At this point I would chase a fog machine with wheels on it.

About three and a half weeks ago I started a new job, ending a very long unemployment period. This is a good thing. A really good thing, because now I can actually buy stuff again. Essential items like clothes, camera gear, gas, video equipment, computer upgrades, and socks.

The down side is that I have almost no vacation time. What little I will accrue this year will apparently be going toward the Thanksgiving/Christmas breaks, and not chasing whirling columns of violently rotating air. I’d prefer the latter, but my girlfriend and my family has these weird priorities.

This means that the 2017 chase year is going to be pretty limited. It’ll be lucky weekends and whatever happens to touch down near the airport, since I work nearby. Won’t that be an incredible irony if I end up crouched in a hallway this summer when the sirens go off.

…I wonder if I could get to my car before they caught on…*ahem*. Enough about that. Let’s talk about Friday.

I came up with the initial target of Arickaree, CO the night before based almost solely on the NAM’s Supercell Composite and Mixed layer CAPE soundings. Normally I’d have been pickier about chasing such a low riskHAHAHAHAHAHA ok I tried to get through it with a straight face. I’d chase anything and be happy for the chance right now.

There’s a catch. I have to work today and they *might* let us out early. I’m told they do that sometimes. If that happens, and *when* determines my ability to reach my target, or even to catch whatever has already started.  So my final plan ended up being “Let’s hope for noon and then go as fast as possibly east out of the city and see what I can get.

I got to work a half hour early and attempted to get Pivotal Weather’s models to load through our web proxy, with no luck. I ended up remoting in to my home computer for weather models and decided that Last Chance, CO looked a little better based on the HRRR1 and might actually be doable based on how much time I had.

Later that morning, Tara Kiehn texted me, apologizing for ignoring my texts from the previous weekend. I’d text and asked if her and Chad were free for lunch. She wanted to know if I was interested in chasing together today.

After struggling with the renewed pain of having been so cruelly ignored 2, I got over it and texted her back with, “Sure!”, then called to explain that I had no real idea when I’d get out of work. If she wanted to park out at the Park & Ride lot near my office, I could pick her up.

An email came out around 10:30AM – feel free to leave around 2PM. Later than I hoped, but not bad at all! I updated Tara.

Around 11:45 I ran to Best Buy and bought a GoPro Hero 5 Black, along with a suction cup mount. Grabbed a quick bite to eat, then went right back to work. I did remember to start charging the GoPro, along with my Samsung dashcam/phone/mobile failure device.

There was a lot to do at work, so time flew by. At 1:50PM I packed up, switched to my old shoes, and drove to the wrong car park to pick Tara up. Then I drove back past work to the right car park to pick Tara up.

The chase begins!

I’m not ready though. At all.

Storm initiation had already begun about 45 minutes ago, and things are already heating up northeast and east of our position. I couldn’t set up the windshield mount for the new GoPro at work, because my car was parked right in front of my IT directors’ office. The GoPro itself was mostly charged up, but the USB-C cable that came with it was too short to reach to my USB ports. Luckily, Heather left an old USB cable in the center console with a Micro-USB to USB-C adapter on it. One small victory.

We headed south to I-70 and then ran east to try to intercept…something. We drove for awhile, catching up and finally we stopped because we had no real plan. Options:

  • The northeast target cell just went severe warned, but because we didn’t take I-76 out of Denver there’s very little chance to intercept it.
  • The target directly to our east is not severe warned, but we can get there. It looks like it’s strengthening, both on radar and visibly. It’s also looks to be dumping hail on the interstate we will be using to get there.

We opted for the second choice, but stopped for about 10-15 minutes to let the storm move northeast off the highway. This gave us the time to set up the dashcam(s) 3

The GoPro was easy enough to configure. Tara had experience with earlier GoPro models, which helped. The mount was a goofy thing to set up and we fumbled around with it in a manner that I hope none of my fellow IT colleagues ever see before getting it in place. That footage is deleted and therefore never happened.

We took off east and the storm was very cooperative, noticeably starting to tighten up as we moved just south of the radar indicated rotation. It wasn’t tornado warned (yet), but it had finally gone severe. We stopped on a dirt road to watch it for a second, just behind another parked car. We walked up to introduce ourselves to a couple younger men, probably in their twenties. They were locals, armed with Radarscope, and were excited to meet Real Storm Chasers.

“You’re Real Storm Chasers?! That’s awesome! That would be the coolest job! How do you start doing it?” one of them said.

“Drive your car around and look at storms.” I said.

“You’re doing it now.” Tara said.

