Well it was about time I got to chase a central Plains high-risk event without having to get up at 5 AM and drive 6 hours just to get to the edge of the moderate risk part of it.
This event was seen coming days in advance. All models showed a very consistent signal of a strong, neutrally tilted trough sitting in the perfect place to spread 60-70 kt southwesterly winds at 500 mb with strong southerly 850 mb winds below that, and strong southeasterly surface winds with mid-upper 60s dewpoints and a strong dryline across W KS and the OK and TX PHs. This system was a classic synoptic pattern for a major tornado outbreak...known well in advance. Naturally, the SPC issued a day 2 high risk, the first time a high risk had ever been introduced on day 2.
Logan drove all the way down from Minnesota to chase with me. I was a little exhausted from the previous day's chase. Plus I had a sore throat that lasted for the three days to this point. I wasn't going to let any of that keep me from chasing a high risk, though. Logan, my wife, and me ate a late breakfast at Waffle House. During our meal, we discovered that storms were blowing up in Kansas at an alarming rate, hours earlier than progged by the models (e.g., the NAM had been consistently saying there would be no initiation until after 00Z, which I knew was bullshit given the strength of forcing and the not-too-strong cap). We quickly finished up and left Norman shortly after 11 AM.
We didn't have a solid initial target. We were just going to drive up towards northwest OK and southwest KS and see what was around when we got there. We knew storm coverage wasn't going to be a problem. Rather, storm speed was progged to be fast. With northeasterly storm motions, this was going to be a day of hopping southward from one supercell to the next as each blew by, giving little time to remain on any particular storm.
We eventually decided to figure out something by the time we got to Woodward. Several of the storms that had fired in KS had become intense and supercellular, and they all remained discrete. Two storms in particular that had developed in the OK PH had moved into far SW KS, generally south of and on top of Dodge City, looked very tempting. However, they were still an hour to our northwest and moving northeast at nearly 50 MPH. There was no way we were going to catch them. However, as that was happening, several updrafts were going up and forming storms closer to our immediate northwest, west, and southwest. Good.
We made it to Woodward by 2 PM. We briefly stopped for lunch at the Arby's on the south side of town. A couple of the employees saw me checking radar and asked me what to expect for the day. I told them the atmosphere was volatile and to keep an eye on the sky. Good thing, too, given that the west side of town would get hit by an EF3 tornado later in the night.
By the time we were done lunching in Woodward, a dominant storm (#1) had become apparent to our west. We decided, then, to move north out of Woodward. Once we got to U.S. 64, we headed west towards Buffalo. Our dominant storm was strengthening and slowly becoming more organized. We got as far northwest as we could - just a few miles northeast of Buffalo - before stopping to watch. The storm did not have any supercellular characteristics visually, but it was starting to look like one on reflectivity.
We encountered some nickel hail before moving back to the east to get in position for an intercept. This particular area of Oklahoma did not have a lot of roads, so we were kind of limited to one option unless we let the storm go. We moved to just a few miles south of the KS border on state highway 34 as the storm became tornado warned and obtained obvious supercell characteristics, including a wall cloud. We were in perfect position for a close intercept on this storm! Not to mention, most chasers were in Kansas, so we were almost alone.
Despite having several minutes to organize as we watched, the storm failed to produce a tornado during this cycle. This would become a theme for the day: storms producing tornadoes only when we weren't on them. As a consolation prize, a funnel cloud emerged from the edge of the RFD gust front a few minutes later just a few miles north of the KS border.
We had already committed ourselves to this storm despite a new storm (#2) that had developed back to the southwest. We wouldn't have had enough time to get back south and east in front of it before having to core it. We figured very large hail was going to be a problem today, so we made the decision to stay with our storm. That meant we had to go north all the way to Coldwater before we could get east on U.S. 160, which was really our only route to get back into the action without losing every storm. We had to go all the way to Medicine Lodge before there was a dependable route south. Despite the traffic, the speed limits were friendly enough to allow us to actually catch back up to our storm (#1). We passed to its south on our way east. The base looked ragged and not very organized, so we had no problem letting it go across the Kansas landscape. Of course, it would go on to produce a tornado 30 or so miles after we left it.
We got to Medicine Lodge and fueled up. Remember the storm I mentioned earlier that we didn't have time to get in front of (storm #2)? We were now in its path, except 45 miles ahead of it. It had produced a brief tornado north of Woodward. Our best road options were east, northwest and south. We decided, therefore, to wait out the storm near Medicine Lodge. We sat just a few miles east of town for 10-15 minutes as steady, light rain announcing the beginning of the supercell began to fall. We got impatient after awhile. We also noted the storm was becoming strung out with weakening rotation. We figured the storm was done. Hence, we decided to move south back into Oklahoma, where more storms were developing, again just west of Woodward.
On our way south towards the Oklahoma border on U.S. 281, the base of the storm came into view. Surprisingly, it seemed somewhat organized visually. A new radar update showed reintensification in terms of rotation to our west. We stopped and watched for a few minutes. Despite little sign of further organization of the storm, we drove back north to get in the path of the mesocyclone. That left us just a few miles south of Medicine Lodge, where we witnessed a rotating wall cloud with a series of small, weak, short lived funnel clouds (if you could even call them funnel clouds).
