Category Archives: Storm Chasing

A Day Observing Natural Phenomenon

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It was never the most ideal setup for a storm chase. The convective environment was not too strong and the storms were poorly organized. It ended up being a fairly major day for severe thunderstorms with strong winds in the Southern Plains, as well as Upstate New York and parts of New England.

However, traveling about 90 miles to observe what did happen in Northeast Colorado would only cost me half a day. It was also my first chance to hit the open road since COVID-19.

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It turns out, a panoramic view of several different storms is beautiful and inspiring even if it isn’t damaging property!

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Maybe it was the relaxed pace life had taken over the past two months. Or maybe it was the amount of time we have all started spending in front of screens during this strange period. This storm chase felt less like a mission to get to the best storm possible. It took on kind of an artistic feel.

It is easy to imagine the lone barn in front of an approaching storm, or the seemingly abandoned tiny town of Last Chance, CO with storm clouds gathered all around it as a painting or large photo hanging on someone’s wall for decoration.

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I would later catch up with the one storm that did produce large hail, which I would had to quickly escape to avoid car damage.

After returning home, another storm would pass right over my house right around sunset.

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As a child, weather was the first thing I became deeply fascinated with. The cycles of the seasons and the way the atmosphere moves around transporting warmer, colder, wetter and drier air impacts everyone. On a day to day scale it can often decide what people are doing with their day. On a longer time scale, it impacts business, food supply and health.

My pursuit of meteorology as a career ended up being kind of a disappointment. What began as a desire to investigate and understand the atmosphere scientifically got lost in a sea of equations, coding, and later egos and corporate buzzwords. Observing the weather through a screen caused it to eventually lose its luster. Seeing powerful lightning up close and hearing the raw power of the thunder put me back in touch with why I love the weather so much.

That evening, after the storms passed through, I took a walk through City Park.

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The orange-y lights shining onto a wet sidewalk adjacent the a lakeshore made me feel as if I were in a different place. I imagined the lake, which is not too big in real life, was the shore of one of our Oceans or Great Lakes. I imagined the high rise apartments nearby to be vacation rentals and I imagined crowds of people once again flocking to the beach.

I couldn’t stop staring at how the lights of different colors were sparkling on the water, gradually shifting with the slow movement of the lake.

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I wonder why I had gone years not noticing things like the way the water makes the light twinkle. Are our lives that out of balance? Maybe recent obsessions with things like yoga, meditation, low carb diets and workout “boot camps” are just our attempts to get our lives back into balance, ways to push back against all these forces in our culture that have lead to unhealthy lives. 

I think about all the beautiful experiences we have with the natural world and wonder if we are obsessed with technology. Technology has undoubtedly made our lives better. Technology has made the whole concept of storm chasing possible. However, I am not convinced all technological developments have been beneficial. To me, there is far more beauty in the air and in the clouds. There’s beauty in the smiles we give one another, the relationships we form and the feelings we get from experiences. There is beauty in love and passion. There is even beauty in things often held in less regard, like causal sex (when consensual of course), some drug related experiences (when not taken to a destructive extreme) and anger when it is born out of the passion associated with fulfillment (when it doesn’t lead to violence of course). At least those things feel more meaningful than staring at screens all day to me now.

Unlike many other people who are old enough to remember a world before people could pull a device out of their pockets and look up whatever they want, I am not “wowed” by technology for technology’s sake. I’ve seen plenty of people impressed by the latest technology, often doing things like moving data around and producing charts.

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Charts like this one, as is the case with scientific investigation in general, mean nothing unless something is learned and something is done based on them.

Technology has the potential to help us work more efficiently, improve our health and even form communities. But, let’s not forget who is in the driver’s seat. Technology and computers are here to enhance our experiences with the world around us, not the other way around. Thank God we occasionally have these moments, where thunder claps louder than any of our devices or when wildlife interrupts our travels, to remind us.