They seemed pleased. We took off back to the car, having formally bestowed the title of Real Storm Chaser© onto two new members. 4

Continuing east, we found a county road and took it north a couple of miles to close the gap. We found a decent looking spot we judged to be safe and got out for pictures.

First wall cloud of the day

I set up my iPhone to film and it just about completely drained the battery in 5 minutes. 5.

I also happened to pull over facing the wall cloud, so this will be one of the few opportunities I can demonstrate some GoPro footage.

As you can see, we have the start of a good looking wall cloud, then it falls apart. Bummer. The storm still looked promising so we backtracked to the highway, then took off east again for the next interception.

A little while later, we caught back up with the storm’s core and stopped on a nice hill for more pictures.

Second wall cloud

We also caught our first little spin-up/gustnado.

Spin-up under wall cloud

Not that exciting to look at (it’s the little dirt plume under the cloud), but a good sign that conditions will soon be right.

This stop almost finished off the iPhone battery; I wouldn’t be able to film again until much later that day. Also from this point on I don’t have much else to show from the GoPro. I usually had to park facing away from the best action, or we were careless and walked/ stood in front of the car. Rookie move.

We saw more pretty, fast moving clouds, but a tornado wasn’t going to happen yet. We started east again; the plan now to get to Last Chance and turn north for a closer intercept. That north/south road was paved, with plenty of escape options.

That WAS the plan. Instead, we got impatient and went for dirt road #2 and an offroad adventure. We ended up in the middle of nowhere for awhile; the road grid prevented us from catching the storm. We stopped for a few pictures here too, but the storm was rapidly leaving us behind.

Supercell moving away

Backtracking south, then east, we settled for staying just behind what was now a really nasty looking hail core.

Mammatus clouds

Road conditions were good, then deteriorated at an alarming rate as we crossed the storm’s track. Before it got totally impassible, we broke through to the next paved road (CO-63). We turned south to race to Anton, but something weird happened just a few miles down the road.

We were coming up on a house on the right side of the road, when I saw what looked to be smoke. “Maybe they’re burning trash…?” I thought, then said “What the hell is that?” right as Tara said “Holy crap what the hell is that?”. It was swirling, and it was almost right on top of the house, and we were less than 100 feet from it.

I hit the brakes before running into it and it almost immediately vanished. I rolled down the window and looked straight up (what I believe Skip Talbot would call a “stupid check”), but saw no indication of rotation at all. We weren’t anywhere near the main storm circulation; in fact the storm was still pulling away from us. Nothing indicated on radar.

Gustnado…we agreed, or just a temporary spin-up. We saw probably 6-8 of them throughout the day, but nothing that close again. It was a little unnerving.

We got to Anton, then turned east to get around what was clearly now a hook echo starting to wrap into the storm’s core. The storm was tornado warned for at least thirty minutes by this time, but you couldn’t see into the hail core from our position. I was contemplating a hook slice, but the storm had drifted too far to the north and I didn’t like the limited escape options, should we succeed in getting into the inflow notch. We’d be hemmed in by large hail in all directions but forward, and going forward meant going into the tornado path if there was one. Additionally, the storm kept speeding up and slowing down in-between radar updates. Mostly it would read at around 22-25 knots (around 25-28mph), but occasionally it read at 42 knots (around 48 mph). Not much time for decision making, and the road grid wasn’t going to be forgiving with mistakes.

New plan.

  • The storm, STILL tornado warned, is now moving almost due east, but turning slowly southeast.
  • We’re on CO-36, heading east , then northeast to Idalia.
  • We’ll skirt the hook to the south(easily avoiding the rain/hail wrapped…whatever…that’s in there), then the storm’s current motion will pop us right into the inflow notch. We’d get our initial look, then play leapfrog east, until we hit highway 385. Then we turn south and run as fast as we can across the path until we clear the primary circulation, then stop for more photos.
  • If there’s a tornado present and visible at any point, we’d be able to take pictures and video.
  • We’ll eventually end up in Burlington, and re-evaluate what we want to do once we’re there.

So we did that. Here’s how it went:

  • Our initial look into the core from the east yielded nothing but the same greenish haze, except now it’s moving at us. We tried a couple more quick stops, one of them bringing us so close to the core that you could hear the hiss of the hail coming at us. No visible tornado. No luck.
  • At some point, Tara came up with some Cheddar Cheese & Pretzel Combos™. They tasted wonderful, and reminded us that we hadn’t eaten in hours. 6
  • Our final stop before turning south to escape lead to some great structure shots (many of which I framed poorly), but still no tornado. Just that ominous hail core and tight circulation on radar. Something has *got* to be in there. The storm was tornado warned for hours!
  • We hit highway 385, and ran south with every chaser in the state in front and behind us. This was the only game in town today, and the chaser masses were out there.
  • We finally cleared the storm track, with more time to spare than we thought. The good news was now the storm appeared to be cycling again, with new circulation ahead of the hail. Finally, some good visibility!

