More backyard chasing today. Yay!
The NAM looked pretty good for tornadic potential the night before this chase, but when morning hit and I looked over the new data, things didn’t seem so hot. I’d been tentatively planning on Holyoke as my target, but now I was questioning chasing at all today.
So I did something I haven’t done before. I checked a couple other models.
Now don’t look at me that way NAM. I know I cheated on you but I still love you baby. We just need a break. It’s not you, it’s me.
What’s worse, I mostly used the HRRR. *gasp*
The HRRR, or High-Resolution Rapid Refresh is fairly new, having debuted in 2014. It updates hourly but fine tunes itself every fifteen minutes by taking into account radar reports as well as the usual weather stations, satellites, and balloons. 1
Chasers have mixed feelings about the HRRR. It’s can be (and often is) hilariously wrong, but sometimes it’s almost spooky how accurate it is. Like “Draw an arrow on the map of where a tornado will hit.” accurate. This makes it worth at least considering sometimes and not just ignored.
In the past I avoided it on hearsay alone. I’m also still trying to wrap my head around the nuances of forecasting, and adding more models into the mix (and from such a known wildcard) seemed like a bad idea.
The HRRR showed a much more lively forecast, with some potential targets closer to home. As I mentioned before I was planning on Holyoak in the far northeast corner of the state, but the area around Brush was looking like a better bet.
Long story short, I went there instead.
I did it right this time and ate lunch before heading out. I skipped my usual soda and with my meal, and man that’s hard to remember to do. I’ve been trying to ease off the amount of soda I drink, but eating out (especially with fast food) makes it difficult. It’s basically habit to get a combo meal with the drink, and once you have the cup it seems like a waste of money to fill it with water. Sometimes they have lemonade of debatable quality, and the iced tea is can be more like a dare since you don’t know when the last time they cleaned out the machine.
Except Chipotle. Their tea is awesome.
I digress. I’m going to digress a little more, so you’re just going to have to deal with it. Or not. Feel free to skip the next block. It’s about the joys of using an old smartphone as a dashcam.
I have a love/hate relationship with my “dashcam”. As I’ve mentioned many times before, it’s an old Samsung Galaxy S5 smartphone and the camera on it is a little too “smart” for it’s own good. 2 I’m using an app called Open Camera for filming during my chases, and in the past once the current movie file hits the operating system’s maximum allowed size, the recording stops and resumes with a new file. This is fine. I like this. The problem is that right before starting the new video, it ALWAYS auto-focuses. This is my problem.
Let’s say a insect splatters itself right in front of the camera. Well, now you get to enjoy approximately 33 minutes of A Dead Bug Goes Storm Chasing: The Director’s Cut. Was it raining right just before the restart? Now you have half an hour of moody arthouse film, with crystal clear water droplets running down the windshield while *something* happens outside. Was there a semi right in front of you just as the counter ticked over? Now you’re making the next Fast and the Furious movie. The Blurry Storm Chase Edition without Vin Diesel.
To sum up: you now have one or more 4.1GB file(s) of garbage. If you were in hot pursuit of a tornado at the time you’re going to watch these videos later and get upset. I can attest to this since that’s exactly what happened on May 24th at Dodge City, Kansas. 3. I decided to use some of the blurry footage anyway for my Youtube video, hoping that by speeding it up 12x the blur wouldn’t be so noticeable.
So today I’m trying something new; a suggestion from my girlfriend that I originally ignored because it sounded like too much work. I downloaded an app on my cell phone (NOT the dashcam phone; I didn’t want to risk the new app interrupting a recording) that would allow me to set a repeating timer and a 1 minute interval timer. I set it for 29 minutes, then configured the dashcam to record for exactly thirty minutes before swapping to a new file. The 29 minute timer alerts me that the dashcam will need a quick bug/fog/rain check so I can manually stop filming, verify that current conditions are as good as they can be, then start the new recording. The 1 minute interval timer makes a constant ticking noise, helping me remember to check the dashcam in case I was out of the car when the first timer went off.
I was right. It’s a nuisance. But it made me pay attention to the dashcam at the correct time, and I was able to keep almost 95% of my footage today. In the past I’ve been throwing away as much as 50-75% of what the dashcam filmed because of stupid autofocus issues. I only had to toss one file out today because it was raining heavily on me and the phone simply couldn’t focus on anything off in the distance. I got out of the rain 5 minutes later and fixed the focus and it was fine all day.