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Memorial Day Tornados in Eastern Colorado

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2018 has not been an active year for tornados. With May, the most active month for tornados nearly complete, only 416 tornados have been reported.

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This is, by any scientific measure, over 35% lower than the long-term average, and according to the Storm Prediction Center, in the bottom quartile for tornado activity.

This Memorial Day storm chase almost came as a surprise. First of all, I typically travel Memorial Day Weekend, as does a lot of people. Also, with the season being as inactive as it has been, there had been plenty of days throughout May where forecast models looked promising for a good storm chase several days to a week ahead of time, only for the atmospheric setup to never materalize.

While some aspects of weather forecasting have become quite accurate, forecasting weather beyond a few days, and forecasting weather phenomenon on a small spatial scale remains a challenge. Thus, those that long to see what is perhaps nature’s most violent storm, tornados, can do one of two things. They can set aside a period of time, typically sometime either in May or early June to go out and look for storms.

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Several companies offer this service, a set 7 to 10 day chase in vans like these ones. However, even in May, there is no guarantee that any kind of active thunderstorms will be happening, let alone tornados. Those that have ever chased in this manner end up becoming familiar with all sorts of oddball attractions in the Great Plains!

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There are also those that keep an eye on weather outlooks, deciding to go when the setup looks good. This requires some often last minute decision making, and sometimes chaining plans. This is what I did on Memorial Day. A day that started out slowly, with brunch in Cherry Creek, quickly transitioned to traveling due east out of Denver, straight into the storm.

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Still, even if this tactic guarantees that there will be activity, it does not guarantee that there will be tornadoes. There is still some element of luck to it.

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Near the tiny town of Cope, Colorado, the sky had an interesting orange hue to it with what appeared to be a funnel cloud. This can actually happen quite frequently without an actual tornado being spotted.

At that point in time, around 4:30 P.M., we made two decisions that would put us in the right position to view the tornados. First, we decided to get to the East side of the storms before they became big. Second, we decided, due to Eastern Colorado’s sometimes limited road network, to actually use dirt roads, something that can, at times, be dangerous in the case of a flood.

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The first tornado, Southwest of Cope, we saw kind of in the distance.

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We traveled south, along a dirt road, to get a closer view of it, however, we eventually saw it dissipate.

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Still, the entire time, cloud formations indicated a strong low-level rotation, conditions necessary for tornado development. There was even a “landspout” and several dust devils between the storms.

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Before long, two new tornados were spinning up, just a bit to the South and East of where we had seen the first one.

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The strange thing about these storms was that they were first visible on the ground, with clouds of debris extending outward from both emerging funnels.

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Watching them develop proved quite remarkable. First the funnels showed, then we actually got to see the darker clouds of debris around the funnel fill in from the ground up, forming two side-by-side fully mature tornados.

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The funnels were on the ground for about half an hour.

They gradually evolved, taking on different forms, giving way to yet another tornado, a bit further South and East, near a tiny town called Vona, CO.

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As a person with many interests, I only end up storm chasing several days per year. In the past several years, this was by far the most successful chase day. Even for the most knowledgable chasers, just seeing a tornado constitutes a successful day. Seeing four of them, as well as being able to watch tornados form is nothing short of amazing!

I am also always glad to see when tornados are not actually impacting people where they live. One thing I notice is that storm chasing continues to become more and more popular with time.

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There were several instances where we encountered large groups of people, just like this one, looking at and taking pictures of tornadoes. This is all good, but I do concern myself with how the people who live in these areas perceive this activity. We storm chasers should never be delighting in the destruction of anyone’s home or town, and I am concerned that the perception as such could lead to some resentment among the people who live in tornado prone areas, particularly the Great Plains, which far Eastern Colorado is part of.

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Not only was it one of the most successful chases of my life, but it also was quite possibly the most efficient chase I have ever been a part of. It started after what turned out to be a 90 minute brunch, and that evening I was back in Denver seeing a concert at Red Rocks Amphitheater.

