Tornado Alley, USA
Weather is a constant in everyone’s life regardless if you are interested in it or not. Weather is the inevitable stable of everyday conversation because it is observable by everyone and can impact everyone’s daily life in a positive or negative way. I have had a strange obsession with the weather since I can remember. Every morning before school I would watch the weather report and learn about it from our local weather reporter. I never thought I would see a tornado in my life. I had been through numerous hurricanes (some severe) and even experienced an earth quake or two (very minor) but for where I live in the northeast region of the country, tornadoes were a rare occurrence (thank goodness!).
Last year on our trip in Florence, my brother’s co-worker had mentioned the best trip she had been on was a storm chasing trip she had taken the previous May (she has now gone twice, and signed up for next year!). I was immediately hooked. I had no idea this was a trip you could actually pay to do! I told my husband that is was a must do and to name the year we would be able to work this out. With no big trip planned for 2017, we booked in November with Tempest Tours in June.
I did not know What to Expect for this trip and it was better that way. Having no expectations allows every experience to be appreciated and surprises enhance the entire trip. I packed in my typical “How to Pack” fashion since we were told to pack light- we would be moving to a new hotel each night. For a list of how and what I packed, check Storm Chasing: What to Expect.
Our tour started in Denver, Colorado as our meeting point at a hotel just outside of the city. We had our orientation in the morning where we met our tour directors (experienced storm chasers Chris and Bill), our van drivers (storm chaser enthusiasts), and fellow vacationers. The tour consisted of two vans that comfortably held eight people- each row can fit three across but the tour allots for two people so the van was very comfortable and spacious. Our van had six vacationers, a van driver and a tour director (Chris). The other van for this trip was a group of photographers that were on the tour for a time lapse photography workshop so their van had six photographers, one van driver and the time lapse workshop leader.
After a brief introduction and some chasing ground rules, we were loaded into the van on our way to New Mexico. In the van, we learn the basics of severe storm development and what chasers chase- supercells. Supercells (one of four types of thunderstorms) are often characterized by the presence of a mesocyclone (vortex of air) that causes rotation of the storm that can result in a tornado. Thunderstorms require three things: lift (upward motion of air), instability, and moisture (high dew point). We looked for fog in the early mornings (good moisture) and high heat with little cloud coverage in the later morning and afternoon (convection effect). One factor that turns a severe storm into a supercell is wind shear. We would look at the directions of the winds on the ground and high in the clouds as well as the speed to determine the amount of shear. Enough opposing winds at high speed cause high shear which can cause the supercell to rotate, or form a mesocyclone, and mesocyclones have the capability to form tornadoes. Each morning in the weather briefing and while driving we would analyze at least a dozen different parameters and models to help identify the location of severe weather.
We came across our first storm of the day watching it organize and move towards us. We move locations several times watching the storm strengthen and produce some great lightning strikes. This was our first time to this area of the country so we were amazed at the landscape- how flat it was in areas and the plateaus that emerged from the ground. At our final stop, we watched the storm pass on the in the distance on our left and the sun set on our right with a rainbow fighting to break through in the middle. We stayed for a while watching the sky change all sorts of beautiful colors as the sun set and the night sky began to reveal itself.
We awaken in Raton, New Mexico where it was cold and misty outside. Chris indicated that this meant moisture was in the air which was good for storm development and that the fog and clouds would burn off to create the convection effect we desired. Our weather debriefing indicated we would be staying in the local area for severe weather. To pass the time, we took a trip to downtown Raton, which was unfortunately deserted since everything was closed on Sundays. Our storms began to develop as we made our way to Las Vegas (do not get excited!), New Mexico. We watched storm #1 organize but the hail warned storm rained us out so we drove through this storm (“punched the core”) with goal ball sized hail pelting the car to get to storm #2. The high cauliflower tops formed but then the storm slowed down and weakened. Storm #3 produced a tornado warning and while we were able to watch the quickly developing storm, the road network did not permit us to get the optimal viewing location to spot a potential tornado. While there was funnel formation, there was no tornado. We did get out of the car at one point and got “hailed on” by very small hail. After a long day of chasing multiple storms, we found a hotel and called it a night.
An early meeting time plus no weather briefing meant we had lots of driving to do in the morning before storm time. We were informed in the van that our target region was due north to eastern Colorado, western Kansas, and south western Nebraska. Making good time, we stopped for a sit down lunch but not much later the radar indicated developing storms in eastern Colorado and we did not want to miss them. Driving through miles of fields (even spotting several dust devils along the way) we spotted storm #1 of towering cumulus cauliflower clouds. The flat landscape against the dark veil of rain and bright white tops of the clouds made a dramatic picture. We heard significant rumbling from the storm but there was very little lightning. Since this storm was marked to produce hail, we learned we were hearing a “hail roar” which is the hail in the storm’s hail core crashing into each other to make a sound similar to thunder. We could even identify the contrast of the gray colored veil (rain) and the white colored veil (hail) falling from the clouds to the ground. Getting a burst of cold outflow wind, Chris identified storm #2 to chase in nearby eastern Colorado. Storm #2 had a high cloud base (indicating dew points were too low for significant severe weather) and at this time we connected with the other tour director, Bill, who got us moving to a tornado warned storm to the north. However, since the storm was rapidly at 30 mph and we were over 75 miles away from it, intercepting the storm would be tight. Fortunately, a new supercell popped up much closer and became our new target storm #3. We watched the storm’s clouds rise and fall continuously trying to organize and eventually collapse. While our photograph group got great time lapse work, we picked Chris’s brain for more weather technicals and attempting to understand exactly the dynamics we had observed all day. Before going back to the hotel, we drove out into the darkness to gaze at the night sky. I am always amazed at the eraser that the light pollution takes away from the massiveness of the night sky. We were able to spot several constellations, Jupiter, and even some meteors, before ending the night.