Good idea Heather. Thanks!
Blah blah blah I have no money so I use a cellphone as a video camera. Waah. Onto the good part.
I left Denver around well after noon and headed out to Brush via I-76, which let me make good time. As I was getting close radar showed a good looking supercell just north of Sterling. It was the only action going on within my range so I decided to go check it out. I decided that I didn’t want to just go straight to Sterling; the storm might beat me there and I’d have no road options except to drive through it. I got off at the Atwood exit instead, drove south a little ways, and found a serviceable looking county road to go east on.
The storm was moving more slowly than I thought, so exiting the highway where I had had put me too far away for any decent photography. But I had a small surprise when I noticed a small funnel poking out from behind a small storm just to the north!
It’s not a tornado. It’s barely even a proper funnel. It looked more like a half-assed landspout and it only lasted half a minute (from what I saw of it anyway). It was definitely rotating and moving around and it gave me hope for the rest of the day. There was some interesting vorticity going on in the atmosphere.
I stopped on the county road to take pictures anyway, then decided that this was dumb and proceeded to wind my way north and east to a spot closer to Sterling. While on the way, the storm shifted motion to the southeast and increased speed, meaning that I’d now have to drop back a little further south to catch it.
Finding a spot on yet another county road (County Road 59, just off County Road 61 if you really care), I parked on a hill to see how things were shaping up.
Things were shaping up well.
It’s weird but while I was out there, for the first time in a long time I experienced an really unfamiliar feeling just standing there on that dirt road.
It was a beautiful day and there were supercell thunderstorms firing up in front of me, behind me, and to my north. I was in no danger from any of them. Everything was very photogenic. You could SEE the convection with the naked eye in the storm strengthening to the east. I had my dashcam pointed right at that storm, my iPhone shooting footage of the other storm behind me. I was taking some great still photos with my camera. Everything was running perfectly. I was in a great position. No one was around.
It was amazing.
When I close my eyes I can see it again. It sounds corny but I think I’ll remember this moment for the rest of my life and I don’t even know why.
Then a bunch of biting flies, who as it turns out don’t give a crap about my happiness or DEET insect repellent, decided to introduce themselves to my ankles. Back to reality. I felt strangely reassured. Where had my mind gone?
I realized that I needed to commit to a storm soon, but which to choose? The storm to the east looked really good, but the two storms now off to the west and northwest were showing signs of merging and building rapidly. To intercept them I’d have to get on the other side of them. This seemed to simplify the matter. I’d drop south to find a better road, then go east and come right in under the base under the east cell.
I turned around and headed back to the north/south county road I’d come in on. There was a car parked on the corner with two chasers in it. We talked briefly and I said I liked the eastern storm. They thought the cells to the west looked good too. Could go either way. We nodded and both went on our way.
I turned south, took the very next road east, and got about half a mile down it when RadarScope updated to show me that the storms to the west had gone tornado warned.
Shit, wrong choice! I spun around and went south, scanning for a good county road to go west. County Road 55 came up a minute later so I turned and drove about a mile and a half down it before I reassessed my plan.
There was no way I was going to beat the storms from my current location, and if there was a tornado in there it was completely hidden by the precipitation. Charging in from this angle was dumb. I turned back east and drove past my original north/south dirt road, I found a paved county road heading south. Jackpot! Now I could put on some speed.
I pulled over twice to really look at the oncoming storms, but each time I decided not to cross in front of them. My latest radar update was ten minutes old, and I had no clear idea on where a tornado might be hiding in the rain. Also the last velocity scan I’d seen had made me doubt whether or not there was even a tornado at all.
My eyes kept going back to those two storms to the northeast. The velocity signatures had looked really promising. But I didn’t abandon my original target. I decided I needed to get to Otis, then run west to Akron and position near there.
Three miles from Otis I talked myself out of it. I’d gotten a fresh radar scan finally and the storm I was chasing looked like it was having problems. I turned around and set my sights on the northeast storms, now located near Julesburg and Sedgwick. The former was now tornado warned and I thought the latter would go the same way soon.