The perfect storm chase, like the perfect setup when it comes to things like jobs, relationships, communities and homes, results from the intersection of good decisions and good luck. The former can be controlled. The later cannot. Just as I have been on many other storm chases where my group made all the right decisions but still did not see any tornados, the same can happen in all of our pursuits. All we can do is continue to go out there, make the right decisions, execute properly, knowing that the luck will eventually materialize even if it takes several more tries.

 

A Tornado Outbreak in Wyoming

Wyoming is not exactly “tornado alley”. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, the entire state averages only 12 tornadoes per year. Kansas, by comparison, receives eight times as many tornadoes each year despite being 15% smaller in area. Although a tornado in Southeastern Wyoming played a pivotal role in the VORTEX 2 project, Wyoming generally tends to be too dry for severe thunderstorms.

June 13th’s chase came up somewhat suddenly for me, based on a notification I had received about this outlook after being out of town, and not focused on the weather, the prior weekend. For some reason, before I even looked at anything else, weather models, discussions, etc., I had a feeling something major was going to happen.

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This day somehow felt different, right from the start.

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By 2 P.M., storm chasers were all over the roads, and at places like this Love’s Truck Stop in Cheyenne, Wyoming, watching the storms begin to form and trying to determine the best course of action.

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The decision we all were faced with was which set of storms to follow. The storms forming to the North were in the area previously outlined by the Storm Prediction Center as having the highest risk for the day, and in an area with great low-level rotation. But the storms to the South looked more impressive on RADAR.

Often, we need to continue to re-realize that the best course of action is to follow our instincts, and to follow them without hesitation or self-doubt. That is what I did, opting for the storms to the North.

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It did’t feel like a typical day in Wyoming. Storm chasers everywhere. Highway signs were alerting motorists to the potential for tornadoes and large hail. Moisture could be smelled in the air. With a moderate breeze from the East South East, the atmosphere felt less like Wyoming and more like a typical chase day in “tornado alley”

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When I  caught up with the storms in Wheatland, Wyoming, hail larger than I had ever seen had already fallen. One of the good things about following a storm from behind is the ability to see hail after it has already fallen, as opposed to trying to avoid hail out of concern for safety and vehicular damage.

I stayed in Wheatland as long as possible, knowing the storm would head Northeast and I would have to leave Interstate 25. One of the disadvantages to chasing in Wyoming, as opposed to “tornado alley”, is the sparseness of the road network.

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So I sat there for roughly 20 minutes. Looking at the storm, it felt like something was going to happen. All the necessary conditions were there, and the appearance and movement of the storm felt reminiscent of other situations which had spawned tornadoes.

I took a chance, using roads I had never traveled before, hoping the roads I was following would remain paved so I could follow the storm North and East.

There was a half hour time period where I had become quite frightened. I could feel the adrenaline rush through my body as the clouds circled around in a threatening manner less than half a mile in front of me. I lacked the confidence that the road would remain paved, or that I would have a reliable “out plan” if a tornado were to form this close.

 

After lucking out with around 10 miles of pavement, I suddenly found myself driving over wet dirt, and, at 20-30 miles per hour, gradually falling behind.

Luckily, I once again found pavement, drove by some of the natural features that makes Wyoming a more interesting place to drive through than most of “tornado alley”, and once again encountered large hail that I felt the need to stop and pick up.

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Almost an hour later, and significantly farther north along highway 85, I finally caught up to the storm, just as it had dropped it’s first, and brief, tornado. And, this time, I was a comfortable distance from the thing! Unfortunately, this tornado would lift off the ground in only a few minutes.

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Not too long after, I received notification that other chasers, following the storms that had formed farther South, had seen a much more impressive tornado, closer up, and had gotten better photos (the above is not my photo).

It was a strange day. Not only because Wyoming is not the typical place to see tornadoes. It also felt strange, as I had managed to do something impressive, yet still had reason to feel like a failure.

