VToo.2 Chase Week, Tornado Day! June 10th, 2010

10:18 am in Storm Chase VToo.2, Storm Chasing by Ted Keller

What a crazy day!  I knew the night before that the Storm Predicion Center (SPC) had put out a 10% tornado risk for the day, the highest of our chase week, so I was excited and ready to go.

My chase partner Matt Gingery had caught a head cold and was trying to get better.   During the process of breakfast and video editing which occurs every morning in the motel room, Annette Gaillard from Artbeats, who we are guiding to the storms to get high quality footage, informs us our vehicle has a flat tire!

O.K., I never had to deal with a flat while chasing although it is certainly possible while storm chasing, one of the many things you should consider if you’re thinking about chasing storms.  My first thought was thank goodness if didn’t occur WHILE we were chasing!  The whole process took about an hour to take care of but we had the time since the storm risk was right in our backyard!

When it came down to hitting the road, our initial thought was to head west from Sterling, Colorado closer to where storms were expected to fire.  As we were doing so, the SPC issued a mesoscale discussion for areas back to our east!  Not wanting to miss initiation of storms in extremely unstable air, we backtracked through Sterling and headed for extreme northeastern Colorado instead.  We noticed that the Dominator was holding up out there (one of only a very few who were actually) so we felt like it was a gamble which could pay off.  Besides, how big could Colorado be? We could always race back west if we needed to, right?

Well, that’s exactly what we saw other chasers doing and a quick check of radar revealed why.  Storms were rapidly firing near the Denver area.  But we noticed another lone storm going up just southeast of Limon.  I liked this cell because it was off by itself and on the way to the other storms, a win-win set-up really.  If this storm could take root, we would be one of the few chasers on it and avoiding chaser convergence when possible is a good thing!

The Colorado State Highway patrol officer who pulled us over didn’t care about chaser convergence, he just wanted us to stop taking liberties with the speed limit!  We has a happy guy, which helped us, who also apparently did not have a bad impression of storm chasers.  We got off with a warning and were on our way.

As we were lining ourselves up with the strongest storm, it went tornado-warned!  It was also dumping tennis ball-sized hail.  But as we approached it from due east, it began to fade a bit.  But our visual showed the development of a great cell to the south. As we got closer, a well-defined low-level mesocyclone came into view!  Fortunately, a good state highway allowed us to drive south quickly and get into position.

This mesocyclone produced two very obvious twisters which we recorded.  There could have been smaller ones too.  We got closer to the storm eventually but it never produced as obvious of a tornado. 

We stopped for several more photo opportunities while staying ahead of the storm on highway 36.  At one point while stopping for a photo shoot, we got pelted by by quarter-sized hail blowing horizontal by a 50 plus mph wind.  I got a welt on my side and Annette got several in the arm!  We got out fast enough but in the rush, Annette had dropped her iPhone!  With larger hail possible and the winds increasing, we couldn’t go back to look for it right away; it would have to wait.

Meanwhile, chaser convergence had definitely increased.  Vortex II and other well-known chasers were in the area.  The mesocyclone was becoming shrouded in rain which very well could have contained a tornado but was nearly impossible to see.  We got some great additional shots of this active storm.

Now, where was Annette’s phone?  We had a fair idea where we stopped and held out hope that we could find it intact.  It could have been rain-soaked or run over by one of the many chasers who pulled over to tape the storm.  It was getting dark and we slowly retraced our steps, eyeing the shoulder of the road carefully.  Suddenly there it was!  Only slightly damp and in a case which protected it from the fall.  This was a great relief to me; losing an expensive phone would have been a disappointing footnote to what was otherwise a great chase day!

It should be noted that this multi-tornado storm occurred on the edge of the lowest probability of tornado occurrence forecast for this day!  If you stayed in the 10% area on this day, you would not have seen a twister!  There was one storm in extreme northern Colorado but to the best of my knowledge, it did not drop a tornado.  This just underscores the difficult nature of storm chasing in general and finding a tornado specifically.  As I like to say, the forecast was executed brilliantly, it’s the weather that decided to do something else!

We had spectacular lightning on the way back to Sterling.  We ate at the Village Inn in town were Reed Timmer and gang along with Tim Marshall and some of the Vortex II folks had stopped to eat as well.  It was the perfect ended to a day which definately had its ups and downs!