May 29, 2004 Chase

After blowing two straight outbreak days, Mother Nature gave me one more chance to redeem myself. The third outbreak setup in a week presented itself, and I was obsessed with nailing it. Eric had been coming out for years to chase with me, using his annual vacation time, and we had largely had bad luck. I wanted desperately to have a great day, not only to get myself back on track, but to show Eric why he had been traveling to the Plains every year since 1999. He and I loaded up in his Jeep, with Chad and Susan in her car along with Angie and Jo in Ang's car following. We headed for northern Oklahoma.

There were three target areas this day: western Oklahoma, the KS/OK border along I-35, and the KS/NE border in the eastern half of those two states. I didn't like the weaker winds in the northern target, fearing a mass of high-precipitation storms that would blend and seed into one another. I didn't like the high convective temperatures in the southern target, fearing a capbust or high-based storms that wouldn't produce tornadoes. The area I liked was the middle target, which to my eyes had the best overall combo of shear, instability, and LCL height. As it turned out this day, there would be no wrong target choice.

Our three-vehicle convoy rolled out of Norman and north on I-35. We continued all the way to Blackwell, where we stopped for a restroom/snack break, and to analyze the situation. I had been talking with Dwain that morning leading up to our departure, and we were both sold on the middle target. Now all we had to do was wait. Storms were starting to fire in far western Oklahoma, but were well west of the deep moisture that was pooling in central/northern Oklahoma and southern Kansas. It became obvious that the storm would fire first, and then move into the areas of better moisture. Knowing this, we decided to drift west to the western edge of the moisture pool. Packing it up, we drove west to Medford.

Our NOAA radio was picking up warnings for storms out west, and after a while, it became obvious the most severe storm was in far western Oklahoma, just north of I-40. We had been receiving warnings for it for a while, and when it went tornado-warned, it seemed like this would be the play of the day. The storms further north (still well west of us) were severe, but had not gone tornadic. We waited and waited, and eventually I started to reason that since the cap had in fact broken in the southern target, the storm along I-40 was the tornadic one because it was tail-end Charlie. It was moving east, and we could easily work our way west and south to meet it. After a while longer, with the storms west of us still not tornado-warned, I gave in to impatience. We left Medford with a plan to intercept the I-40 storm.

Not long after we were heading to the southern storm, Dwain called. He asked us what we were seeing, and I told him that low clouds were obstructing our view to the immediate horizon, but that we had decided to go after the I-40 storm. He told me there was another storm to our west-northwest, that was nearing the Kansas border, that had just gone tornado-warned. Because our NOAA frequency was set to monitor stations along and ahead of the path of the I-40 storm, we had not received the tornado warning for the storm nearing the border (which was closer to us). Dwain said "If I was you, I'd break off the I-40 storm and head towards this new one going into Kansas."  Dwain had made crucial calls like this before, pointing us toward storms we couldn't yet see visually, and it had been golden. I trusted him above anyone else for nowcasting, and without hesitation, we shifted course to the west, and began working our way north towards the Kansas border, to intercept a storm we still couldn't see.

We meandored north and west, and as we were nearing the Kansas border on unmarked roads, the storm finally came into view. It had classic supercell form, but was high-based. Regardless, we were excited, because we knew it was heading into juicier air. We crossed the border, and continued to head north, as the storm loomed to the west-northwest. We found a decent east road, and took that, keeping ourselves well ahead of the storm. Periodically we would stop, and analyze the situation. On one of these stops, we started to see scud chunks forming below the base, rising rapidly to meet it. The storm had finally tapped the deep moisture, and the show was about to begin. We simply kept ahead of it, on our eastbound back road, and watched intently. However, the storm's track began to shift more to the north, which began to take it to our northwest. Still in great position, we allowed the storm to move by us a bit. By the time double lowerings had formed, the area of rotation was now due north of us.

Within a minute, the show got started with the first tornado of the day, a brief snake that roped out quickly as a helix twist towards cloud base. It was gone in less than a minute. However, the parent rotation continued, and within a few minutes, another funnel developed, appearing as the back end of a rat momentarily, before becoming a classic funnel. This eventually became a classic tornado, our second of the day. This tornado moved slowly across open country, seeming to anchor itself into the ground at one point, bringing up a large cloud of debris. The tornado continued to churn, shrouding itself in debris as the storm now began to slip away from us. We finally decided it was time to move, and continued east, as this long-lived tornado slowly dissipated after a twenty-minute display.

