Category Archives: Storm Chasing

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?

A Storm Chase Without Feedlots

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Just when I was concerned that the entire Northeastern section of Colorado had turned into one giant feedlot, yesterday I was able to go on a storm chase, completely (albeit barely) confined to the Northeastern Plains of Colorado, without encountering a single feedlot.  This is phenomenal news!  There actually is room for more!  If someone were to get elected Governor on a platform of wanting to reduce the price of beef to a dollar a pound and literally stop caring about the quality of the food we are consuming- it could be done!

After seeing the hail shaft pictured above, one of the first major events of our chase was getting tumbleweed stuck in the grill of the car.

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Tumbleweeds are often found in this part of the country.  In modern society, they have become synonymous with isolation, desolation, and decay, often portrayed as showing up in the wake of an economic decline or some kind of abandonment.  However, in this situation, the presence of tumbleweeds blowing across the highway was actually a positive sign for our mission, which is to see really cool storms.  The tumbleweeds were actually blowing across the road at this time of day because powerful inflow currents had developed, which fuels storms.  If I ever needed more reassurance that I had blazed my own path in life, and not followed the track that everyone else does, this is it.  I am in Northeastern Colorado and on a mission where seeing tumbleweeds blow across the road and get stuck in the car is a major positive sign.  Because it led to this.

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These funnel clouds did not quite reach the ground, but were still really cool to see.  These storms were seen near Sterling, Colorado.  Apparently, there is something about the location of this town that makes it especially susceptible to tornadoes.  I wonder if that is why their roads are in bad shape, and their light cycles are timed in such a way that it seems like they try to virtually guarantee that you will stopped at over 50% of all traffic lights in town.

We tracked the storms north out of Sterling (after we eventually got out of Sterling), towards the Nebraska border, where we saw a couple of other cool features.  First, some downdrafts, which are what leads to strong wind events, and then another funnel formed on the storm.  This funnel was rather small.  All this indicated that the atmosphere yesterday was marginally fit for tornado development, but not anything like the atmosphere that lead to the gigantic tornadoes in Oklahoma last week.

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Unfortunately, when you get out into this part of the country, good paved roads can be quite far apart from one another, in some cases over 20 miles.  Storms don’t really care where the roads are.  So, in this case, to continue to follow the storm circulation northeast of Sterling, we ended up having to take dirt roads.  The chase kind of ended on a dirt road that was literally less than half a mile from the Nebraska border.  At this point, we had kind of decided that we had already seen some really nice storms and it would be good to get home at a reasonable hour.  The storms we were looking at had kind of become one big cluster, which makes them hard to see anyways.

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For people hoping to get to as many states as possible, something like this would be frustrating.  It actually reminds me of a chase I had in 2003 where we spent a good deal of time in Nebraska, and on something like three occasions (on different days too) came within a mile of the border with South Dakota, but never entered the State.  I guess that would piss off people wanting to get to as many states as possible, but I have been in Nebraska a whole bunch of times, even been bored on a drive between Denver and Chicago where Nebraska, along I-80 feels like it goes on endlessly.  A couple of decades ago someone wrote a comedy song called “Interstate 80 Iowa”, basically mocking that 90% of what you encounter on that drive is corn.  But, when it comes to boredom, Interstate 80 Nebraska kind of blows Iowa out of the water!

Our final destination was Fort Morgan, where we went to a local pub to get some food.  This was around dark, so kind of late.  While there, another storm rolled through, producing some pretty major winds.  When looking outside at the wind, some of the locals at the restaurant looked at me and replied “Welcome to Morgan”.  This seemed to indicate to me that they knew we were not from the area and that those from the area do not even blink at stuff like this anymore.  We were something like 75 minutes East of Denver, but in a whole different world.  Upon reflection on this, I guess this Fort Morgan town can kind of be thought of as where “tornado alley” begins, with it stretching eastward from there to Missouri.  Pretty neat for a not all that exciting town.

A More Successful Storm Chase

I promise anyone that is reading this that this blog is going to have a good deal of variety.  I have a good deal of travel plans starting next week, in which I will be traveling almost non-stop the first half of June.  But, for now, I guess there are going to be two consecutive blogs about storm chasing.  It is May, the peak month for tornadoes, and I plan to blog about the interesting places that I go.  It just so happened to be that two back to back entries ended up being storm chases.  I mean, I am not going to blog about things that are not too interesting, like my dog chewing up my underwear yesterday.  I guess I could write about partying, but for now I am keeping this a travel blog.

This is my first season of chasing out of Denver, so I am still getting used to certain things about chasing from here rather than Chicago.  Storm chasing from Denver means that you will always be going east to try to catch the storms, and trying to catch them from behind.  This is the opposite of chasing from Chicago which almost always entailed going west.  Strong thunderstorms often form on a weather feature known as a dry line.  Dry lines are boundaries between dry and moist air, with moist air to the east and dry air to the west.  It took us a couple of hours to get to the moist side of the dry line (which is more favorable for storms), but when we first started to see storms form, we were still in a very dry air mass near Akron, Colorado.

