Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Chapman, Kansas EF4 Tornado Extreme Close Range 5/25/2016

Second day on a week long break from my long hike across California brought us to Central Kansas. Where a juicy atmosphere was in place for an Outflow Boundary/Triple Point intersection. I awoke around 6am in Goodland, Kansas to take a look at models and see where we needed to be later that day. First thing I see when I pull up mesoanalysis is morning convection over Kansas. Not exactly something you want to see the morning of a chase day. Then, I was baffled to see that the Storm Prediction Center had removed the slight risk area and replaced it with a "Marginal Risk" with still a 2% tornado threat for the 13z update, noting the morning convection potentially ruining the day. Brennan woke up shortly after I took a look at models and asked me how it looked. I responded with "Looks like crap" and we both fell back asleep until about 11am.

We were already out here, and on our way back to Iowa. So there would be no sense in bailing on the chase day. Especially since it was on our way back. So, while on I-70 West visible satellite was showing a very obvious outflow boundary draped over Salina. Ample clearing was also underway at this point with 4500 cape and upper 60 degree dew points streaming North towards this boundary. The boundary was also located near a triple point off to the West, that would be the focus point for storm initiation later. One thing that was also noted on the drive West that afternoon was our 500mlb bulk shear appeared to be stronger than models the night before had been hinting at. Seeing all of these parameters in place really confused me as to why there still wasn't at least a "Slight Risk" issued for parts of Kansas. A notable concern was a strong cap in place. But, if it went fun times were to be ahead. By 1630z the slight risk area had returned but, still with 2% tornado probablities. Now, I'm not one to obsess over tornado probablities issued by the SPC. However, the atmosphere that I was seeing appeared to be volatile. Especially with an OFB boundary present that would enhance low level helicity. Something that was lacking this particular day.

Brennan and I arrived in Salina around 3pm, and knew there was no reason to be in a hurry. With the strong cap in the place, we knew it'd be a later show. We briefly parked at a McDonalds and looked at models again. Most composite models were not breaking out precip for our target area. However, they were breaking them out further down the dryline. Briefly discussing about potentially heading to McPherson to keep both options in play we looked at visible satellite, looked at each other and both shook our heads and committed North. There would likely be storms to the South as well. However, winds were not backed down there and veered to the Southwest. While up North we had Southeast winds, an outflow boundary, and a triple point with "only" 4500 cape. Sure, there was 6,000 cape to the South. But, that won't matter if you don't have backed winds and with no boundary to the South, the likelihood of winds backing was not likely.

My best friend, and chase partner Alec Scholten who was also out chasing with the tours he hosts (Twisted Sky Tours) was in the area with our other good friend Shanda Hinnet and Dillon Killoren. So, we met up with them to discuss the day. Also joining us for a briefing was our new friend and fellow PCT hiker (from 2015) Jason Caster. As we all patiently waited in the restaurant for initiation Jason's chase partner Eugen had taken a look at the HRRR and to all of our relief it was showing signs of life for the northern play. This model had a supercell blowing up right on the TP around 23-00z. So, on that note all of us packed up and headed a few miles West where some agitated CU were underway. We didn't make it but 10 miles West of Salina before the first tower went up and began showing up on radar.

Sadly, the closer we got to this storm it became apparent we still had a capping problem. The storm become "fluffy" and by the time we got to where the base would be. Nothing was left but an orphan anvil. It was also at this time a storm exploded East of Wichita where most of our friends were. I checked a group chat that I am in with them and all I saw from them was "big push! big push! Everyone get South now!". I briefly began sweating bullets as this was the area that had been upgraded to a 5% by the SPC. Sticking to our guns, we noticed another updraft going up on echo tops. Much, much faster than the first attempt. 20,000 feet, 40,000 feet, 50,000 feet. I remember saying to Brennan while sitting in the car watching this updraft go off like a bomb on radar "I wonder where this guy is." and hopped out of the car, turned North and saw an explosive tower sky rocketing into the air. We headed North out of Brookville on N Brookville Rd to Tescott and parked on a dirt road South of town and watched the storm rapidly mature.

I could see the towers going up on real time. It was as if my eyes were watching a timelapse film. Something I have never encountered while storm chasing. The craziest part about this storm is even as a young thunderstorm, it already had warm RFD. Brennan and I also ran into Alec and Shanda on this road where we all stood in awe at the updraft continuing to reach into the sky before getting hit with the RFD.