Most storm chasing is not like it is portrayed in the movies, with people getting close to storms all the time and getting in trouble. Most days, chasers do not see one. Seeing a tornado one day out of five is a very good track record for storm chasers.

Going out on a chase and seeing a tornado of any kind is impressive. Yet, to be truly happy with my accomplishment, I had to accept the fact that there was something better out there- something I did miss out on. This is a struggle we all face, in common life situations such as jobs, relationships, events, houses, etc. We often know we have done well, but always have this idea of something that is even better out there. Knowing this can make us indecisive, which will often leave us with nothing. In the age of text messaging and social media, evidence of such options has become extremely abundant, and quite hard to escape.

In a connected world, in order to be happy with ourselves, we need to find a way to both believe in ourselves, but also be accepting of the fact that someone else, somewhere out there, has done better. For that will always be the case, and we now have instant access to that knowledge. We cannot let knowledge of someone else’s more impressive accomplishments dampen our enthusiasm for our own. Otherwise, we will likely never be content.

May 10, 2017: Funnel Cloud in Southeast Colorado

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May 10th was kind of a strange storm chasing day for me.  It was the kind of day that calls into questions a whole bunch of things for me.  What assumptions I make.  How I go about making decisions.  Both with regards to where and when to chase, as well as about life in a broader sense.

There are so many things that end up factoring into when and where people chose to chase severe thunderstorms.  I had chosen to go on this two-day chase (see day one) partially out of frustration I was experiencing back home.  It was one of those situations where I felt like it would just be good for me to do something I had not done in a while, for a change of pace, and I had yet to chase in 2017.

So, I went to chase on a Tuesday and Wednesday with only a slight risk for both days, something many people with jobs tend not to do, particularly when the outlook shifts so far away from home on the second day.

In fact, I was not even sold on chasing again on Wednesday, as leftover storms from Tuesday would prevent the area that I had originally thought would have the best dynamic setup for storms from developing the instability needed to fuel them.

I decided to stay out partially because of the more optimistic outlook from the Storm Prediction Center, and partially because I got an email from a friend, telling me he was excited about the outlook… in Southeast Colorado.

Still, I decided originally to target Southwest Kansas.  Given the outlook, the best place to be would have been well further south, at least into the Texas panhandle.  But, you know, those life considerations.  I did want to make it back to Denver that evening.

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Whenever in Western Kansas, I always kind of think the same thing.  This place is flat, but it is not as flat as Florida, or Northern Illinois.  People often assume the place is flat.  But, according to a study in National Geographic, Kansas is not even in the top 5 flattest states.

One aspect of storm chasing that is often missed by people watching storm videos, or the movie Twister, is the fact that storm chasing involves a lot of driving, and it also often involves a lot of waiting.  On many days, chasers pick a “target” location, where they believe storms are likely to form, and sit there, sometimes for hours, waiting for them to form.  Because it was unrealistic to get down to the Texas Panhandle and still get back to Denver in the evening, we chose to sit in a town called Ulysses, Kansas because my favorite weather website had analyzed another boundary near there.

Ulysses, by the way, was named after Ulysses S. Grant, Civil War general and 18th President of the United States.  Why a place like this cares so much about this historical figure from Galena, Illinois confuses me a bit.  But, at least the town had highways in all four cardinal directions, and an empty field with a cell tower, so we could look at weather information while we wait.

And, this requires patience, and continued belief that the right location had been chosen.   But, May 10th was not a typical day.  Storms started to form in this region, first just clouds, and then even some small thunderstorms.  I was even proud to have seen a storm  start to produce rain before the RADAR images even began to reflect it!

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Now, that’s what I call “catching initiation”.

The problem is, we caught the wrong initiation.  These storms would never amount to anything.  In fact, they were so small that when I zoomed out on a RADAR image, they were barely visible!

