May 7, 2016


Initial Target
Storm Intercepts
Sterling, CO
Springfield, IL 4:46 PM 5/6/2016
Burlington, CO 9:33 PM 5/7/2016
Wray, CO
50 mph
Tornado, Funnel, Satellite


Marginal dryline/upslope play in northeast Colorado. Tracked supercell from south of Yuma to north of Wray noting distant elephant trunk tornado. Retargeted Tail End Charlie storm moving north of Wray noting distant dust bowl tornado followed by dramatic stovepipe tornado at close range and funnels before storms congealed and dissipated.

Photography courtesy Jennifer Brindley Ubl

Crew and Equipment

Chase partners: Jennifer Brindley Ubl. Equipment: Canon 60D, Canon t2i, Canon EFS 10-22, Canon EF 50mm, Sony FDR-AX100.




Brindley and I were back on the Plains for the first time together in 2016. We had three chances to get a shot of something before we had to return home. Saturday, May 7 looked like it would be the “day before the day” type setup over the Colorado High Plains. The kind of day you chase because you’re already out on the Plains and hope to score something photogenic, or get a little surprise, but you don’t expect to be the main event. The following days were advertising much higher instability and shear combos over the Southern Plains and looked to be more classic tornado chases. Saturday, however, looked like a shot at some high based upslope/dryline storms with barely adequate moisture. Dewpoints were forecast to barely hit 50 along the 76 corridor in northeast Colorado, marginal even for the high elevation. LCL heights and storm bases could be too high to support tornadoes. But a closed 500mb low with strong southerly midlevel flow and cold temps aloft meant steep lapse rates, dynamic forcing, and vorticity stretching. There was a shot at squeaking a tornado out of this one and we were going for it, hoping to roll the dice and score some upslope High Plains magic. Our initial target was Sterling, CO where the best moisture advection and convergence relative to the better flow was forecast. Curiously, the models were hinting at some southeast shear vectors, meaning storms could be moving to the northwest making for an unusual and potentially difficult chase. We left the night before from Springfield, stopped in St. Joe, MO for the night and were rolling for Colorado again early in the morning, expecting initiation by midafternoon.

14 miles SE of Yuma, CO
3:51 PM
We made it to Brush, CO by early afternoon, but too late it seemed. Storms had fired well to the west and tornado reports were coming in from storm chasers. We drove all the way to Colorado just to miss the show, or was it the early sucker play? We bumped into Tony Laubach while refueling and shared some pessimism before we split. Storms fired to the southeast. I was uncertain about the decision but we decided to go for those instead of the ongoing storms closer to our original target. I was worried LCL heights and storm bases might be too high to the east or we’d start running into capped air, but closer storms to our west were already congealing into a mess and heading into stable air.

We caught a severe warned supercell south of Yuma and it was a pretty sight. However it was also high based and raining through the rear flank so asking for a tornado was probably too much. But we had other days for that. I was just ecstatic to be out on the high plains again. A gorgeous storm, the howling inflow, the smell of the plains dirt and grasses, being out there is one of the best experiences.

Return to the High Plains
14 miles SE of Yuma, CO
3:55 PM
Happy to be on the Plains again:
Grainy cellphone as the base approaches:

RFD Clear Slot
9 miles SSE of Eckley, CO
4:14 PM
We let the storm go overhead, noting some interesting striations and bands, before moving north and east to pursue it. A rear flank downdraft clear slot was evident to our west, but it soon filled in with rain. It looked like the storm was being interfered with by other neighboring cells now going up in a northwest to southeast arc. We were having trouble tracking the north-northwest moving storm as it went out over open terrain and started to congeal in the line. We decided to let it go and target Tail End Charlie coming up from well south of Wray.

Elephant Trunk Tornado
6 miles NNW of Wray, CO
5:04 PM
We turned south onto 385 in Wray heading toward our new target: a big, flat and high base on the southern horizon. Of course just as we had abandoned it, our original storm picked up a tornado warning. I don’t like diverting from my chase plan simply to go after warnings. I feel like the storm chase usually turns into a wild goose chase and you wind up driving circles and coming home empty handed. Had I been alone I probably would have begrudgingly continued south, but Brindley was the voice of reason. “Turn around! It’s within striking distance.” I pulled a hard U-turn in the minivan right in the highway while it was still wide and we were racing back north.