Five minutes later, it did, Nice! My problem was that I was 45+ miles out of position. I had to get there soon. Thanks to the magic of the Unreliable Narrator, I did so in a manner that obeyed all posted speed limits!
Of course the storms had been moving forward while I was, and were now just passing somewhere over Haxtun and Holyoke. 4 I say “somewhere” because I was having radar update problems again. I stopped 5 miles south of Haxtun and turned east, stopping right off the road to watch the storm. There was a chaser parked there already, and he kept glancing at me parked behind him. I decided to go talk to him and not just be the creepy guy behind him.
The wind was blowing so hard I almost couldn’t open the door. I managed to get out and introduce myself to the chaser, who was Winston Wells. He was pleasant and we talked briefly while watching the storm. Because of our location, all we could see of it was a deep, dark blue core with a few stray scud clouds drifting around.
He was heading south. So was I. We both turned back and I opted to exercise my newfound comfort with county roads. This started with me charging east and stopping a few times as storm structure resolved itself in front of me.
Then I guess I decided to go on a wacky off-road adventure with my Hyundai Sonata.
To be clear, I was in no danger from any storms when I did this. They had both shifted direction to head more southeast at this point, and that storm further east had never occurred to me to chase. I didn’t want to get sandwiched between tornadic storms again, like back in May while I was in Texas.
In retrospect though, taking my car down that particular set of roads was probably a little dumb. For the most part, the road quality was ok. There was potholes but they were manageable. The roads were also mostly dry, but I ended up way, WAY in the middle of nowhere. Having car problems would have meant a long walk. I was committed to getting to highway 385 at this point though so I pressed on.
Then I saw the turtle in the road.
I dodged around him, slammed on my brakes, got out of the car, and ran back to him, chanting TURTLETURTLETURTLETURTLE the whole way.
Yeah…I um…I don’t know.
He took one look at me and instantly popped into his shell. I picked him up carefully and set him down just off the road. Yes, I took him the same direction he was heading because I’m not a big jerk. I looked down at him. He opened up the front of his shell ever so slightly to peek out. I grabbed my iPhone and opened the camera app, then set it down in front of him. He closed up instantly. Not a fan of pictures.
I needed to get out of here now. The edge of the storm was passing overhead and it was starting to rain. He was done with me and I had no time to play Patience with a turtle, so I ran back to my car and took off again. Good luck little guy.
Having now really tested the 4×4 capabilities of my Hyundai Sonata, I reached the highway. The last mile was a little nerve wracking. Rain and some hail had already done a number to road conditions and there was standing water. I’m glad I got there when I did or I might have had to turn around. I also finally got a radar update; the first in 20 minutes. The storm was still there, but had noticeably weakened and and was veering way more southeast. I took a look on the map on what towns were around me and laughed. I was going back to Wray.
Right before Wray I decided to see if I could brave the county road grid one more time and find a nice place to set up and film the storm. Road conditions were bad though and the storm had turned and wrapped up in rain. No good visibility. I aborted and headed south again. Driving through Wray, I turned left on highway 34 and headed out of town. The radar gave me one last update before I lost signal again, and I drove just a few miles out of town before I decided that this was the end. I pulled off the side of the road to decide what to do and saw that I’d pulled up behind one the Denver TV affiliate trucks. A KMGH ABC News 7 weather truck was in front of me. Hmm. Might as well go say hello.
I got out and walked down the road a little bit, not seeing anyone. Then I saw a couple guys up on the hill to my right. I could also see a large TV camera pointed at the storm. I called up to them. “If I walk up there, am I going to ruin your shot!”
The reply came back “Nope! Come on up.”
I walked up the hill and introduced myself to Cory Reppenhagen and a local from Wray, who name escapes me because he was soft spoken and I don’t think I heard it right. Tim? Tom? Agamemnon?
I asked if either storm had produced a confirmed tornado, and Cory said that there’d been a few landspouts today from them. Bummer, I’d missed all of it. I told them that I’d been off testing my 4×4 capabilities of my car. Cory looked at my car dubiously and said “How’d it go?”
“Not that great.”
