May 27, 2015


Initial Target
Storm Intercepts
Garden City, KS
Wichita Falls, TX 7:11 AM 5/27/2015
Limon, CO 11:44 PM 5/27/2015
Sublette, KS
0 mph
Spin-up Tornado, Funnel, Wall Cloud


Warm front play in southwest Kansas/Texas Panhandle. Opted for northern target. Intercepted tornado warned cell and half condensed cone funnel, before targeting new storm near Garden City, KS. Noted brief spin-up tornado before storm gusted out.

Crew and Equipment

Chase partners: Jennifer Brindley Ubl, Mike Browne, Sean Casey, Justin Walker, Herb Stein. Equipment: Canon 60D, Canon t2i, Canon EFS 10-22, Canon EF 50mm, Sony HDR-xr500v.




Wednesday, May 27, was a promising setup for the TIV and Doghouse crew, our sixth day out on this run shooting an IMAX movie. A dryline with strong to extreme instability was forecast from western Kansas down through the Texas Panhandle, and a triple point up by I-70 with a warm front draped southwards making for a fairly narrow warm sector. Moderate flow bisecting the dryline looked to make for some discrete supercells. I was concerned about a quick transition to an HP storm mode and that storms might quickly cross the warm front and go elevated before a big tornado play could materialize.

We awoke at our now usual Wichita Falls hotel. A college chase team posed for pictures in front of the TIV and joined us for breakfast. The room was filled with people looking at laptops trying to decide where to go. Justin and I were conflicted on the target. Morning models plotted CAPE exceeding 4,000 J/Kg, but I was worried that storms might cross the nearly north south warm front there and go elevated fairly soon once off the Caprock. While they were on the Caprock, my other concern was we wouldn’t be able to get our shots for the IMAX movie due to bad terrain and limited road options. That alone had me leaning toward a Kansas target. The HRRR was showing prominent helicity tracks down in the Texas Panhandle. I distinctly remember calling out the town that morning: “Canadian”.
We settled on our Kansas target and started snaking our way north from Wichita Falls up through the Texas Panhandle. Just outside of Canadian, TX we hit a lane closure and awaited a pilot car by a construction worker’s stop sign. It was like an omen.

Storm Initiation
10 miles NNW of Garden City, KS
2:18 PM
By early afternoon we had stopped in southwest Kansas to get our bearings. We were still unsure about our target and Justin and I debated about dropping back down into the Texas Panhandle. Ultimately, we decided to let our Kansas target play out. Storms started to explode to our north and east. We shot the convection from afar at first, waiting for something to become a dominant tornado target for us.

Atomic Bomb
15 miles SSE of Scott City, KS
2:30 PM
I photograph Justin, photographing Brindley, who is photographing atomic bomb convection. We decided to leave the storm for ones to the north that were picking up tornado warnings on the warm front. We probably should have stuck with it though. This storm produced a decent dust bowl tornado awhile later.
As we ran north, storms started to go tornado warned briefly and then fizzle all around us. It felt like a bit of a wild goose chase. We finally caught a maturing storm that hadn’t yet interacted with the warm front and were able to head it off in west central Kansas. Despite picking the Kansas end of the setup for what was supposed to be a better road network, we wound up with no effective intercept route, just a meandering dirt road that brought us in behind the storm. As the storm hit the backed winds along the warm front, it started to wrap up and went tornado warned. We stopped just south of the cell, a twisting spiral of supercell towered overhead. It was awe inspiring. The storm started to drift off to the north as it continued to tighten its rotation. We had no road to go after it. A gorgeous cone funnel started to descend. The group jumped into action to capture an IMAX shot. As part of the backup Doghouse crew, I wasn’t in any shots, or had to get a shot. I stood back and watched, mesmerized and excited. The mood was broken by Sean announcing, “This is going to be a pretty worthless tornado”. We were out there to do a job and get our shots, not admire the weather, and indeed without an intercept road, a tornado now would be a missed opportunity. We needed close shots and tornadoes that TIV could intercept, not distant views. The funnel persisted a couple minutes before roping out. It condensed about half way to the ground, maybe close enough that it had a circulation on the ground but I couldn’t make one out.