We followed our east back road until it came to KS179. From there we turned north, racing to catch back up to the storm. Just south of Anthony, we notcied a new area of rotation, well east of the old occluding one that had produced our first two tornadoes. As we neared town, a white cone tornado came into view to our east, barely visible because of horrible contrast. It was slowly starting to become more visible, but just then we reached Anthony, and the town's buildings and trees blocked our view to the east. We made good time through town however, and turned east onto KS44. We were in excellent shape when suddenly, on the east edge of town, we were stopped in our tracks by a closed road for a bridge repair. We desperately tried to find a short cut through the northeast part of town, to hopefully catch a back road north and then east. I caught a glimpse of the tornado while we did this, and it was now a highly-visible white cone, and very photogenic. This only served to enrage me, as our short cut attempt was a dead-end, and we were forced to back track all the way into town, and then use KS2 north. All the while our third tornado was slowly getting away.

We raced north to Harper, catching distant looks at the large cone tornado, which was now well east of us and no longer a play. We turned east onto US160 in Harper, and negotiated tons of local rubberneck traffic from there through Danville, where things finally opened up. Despite losing the third tornado, we recovered quite nicely, and were now one a collision course to run down the main area of circulation. As we got closer, the lowering got more ominous. It had the look of a wedge producer, with rapid, large-scale rotation and a ragged appearance. As we neared Argonia, tornado number four of the day developed northeast of us, east of the main rotation, as a wispy column. It didn't last long, and we continued east, passing just north of Argonia. Near there, tornado number five developed as a dust bowl beneath the large lowering, although we only caught a brief glimpse through the trees. Like the previous one, this tornado didn't last long, but both were indications of what was to come. We continued east along 160, and just north of Milan, finally caught back up to the lowering, which was now due north of us. It was getting late, and we wanted to set up and get some shots, so we pulled over.

As soon as we came to a stop, the sixth tornado of the day rapidly developed north of us. It grew quickly into a very large tornado, and displayed very strong motion. For the next few minutes this tornado morphed from shape to shape, eventually anchoring itself as a stout stovepipe which began to rotate around the periphery of the meso/tornado cyclone. After one complete circle, it began to widen into a large barrel, still displaying violently churning motions. Eventually it became a wedge briefly, before narrowing back down again. The tornado continued to constantly shape-shift, as the parent rotation became so intense it was having trouble focusing itself. After a few more minutes, the tornado gradually began to disappear. But the show was just beginning.

Tornado number seven developed quickly, appearing as a slim westward-moving funnel as it rounded the north side of the circulation. As it continued to rotate anticyclonically around the mesocyclone, skirting the western edge of the circulation, it became an intense stovepipe. As it continued to spin around to the south side of the rotation, our eighth tornado of the day developed just to its northeast, circumnavigating the north side of the parent circulation briefly, before dissipating as it became absorbed by tornado seven's circulation as they crossed each other on opposite sides of the tornado cyclone. Just after this, tornado seven began its second circle around the main rotation, twisting and writhing as it moved back west. It began to slow, and then raced back eastward at an incredibly high speed, much faster than it had moved previously. After the most incredible display of tornadic behavior I've ever witnessed, the tornado finally focused all its energy into one spot, and anchored itself as a fat stovepipe. It seemed to stay stationary for a bit, then slowly widened into a wedge. As the wedge continued north of us, we looked back to the northwest and spotted a roping tornado, our ninth of the day, that had been just north of us earlier near Argonia, but wrapped in rain. We stood in awe for the next few minutes and looked back and forth between the rope tornado and the wedge tornado. The rope eventually vanished, and the wedge began to move away, so we loaded up and continued east on US160 to KS49, where we turned north.

We had lost sight of the wedge tornado as we were leaving our earlier position, but after we'd gone a mile or so north on KS49, it re-appeared to our northeast, as a ghostly white stovepipe in the dark blue twlight. As we drove north, the contrast improved, as we continued to get good views of this still-stout stovepipe tornado. After a few miles, we came to a road block, just south of the damage path from where the tornado had crossed KS49 earlier, still as a wedge. Eric and I were immediately waved right by a cop, so we just rolled through the road blocked intersection, turning right onto a very muddy back road. As we did, the tornado finally dissipated. However, a few miles to its north-northeast, another tornado had developed. We drove about a quarter mile east of the road block to where a group of chasers were sitting and stopped. From there, we watched our tenth and final tornado of the day move rapidly south through the growing darkness, passing very near a farmstead as it went. After a minute or so, we decided it was time to call it a day; our road to the east was mud, we couldn't go north because of damage, and backtracking south and then east would put us too far behind the storm to catch back up. Finally, the idea of chasing into Wichita after dark didn't appeal to either of us. Very satisfied with the day's bounty, we decided to head back home.

As we were leaving, we realized we'd lost everyone else somehow. Not really caring, we happily continued to Wellington, where by chance we ran into the others, who had gotten a head start coming home and were already there fueling. We all spent a few minutes gleefully recalling our day. Once the tanks were all full and everyone had taken their final bathroom/refreshment break, we all convoyed home, basking in the afterglow of one of the greatest chases of our careers...and Eric finally got the big tornado day he'd tried so hard to capture. It felt great being a part of it.