The storm was now severe warned and taking on "the shape" we all love to see. Especially this early in its life. I also noticed that the OFB had drifted slightly North of 70 throughout the day and this storm was rooting to the boundary as it began to turn very hard right. We continued East to pace it and that's when a small funnel began to develop! This storm wasn't even fully surface based yet and we already had a funnel and rapidly rotating wall cloud. My curiosity also got the best of me and I briefly took a look at the Southern storm on radar. While it was isolated it had a small core presentation on radar. Showing signs of it also battling the cap. Someone had also posted a photo and the updraft was very small and thin. The show had set itself and it was time to have a front row seat.

As we closed in on the developing funnel, we topped the hill pictured above when all of a sudden a dust swirl darted across the road below the funnel. Tornado!!!!! On low risk days like these a tornado is far more rewarding than high risk days. We quickly pulled over and watched the tornado begin to condense to the ground. The tornado was a majestic white color. This was due to our positioning West of it where the sun wasn't blocked. I briefly thought this was going to be a full on Mulvane, Kansas type tornado. The dirt it was hitting was also a red color so the dust swirl was a vibrant red. Perfect for photos.

Shortly after the tornado crossed the road in front of us Alec and Dillon pulled up and we all ran towards each other jumping for joy and celebrating with high fives!

The tornado remained on the ground for about 2 minutes before it began roping out. The craziest part? This tornado occurred only 5 miles West of Bennington, Kansas where we watched a violent, and stationary EF4 tornado just three years ago around the same time frame as well. We thought this was it for the day and couldn't be happier with our second day of tornadoes. Boy, would we be proven wrong about 30 minutes later......

After the tornado roped out we began heading East again to keep up with the storm, which became elevated. Even more so than before. We arrived on North 90th road where we bumped into our other good friend, and fellow storm chaser Adam Lucio. Then, Jared Stevenson, Blaize Edwards, Nick Slone, and Lisa Monk all pulled up pretty surprised to see Brennan and I. As we were supposed to be on trail in this time frame. After a nice reunion we all parted our separate ways to continue the chase. Dillon, Brennan, and myself headed East on highway 18. Having flashbacks to May 28th, 2013. This was the same highway we filmed the Bennington, Kansas EF4 tornado. I mentioned to Brennan "wouldn't this be crazy if another tornado happened by this highway?".Which was funny, because later I found out that Adam Lucio had said the samething to the folks he was chasing with. This didn't appear likely though. While our storm looked fairly good on radar, and still tornado warned, it looked terrible in person. It was so high based I didn't think there was a glimmer of hope of that base coming back down. But, we were still optimistic. Because even with such a high base it managed to spit out another funnel. This was a sign of how much vorticity was in place.

As you can see pictured above. There was not much reason to be very optimistic about this storm last much longer.

The storm also wasn't really beefing up like we like to see. It still looked about the same as it did when it first went severe warned. As the storm moved East of highway 81 we hook sliced on highway 18 going through the town of....you guessed it! Bennington! On yet again, the same highway many people filmed the 2013 tornado on. We had to be careful doing this however, because we were in a rental. Which we had to return in one piece. Hail began to fall, but nothing that appeared likely to damage the vehicle with the exception of occasional golf balls that never hit the car. I messaged Alec on Facebook and his message said "We just had tennis balls. This day is awesome!". So, I yelled "DRIVE SOUTH DRIVE SOUTH" away from the core. We parked in the small town of Niles and watched the storm. Watching the radar loop, it was apparent this cell had rerooted to the boundary (as it had turned hard right again and was now drifting East/Southeast). The base had lowered substantially and rain bands began to dance. In the back of my mind I knew something big was about to happen. I just never said it, because part of me was still thinking this storm was toast, or would put down another tornado like we saw before. A bowl funnel began to dip down from the wall cloud that was spinning like a carousel. Come to think of it, I don't think I have ever seen a wall cloud spin as fast as this one was. It almost could make you dizzy. Dillon, Brennan, and myself began to reposition East until I looked back and saw a funnel halfway down to the ground I began yelling "its about to do it! its about to do it!" no sooner than those words left my mouth the tornado fully condensed to the ground. Tornado number 2! But, this one was far different than the other one. This had classic, supercell structure and the wall cloud above was rotating very violently and the tornado was display chaotic motion. Something you normally see in the beginning stages of a violent tornado.

It didn't take long for this tornado to quickly grow in strength and widen into a very large stovepipe as we continued to head East. Due to limited roads we wanted to have our options ready to go when it got closer. The good thing about this storm is it wasn't hardly moving (yet again). So we were able to keep up with it even with limited roads.

