Before We Begin…
Uh yeah. Sorry about that.
This year I couldn’t seem to pull myself together to update this blog in a timely fashion. Luckily I (usually) created a blog draft for each chase day and used it to dump out my thoughts and observations, thinking I’d work on it in a couple days, weeks…
However I got to chase a lot more than I thought I would this season and the chase logs piled up. This is definitely the type of problem I like to have, but hopefully I can still write these out in a complete fashion.
So here we go.
It’s May, and like the beginning of the 2018 chase season I can’t seem to get my act together.
After a uneventful April many chasers were going insane, just waiting for a decent chase day to get back into the field.1 I was one of them, but April’s severe weather drought had lulled me into a “eh, it’ll happen” mindset, so I wasn’t really paying attention to the forecasts until a couple of days before this event.
What really caused me pay attention was a text message I received the day before from a local chaser, Bree Nosal. We’d met at Chasercon a couple of years ago along with some other local Denver chasers, then had hung out with her again at the 2018 Chasercon.
Bree wanted to know if I was heading out to chase tomorrow. I told her I was and she suggested that we team up. I thought it sounded like a good idea although we would need to work out the details; if we were staying in the area to chase the day after, if I needed to drive…
…oh yeah. Crap.
A few weeks ago, I’d made an appointment at my original Hyundai dealership across town2 to fix a really annoying issue with my cars steering. The steering wheel would rattle while driving and click when you turned it even slightly and overall the handling felt progressively loose. I had done some Google searching and was pretty sure that it was a little plastic piece in the steering column that was the culprit. It was known to destroy itself over time and was the subject of a recall. This is a storm chasing blog. I swear.
Since I hadn’t been thinking about chasing when I’d make the appointment, I took the first slot they offered me. June 1st. I even agreed to a 9AM timeslot because I thought sleeping in might be nice. Foresight!
After too many text messages trying to make plans I suggested Bree just call me and I laid all of this out, telling her that I had to keep this appointment. The dealership couldn’t get me in any sooner and I didn’t want to drive a few hundred miles with the car acting like this. Better to fix it now. I told her that I was planning on coming in right as the dealership opened tomorrow and throwing myself on the mercy of the service advisor to get the car going ASAP.
Bree said she would be ok with leaving late, but mentioned that she had someone else that she might end up coming along. I told her that if that person panned out and they had a working car, she might as well take the other offer. She ended up going that route, and I don’t blame her.
Friday morning I got up early and drove across Denver to Arapahoe Hyundai, showing up just as they opened. I explained the steering issue and told them I’d also like an oil change too. As the service advisor was getting the odometer reading, I mentioned that I was sorry that I didn’t come in at nine, but I really needed to get the car back as quickly as possible.
“Do you have somewhere you need to be?” He asked.
“Oh yes. Definitely.” I replied.
“I can have a shuttle take you somewhere if you need.” He said.
Amusing myself thinking about how surprised the Hyundai shuttle guy was going to be once we ended up in central Kansas dodging hail and looking for tornadoes, I said a little distractedly “Um, well it’s not so much that I have to BE somewhere in particular, I just need the car done as soon as possible because I have a long trip to make and I’m leaving as soon as you guys are done.”
He stopped and gave me a long look that somehow conveyed:
- maybe you should have scheduled this service for another time then
- maybe your car is going to go last now
“Oh. I’ll see what I can do.” he stated, in a tone that suggested that if Absolutely No Effort On His Part was what I was after, I’d just been granted my wish.
Realizing that pushing harder wasn’t going to win me any friends, I said. “Alright.”
I sat in the customer lobby. For three and a half hours.3
At 10:30AM I got my car back, and drove the 45 minutes in Denver freeway traffic back to Commerce City. I raced around packing up the car and almost forgot my camera of all things. Then it was a quick stop at Jimmy Johns for lunch because I keep forgetting to feed myself on chases, and away we go!
Hahahaha yeeeeesssss back on the road again and I’m headed for….for.