Of course, the mesocyclone weakened and the rotation dissipated as it passed just to our north. It wasn't until the former area of rotation was almost on top of Medicine Lodge before we finally heard sirens blowing in town. The town had been under a tornado warning for at least 15 minutes prior. Anyway, with this defeat, we turned back south into Oklahoma.
The outlook improved as we crossed back into Oklahoma. Despite being early evening now, there were two intense cells (#3 and #4) to our southwest that both had strong rotation on them. We had time to intercept both. We stopped right by the train tracks crossing U.S. 281 near Hopeton south of Alva as the updraft/meso of the first supercell came fully into view. The lightning was violent and close, so we had to stay in the car for several minutes while the core passed to our north and northeast. We had such a great view from our location. We could see this storm from 20 miles away. The storms appeared to be moving slower than they had been earlier in the day, so we had more time to watch this storm than we thought. As the storm drew near, the structure became more impressive. Storm-scale rotation was clearly evident. However, there was a problem: there was no sign of tornadic activity below the base, and the base was wide open (little rain, no wrapping). In fact, at no point during our intercept of supercell #3 did it show any attempt at producing a tornado despite all the impressive structure and rotation aloft. Now pissed off, we left our spot to get in position for the second storm (#4).
We moved to about a mile southeast of the U.S. 281/OK-45 intersection. Some trees were blocking our view of the base of the next storm which was tornado warned and contained multiple spotter reports of tornadoes. We couldn't see any of that, so again we waited, as we were pretty much directly in the path. After five to ten minutes of our view not improving, we moved back to the intersection, closer to the core. We briefly took nickel to quarter sized hail while still not able to see the area of interest approach. Finally we moved a few hundred yards west on U.S. 281, and FINALLY! A tornado several miles away was revealed from behind the vegetation. We caught the end of it. We sat there watching it approach. Sure enough, as we sat there, the tornado lifted and the storm appeared visually to become less organized. Even though we technically saw a tornado, I was hoping for a lot more from this storm given it was the southern storm in a highly-sheared environment.
As the area of interest neared us, it suddenly reintensified and the wall cloud began rotating rapidly. We waited until we had just a minute or so left before we made our escape. We decided to move west to get behind it to make our chase easier. We moved west about one mile then turned and faced east again. On our way west, we observed tornadogenesis just to our south. It had to have been weak as there was only very brief and faint condensation below cloud base. As we sat there watching the wall cloud start to cross the road to our east, the winds picked up and a whooshing sound began. The wall cloud looked like it was starting to turn left, thus coming closer to us. Although conditions were worse on the east side of the wall cloud, it seemed like we might not be in the best spot where we were. Who was to say another vortex wouldn't touch down on the west side of the wall cloud and get us? So I told Logan, who was driving, to back up. It was sort of comical, us backing up in the wrong lane as another pickup came up on us from the correct lane (going the same way as us). He obviously had no idea he had just driven under/in front of a developing tornado. Anyway, we were fine either way.
After waiting for a minute or so, we moved back east in pursuit. We observed downed trees and power lines at the location we had occupied earlier, so it's a good thing we moved. We turned north to stay on U.S. 281 and entered some strong RFD just north of the 281/45 intersection, even though we were probably at least a mile south of the tornado, which had a slowly lowering condensation funnel. We had to stop as the car began shuddering in what was probably 60+ MPH RFD winds. Quite the sound as the wind whistled through a radio tower just off the road. After a moment we began moving north again, encountering the same RFD winds for several miles. We eventually crossed the tornado's path. Damage was only done to vegetation. A house appeared to have been in the midst of it, but suffered no structural damage. Eventually the tornado moved well to the east of the road and we lost it in the rain of the hook echo.
It turns out we probably would've had a longer, better view of this tornado had we gone east on highway 45 instead of going north on U.S. 281. Oh well. We got a great view of it as it was roping out. We moved east from Alva on U.S. 64 and punched through the hook. The roping tornado appeared to our southeast. We caught up to it, probably coming within ¾ to ½ of a mile before it fully dissipated. It was wonderfully lit by the setting sun and contrast well against the storm behind it. The rotation in it was ridiculously violent, likely a function of conservation of momentum as the vortex narrowed while maintaining its angular momentum. There was also a second tornado that had developed to its east. We eventually had to stop on the highway as the RFD overtook us and three cops blocked the highway immediately behind us.
We kept moving east on U.S. 64 past Cherokee as this second tornado took over. It evolved into a multiple vortex tornado, as single vortices danced around under the rotating wall cloud. Darkness was rapidly setting in, so the clock was ticking on our chase. Our best road option was to take N2720 Rd. north from state highway 11. As the final glimpses of daylight faded, a steady stovepipe tornado loomed in the distance. We maintained a pretty close distance as it crossed the road probably no more than two or three miles away from us.
The road got progressively worse as we got onto E0020 Rd., which was our best route east to stay with the storm. However, given the darkness, poor road condition, and the fact that we were now behind the circulation with a solid curtain of rain blocking our view, we decided to call it a chase at that point. This storm would go on to produce tornadoes all the way through El Dorado, KS, including an EF3 that grazed the southeast side of Wichita. The radar presentation on the storm as it moved across Harper, Sumner, and Sedgwick Counties in Kansas was very impressive.
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