But first, some structure.

Rain Free Base with Oncoming Hail Core

2017-5-26 Supercell

And the hail core of doom. (in crappy high ISO because I wasn’t thinking about anything except THAT SURE IS CLOSE NOW)

Hail core

We parked on a little dirt road on a hill, looking into the storm core, and waited. Eventually we got back in the car, then I happened to glance past Tara and saw what looked like a dancing white funnel. Could it be???

I blurted out something like “FUNNEL!” to Tara, then jumped back out of the car with my camera. It was gone, but you could see a bunch of little spin-ups everywhere in front of us. Another chaser was behind us and he didn’t seem to notice what was going on. I shouted at him and he jogged over.

Then the following happened:

Multiple spin-ups

This was the cap to the day, about thirty seconds of a Maybe-nado. I thought we’d finally hit jackpot in the field (and you can hear it in my voice), but after re-watching this clip a few times, I’m not so sure. I have no video of the initial white funnel, nor am I sure it actually touched the ground.

The chaser I shouted at? His name was John Zerwick and he seemed happy to meet us. He was very enthusiastic about chasing. Very nice guy, and we made very distracted small talk while scanning the clouds. A family in an SUV pulled up a few minutes later and asked if we knew anything about the weather. I showed them Radarscope and suggested they wait about 15-20 minutes before proceeding north so they wouldn’t be hailed on. We also emphatically suggested that they avoid going east at the moment (the primary circulation/possible hidden tornado had moved southeast past us and was almost due east of our position). They parked about a half mile away and drove by again a little while later, stopped again to verify that things looked safer, then left.

John chatted with us for awhile longer, then took off to try his luck out near Kanorado (the new place to be for the storm). We thought about continuing, but decided that we’d lose too much light for good photography. We hung out for about twenty minutes, in which I decided to set up my tripod and camera for timelapse lightning photography, went behind the car to pee, and it fell over…no damage thankfully.

Then we packed up and headed to Burlington to fill up. We got gas at the slowest gas pump in Colorado (15 minutes pumping and it still didn’t fill completely), then grabbed a quick bite at Burger King and compared notes with some other chasers who were just leaving.

Then we headed for home, skirting three storms on the way.

Burlington got pounded with large hail 15 minutes after we left.

Never hurts to keep an eye on the weather, folks.

Total Chase distance: 413 miles

This map shows you the power of supercell thunderstorms; we followed ONE storm across the entire high plains of Colorado today.

Lessons Learned

  • It’s probably a good idea to buy the new toys BEFORE the chase day. Also, it’s really nice to finally be able to get a new toy.
  • I am SO GLAD to be getting away from that dumb Samsung dashcam/phone. It’s not made to do this, and it always finds a way to remind me of this fact. Almost 98% of today’s chase footage was blurry because we couldn’t monitor what was being recorded.
  • Chase partners are fantastic. I could not have chased the way we did today without someone else’s help. Tara, you are awesome. And funny. “Spermy looking cloud?”
  • I think I need to set a recurring 15 minute timer or something to chime to remember to take radar pics. I’m bummed we didn’t get more of them for today. My fault!
  • Meeting John was great, but when the main event is going down I should really focus on the action first and communication second. I wasn’t thinking like a photographer when I needed to be, and I’m a little disappointed in myself for how little I got when we finally got in position. I’m just too chatty sometimes. :V
  • The car is a camera. Do not stand in front of the camera.
  • Don’t leave your tripod unattended! YOU KNOW BETTER. REMEMBER WRAY.
  • Tara keeps bringing snacks and I keep forgetting. And I totally forgot to share the grape Gatorade shoved in my trunk. My mom taught me to always bring something when you get invited to a party. I am a terrible son.
  • The GoPro did little on this trip, but I’m not too upset about it. I simply couldn’t put myself in many positions to film with it for most of this chase. I have a plan for this.
  • Shoot from the tripod more! It got really dark under the meso and I compensated with higher ISO and I hate it. Maybe throw a big pillow in the back in the car so I can leave my camera attached to the tripod. Maybe…
  • …I need a sturdier tripod. And a quick release head. And a zoom lens. And…and…and…

4 comments

  1. Bill, you drove 413 miles. and took movies and still pics while following various almostnadoes, after getting off work at 2 pm!?!?!? I’m speechless…

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