Brennan was busy driving I said "Holy sh.t! Violent tornado!" and when Brennan pulled over he had the same reaction. I couldn't believe it. Yet ANOTHER violent, slow moving/nearly stationary tornado on a marginal day near Bennington just three years later. Both of which thankfully spared the town. This tornado had now been on the ground for 10 minutes and showed absolutely no signs of lifting. If anything, as time went on, it became more and more violent. As we stood there and filmed I noted a loud, deep, thunderous noise. Which originally, was thought to have been a clap off thunder. Until it kept going, and going, and going. It was the tornadoes roar causing this noise. Never in my life have I ever heard a roar this loud before. It was as if I was standing in front of 10 Niagara Falls. I didn't think it was possible for a tornado to be much louder than the Stanton, Nebraska EF4 tornado back in 2014. But, boy was I sure proven wrong. This tornado made that one look like a brief spinup.

The longer we tracked this tornado, the more incredible it got. We had to drop South before heading East due to roads and in that time frame the tornado was now a quarter mile wide with an incredible RFD cut above and color cloud. This tornado was like Bennington met Coleridge. Even from this far away you could hear the tornado. Normally audible roars this loud is from a tornado tearing through a town. But, this one was this loud as it churned over open fields. I cringe to think what it would have sounded like if it hit a town.

Radar grab as the storm begins to rapidly intensify.

Velocities maxed out indicating a violent tornado is underway

This storm was also nnow 70,000 feet high! Something that doesn't happen very often. In fact, in my 6 years of chasing I have never seen it. The highest storm I have documented was 60,000 feet which was also in Kansas but on September 1st, 2014.

We rushed North out of Solomon off of highway 70 in hopes of getting an up close view of the tornado. Unfortunately we didn't beat it across the highway. But we did have a pretty incredible view of the tornado with structure from a bit closer.

It doesn't get anymore textbook than this for tornadic structure. The RFD cut was so clear the sun shine was coming through it. It was also this point the tornado started to become rain wrapped. A perfect opportunity for us to get East and hopefully get our intercept. Brennan, Dillon, and myself got back onto I-70 and quickly darted East ahead of it. It was almost as if the tornado knew we were coming for it. As soon as we turned North out of Abilene on Highway 15 it revealed itself from the rain. But, not as a wedge. As a violent drill bit! We pulled off as it hurled debris into the air and Brennan mentioned it crossing the road so we didn't stop long. We got back in the car and floored it North. We thought for sure the tornado was in its rope out stages so we wanted to get as close as possible as it was a little more predictable now that it wasn't a huge wedge.

Time to dance. The tornado heading due East, and us heading due North we got closer and closer to each other. We pulled off while the tornado was about a half mile away in the field next to us keeping a steady course.

This is where being situationaly aware and having an escape option is key. Note the tornado beginning to widen into more of a stovepipe. This normally indicates a tornado is reintensifying. There were also little vorticies that would shoot out ahead of the tornado. Something I also hadn't seen before.

Even with the tornado widening and little vorticies ahead of it, the tornado still appeared to be moving from left to right. Indicating it still moving slightly away from our position. So we held our ground. As the tornado got closer winds really started to ramp up. Our friend Dillon who was behind us had already turned around and retreated back a bit. I calmly told Brennan to flip the car around and be ready to go. Just in case the tornado decided to make a sudden turn towards us.

The tornado continues to grow and is now back to a large, fat stovepipe. At this same moment I see a large plume of debris at the tornadoes base. Houses have taken a direct hit. Not what a chaser wants to see. At this sametime that debris from homes, and trees are raining down on our car.

Still holding tight to our position as its now obvious the tornado will cross the road behind us, I do become a bit unsettled with how much debris is raining down on our car and how high winds were getting. As the tornado crosses the road we are in winds over 100mph. Meanwhile, Dillon is further back filming it all and trees behind us are being shredded, and multiple trees topple over.

This is a video grab from Dillon's chase partner (and now our new friend) Bill Kirkspatrick dash camera as it rolls during our close intercept. Circled is our car as it approaches the road.

Circled in white is the tree behind us being blown over and dragged. Circled in rain is where we still are as we vanish from their video. I will note I never felt in any danger. We had a great grasp on the situation and were ready to bail when needed.

