony HDR-xr500v..




Our second day of the chase trip was just icing on the cake for us as we had an amazing intercept the previous day with a brief but photogenic tornado. This setup featured a cold front draped from central Iowa south through Missouri with a deep trough. The shear supported severe weather with ample instability ahead of the front. We were worried about storm mode, however. The cap was forecast to open early, perhaps too early before shear and instability combinations could be realized. The forcing on the front had some models showing a rather solid line of congealed storms, which would seriously hamper tornado potential and ruin any sort of view for our chase. The other limiting factor for our chase was a speaking gig I had committed to up in Minneapolis on the following day. SPC highlighted northern Illinois along the warm front where the shear and instability combinations were maximized along with where the low was deepening and ejecting. I was skeptical that storms would remain discrete and surface based that long if they were initiating over central Iowa much earlier in the afternoon and prefrontal initiation is always a gamble ahead of the main cold front. In addition to our time constraint, I didn’t want to tangle with the terrain along the Mississippi or the hills and trees in northwest Illinois, so we made plans to chase and intercept storms in central and southern Iowa while they remained discrete. I expected storms to form along I-35 from Des Moines south by about 1pm and track northeast to Iowa City by 4pm, hopefully interacting with the warm front along the way for a tornado play.
We had spent the night in Lawrence, KS well behind the day’s play. We were originally going to take 35 up to Des Moines and 80 east to Iowa City for the sake of getting to our target fast before the front could scoot east. We decided that this was too far north as the warm sector was forecast to stay south of 80 for much of the day. Instead we took 136 across northern Missouri. The route was slower with twists and hills, but it would keep us in range of developing storms and gives us more options to play. Along the way we hit the dreaded pilot car stop where the road was down to one lane ahead for construction. Many a chase has been ruined by these road blocks, but fortunately we were well ahead of the cold front and initiation was still a couple hours out so it was no problem. Perhaps it just foreshadowed what was about to become one of our most epic busts.
Our forecast verified beautifully, at least the first half of it did. Storms popped right on 35 south of Des Moines, we waited east of them along the MO/IA border before running north toward Ottumwa, IA where a small group of cells was growing in intensity and picked up a severe thunderstorm warning. The rather linear looking line was a good 20-30 miles to our west when we got up to Ottumwa, but we decided to head in for the intercept and see what it looked like. We found only hazy, junky gust fronts with dark blue precipitation cores. It was classic Iowa crap. Winds were southeast right on the warm front, making for great directional shear, but to the south across the warm sector where all of the storms were, the winds veered to the southwest resulting in junky linear bands. Ben McMillan caught up with us and we chatted for a couple minutes before heading east to stay ahead of the complex. Along the way the storm started to organize, taking on the characteristics of a high precipitation supercell with a bowing rear flank gust front and a couple of scuddy wall clouds embedded within the rain. We spotted friend and fellow Illinois chaser Jesse Risley on the side of the road and stopped to say hi. The storm continued to organize and then picked up a tornado warning. We followed south of the hook. There was no real view or approach into the notch as the circulation looked messy and deeply embedded within the precipitation core.

Tornado Warned
2 miles N of Ainsworth, IA
4:16 PM
We made a vain attempt to intercept the storm heading north on highway 27, but the RFD core had already crossed the highway. We pulled off the highway to watch the churning blue green mass. The traffic seemed oblivious and continued to plow right into it. We had no view of a tornado and knew our chase was probably over, but we were happy in that moment, still riding the high from the previous day and ecstatic to be in front of the beastly supercell. I shot a few stills of Brindley with her camera as she jumped for joy, both of us oblivious that we were about to miss one of the most epic and photogenic tornadoes of the year.

“At this moment I felt pure happiness. As we drove away I told Skip that the chase trip had been an amazing start to the season. We drove through the back side of the grungy HP mess and headed north for Minnesota. As a chaser, missing the Rochelle tornado is a massive disappointment. But, chasing storms is and will always be one of the greatest joys in my life. The reality is that you just can't catch 'em all. I was worried I'd look at this shot and feel sadness, but instead I am remembering it for what it is: A capture of the happiness I feel doing the thing I love most. Mother nature is incredible, powerful, awe inspiring, tragic, heartbreaking and exciting.”
We waited for the RFD core to cross the highway before heading north toward Iowa City. At the 80 interchange we had to make a decision whether to continue on with the chase or break off and head for Minnesota. It was a fateful moment. Our storm was still tornado warned, but it looked like it was falling apart, losing its shape and becoming embedded in a mass of junky storms. Do we keep chasing this crap and get hours away from where we need to be the next day or do we let it go and have a nice leisurely dinner and relaxing evening? We decided to let the storm go. I figured it would continue to fall apart and get lost in the river terrain. It would go on to produce a rainy tornado near Clinton, IA. The real storm was still a couple hours from producing an EF4 over Rochelle, IL.

We stopped for Thai in Waterloo, IA and waited impatiently for our food in the busy but tiny restaurant. News of the tornado broke on social media after we left with photos and streaming video starting to come in. I knew we had missed one of the best tornadoes of the year when I saw the glorious, perfectly formed white tornado against teal background. I sat in silence all the way to Clear Lake, IA where we were stopping for the night, stewing over what we had missed. Then, like a comedic tragedy, it started to snow just as we got into town. I was dumbfounded until I realized we had indeed driven northwest across the surface low and into the winter weather side of the storm system. We unloaded the van in the winter storm, snow piling up on our clothes and bags. I staggered into the hotel lobby, wet, shoes squeaking, only to look up and see the Rochelle tornado video looping on the big screen TV in the lobby. It was insult to injury, but the tornado was so amazing I could only stare in wonder and disbelief. I killed the beers we had in the van’s cooler and Brindley and I stayed up laughing about other epic Iowa busts from past years. This bust was one for the record books, but it wasn’t the first and it won’t be the last. This one stung pretty bad but it faded quickly. Brindley and I will be out there again, excited for the next setup and proud of what we do get the privilege to see.


This would hopefully be our worst bust of the season. We still had fun on the chase and have to remember that our first day out made the trip a stunning success. The Rochelle, IL tornado was rated EF4 and did extensive damage with one fatality. Storm Assist responded by handing out gift cards to impacted residents.

Lessons Learned

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