While we were talking, two more chasers walked up the hill. One seemed to know me, but I couldn’t recall ever meeting him. I realized that I might have met him at one of the ARIES/Skywarn meetings I’d gone to in March and April. His name was Gary Adler. I missed the other chaser’s name, so I’m 2 for 3 for today’s total. (the local doesn’t count, ok?) We sat around for awhile, then I realized how hungry I was and excused myself. Cory packed up too and we all walked down the hill. When I pulled away the other chasers were being given a tour of Cory’s truck.
I drove back to Wray, got gas, picked up Subway, and chilled out in the parking lot to eat. I called Heather back finally (she’d called a couple of times while I was out four wheeling and rescuing wildlife that didn’t need saving), then I headed for home. On the way I was treated to the sillhouette of a beautiful large supercell 100 miles away, near Greeley.
On my way back, I locked my exposure on my dashcam to see if I could get a cool sunset timelapse. It sounded better then it turned out. The results had to be sped up to 48x so as not to be too long and boring.
Closer to home, I passed what I thought was a small deer on the side of the road. I slowed down in case it bolted, but then it turned around to look at me and I realized it was big cat! A large bobcat, or maybe even a mountain lion. It looked like it had something in it’s mouth, like a roadkill carcass. I passed it and considered going back but decided that I had no interest in fooling around with that sort of wildlife. Wish I’d left the dashcam running.
As I drove back, the lightning show started. As I got closer it got better and better. I finally couldn’t stand it anymore so I stopped and set up just off Highway 36 between Last Chance and Byers. I pointed my camera at the sky, got my focus dialed in as well as I could, and made with the lightning photography.
…or at least I tried to. The great looking show I’d been enjoying while driving seemed to be petering out. I checked Radarscope to see what was happening and habitually I looked at what spotters were in the area. To my surprise, Tara Kiehn was showing up somewhere northwest of Bennett. She hadn’t finished her Spotter Network test the last time I talked to her. So I texted her with “You have a dot now!”
We texted back and forth a little, and I halfheartedly took long exposure photos of nothing coming out of uncooperative thunderstorms. A large bug audibly flew past my ear, then was suddenly silent. Oh god. It’s on me somewhere. I started doing that calm, cool, GET IT THE HELL OFF ME patdown you do when these things happen. Nothing. I have no idea what it was, where it went, what it looked like. It probably lives in my car now for all I know.
I was also thinking about that large cat I saw only 20 minutes before and decided to pack up and leave.
I jump in the car and started west again. I swear five minutes later the sky explodes in beautiful CG 5 lightning. Excited, I stopped again and set up. Nothing. Crickets. A few small bolts, but nothing like I’d been watching before I stopped.
I packed up again and started west.
HEY! LOOK! LOOK BILL! I’M BACK AGAIN! HERE’S HAVE SOME LIGHTNING! IT’S THE WONDER OF NATURE! STOP AND TAKE PICTURES! ISN’T THIS AMAZING!
Aaaaargh. This was just cruel now. I stopped a third time just outside of Byers and set up on a farm road. I got two pictures before some local saw me and decided to investigate, ruining my exposure with his brake lights as he drove by slowly, then turning around and ruining my next shot with his headlights. The lightning was was also suddenly absent. Frustrated, I packed up and bailed.
But I got an amazing lightning show all the way home. I didn’t stop. You’re welcome, other photographers. 😛
- I’m starting to understand radar nuances a little better and develop instincts which help me with when to stay and when to go. Trust them! I should have bailed on the first tornado warned storm ten minutes before I did and I knew it. That might have cost me an actual tornado, had my second target produced something more substantial then a short lived landspout.
- My newfound love of the county road grid is fun and might help avoid chaser convergences, but I need to consider my exit plan a little better before diving in. I didn’t get stuck today, but I could have in a couple of places, and I was miles in the backscountry without any radar or even cell service for awhile. I could see well enough to verify that I wasn’t in any danger from the weather, but if the storm had turned back towards me things might have been unpleasant. It also might have been hard to detect visually that the storm turned on me until the roads were getting soaked, possibly stranding me. Aren’t I just a ray of sunshine today. Go buy a truck or something.
- I like that my list of mistakes is shrinking, instead of the 10+ bullet points it used to be. I’m doing more right than wrong now, but I need to keep up vigilance. It’s easy to get comfortable and then complacent!