Our weather briefing this morning indicated severe weather would be localized to Nebraska and South Dakota. As we made our way to north to the Nebraska panhandle, changing moisture levels stopped us and directed us to north western Kansas and north eastern Colorado, which was where we were already located. Pulling off the highway in Wray, Colorado, we found a county event center that had a lovely park where we waited for the storms to develop. Before we knew it we had two supercells to choose from. Storm A was already severe warned and moving into a warm front of good moisture while storm B was still developing. We drove south towards storm A and began to realize the storm was actually losing momentum, so we turned around to storm B. Storm B was moving into better air in the north towards south western Nebraska so we reversed back through Wray, Colorado and continued north towards storm #1. As we got close to the Colorado and Nebraska border, the storm developed and the severe storm warning was released. We parked along a dirt road and watched the enormous storm. While a wall cloud developed, there was no tornado formation out of this supercell. This disappointment was quickly reversed by the incredible lightning show we got to experience for several hours. From amazing cloud to ground (CG) lightning strikes, to the cracks of thunder overhead, to the sheer number of strikes that we saw- it was unbelievable. The storm also had warned of hurricane force wind. The wind kicked up dirt from the fields provided our drivers with minimal visibility at times. We had to relocate several times, even chasing into Nebraska, to keep up with the storm moving at over 30 mph. As the storm continued to gain momentum and speed, we stayed in the car on an overpass while the storm passed over us. We all sat in amazement of the 360 degree view we had of all the lightning around the van- it is truly hard to describe. Once the severe portion of the storm passed us, we drove away from the storm several miles to be uninterrupted by rain or wind and pulled off by train tracks to watch the storm move into the horizon. We must have seen hundreds of lightning strikes in this storm throughout the hours we chased. So while we did not see tornado, we saw the most intense lightning storm of our lives- the chase was exhilarating. We settled in North Platte, Nebraska for our evening of sleep.
Our tornado day, so big it needed its own entry: Storm Chasing: Twister.
Waking up in St Joseph, Missouri, we were treated to a late weather briefing after an exhilarating day. We spend time going through videos and images Bill had from yesterday before we dove into our weather models and indicators for the predictions of the day. We did not expect significant severe weather since it is rare to have two days back to back as the system needs to regenerate. There was still potential for severe weather locally, just an hour or two south. The models predicted good wind speed in opposite directions (indicating good wind shear) and dew points in the 70’s (enough moisture for low cloud bases). The missing factor was the low temperatures- we needed higher temperatures for the convection to fuel severe storms. Dropping into Kansas, our target was Euerka for late afternoon/evening storm development (“6 o’clock magic”). We found our developing storms on radar and we looked to the sky for the cauliflower formation. Making several stops along the storms life, we watched the storm organize into a spaceship looking cloud- a textbook mesocyclone that funneled but did not produce a tornado. At our final move, the storm collected into a majestic cloud and then in a matter of twenty minutes lost all its energy and dissolved into blue sky and a rainbow. Although very close to seeing another tornadic event, it was amazing to see such incredible cloud formation that is sculpted by the wind.
Our home for the night was Wichita, Kansas and we were treated to more severe weather overnight. Strangely, it felt much safer being in a can with the storm than in a hotel room while the storms are going on! Since this was our last day storm chasing, our travel radius was limited since we had to be back in Denver tomorrow. Fortunately, decent weather parameters fell between south eastern Colorado, north eastern New Mexico, and the Oklahoma panhandle. Since it was a six hour drive to our target area, we did not waste too much time in Wichita. As we drove, we watched supercells develop while we were still several hours out. Driving through Oklahoma, the severe weather continued by the time we reached Clayton, New Mexico. Storm #1 gave us beautiful teal colors in the clouds and a mighty hail roar. We moved twice for better viewing but on the third move we got blasted with cold outflow causing us to move farther away to avoid to the warned two inch hail marker. As we drove into Texas to get ahead of the storm, the hail marker increased over an inch in size and the lightning began to intensify. Coming right towards us, we watched the storm grumble and then fizzle out much like yesterday’s storm. Disappointment was quickly washed away by a beautiful sunset. We spent a lot of time here photographing the sunset and taking in our last night of storm chasing before finding our final hotel in Dalhart, Texas. In the morning we made the journey to the Denver airport where we said our goodbyes and parted ways after an incredible week.
I had no expectations going into this trip and I left with all the treasures of a fantastic vacation. I never imagined we would be eating at gas stations most meals or see hundreds of cows but I also did not expect to meet such a wonderful group of people or see not one, but four tornadoes, along with intensely severe storms. You can tell Bill is the best in the business- he had an instinct that cannot be taught. We were amazed at Chris’s depth of self-taught knowledge and passion for storms. Our drivers Ron and Brian were truly appreciated for driving us over 3000 miles and keeping us safe, not to mention sharing their own storm chasing expertise. I would like to think we made friends along the way- everyone on our trip had their own stories to tell and travels to share that we were eager to absorb.
This was my experience storm chasing. Every day is completely different when storm chasing. Thinking about a trip for yourself? Read my Storm Chasing: What to Expect.