June 22, 2015


Initial Target
Storm Intercepts
Madison, WI
Murdo, SD 11:45 AM 6/21/2015
Coralville, IA 8:12 PM 6/22/2015
0 mph


Strong directional shear warm front play across southern WI/northern IL. Targeted southern WI for early afternoon recovery and tornadic supercells behind morning MCS. Airmass did not recover so shifted south into IL and new effective warm front. Initiation held off until early evening except over uncontaminated Iowa airmass. Retargeted for Iowa play, but called off chase on the MS river due to low light by early evening as IL storms finally started to organize.

Crew and Equipment

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




I had been out for a week now, traveling the Great Plains with Sean Casey, Herb Stein, Justin Walker, and Mike Browne attempting to get a dramatic tornado shot for the latest Tornado Intercept Vehicle IMAX movie. Late June is often quieter, but there are gems to be had in the Northern Plains. On June 20 we had to make a tough decision with setups falling on the following two days. June 21 looked like a relatively modest play up on the SD/ND/MT corner, but a shot at a photogenic, albeit smaller, tornado nevertheless. With much more favorable parameters in the Midwest, June 22 looked like the main tornado play, and the first shot at a significant, potentially violent tornado that the team had all month. It’d seem like a no brainer to try and play both, but the problem was that these setups were at opposite ends of our chase domain, separated by several hundred miles, and June 22 looked like it could go early. Playing both would require an overnight drive with back to back chase days. After being out a week already, and weary from a full season of chasing, we weren’t too keen on this. It would be dangerous even with the possibility of fatigued driving mixed the usual storm chasing safety hazards. So we’d just pick the best looking setup then, right? But that was a tough call too. June 22 looked to feature bigger, badder tornadoes which we needed for the film. But the initial target, southern Wisconsin, is less than ideal chase territory, and warm front plays can be grey and grungy. Meanwhile, we were already in South Dakota, a few short hours from June 21’s play. Justin and I both agreed the event could feature a really pretty tornado with discrete storms, in scenic terrain, even if more modest parameters meant it would be a smaller tornado. We stood outside our Murdo, South Dakota motel with cute log cabin rooms swatting mosquitoes and discussing what to do. Sean finally made the call. We’d skip the overnight drive and go straight for the higher payout gamble and chase June 22 only.
June 22 was forecast to feature a warm front draped across southern Wisconsin with moderate instability and incredibly high helicity values, directional shear favorable for the formation of tornadoes. Significant tornado plots were off the charts. Part of this was a bit overdone. A morning storm complex was forecast to track across the region causing some convective feedback in the forecast wind plots, unrealistic values our later afternoon storms might not utilize. The morning storms would also keep the surface cool and the winds backed. The low level jet might have been partially decoupled keeping wind speeds up. This meant huge helicity values, but also that storms could be elevated, thus canceling out whatever gains we’d get for our tornado forecast. Still, wind fields looked impressive in the wake of the morning activity and rapid recovery was forecast. The possibility was there for a violent tornado with a surface based storm tracking the warm front. The huge wild card would be the morning storms and the state they’d leave the atmosphere in by afternoon. Even if the significant tornado threat wasn’t realized due to storm mode issues, ruined by the morning MCS, the shear and instability combination suggested a severe weather outbreak with widespread damaging winds was likely. We set our initial target for the Madison, Wisconsin area, along the warm front and where there were openings in the terrain.

Nap Time
Alden, MN
5:34 PM
We spent all of June 21 driving to the following day’s setup taking 90 across South Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Hammock setup in the TIV, Sean grabs a nap during a stop:

June 21 wound up featuring a string of photogenic tornadoes in northwest South Dakota. In hindsight, we should have just chased that day. We gambled and picked the wrong horse, and losing hurt. We couldn't have known though. Again in hindsight, I also wish we had actually tried to play both days. It was our last run for the season. We could have pushed ourselves, gone all out for that last shot. Maybe we would have been so happy with our June 21 catch that we would have blown off June 22, or played it differently and not busted. This is the kind of stuff that haunts me years later.

River Crossing
5 miles NW of La Crosse, WI
7:29 PM
By evening TIV and Doghouse crossed the Mississippi at La Crosse, Wisconsin.

4 miles NNW of La Crosse, WI
7:30 PM
It was the first time the intercept vehicles had been in the Cheesehead state. Far removed from the Plains, much of the state covered in pine trees, lakes, and some gnarly hills, Wisconsin is generally overlooked by storm chaser. An MCS storm mode rather than discrete supercells is far more common there as well. But Wisconsin does get its share of tornadoes, and there is some flat farmland that makes for good chase terrain mainly east and south of Madison.
The local chasers were geeked to hear we were in town too. We stopped for the night in Portage, Wisconsin just north of Madison. A young aspiring chaser and meteorologist named Isaac came out to see us. Herb Stein gave him a ride in the TIV. Rounding a bend, a pool of water that had been collecting overhead in one of the homemade TIV’s cavities suddenly gave way, drenching Isaac. With a laugh, Herb said, “That means you’re one of the team now.” This is one of my favorite and fondest memories of Herb in the brief time I got to know him. What a genuine character. We lost Herb a few short months later to cancer.
My childhood friend, Katie, is from Portage. I had spent a lot of time there, lots of good times and fond memories. It was pretty surreal to be there with the TIV and Doghouse, staging for a storm chase. She brought her boys over to see the TIV and say hi to me. That was the highlight of the whole trip to Wisconsin for me.

