Storm Chasing 2019

Feel free to scroll down to the photos if you’re not here for the articles!

In case you’re interested in learning a bit about severe storms and chasing, I’ll include some info here and a narrative for each chase day for which I post photos. (Storm chasers dig reading this stuff.) Otherwise, you can scroll directly down to the photos.

I am a volunteer Skywarn severe weather spotter for the National Weather Service in the Denver metro area who also does a little storm chasing on the eastern plains of Colorado, which is part of Tornado Alley. Fortunately, rural eastern Colorado is sparsely populated, so there’s lots of room for tornadoes to roam around without hitting anything.

Contrary to how storm chasing is depicted in the movie Twister, getting to the right place at the right time to see a tornado is quite difficult. Tornadoes are rare events, and most tornadoes only last for a few minutes. So, you have to get to the right place before a tornado forms. You have to know when and where conditions will be favorable and go there before the storms develop. Then you have to know which storms are capable of producing a tornado. Then you have to know where to position yourself in relation to a storm to see a tornado should one occur. Sparse rural road networks tend to have you zig-zagging in and out of good viewing positions for much of the chase. Once you’re in a good spot, you often only get to spend a few minutes there to watch, take a few photos, look at radar, and check your maps app for road options before you have to relocate to keep ahead of the storm and avoid its car-eating hail core.

When you know about the multitude of meteorological parameters that have to line up just right to create conditions favorable for tornadoes, it seems implausible that they ever occur at all! Fortunately, I don’t have to see a tornado to feel that I’ve had a successful chase. A thunderstorm on the plains can be a beautiful sight!

Long Track Tornadic Supercell

Colorado and Nebraska, Memorial Day, May 27, 2019

This was a particularly convenient storm to chase. To my surprise, I saw this earlier-than-expected storm going up about five miles from my home in the Denver suburbs as I was walking to my car to head out for the day of storm chasing. Due to good instability and a highly favorable wind shear profile (large changes in atmospheric wind direction and speed at different heights above ground level), this storm rapidly intensified into a severe, rotating thunderstorm known as a supercell, from which most tornadoes form.

Aware of the favorable atmospheric conditions, I gambled that this would be a long-track storm (meaning long-lived and traveling a long distance) and decided to take the time to head up through Denver to get to I-76 so I could travel straight northeast in an attempt to get ahead of the northeast-moving storm in the hope of being able to track along with it for a while. The alternative would have been to drive directly to the storm initially and then try to keep up with it by zig-zagging on rural roads. This was a case of choosing delayed gratification for a hopefully better chase in the long run.

Due to the storm’s fast forward motion, it was not until I reached Sterling, Colorado (125 miles away) that I was far enough ahead of the storm to finally stop and watch while letting it come to me. As rotating supercells sometimes do, this storm made a long, gradual turn to the right that kept it conveniently tracking along I-76 and then along I-80. Just past Sterling, I jumped off I-76 onto a parallel state highway in order to have more freedom to look for better viewing locations, and to have escape routes in multiple directions if I should happen to find myself directly in a tornado’s path and to be able to keep out of the storm’s hail core.

I stayed with this storm all the way to Ogallala, Nebraska. Altogether, the storm put down four confirmed tornadoes, all in Colorado, none of which hit anything. (However, the last two photos, taken near Ogallala, suggest that the storm nearly put down a large tornado in or near the city, but fortunately the circulation just didn’t quite wrap up tight enough or make it to the ground.) Although I caught a couple of glimpses of tornadoes as I was driving, the storm happened to not produce any while I was stopped at various locations to take photos. Still, I was mesmerized by the storm’s intensity and its ominous, rotating wall cloud (lowering due to intense updraft), which is the part of a storm from which tornadoes form. Given that this long-track supercell practically formed over my home near Denver, I was able to track along with it for 100 miles until it was over 200 miles from its point of initiation, and I got a few photos out of it, I consider this a good chase.