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It turned out that, despite the fact that some of the sites I typically look at for weather information indicated some potential, we were in “no man’s land”.  The boundary I thought was situated near the CO/KS border was actually farther West, and storms were forming … in Southeast Colorado.  So, we had to adjust, headed back into “Colorful Colorado” (although today it would be “Colorful” for different reasons).

It was there we saw the main feature of the day, a funnel cloud near the town of Lamar, CO.

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For a while it looked like it was rotating and trying to form a tornado, but from experience I know that in Eastern Colorado only 1 in 8 of these actually turn into tornadoes.

The entire day was kind of a head scratcher.  What did my friend see that I didn’t?  What did he see that SPC kind of didn’t?  Why did so many storms form north and west of where the outlook was?

Why did my the information sources I typically point to lead me kind of to the wrong place?

I also wonder if I was chasing the right way, and for the right reasons.  The weather bends to nobody’s schedule.  The weather doesn’t care about personal preferences, conveniences, one’s life situation, or ego.  We have tools that provide good guidance into what is going to occur.  And, those tools pointed to a clear spot that they were correct about, as the biggest cluster of tornado producing storms of the day formed in Northwest Texas, near Childress, crossed into Southwest Oklahoma, and produced tornadoes.  That just didn’t fit into my plan.

The chase ended up turning into somewhat of a metaphor, for life decisions in general.  When we chose to take part in an activity, of any kind, we get the most out of it when we are willing to go “all in” per say.  This is true of jobs, hobbies, relationships, you name it.  We have to be willing to adjust, and consider a whole bunch of circumstances and other factors.  But, sitting in the middle, waiting for two or more different opportunities to possibly manifest only works well for a little while.  In the end, a choice needs to be made, and even if it is not the ideal choice, the fact that a choice was made produced a better outcome than having allowed the entire day to lapse without making one at all.

Storms With Abnormal Structure

One of the things that makes this world so amazing is the fact that we never cease to encounter surprises.  No matter how well we get to know a subject, any subject, we will encounter, and observe, from time to time, that which does not fit closely into the patterns we have learned.  We will periodically be tested, in our knowledge, and forced to rethink, and once again reason out what we have seen based on our critical thinking skills and understanding of our favorite subjects.  Like the psychologist that talks to someone new and says “I have never seen this before”, these experiences rekindle the passion we have for that which we love, remind us how complicated the world really is and how little we really know, and remind us about how interesting of a place the world truly is.

The 9th of May 2017 was a confusing chase day for me.  It is one that I am still trying to figure out, much in the same way the scientific community is still trying to determine why some storms produce tornadoes and others don’t.

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The day began with a slight risk across Eastern Colorado and New Mexico, and reason to believe, based on model output and expert opinion, that it could be a decent setup for a storm chase in East Central/ Southeastern Colorado.

The day ended up being one where I followed over half a dozen storms, over the course of the afternoon and early evening, northeastward, from near La Junta, Colorado, to just north of Goodland, Kansas.

Regardless of where a storm was positioned, both relative to other storms, and relative to atmospheric boundaries such as dry-lines (the boundary between moist and dry air), which are credited with creating the lift in the atmosphere that often creates storms, all the storms would behave in much the same sort-of standard but sort-of not manner.


They would cluster together and come apart.  They had the standard boundary one would observe between the inflow and outflow portions of the storm.


Some would even show something that look like a “lowering”, which is often an indication of the mesoscale rotation that causes tornadoes.

But, these “lowerings” would show up in some strange sections of the storm, including in the front part of the storm.  This is absolutely nothing like how anyone is taught that a “supercell” thunderstorm operates.

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In the end, storms did occur, but largely outside the region SPC highlighted that morning.

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And, in the areas of Colorado and Kansas I had chased, nothing more than a couple of hail reports.  Although, I am quite certain that there was far more hail than what is shown on this map, as I recall driving through some areas where hail covered the ground, including multiple areas near Burlington, Colorado.