Morning MCS
3 miles N of Edgerton, WI
10:28 AM
A morning MCS raked Wisconsin the morning of June 22 and nagging rain persisted in its wake, ruining the Wisconsin warm sector and target area. Rapid recovery wasn’t going to happen. The rain cooled air forced the warm front south of the state line, and thus forced us into Illinois as well. Near Janesville, as we followed behind the TIV, the Doghouse suddenly sputtered to a stop. We were out of gas. Oops! Luckily we were right by an exit and a gas station. Wanting to keep us on track, I quickly jumped out of the shotgun seat, ran across a field of tall grass to the gas station and came back with a jerry can of diesel, the rain still coming down. Mike Browne refueled us from the shoulder, braving the highway traffic, and we were rolling again. My soaked socks hung somewhere in the back of the Doghouse to dry.

Second Shooter
5 miles ESE of Rockford, IL
11:59 AM
With the possibility of a major tornado intercept, Sean wanted a second shooter. We stopped in Rockford to meet up with Myles Beeson, a photographer from Chicago with experience shooting on a Red.
Grabbing some lunch at a local diner and discussing the day’s plans: A local stopped to inform me that tornadoes don’t happen here. “You mean other than Rochelle?” reminding him of the EF4 that had ravaged the area just a few miles to the south back in April.

Warm Front
3 miles NE of Rochelle, IL
2:12 PM
The warm front was pushed all the way to I-88 so we continued down to Rochelle, noting ongoing elevated thunderstorms north of the boundary.

2 miles NE of Rochelle, IL
2:58 PM
And then we spent the afternoon at a truck stop waiting for the atmosphere to get its crap together. Grey, grungy mammatus from the elevated storms stretched overhead.

Chaser Convergence
2 miles NE of Rochelle, IL
2:58 PM
The truck stop and interstate crossroads made for a popular chaser convergence point, and a bunch of folks came over to say hi and hang out while we awaited initiation.

We got impatient though, and that’s the worst thing you can do on an Illinois warm front play. The cool surface temps and lingering clouds were delaying recovery and keeping the instability down, making us fidgety, and jealously eye Iowa where the grass was greener. The morning MCS had not raked the Iowa warm sector, and the airmass was strongly to extremely unstable there. But Illinois always comes together at the last minute rather than sitting primed all afternoon. It’s like the storms arrive right along with the warm air advection and airmass recovery, tapping the exquisite directional shear on the warm front. And that’s why it’s called Illinois warm front magic. Iowa is the sucker play, removed from the warm front. Storms go up there first as bait, and then don’t produce. If you bite, you miss the show in Illinois. But storms just weren’t forming in Illinois and it was getting late. At some point, Myles was sent home, hope fading we'd need a second shooter. A discrete supercell formed south of Des Moines and went tornado warned as it turned right and started tracking east southeast. Additional initiation looked likely to the east south of Iowa City. We decided to go for it, and we were getting suckered into Iowa. I had made this mistake before, at least twice even. Sloppy radar returns started to appear over our heads as we crossed the Mississippi into Iowa, the start of the Illinois show, sealing our fate and busted chase. We cut south out of Iowa City and then started to make a desperate run east to cross back over to Illinois at Muscatine, where fledgling storms were rapidly taking on supercellular characteristics just to our east. Storms to the north on the warm front would pose the much better tornado play, but our impatience forced us to play the activity to the south. I was hopeful though, with discrete supercells going up and the low level jet forecast to increase. The chase was on. Or so I thought. TIV abruptly stopped at a gas station and we gathered to see what was up. Under overcast warm sector skies and evening setting in, the light was rapidly fading. Sean concluded that we simply wouldn’t have the light needed to shoot by the time we finally intercepted back in Illinois. And like that our chase was over, a grueling haul of hundreds of miles for a storm-less bust.
It wasn’t just the end of our chase. This was TIV’s last chase for the season. The following days looked super marginal, Justin and Herb had to get home, and so the TIV was being sent back to Tulsa. I might be wrong, but as far as I know, this was the TIV’s last chase entirely. And tragically, this was indeed Herb Stein’s last chase. I wish it weren’t such a dismal bust, ending in grey skies at a gas station. I wish we had gotten Herb a tornado for his last chase, something memorable on which to end a fantastic career. But Herb still had an incredible adventure awaiting, a trip to Alaska shooting glaciers. We gathered for a group shot, the last time we’d all be together. Then we parted ways, Justin and Herb heading south in the TIV, Mike, Sean, and I heading west in Doghouse.
Doghouse crew stopped in Iowa City for the night. Illinois warm front magic did not fail to disappoint. A small scale tornado outbreak occurred right around dusk. I told myself that we simply wouldn’t have had the light to get a good IMAX shot, but missing the tornadoes after getting suckered into Iowa stung. It stung real bad. I vowed never again. On June 22, 2016 another Illinois warm front play was in the works, and I would be once again holding my ground at the truck stop in Rochelle. I didn’t even flinch when stuff started to fire well to the west, didn’t even think about moving west. We caught a couple tornadoes right on the I-39 corridor. They were nothing spectacular, but I had finally learned one of my hardest lessons.


This was a heartbreaking bust. Not just because we missed tornadoes and fell victim to a blunder I had made before, but because of the finality this chase represented. It was literally our last chance in a lot of ways, and it could have gone so much better. I cherish the memories I have from this trip, learn from my experiences, and will live on a better person hopeful and excited for the next chase.

Lessons Learned

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