My first real storm chase began with a drive and a good guess from metro Denver. Late June usually sees the end of the tornado / severe weather systems that wreak havoc on the eastern plains and into the wider ‘tornado alley’ of the connected U.S.
Having made just about every mistake I could have the first night I attempted to go get some lightning shots, I had a strategy this time and planned to stick to it come hell or highwater. I headed east on highway 70 and figured that Limon was a good starting place since it had roads that split in all directions like spokes on a wheel.
Considering the majority of the tornado-warned storms had passed through the area for the year already I wasn’t too worried about getting caught in some crazy tornado, but the chances were good for tracking down a supercell – as long as I could avoid the hail. As I drove out of the city I refreshed the lessons I have been studying about storm tracking, but overall I had no real idea if my general destination would yield tangible results. It’s still guesswork at best. Or was, since I “guessed” right (based on my rudimentary knowledge.)
As I pulled into Limon to wait for what’s called “initiation” (a storm going from messy cell to a ‘supercell shape’ as it traverses across open, flat land) I stopped for a Red Bull, thinking that if all went as planned I wouldn’t be home until well after 10pm. I checked Twitter casually and saw one of the handles I follow, Pawnee Storm Chasers, was also in Limon and looking to talk shop. Never one to miss an opp to ask a million questions to people smarter than myself, I replied that I’d head over to the parking lot where they were.
After chatting for a bit they agreed to let me follow them – a wall cloud and severe thunderstorm-warned storm had developed on the cell we were tracking to the west and it was time to go. They had the jump on the other chasers by at least 10 entire minutes – it seemed the cell everyone else was tracking on the Spotter app was a dud, and you could see the little red dots change direction to the south after they realized their error.)
I’m glad no one else was there when I got out of my Jeep. I had never seen a supercell and I lost my damn mind. It was incredible. The storm is contained to a single mass of moisture on the Doppler, but the in-real-life scale of it is insane. Day turns to night and the speed of its rotation and velocity was so much faster than I could have imagined. Forget setting a timelapse to one shot every 10 seconds – this was one every two seconds, and even one frame per second would have probably been the better way to go.
Other important tips? Look both ways before crossing the road. For reals. In the few minutes of me jumping around screaming at this dark grey-blue mothership of a weather phenomenon, dozens of chasers showed up. All of a sudden ‘the middle of nowhere’ was very busy. I had no time for a second set up, which was fine since I discovered the ballhead on my tripod had busted and I had wasted precious minutes having my mental freakout at the sky. Turns out you get about 5-10 minutes (max) until you need to clear out of the way because it turns out these harbingers of icey tornadic doom go haul about 40-50 miles per hour.
Here’s me, burning rubber south like an idiot ten minutes later trying to swing under the RFD (the Rear Flanking Downdraft) for the shot. The red square is the tornado warning area, the yellow is the severe thunderstorm warning area. Also: never ever ever do this.
In Colorado, the tornados are F0/1 most of the time with the occasional F2 to the south or north eastern corners where the state meets Kansas / Nebraska. Supercells march east and cycle up or down in their size and strength and that’s where you get the F3, 4’s and 5’s that do major damage and kill people. Several chasers have died this way when a tornado has shifted tracks or they get caught in a microburst. This storm being an exponential fraction of a larger, more intense storm you’d see to the east is my rationale but it was a dumb mistake that won’t happen again.
I caught back up with the Pawnee guys back in Limon, with the cell just a few minutes behind us. While they quickly filled up with gas, I snapped the above pic of the first Mammatus clouds I’ve ever seen. Mammatus clouds form on the underside of the anvil, which usually blows out ahead of the actual cell core due to stronger wind shear at higher elevations (30-40-50,000 feet.)
Weather.gov has a great side shot of a supercell that shows what an anvil looks like. You’ve seen them, but you probably didn’t know what they were called:
One thing that surprised the absolute hell out of me in a day of surprises was the strength of the inflow to the storm. I asked one of the guys what they thought they windspeed was and they said a good 40mph. It was so much stronger than I expected – I am definitely going to need heavier tripods.
We pulled out of Limon and were booking it to a town called Hugo to the southeast of the that same cell when I had to pull off to get the below picture. There was this horse in a field with a cow, and no other animals around. I approached the fence and you could tell they weren’t used to people approaching them and they both showed signs of nervousness. I talked to them and was as calm as I could be as what appeared to be a possible tornado was forming near the RFD:
I was out there about 6-7 minutes and the amount of times the storm changed in those few minutes was mindboggling. I saw two possible tornados forming, rotation in the wall cloud in different spots that started to form a funnel but then didn’t, and the whole time the thing was getting closer and closer. These things are truly spectacular – several variations of those few minutes are included in the gallery at the bottom of this post.
Afterward, I caught up with the guys again who had some video of the rotation in the back of the storm. After much scrutiny and disagreement on Twitter, they put in a call to NOAA the next day to confirm that a small tornado had briefly formed. Not a bad first day for me, everyone agreed on that.
The cell had cycled down by that point (two hours!) and we joined another couple of chasers – one of whom, I am told, was very very famous – and figured out what everyone’s next move would be. I didn’t hang out long after that – The temperature was cooling down so the cells were blowing themselves out. Pretty though. Also, I knew I had quite a drive home and it seemed the chase was way further east now, near the border of Kansas. Too far for me as much as I’d have loved to have kept chasing and just gotten a motel room somewhere. I thanked my new friends and started northwest back home.
I read the next morning on Twitter that some chasers had followed the cells into Kansas and been surprised by a microburst as they were pulling off a cell and everyone got their windows busted in from large hail. That sucks.
On the way back I managed to grab one more amazing supercell – a small, dark mothership looming in my direction. I pulled off the highway and nabbed this:
The beginning of the cell passing over me, caught with my iPhone. For scale, the white things on the horizon were water towers that weren’t too far away and also not more than 15-20 feet tall.
I stood directly under this mothership supercell as it passed over me (the core was far to my south) and slack-jaw marveled at how low and dark the clouds were. It felt like I could just reach up and my hand would disappear into the dark black and blue fog. Warm inflow turned to icey cold outflow and a minute later I was being pelted by random nickel-sized hail, probably flung up in the cell above the core and out of the back of the system in the RFD – it was blue sky over my head when it started coming down, if that’s any indication of the wind associated with these storms. It wasn’t a lot, but it certainly startled me. Another lesson learned in a day of lessons.
There are storms all summer out here, but the bulk of the tornado-warned systems occur in May / June, so I have to probably wait a bit until I get more footage. The real chasers who do this professionally have all gone north to Canada this week, where Reed Timmer is posting some serious action from Saskatchewan if you want to see much better footage and photos of these kinds of storms.
Also, I would be remiss in posting this blog if I didn’t shout out a thanks to Pawnee Storm Chasers for letting me crash their day. They checked on me when we got split up to make sure I was ok, and were super knowledgeable about these systems. Check them out at https://twitter.com/PawneeStorm for some good photos and videos.
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