I watched these storms tease us all day.  Everything just seemed, well, weak.  In a typical tornado situation, these random-ish clouds that form around a storm, often referred to by chasers as “scud” (I don’t know why), rise and rotate, indicating that there is indeed, the vertical motion and rotation that produces tornadoes.  But, today, the rising and rotating motion in these storms all seemed, well, just weak.  It reminded me of a relationship, or a friendship, that just fizzles away as soon as any small change occurs.  It was not that there was any kind of real force or circumstance pulling these people apart.  It was just that whatever connection they had was not strong at all.

That is the way it was with these storms.  Something about the entire setup made them behave differently, but I throughout the evening, as I watched the final storms roll away into the sunset.  I could not formulate the full reason as to why these storms behaved so differently from a standard severe thunderstorm situation.


I am still wondering.  Often times severe thunderstorms don’t materialize because one key “ingredient” was missing.  Shear, instability, a good boundary, etc.  And those often lead to what is refereed to as a “bust day”.  It’s just sunny.  Or drizzly.

May 9th was not a complete “bust”, as there were storms to look at all day.  They likely never became severe because everything about the storm setup was just kind of weak:  Weak to moderate instability.  Border line helicity.  A sort of weak boundary.

And, just like the storms themselves, with multiple areas of quazi-rotating clouds, the atmosphere as a whole had no real focus.  Often times, severe thunderstorms draw upon air from hundreds of miles away for energy.  This produces scattered, but strong storms.  With hundreds of active storm cells, there was less energy for each individual storm.


Of course there are other theories.  After all, it could have all been the lack of low-level shear.  But, in the end, it felt as if the entire day was telling me something.  It was like a crash course in how to create, well, mediocrity.  Have only part of what you need before you proceed.  Focus on nothing- just spread yourself real thin.  And, choose to follow some of the rules, but completely disregard others.

Lessons Learned?

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Some events in life are clear.  They can be clearly labeled a success or a failure.  The reason for the success or failure is clear, and there is a clear lesson to be learned from it.  One comes out of an event of this nature much like an idealized application of the scientific method.  A piece of new information is obtained.  It either strengthens a pre-existing theory or calls it into question.

In the real world is not ideal like that.  Many observations, an many of our life experiences do not even produce a clear cut data point, a clear “success” or “failure”, or a clear lesson to be learned.  This was certainly the case on my first storm chase of the 2016 severe storm season, on Saturday, May 7th.

It was a day that did not require me to travel far to chase.  In fact, I returned home to Denver less than eight hours after departure, something that cannot typically be expected.  If I lived in a City right in the heart of “tornado alley”, such as Oklahoma City, Topeka, or Lincoln, I would expect to be able to regularly see great storms without having to allocate an entire day.  However, Denver is a bit West of the region most prone to severe thunderstorms, much the same way Chicago is a bit East of that region.  When I moved to Denver, I did have to make some adjustment with regards to storm chasing, but I did not significantly alter my expectations regarding time spent or distance traveled on a typical one-day storm chase.

Saturday’s severe storm setup provided me with a somewhat familiar dilemma, and one that is even more common chasing storms in Colorado, where many thunderstorms are initiated by orographic features.  Severe storms need a certain environment to thrive, one that is warm an moist, but also with some kind of boundary to create low-level wind sheer, which creates the rotation necessary for supercells, and tornadoes, to form.

Saturday was not that kind of day in the Denver metropolitan area. The Denver area spent the entire day in a thick field of low level cloudiness that prevented the air from warming up.  The high temperature at Denver International Airport was only 53.  Ideal conditions were farther East.  That day the high in Fort Morgan, close to where a lot of the violent storms would hit, was 68.  As is the case with any storm chase, it is important to get into an area where the environment will be favorable for storm development.  So we drove East of the cloud deck.

