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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!

VToo.2 Chase Day Two, June 7th, 2010

12:33 pm in Storm Chase VToo.2, Storm Chasing by Ted Keller

On this Monday, we were ready to roll!  All chasers and equipment were in the same vehicle now and the risk for severe storms was good.

The forecasting challenge for this day: how far north should we go?   We felt the whole time that we had to distance ourselves from a warm cap layer in the middle atmosphere which would limit storm development and growth.  The more we looked, the more north we decided to drift, all the while carefully monitoring radar trends.

We found ourselves hanging out just south of Scottsbluff, NE, right in the middle of a tornado watch as it turned out.  It became clear very quickly that storms were firing and becoming severe north of our current position.  This meant traveling into remote areas of the Nebraska panhandle.  We finally settled on a well-developed storm northwest of Torrington, WY as it drifted ESE toward us.

We would have bet money that this storm would go tornado-warned while it was approaching us but it never did.  Instead, it became outflow-dominated and the shelf cloud it produced is shown in my video review of this day.

Our attention then turned to a new storm to the west.  This storm more or less traveled ESE down highway 26 through Henry, Morrill, Mitchell and eventually Scottsbluff, NE.  Got got right to the eastern edge of this storm in Henry and pretty much kept just ahead it, traveling in tandem down highway 26.

After documenting a huge dust roll just northwest of Scottsbluff, we headed into the city.  We actually thought about heading south to a storm we could we on radar and visually.  The our current storm had other ideas!  While navigating through Scottsbluff, the storm suddenly went tornado warned!  We tried to get some visuals on this storm but it looked to us to be a huge severe outflow of damaging winds with little chance of a tornado sighting.

Again, staying just barely ahead of this storm, we left the city heading ESE.  Remember the scene in “Independence Day” when the president’s plane is taking off staying just barely ahead of the blast that the aliens used to destroy Washington D.C.?  This is how we felt! 

By now, chaser convergence was becoming an issue.  Not nearly as bad as more recently documented examples, but it became clear that more chasers and tour groups were on this storm.

So between the storm gust advancing at 70 mph and all of the traffic, it was everything we had to stay safe and ahead of this monster storm.

As it turns out, there were very weak and short-lived tornadoes in this storm.  Several chasers did capture these small funnels.  But staying under or in such storm is beyond what we set out to do on these chases.

It was a rush to be sure and we were on the two most intense storms of the day so we were satisfied with our chase decisions for the day!

Please check out videos of all my chases on this web site and YouTube under WeathermanTed!

Vtoo.2 Chase Week. Day One, June 6th, 2010

9:12 am in Storm Chase VToo.2, Storm Chasing by Ted Keller

This was a long day!  It started with a wake-up of around 4 am as a long drive was in store; all the way to northeastern Colorado!  The goal was to meet Annette from Artbeats somewhere in that region by afternoon.

After crossing into Colorado, storms could be seen popping up everywhere.  Some were to the right of I-70 forming along a small boundary in Nebraska.  Others were firing in the foothils straight ahead.  After a careful review of the meteorology and radar trends and considering vehicle logistics, we set the staging and overnight stay town as Sterling, Colorado.

On the way north toward Sterling, a rather impressive supercell could be seen approaching the town from the west.  It was looking so good in fact that Annette was called out in the field from Sterling in fear that the delay in the vehicle exchange would cost the loss of some great footage!  This was a good decision it turned out, here is a small clip of that storm in 10x time lapse.

The overall problem with regard to getting a tornado to form was a lack of low level moisture and a somewhat mediocore surface wind field.  That same lack of moisture did provide the classic open window so to speak on all mid and low level rotations as seen in the time lapse.

As it turns out, and as is often the case with tornadoes, the storms that did generate a tornado were along that boundary I mentioned in Nebraska.

After the Sterling storm, we all headed south.  The left-moving split of a storm crossed in from of us and dumped some slushy but sizeable hail on us and also produce a vivid rainbow off to the east as it passed.  We pursued the right mover of this cell to a tornado-warned Akron, CO with no tornado produced.

We actually ended up going back north along highway 63, then back south to Akron and beyond and finally back north to Sterling to finish the day.

All in all, we followed three tornado-warned storms.

VToo.2 Update #1 Sunday June 6th

1:54 pm in Uncategorized by Ted Keller

Well, we’re heading for the first target area of the trip, which will be northeastern Colorado. We are seconds from crossing into Colorado from Kansas.  I’m having an issue with our GPS device in case you’re wondering why the position isn’t working.

Some encouragement came when the SPC actually put a minimal (2%) tornado risk out with the late morning update! 

It is interesting that a NW-SE boundary of maximum dew points has set up this afternoon in northeastern Colorado.  There is also edvidence of pre-convection occuring in northern Colorado and southern Wyoming.  For these reasons plus the fact that we’ll need to be in western Nebraska for Monday’s initiation made us decide to head to Sterling, Colorado this afternoon, ETA about 4 pm MDT.