We had to get through town again, and on the north side we were straining to see over rooftops and then hills. But then there it was. A cone funnel started to descend a million miles away to our northwest, backlit on an orangey sky. It was a super pretty tornado, but it was so incredibly far away. North of Eckley in the middle of nowhere, the tornado was between 10 and 15 miles from us, which is normally too far to spot tornadoes. However, viewing conditions in the High Plains are ideal thanks to haze free skies and usually unobstructed horizons. It was no problem for Brindley. She pulled out a super long lens and started shooting over me while I raced the van north and angrily crammed my face with peanuts. Brindley could get her shot, but I couldn’t get my video shot, and I knew a bunch of other chasers were probably right in there. It drove me a little crazy and I couldn’t enjoy my first tornado of the year knowing I was missing shots. I made a vain effort to get closer, but the tornado only lasted a handful of minutes before it started to rope out. It was practically gone before we hit a gravel west road. We stopped there to collect ourselves next to a clump of other chasers, looking like we were arriving in fashionably late style. At least we had gotten a tornado. We were on the board for the season. We hadn’t missed the show even if we had back row seats. And I would cherish Brindley’s stills even if my video, shot through a dirty acrylic dome and unzoomed at 15 miles, was basically crap. The tornado was rated EF0, tracking over empty countryside.

EF0 Dust Whirl Tornado
4 miles NNW of Wray, CO
5:45 PM
We had some time to kill on the side of the road watching this storm retreat and Tail End Charlie coming up from the south approach. We bumped into a handful of other chasers before we decided to drop a few miles south toward Wray to get closer to Tail End Charlie. A dusty bowl was apparent as we approached, but my shots of it when it was best organized aren’t great due to the distance and rain on the dome. The National Weather Service wound up surveying this as an EF0 tornado several miles south of Wray. Our second tornado of the day was technically what I would call a “bird fart”, a dusty whirl without a funnel that doesn’t last very long. At least this one persisted for several minutes longer than most bird farts. Here it is at the end of its life as a dissipating plume of dust, miles to our south:

3 miles NNW of Wray, CO
5:48 PM
We stopped a couple miles north of Wray, right in front of the huge updraft tower and mesocyclone of the approaching Tail End Charlie supercell. Plumes of dust were ongoing underneath but we assumed it was being kicked up by outflow winds. The base looked pretty high so I wasn’t really expecting a tornado. However, there was some magic happening at the surface, a frontal or outflow boundary that we hadn’t noticed and as the storms crossed this invisible line they went bonkers and started spinning like tops. The Eckley storm had just crossed it, and now it was this storm’s turn. Inflow winds were howling into the storm and like a switch had been thrown, the mass of clouds above of us started to rotate faster and faster like a gigantic carousel. It was a super dramatic and powerful storm experience.

Horseshoe with Funnel
3 miles NNW of Wray, CO
5:52 PM
The storm drew closer and the characteristic horseshoe shape appeared as the updraft base was carved out by the rear flank downdraft. Rotation aloft increased even more and the center of the cyclone started to wrap up with dramatic speed as a small point funnel appeared.

Wray Tornado
3 miles NNW of Wray, CO
5:53 PM
A snaky funnel descended toward the ground, glowing ghostly white in the strong backlight against the storm’s black base. A brown cloud of dust kicked up at the surface. The Wray, Colorado tornado was under way.

Wide Angle Funnel
3 miles NNW of Wray, CO
5:53 PM
The tornado was close and we were downstream, cues that we should be leaving. The sight was incredible, however. I couldn’t leave it. I closely watched the debris cloud to see if it had any apparent left or right movement. It looked like it was tracking barely to the left. We could hold our ground and it should pass to the east. Brindley was anxious about our position, but I tried to reassure her. This was our chance to get a front row seat to an incredibly photogenic tornado show.

Wrapping Wall Cloud
3 miles NNW of Wray, CO
5:54 PM
The wall cloud started to wrap around the tornado as the funnel retreated and reorganized.

Debris Cloud
3 miles NNW of Wray, CO
5:55 PM
The funnel had disappeared but the debris cloud at the surface persisted. Zooming in to the scene on highway 385 just to our south, it looked like there were chasers parked right on the edge of the developing circulation. One person was even out of the car as the tornado spun at amazingly close range.
The tornado looked like it was backtracking or weaving now. The dusty debris cloud was filling in and crossing 385 like it was moving toward the west. The power lines erupted in a bright blue green flash as the tornado crossed. Chasers downstream of us scattered out of the path. The funnel started to reappear as a thin filament, moving vertically rapidly within the updraft.
The tornado was no longer tracking to the left or right, but straight up 385 and right toward us.

Too Close
3 miles NNW of Wray, CO
5:55 PM
Storm chasers around us had left one by one and now we were the only vehicle that remained. “We’re in the winds!” Inflow out of the north was screaming into the tornado now. I closed the acrylic camera dome, we jumped into the van, and decided it time for us to be leaving too.