At this point you may have noticed that I have not specified a target. This is because I didn’t really have one. I’d been sort of toying with Great Bend as a possibility the night before, but it’s been hours now and for some reason I didn’t work on it while sitting at Hyundai. However I’m currently blasting through eastern Colorado trying to make as much time up as possible and I don’t want to stop. I already knew I was going to be late to the show, but maybe I’d get lucky.
I need a target. What follows next, as a storm chaser, I’m slightly ashamed of.
I called Heather at work.
“Hi, it’s me. Are you by a computer?” I asked.
“Yeah I’m at my desk.”
“Good! Can you pull up the SPC Forecast page and go to today’s Convective Outlook. Then switch it to Tornado.”
“Ok, I’m there.”
“Alright. Now I need you to pull up Google Maps.”
“Well. Uhhh, heh. I need you to look at the bottom left corner of the area marked ten percent, with the lines through it. Then I need you to look at the Google map and spitball a town near that area and that’s going to be my target.”
“Really?” She asked.
“Yeeeeeahhh. I know. Anything look good?
“Wow. Ok.” she said, clearly amused. “I don’t know. La Crosse, maybe? Hays?”
And that’s how I picked my target. Sorry guys.
Hays. Ok. I can hit Hays and decide what to do from there. It’s chase time! Here’s the current situation.
A little way outside of Hays, it became obvious that I needed to keep driving east to get into a good position for an intercept. I have no time to mess around with picking the “best” looking target so I’m going to play what I can catch. The radar image above shows a tornado warned storm to the south; a storm that suckered a lot of chasers into pursuing it.4 Honestly I would have angled for it too if I thought I’d had the travel time. Instead I went for the cell directly to my south, reasoning that I could zip through a gap in the line and hit Victoria, putting me in a good spot.
Arriving at Bunker Hill, things were looking good on radar, but I’m too far north. On a hunch I exited the highway, pushed directly through town and south into the county road grid. I would need to haul ass south to get into position, and I was worried that this move might cost me a follow up intercept if it didn’t produce and I needed to wind my way out of the now soaked dirt county roads.
I’m on Bob’s Road at this point, way out in the middle of nowhere and it makes me a little nervous. I had jogged east a few times while continuing south so I would have escape options, but the road grid was starting to get a little nasty. I’m at the mercy of these dirt roads and whether or not my car can handle it. Just after this radar update the storm approaching me became tornado warned. I can see the approaching storm base fairly clearly, but there’s no visible lowering. Yet.
I finally stopped and let the storm cruise by me. The motion in the mesocyclone moving past me was intense.
I have a little problem at this point. This thing is clearly dumping a ton of rain and hail in its path and its crossed the roads I used to get here. There’s little chance that I can use those roads again without getting stuck so I wandered east a little, then pushed north and almost got stuck in the mud. I turned around and happened to drive past a SUV with a couple of chasers, so I asked if they’d come in the same way I had. They had not, and told me that if I pushed east a little further, I would reach a paved north/south road. Nice, thanks guys! This would put me back in the running for an intercept.
Reaching Wilson, Kansas, I pushed north and got back on I-70. Blasting east again at highway speed and in the middle of a pack of chasers, I watched the sky and the velocities really ramp up. I made a quick stop just southwest of Glendale, watched the storm’s intense rotation become obscured by hail and joked with a chaser nearby that this thing owed us a tornado at this point.
And man would it deliver.
Just south of Culver, I decided that I had enough distance east to run north for an intercept. I got off the freeway and went for it, checking the NWS warning text sporadically for the wording to change, confirming a tornado. The radar signature was showing gate-to-gate shear at this point. SOMETHING was in there.
Driving across a bridge and down a slight hill, I….well, this is what happened. Pardon my potty mouth; I think it was warranted in this scenario.
At this point, I finally sort of got the whole “stormgasm” thing.5
So. Wedges. “What’s a wedge?” you didn’t ask. If you’re from the Midwest you might already know. Tornadoes can manifest in a variety of shapes and sizes. Many are relatively small, especially where I’m based at, in eastern Colorado where the “norm” is the dramatic thin needle, wispy rope or a nice cylinder (also referred to as a stovepipe). Think Wray if you’re exceptionally lucky. The graphic I see most often used to show tornado variety is this one.
