Tuesday, January 17, 2017

May 24th, 2016 First Colorado Tornadoes

With temperatures in the single digits and more snow in the forecast Brennan and I decided to take a break from the Pacific Crest Trail around mile 650. We hitchiked to Ridgecrest, California. Rented a car, and made our way West towards Las Vegas, Nevada to do some site seeing and gambling. While on our way to Vegas we noticed there was a couple days of chasing out in the plains highlighted by the Storm Prediction Center thus peaking our interest enough to take a look at models. Arriving in Vegas that evening we made the mutual decision to stay for a couple hours and grind it all night to our target area.

This decision had yet to be determined however as there were two obvious areas of play. One being an upslope setup in Northeast Colorado and the other along the dryline in Southwest, Kansas. Colorado was much closer and we would be able to sleep before the chase. Kansas, however was a different story. We'd barely make it to our area of discussion (Dodge City) before initiation was underway and all of that being on no sleep for either of us. Around the time we arrived in Western, Colorado both of us being tired and mixed feelings we came to the mutual decision to chase Colorado. Not totally confident in this decision it was likely the smartest and safest move on our end.

That next morning, waking up in Western Colorado a 5% tornado risk was highlighted for the front range and a 10% non hatched area for Kansas. Not totally bad I suppose. But, to our surprise as we approached the outskirts of Denver the 20z outlook highlighted another area of 10%. But, this one being for our target area which made us super excited as the HRRR computer model had a beast of a supercell track along our target area near the Denver International Airport.

I positioned us slightly further West than we probably needed to be mostly for the fact there would be multiple storms go up and I always like to sit up stream and watch which storm will likely be the dominant supercell. We fueled up in Fort Morgan, Colorado just as an MD (Mesoscale Discussion) was issued mentioning a tornado watch coming soon along with a couple of strong tornadoes. I didn't really buy that part and thought it was a bit blown out of the water. But hey, can't complain with that wording though right?

About an hour later storms erupted but much further West than we thought they would. The first couple blimps blew up almost in the mountain range instead of over Denver like we had thought. Forcing us to blast West for a closer look as the storms were about an hour away and if they produced we'd be to far East. Oh, did I mention nobody knows we are back chasing yet? We had kept it low key and waited to make a "Surprise! We are back!" post. Once we got into position near the Denver International Airport to watch both updrafts (struggling updrafts I will add) Brennan and I took a selfie and posted it to Facebook with a ton of "Wtf?!" comments which made us laugh. While taking that warm inflow sand blasted us and man. Did I miss that feeling.

It was hard to miss us that day if you were out chasing. As our rental car was a bright yellow KIA Rio. What better storm chasing car than a bright yellow kia rio? But, it had four wheels and an engine and got the job done for us even on the back, clay roads of Colorado. Our buddy Austin gave us a warm welcome with a radar grab with my SN on it saying "been awhile since we've seen this!"

As our storms got closer I honestly thought this day was going to be a dud. While the updraft itself looked good both storms were so elevated it looked like a lost cause getting anything surface based this day.

At least we had some company to keep us entertained while we watched what I guess you could call a base approach our location before we continued East ahead of the storm. This was becoming incredibly frustrating at this point as we had been chasing this storm for over an hour and it still looked like this. Either die, or do something interesting so we can stop wasting time and gas. As if it heard my frustration the storm began to look pretty legit. We pulled off about 15 minutes after I snapped this photo and warm inflow began to be sucked into the storm like a vacuum. So strong that you could see a "ghost train" effect as dust from the road trained into the updraft. There were a couple times we thought we saw a landspout but couldn't confirm anything thus we never reported or counted it.

However, as we repositioned to the East Brennan and I looked out the back window and saw a very thin funnel reaching towards the ground. We slammed on the brakes and pulled over and as soon as we jumped out of the car tornado number 1 was underway as a brief dust swirl crossed the road behind us under the funnel. It was nothing to write home about but it was our first Colorado tornadoes of our chasing career and it officially wasn't a bust day. So its hard to be mad with that.

This tornado was weird. It almost looked like a scud bomb as it didn't appear to come out of anything you normally see with a tornadic storm. It just kinda spun out of a small cloud. I will mention to our storm was not tornado warned at this point and thanks to our report a tornado warning was issued.

The storm began to cycle and we begin to reposition again to the East and wait to see what this storm had up its sleeve next. Southwest of Akron, Colorado the storm finally appeared to becoming surface based and the meso began to spin faster and faster. Then a big, blocky wall cloud took shape followed by a very large funnel. "Are you kidding me? Look how freaking fast that thing is spinning!" I yelled to Brennan as we pulled off and a fat funnel cloud began to drop to earth. Stovepipe!!!! Tornado number 2! I really thought this was going to be a strong, fatty tornado as the motion was completely insane. But, as quickly as it formed it already began to rope out. I don't think I have ever seen a fat tornado with motion like that rope out so fast. Thus, telling me something in the atmosphere was missing that day. My guess was surface flow. But, none the less. Two tornadoes and this one being much more photogenic than the last made this a great success.

Tornado number 2 

Radar at the time as the last tornado warning has expired

Not long after this we came across some very muddy, washed out roads that proved to be impassable with our car and ever a couple SUV's that were driven by other chasers forcing us to turn around. But, not before filming tornado number 3 as the storm began to pull away in the distance. This tornado did damage just outside of Otis that we later came across earning an EF1 rating.

Entering the town of Yuma, Colorado the storm had now turned into an incredible mothership supercell as the sun set behind it casting a bright orange glow on the base of the storm making for an absolutely stunning scene.

This storm wasn't done just yet either as it spits out one last tornado from its belly. It was around this time Brennan and I started seeing what we missed in Dodge City, Kansas........The town in which was our target had we of stuck to Kansas.......

The storm finally began to die off as it approached the Nebraska panhandle and we tried not to let the Dodge City tornadoes bring us down. It hurt. A lot. But, was short lived as we looked on the bright side of seeing our first Colorado tornadoes and saw even more tornadoes than expected. Can't let missing a few good tornadoes ruin our trip. After all, we did get a piece of the pie we weren't even supposed to get due to our hike.

After the sun set and darkness settled in we bumped into fellow chaser Jessica Moore and enjoyed some Subway to fill our empty bellies before heading East for tomorrow's chase in Kansas. Nature wasn't quite done yet though as distant thunderstorms put off a stunning light show with a star filled sky above.