4 miles NNW of Wray, CO
5:56 PM
But I couldn’t leave it. As I turned the van to roll onto the highway I could see that the funnel had filled in and the debris cloud was growing massive in size. It was an amazing spectacle and I needed a shot of it. I stopped the van, jumped out and opened the camera dome once more. The debris cloud was enveloping objects in our line of sight now. “WE GOTTA GO! SKIP!” The winds abruptly shifted direction, screaming out of the east-southeast now, the outer winds spiraling into the vortex itself. I put two hands on the lip of the dome and tried to pull it down, and couldn’t. The winds were too strong. I’d have to leave it. I jumped in the driver seat and we were rolling down the highway, the dome enclosure open and camera exposed. Once we picked up enough forward speed and hit the storm inflow headwinds the dome slammed shut with a loud bang.

Photogenic Tornado
4 miles NNW of Wray, CO
5:57 PM
We moved about a mile up the road and stopped. The tornado had taken on a classic shape, but with a surreal hourglass like pattern in the dust being kicked up by the outer circulation.

Filming Wray
4 miles NNW of Wray, CO
5:58 PM
Brindley and I were totally awe struck. I stood on the van working the video camera while Brindley grabbed some stills including this incredible shot.

The Wray Colorado Tornado
4 miles NNW of Wray, CO
5:58 PM
These are ultra-wide angle shots, and need to be seen on a large print or display to get a grasp on how truly epic this scene was. The funnel was actually arching overhead such that you had to tilt your head back to see the top of it. The roar was now quite audible, a distinct waterfall rushing. Standing in front of such an awesome and terribly beautiful spectacle was one of the top experiences in my storm chasing career. Breath taking and overwhelming are understatements.

Escaping Wray
4 miles NNW of Wray, CO
5:59 PM
“We’re the only crazy people still sitting here”. Brindley was right. I was so mesmerized that I hadn’t realized that we were once again the last chase vehicle left staring down the ever approaching vortex. The debris cloud was rapidly widening and getting alarmingly close. We had to go.

Satellite Vortex
5 miles NNW of Wray, CO
6:01 PM
We moved another mile down 385. It finally appeared that the tornado was solidly east of the road now, yet still dramatically close with the tornado cyclone spinning overhead. It’s a precarious position to be in as satellite vortices can form around the rim of the cyclone. And that’s exactly what started to happen as I jumped out and opened up the camera enclosure.

Dusty Column
5 miles NNW of Wray, CO
6:01 PM
We tracked the tornado north a couple miles as it continued to drift off to the east into the empty countryside.

6 miles NNW of Wray, CO
6:05 PM
The tornado began to die, but it didn’t appear to rope out in a conventional fashion. The stocky funnel just retreated leaving behind a large dusty debris cloud column that eventually dissipated.

Moving Away
6 miles NNW of Wray, CO
6:06 PM
Brindley shooting the tornado as it moves east and fades away:

Another Funnel
12 miles NNW of Wray, CO
6:23 PM
We ran north up 385 to pursue the storm and other cells erupting across the warm sector. We noted another dusty bowl circulation off to the east. We weren’t sure whether or not it was a continuation of the tornado we had just witnessed, but it appeared to be distinct after reviewing the video. Likely another tornado, but it wasn’t surveyed or was lumped onto the track of the main Wray tornado. I’m going to leave it off the tornado count for now though. We also caught this brief but distinct funnel.The cells started to congeal into a messy complex near Holyoke so we turned around and started heading south to call the chase.

Road Closed
5 miles NNW of Wray, CO
7:23 PM
As should have been expected, we hit a road closure as we approached Wray where the tornado had crossed the highway. Emergency workers diverted us onto an unpaved detour and we missed seeing much of any damage. The Wray tornado was rated EF2, damaging some farmsteads and businesses north of town.

We got a room in Burlington to recover from the chase and get some rest for the next day's chase.


May 7, 2016 was one of my most amazing tornado intercepts to date. Seeing that photogenic stovepipe at close range was stunning and overwhelming. The chase got off to a rocky start, missing nearby tornadoes on the early activity near my target and then being incredibly far from the first tornado we spotted. But the Wray EF2 wound up being the main show of the event, and one of the most photogenic tornadoes of the whole year. I wish we could have been on the front lit side of the Wray tornado, but once it formed, navigating around it or letting it pass by wasn’t much of an option at our position. We also missed a couple shots, having to flee to get out of its path. Still, we came away with some incredible and gorgeous captures.

Lessons Learned

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