This is the most dramatic image I have ever captured and the closest I have ever been to a tornado of this magnitude. Up until this, the Elmer, Oklahoma EF3 tornado was my closest and I was a half mile from that one. For Chapman, we got a meer 100 yards! After this image was taken, we bailed about a half mile South, as winds were becoming too intense for our safety. I also feared with the high winds and debris we'd lose a window. We pulled off by Dillon and Bill as they yell "YOU CRAZY BASTARDS!!!" and gave us a high five for a job well done. We alerted a police officer near 70 that homes had damaged and they quickly responded with medics. Thankfully, from what I heard nobody was injured. The tornado also narrowly missed the home in the image above. While they did sustain damage, its a miracle it the house wasn't whipped off the map.

Back on I-70 heading East the tornado grows back into a quarter mile-half mile wide tornado! I have never seen a tornado come to close to roping out just morph back into a gigantic wedge in just a couple minutes. Time to intercept again! Also I should note the tornado has now been on the ground for over an hour!

We are now a few miles South of Moonlight, Kansas watching the ominous wedge get closer and closer to the tree line we parked by. Vibes were slightly different for this approach. We couldn't see the base of the tornado, trees could act as big pieces of debris to damage the car, and the tornado was moving on a Southeast course now.

We came to a mutal decision to back up just a bit to give ourselves more room. The sun was also beginning to set, it began to cast an ominous orange glow on the tornado.

I snapped this dramatic, wide angle shot as the tornado passes behind a home that was right across the street from a gas station where many motorists were taking cover.

My heart stops as the tornado begins to cross the road we were just on. Because I noticed that an RV park was so close to the tornado. One shift and all of those are toast. Thankfully, the tornado passed about a mile or two North of the mobile home park not causing any serious damage.

large chunks of debris falling out of the sky, a roar equal to standing beside of a jumbo jet with its engines on, and a half mile wide tornado eating anything in its way. This is a scene straight out of a nightmare. This is also probably the most dramatic footage I have shot in my chasing career. Even more dramatic than the close intercept.

The tornado is now nearing its peak intensity (as if it could get any more violent) and horizontal vorticies extend out from the tornado. At this time, a rare tornado emergency has now been issued for Chapman, Kansas. This is the highest warning that can be issued and the NWS even stated "Catastrophic tornado on the ground" in the text as the tornado churned its way towards town.

The now, nearly mile wide tornado is approaching I-70. A major interstate that goes across Kansas. I know how people are when it comes to their logic and tornadoes. They just keep driving. My heart again sunk to the ground as I kept watching semis and cars drive towards the tornado. Thankfully, people were smart and pulled off to let the tornado cross. Brennan and I decided not to continue on 70 as we knew it'd be shut down for debris. Briefly dropping South and East we decided to call the chase as the tornado became more rain wrapped. No sooner than we did that, a debris ball showed up on reflective radar. Indicating debris being lofted so high it was being reflected off the radar. Brennan and I prepared ourselves for a mass casualty event as we thought Chapman took a direct hit. We started our way towards Chapman but, quickly heard from other chasers the town was spared. However, one house just West of town was not so lucky and was whipped off the face of the earth. Foundation included. The tornado was so powerful, it even bent the railroad tracks in front of the house, debarking trees, and tossing huge farm equipment including a bulldozer. All that was left of a full size semi cab was a twisted up frame in the shape of a pretzel and the family cars had been tossed over a half mile into the field. The cars were so mangled you couldn't even tell what type of car it was. You couldn't even tell if it was a car, truck, or what. But, later that evening we heard there were no deaths or injuries. Even from the house that sustained a hit. Unbelievable. We met back up with everyone in Salina that night and celebrated with giant steaks at Applebees.


Chapman, Kansas is the luckiest town on the face of the earth. Had the tornado not turned Southeast at the last moment, I have no doubt there would have been many deaths, and the town I doubt would have ever come back. Another crazy thing to note, is had this tornado of happened 10 more miles South it would have leveled Solomon, Abilene, and Chapman. Out of its 90 minute, 26 mile track it only hit a couple homes with no injury or death. Absolutely unbelievable. This tornado was given an EF4. However, it could be debated that it was much stronger. Unfortunately, cars and railroad tracks can't determine a tornadoes rating in a survey. But, that's how it goes. This was by far the most violent tornado I have ever seen, and I never thought I'd see the day where I saw something more incredible than the Pilger, Nebraska twin EF4 tornadoes on June 16th, 2014. But given how we absolutely nailed the forecast, got multiple close range intercepts, and how violent this tornado was with the incredible structure above. It will go down as my number 1 chase thus far. Especially for it being on a 2% tornado day. Yes, this tornado happened OUTSIDE the 5% risk area.

Final Reports

Footage from the day
Chapman, Kansas Tornado Footage

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