Meanwhile, the morning HRRR run was right and Canadian, TX was going bonkers with tornadoes. Instead of crossing the warm front, the storm stalled on it and just continued to cycle, ingesting the directional shear on the boundary, and producing a string of tornadoes. We had picked the wrong target. We left the storm as it went elevated north of the warm front, retreading our meandering route of dirt roads that were now rain soaked and becoming slick with mud. Progress was agonizingly slow on the slippery roads but we made it back to pavement.
We were after redemption now. Robust, isolated storms were initiating in southwest Kansas. We targeted a cell heading toward Sublette with a beautiful pendant shape on the radar and the beginnings of a hook echo. Racing down highway 56 for the intercept, the storm’s forward flank precipitation core seemed to parallel the highway and we skirted the edge of it, hoping to make it down there before the storm produced a tornado. A Kansas trooper hopped on our six, but the storm’s forward flank bowed out over the highway. We slowed to get Doghouse’s windshield hail guard down, and just in time too. A tennis ball sized stone bounced off the metal grill a few seconds later. The Kansas trooper fell back, and we plowed into the storm. A developing wall cloud was coming into view from the southwest:

Punching Hail Core
8 miles WSW of Copeland, KS
6:11 PM
“Mad Mike” Browne in his element: batting helmet on, plowing into huge hail as it pings off our hail guard.
We stopped immediately southwest of town to watch the wall cloud. It looked dramatic, but the structure looked a little “cold”, as if the storm wasn’t ingesting warm, unstable air but cold outflow. It didn’t look promising for a tornado to me. Right on cue though, the storm picked up a tornado warning and we nosed in for a closer look.

Brief Spin-up
2 miles WSW of Sublette, KS
6:49 PM
The wall cloud approached, the rear flank downdraft cutting a big notch into the mass as the whole thing started to slowly spin like a giant carousel. A wispy tendril licked the ground momentarily on the back rim of the wall cloud, technically a brief spin-up tornado, but likely a sub-vortex that feeds into a larger developing tornado along the forward flank gust front/inflow interface. The storm still looked a little “outflowy” to me, but spirits were high that the storm was wrapping up and we were about to get our redemption with a pretty Kansas tornado that the TIV could intercept.
We moved north of town to get downstream of the developing tornado for the intercept. I had Mike hold the Doghouse short, to prevent the huge rotating carousel of cloud from going overhead and us from being impacted by another tornado like we had been the previous day. Meanwhile, another group of storm chasers in a sedan had pulled off the road into a business driveway. The driveway had turned to pure mud and the car was stuck, tires spinning. We were directly downstream of the huge rotating wall cloud. Funnels were dipping from the back rim, a foreboding that something much larger might have been about to develop. Potentially stranded in the path of a developing tornado, the safety of the chasers was now in jeopardy. I briefly considered whether to put them in the back of Doghouse, but we realized we had time to try to get the vehicle unstuck. We used a chain in the back of Doghouse and pulled the car out by its rear axle. Meanwhile the storm had fallen to pieces, blasted to death by cold outflow. By the time the other group of chasers was back in business, all that was left of the storm was disorganized remnants. We regrouped with TIV. Storms were gusting out all around us with just a messy complex of rain left. Sean didn’t want to give up, however. We still hadn’t gotten our redemption. We held our position, sitting in the rain in futile desperation, clinging to the hopes that something would still happen, that we could salvage our busted chase, and redeem ourselves from missing the Canadian tornadoes.

It wasn’t to be, however. The chase was over and we finally called it. The next few days looked pretty marginal. We opted to send TIV back to Tulsa with Justin. Everyone else piled into the Doghouse and we tracked up to Limon to get my van, which we had left there after meeting up with the team at the start of the trip. I rode in the back of the Doghouse under the leaky and breezy camera turret, sitting atop a pile of all of our stuff. The skies outside were beautiful: sunset mammatus and rainbows. No one was interested in shooting them though, and It did little to lift our spirits. We missed a photogenic string of tornadoes, another missed opportunity for the film, and we had the long drive to Limon to dwell on it.


Even though we saw a brief, spin-up tornado and a gorgeous funnel cloud, the chase felt like a brutal bust for us. We missed gorgeous tornadoes in Canadian, Texas, having driven through the town only hours earlier. We needed those shots to complete Sean’s IMAX movie. It felt like another missed opportunity and there wasn’t much of the season left.

Lessons Learned

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