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But then it happened, forced by the Palmer Divide, thunderstorms formed just to the North and East of Colorado Springs, in an area where conditions were not favorable for severe storms.  Sitting in Byers, roughly 40 miles East of Denver, we had a choice; do we go South and West to catch the storm now, or do we hang back and wait for the storm to reach our current location, in a more favorable environment?

Staying back means potentially missing what the storm does in its early phases.  However, being more aggressive means possibly missing a different storm, that may form in an area with better conditions for severe storms.  On Saturday, after some deliberation, we decided to go after the first storm.  We felt cold air, possibly the coldest I have ever been in while observing a thunderstorm, and saw a strong downdraft.  This is consistent with an atmosphere that is cooler and drier than the ideal one for producing severe weather.

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The storm raced northward.  We ended up being a little bit limited by the relatively sparse road network in Northeastern Colorado, having to follow the storm along a series of dirt roads that connected Strasburg, CO (along I-70), to Wiggins, CO (which is along I-76).

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In fact, there was even a time when we were pretty much directly under where the RADAR echoes showed the center of circulation to be.  This situation sort of made me nervous.  At the time I was thinking that if a tornado were to form, it might form quite close to my current location.

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For roughly an hour, it seemed like the storm was kind of teasing us.  One minute, these clouds would appear to be lowering and rotating, as if a tornado were ready to form, the next minute it would all just simply disappear.

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It was around this time that the storm reached I-76 near Wiggings.  Here, the storm interacted with a previously existing boundary, and, according to sources, went tornadic.  However, we were never able to observe the tornado.

After this, the storm transitioned, as many severe storm clusters often do, into a large bow echo.

This is a clear indicator that the storm is entering a different phase, often associated with decay.  It has become dominated by downdrafts.  The most likely result is severe straight line winds.  At this point in time, the best thing to do is simply observe this gigantic thunderstorm, as despite no longer having the low-level rotation necessary for tornado formation, it is quite breathtaking in its own way.

Storm chasing, and storm observation is about more than just tornadoes, and it is quite unfair to describe all chases that do not result in viewing a tornado as a “failure”.  We really could not have picked a better place.  There was only one other cluster of storms that day that produced numerous severe storm reports.  That one formed farther East, a bit later, and produced tornadoes when it interacted with the same East-West oriented boundary.  We also still observed some interesting severe convective storms.

But still, it is frustrating to know that there was indeed a tornado, verified, within ten miles of where I was sitting, and I somehow did not get to actually see it.

I know being in position to view this storm was quite challenging, and it is likely that few chasers found themselves in such position to view the tornado.  But I wonder, had my group reached the I-76 corridor 15-20 minutes earlier, would we have been in the right position to see it?  We knew this boundary was there, and it was in the area with the most ideal conditions.  Was going after the storm initially an exercise in impatience?

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The day ended with a return trip, along I-76, back to Denver, through the area that was clearly just recently pelted with hail.  I returned knowing that there are aspects of this chase that can be considered a “success”, but others that can be considered a “failure”.  I also returned still wondering how to strike that proper balance between aggressively chasing after storms that initiate, and patiently waiting for storms to form or reach the location where the conditions appear to be most favorable.

Funnel Clouds and UFOs

Chugwater, Wyoming is not known for tornadoes, nor is it known for UFOs.  When people think of major tornadoes, they typically think of places like Oklahoma and the rest of the Great Plains.  Most consider “tornado alley” to be to the east of Wyoming.  Likewise, when people think of UFOs, the town of Roswell, New Mexico comes to mind, as it is not only the location of a major event related to UFO conspiracy theories, but also in a region dense with UFO reports.

Chugwater is a town of barely more than 200 people roughly 40 miles north of Cheyenne.  The only thing it is really known for is chili.

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I have never actually tasted Chugwater Chili, but others have told me that it is really good.  Enough people like it to support an annual chili cook-off in the town, which has been going on for twenty-nine years!

However, yesterday, the last day of May, a trip to Chugwater helped shed some light on both phenomenon.