A wedge tornado is a tornado that presents as wide as it is tall. To quote the National Weather Service:
“Although many famous “wedge” tornadoes have also been violent, producing F4-F5 damage on the Fujita scale, a tornado’s size does not necessarily indicate anything about its strength.”
However with this size comes a very deceptive nature. If a wedge tornado is bearing down on your town and you go decide to go outside to see it,6 you might look right at it and not even realize that what you’re looking at IS a tornado, or that it’s moving towards you.7 I think we can safely agree that a wedge tornado guarantees at least severe damage and probable fatalities, should it move into a populated area.
I’ve never seen a wedge tornado and I’m thrilled but suddenly really nervous, breaking out into a cold sweat. Which might show just a little, because not only did I forget to bring my GoPro into the field with me to film it, I only filmed the tornado when I parked. For four seconds.
Here’s the footage, rotated 180 degrees for your viewing pleasure.
That’s it. I’m ashamed with myself too. I meant to grab the GoPro when I crossed the street into the field but I was a little too excited. I shot stills of this huge tornado barreling across the field in front of me and disappearing back into the hail core, vanishing so completely into the white that you would never know it was there from my vantage point.
That whole process took maybe a minute and a half.
Don’t believe me? Here’s some more dash camera footage. I’ve started the clip when I’m crossing the street to get out of line of sight from other chasers (I can be taught!). The tornado is on the left side of the frame. Keep watching and you decide when you can no longer tell what it is. This is not a timelapse.
Sitting in the field and witnessing this kind of made my blood run cold.
I mean, I knew it can and does happen, but to actually see it? Holy crap. You couldn’t see ANY signs that there was a tornado in there. If I hadn’t shown up when I did, I would have no idea that this tornado (later confirmed as half a mile wide) existed. I knew that someone had confirmed a tornado so I wouldn’t have driven in there; I’m not quite that stupid.8 I’ve also seen videos of tornadoes disappear into or hiding in hail cores before but never right in front of me. Never that big, that fast.
I knew that not only could I not get back into position now (the storm appeared to be moving too far east), I wouldn’t see anything again and that the chaser traffic and inevitable large damage path guaranteed that I probably wouldn’t catch this storm again. So I dropped off the chase.
I ended up pushing north through Culver and east to highway 81, then headed past Minneapolis. I shot a few pictures of the storms around me, one of which was also tornado warned, then soft of wandered around the area briefly to see if I could get any good lightning shots (not really). Then I called Heather to see if she could dig up our La Quinta Rewards info since I knew we had enough points for a free night.
She found the info and was nice enough to book me a room in Salina. I ended the day in an IHOP across the street where I bumped into Max Olson, Chris Collura, and another chaser whose name escapes me. The latter drove from Grand Island, Colorado, across the Rockies, the night before to make this chase day.
Chasers. We’re a slightly obsessed bunch.
NWS Summary of June 1st – The Tescott wedge tornado was rated a low end EF-3 and travelled more north than northeast, somewhat of a surprise since the forward motion of the storm presented on radar as more easterly at the time. Another example of a powerful tornado making a left turn, I suspect.
- Using Arapahoe Hyundai for your maintenance needs will apparently let you see large tornadoes. A new chase ritual may be required.
- Seriously though, the way today played out was really an incredibly lucky series of events chaining together. Also Kansas highway patrol are spooky bastards and they are EVERYWHERE.
- Good hell man, quit scheduling anything but chasing in May.
- Ease off on the dirt roads a bit. I’m one large mud puddle away from sinking this thing.
- I need to get better with having a plan to pursue a tornado. Any time I see one I usually just plant myself and enjoy. I think a chase partner would help out with this a lot.
- When taking the GoPro off the mount, STOP the recording first dummy. This is why I got my upside down tornado footage. I took this lesson to heart in all my subsequent chases.
- I either need a more dedicated dashcam and therefore can leave the GoPro just on a tripod, or I need a swivel windshield mount. My current mount just lets me pan the camera up and down. A quick twist to the left as I left the car and I could have filmed the tornado rain wrap.
- More filming! This was THE day to shoot video and not so many stills and I want to kick myself.