Chase Week 2010 Update. It Needs a Name!

7:59 am in Storm Chase VToo.2, Storm Chasing by Ted Keller

 I realized this morning that this chase needs a name.  So playing off of our reference to last year’s MSU chase as Vortex Too, I think I’ll call this year’s VToo.2.  Catchy? Well, maybe not but it’s shorter to type!

The morning SPC forecasts are somewhat encouraging in that they back up my late night post with regard to the overall set up early next week.  Of course, forecasters and storm chasers always take any longer range forecast with a grain of salt.  Having said that, the usual due dilagence will apply as the situation unfolds over the next couple of days.

I will be giving Annette from Artbeats a meeting point later today for the Sunday chase.  Sunday isn’t the best chase day according to conventional wisdom but I think it will hold some surprises!  Besides, the day will also be spent getting logistics worked out for the days afterward.

I’ve added to my chasing arsenal this type around.  I bought a suction-cup camera mount from Filmtools to help with live streaming.  I’ll be using my old JVC SD camera for that purpose. Also, my grateful thanks to Bart Comstock for helping be aquire high speed internet access earlier this week.

I am trying out Corel VideoStudio Pro X3 for video editing in the field.  I have been a long-time user of Pinnicle Studio 12 but it is slow and cludgy when compared to VSPX3.  I’m hoping for good things from this software!

More updates later!

A Wild Outbreak of Tornadoes

7:05 pm in Severe Storms, Storm Summaries by Ted Keller

No Place on Earth

can put the ingredients together for an outbreak of tornadoes quite like the central U.S. and the outbreak of May 10th, 2010 certainly reminds us of this fact.

Rope Tornado Near Yukon, OK. Photo by Chris Novy.

The outbreak came together as extremely unstable air was pulled northward ahead of a dry line.  At the same time, a very strong but compact area of intense air level winds (shortwave/jet max) moved over the area.

The alignment of the upper level winds and unstable air was going to last for only about six hours and in a relatively small area.  But in that time and space frame, numerous supercell thunderstorms quickly evolved, most into tornado-barring cells.

At this writing, the National Weather Service in Norman, Oklahoma has indentified ten areas where tornadoes likely tracked on this day.  More tornadoes occurred in Kansas and northeastern Oklahoma. This will be refined more as survey crews finish their painstaking task.  The death toll stands at five. 

NWS Reviews:

The Set Up

Low Wall Cloud, Multiple Vorticies. Photo by Allan Detrich.

It was a situation typical to the Great Plains but with the volume cranked way up.  It starts when a “trough” of low pressure develops over the western U.S.  This encourages steady southerly winds to blow over the central U.S. drawing humid air from the Gulf of Mexico northward.  On this day the dew points, a measure of moisture in the atmosphere, were quite high and this humidity helps to make the air unstable.  In fact, all else being equal, higher dew points will generally lead to more violent storms.

Unstable air is produced whenever you can warm the air at or near the surface of the earth while keeping things relatively cool aloft.  Moisture adds to the instability because when water vapor condenses back into visible cloud droplets, the energy in took to evaporate this water is released into the atmosphere.

Now on top of all of this, the jet stream winds, fueled mostly by differences in temperature from south to north, were howling!  These winds do several things.  The overall increase in wind speed with increasing height provides structure for developing thunderstorms and allows them to become “supercells”.  Also, the speed and directional changes in the wind close to the earth’s surface provide a spinning which the updrafts of a thunderstorm inherit.

Sometimes, the “wind shear” can be too strong and developing storms will get “sheared” off.  The winds on the outbreak day were strong enough to be a concern for this happening BUT the instability was so strong that the updrafts which make up a thunderstorm rose violently and were able to survive, even flourish, in this environment!

Chasing These Storms

The wind speeds were very high in the atmosphere leading to storms traveling over 60 mph!  This “storm motion” made these storms difficult to chase. Still, there were some shots.  The multiple-vortex tornado shot by Andy Gabrielson is stunning!

Some local chaser friends of mine Jason Blum, Dave Toner and Cody Hudson got themselves into a dangerous situation near Arkansas City, KS.  Their vehicle goes down a steep embankment.  Then the tornado passes nearly on top of them!

The Ozarks Missed This

Some may wonder since weather moves from west to east why the Ozarks didn’t see at least a weaker version of what happened out west, especially considering how fast the jet stream was.  The answer is that we were in much more stable air.  I watched as these storms literally fell apart while racing eastward.  The fast jet stream winds actually outpaced the ability to draw unstable air out ahead of the system.  Later on, we actually did have a tornado warning or two west and northwest of Springfield but this was mostly due to the incredible wind shear working on even the weakest updraft to see if can be coaxed into rotating.

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