It was a day where thunderstorms fired up across a wide area that stretched all the way from Saskatchewan to just southwest of Colorado Springs.  After an examination of weather conditions, we determined that the best possible conditions for seeing some good thunderstorms within a reasonable drive of Denver would be in Southeast Wyoming.

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In the early part of the afternoon, a series of storms popped up in the region, but fizzled out and died fairly quickly.  It was not until mid-afternoon when we finally encountered a major storm brewing over the Laramie Mountains to the west of Chugwater.

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From a hill just to the west of town, we were able to observe this storm gradually move towards us as the afternoon progressed.  The entire day felt quite strange to me.  In every single way, it felt like a typical storm chase.  The procedure of heading towards an initial target location, then heading towards a storm as it forms, and observing it along a country road was exactly as I had done probably close to 100 times throughout my lifetime.  The air felt warm and moist, and the wind picked up as the storm approached, just as I had always remembered it.  Even the ground looked as green as it had looked in most of my chases in places like Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, and even Illinois.

However, this was Wyoming.  What we were observing today is quite atypical for Wyoming.  The ground, typically quite brown here, had turned green due to a recent uncharacteristically rainy period.  Additionally, it was quite moist that day, also atypical for the region.  All the conditions had come together to produce a scene, and event, and a feeling, that felt way more like Kansas, or even Oklahoma, than Wyoming.

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However, this region is still naturally dry, and as the storm developed, the somewhat random mixing of moist and dry air produced a somewhat chaotic storm structure.  For a period of time the storm structured itself in a manner that looked quite like a UFO.  Well, at least it looked like a UFO in the way it is typically portrayed in the movies; a gigantic circular object with a hole in the middle (the hole being where the aliens come down and abduct the humans in many scenarios).

The other major difference between this chase and a typical chase is the presence of mountains.  The mountains seen in the background of these pictures, which are facing West-North-West, are not nearly as tall as some of the region’s bigger mountains.  However, contemplating this UFO-like shape in the cloud feature did make me wonder if a similar phenomenon in Southern New Mexico, which also has a dry climate and more modest sized mountains, could explain some of the UFO sightings there.

Of course, there are many theories behind not only UFO spottings, but any observation that does not appear to be sufficiently explained.  The world often appears to operate in a manner that seems inconsistent with what we have been told by official sources, experts, and authority figures.  This is the primary driver of conspiracy theories.  While these theories largely have not been verified, I do sympathize with the intellectual curiosity that often leads people to explore these theories as a possible explanation for what they are observing in life.

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Roughly half an hour after the storm’s “UFO” phase, it produced a funnel cloud.  A funnel cloud is the beginning phase of a tornado.  However, not all funnel clouds reach the ground and produce tornadoes.  The reasons as to why some storms with the same rotation produce active, life-threatening, tornadoes while others don’t has been the subject of scientific research for decades.  I’m not going to figure this out by staring at this storm west of Chugwater.  I just came here because I love storms.

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After about 10 minutes the funnel dissipated, without producing a tornado.  As the storm began to produce greater and greater amounts of rainfall, it got darker, making the storm features harder to see.  This prompted us to go home, as we were already quite satisfied to have seen a funnel cloud.  In fact, this was the first time I got a picture of a funnel with mountains in the background.

This trip to Chugwater reminded me that every location has a story.  Even if a place seems boring, quiet, and insignificant, there is still the potential for something quite amazing to happen there, and there is still the potential for answers to some of life’s important questions to be found there.  Prior to 1947, I doubt too many people knew where Roswell, New Mexico was, or ever really thought about the place.  Now, a lot of people think of it whenever they think about aliens and UFOs.  While Roswell did not answer anything there are plenty of events occurring in all sorts of places around the world that may offer us answers to all kind of questions from curing diseases to questions of sociological and genetic nature.  What other obscure location could have the answers to some of the most pressing question of our day?  And, how do we go about finding it?