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From now on, I am going to refer to U.S. highway 34 from Greeley to the Nebraska state line as “feed lot highway”.  I didn’t take another picture of the feedlots because one picture is enough, but I am still amazed by how may cows you encounter along this road in eastern Colorado.  I noticed that there is a gigantic feedlot about four miles west of the town of Wray, Colorado.  If there is a west wind, that town must smell horrible, and all 100 or so people must be pissed off.  There was a part of the drive when we were unable to get the smell of 1000s of cows all jammed up into something like 5 acres of land out of the car.  I remember the first time I drove by a feedlot (also on a storm chase).  I remember thinking that I had finally encountered a worse smelling road than the New Jersey Turnpike, and it only took me 19 years!

We chased four storms today.  The first two we caught up to near Holyoke, CO, about 35 miles north of Wray.  The first storm we caught actually showed some rotation, and produced some major hail.  I looked it up later, and the reports we saw indicated hail sizes of up to 2.75″.  Luckily for our chasing vehicle, we did not end up in that section of the storm, but we did see some smaller hail, as seen on the road in the below picture.

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We followed the first storm for a while, and then started following the storm just to the east of it.  Tracking this storm took us across the stateline into Nebraska.

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This is the best picture I could get of the welcome to Nebraska sign on state route 23.  One of the strange things that makes me happy is when a state highway crosses into another state and maintains the same number in the adjacent state.  This is actually somewhat rare.  For example, Indiana state highway 2 becomes Illinois state highway 17 when you cross the border.  If you look at state highways on a map, you will see that it is way more common for them to take on a different number when crossing a border.  But, this crossing was an exception, Colorado state highway 23 became Nebraska state highway 23!

By the way, when it comes to state welcome signs, Nebraska is without a doubt blown away by all of it’s neighbors.  South Dakota’s welcome sign has an image of Mount Rushmore.  Kansas’s has a sunflower.  Colorado’s is the classic wooden sign saying “Welcome to Colorful Colorado”.  Wyoming’s forever west ones are a neat depiction of the state’s cowboy heritage.  Iowa’s say “Fields of Opportunities”.  Okay, that is kind of a stupid slogan, but at least it is memorable.  Home of Arbor Day?  Really, Nebraska?  Of all the facts about your state that you could present to me every time I enter Nebraska, you chose Arbor Day?  I’d rather see a picture of Warren Buffet every time I enter the state.

Anyways, that storm kind of crapped out, so we went after a few storms a bit farther north, near Ogallala.  Here we actually saw a funnel cloud.  It did not reach the ground and therefore was not a tornado.  In fact, there were no tornadoes reported today, only large hail and strong winds.  So, seeing this, we did feel like bad-asses for being on the best storm of the day even if it was not a tornado.

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These pictures came north of Ogallala, near Lake Mcconaughy.  Basically, somewhere along the line someone decided to dam up the North Platter River just northeast of Ogallala, NE.  Behind it, as is typically the case with dams, a lake was created and suddenly Nebraskans had a place to bring their boats.  This is not too interesting of a story, but I am sure it is more interesting than Arbor Day.

The other problem we ran into was lack of a good road network in the area north and east of Ogallala.  Therefore, we had to let this particular storm, which was the most interesting one we saw today, go.  Luckily, there was one other storm behind it, tracking northeast from the west edge of Lake Mcconaghy.  So, we decided to watch this storm go by- well until sunset.

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At this ranch, where there were hundreds of cows out on the range, making plenty of noise (it was really funny actually), this spectacular sunset took place.  There was something kind of awe inspiring about the way the sun set gradually just to the left of a major thunderstorm that was producing frequent lightning.  It’s the kind of event that you really have to be there to truly appreciate, but let’s just say it was one of those things that really got me thinking.

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I tried to get a picture of lightning, but it is hard to do so with a cell phone camera.  But, I really liked the feeling of being on an empty two lane undivided road looking straight into a thunderstorm around sunset.  I think it just had a specific feeling to it.  It’s kind of like stepping into the unknown, and taking a path less traveled, but still knowing you are not going anywhere too terribly dangerous.  It is stepping far enough outside your comfort zone to generate an excitement in you, but not so far that you get truly scared, kind of like trying a new restaurant or taking a new class.

This scene also reminded me of a time in my life when roughly half of my weekends would start out this way; traveling on the open road on a Friday evening.  This was in college and graduate school when I would frequently be headed elsewhere in the general Midwest area; Chicago, Madison, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Ann Arbor, Saint Louis, Bloomington, Champaign, etc.  I remember months where I would literally have spent 24 total hours traveling, but realize that I had not even left the corn belt.  Most of those weekends actually ended up being somewhat similar.  They would involve parties (or bars, etc.) with a couple of people I knew, and a bunch of people I did not know.  It was exactly that mix of the familiar and the unknown that is captured by driving down a desolate road into a thunderstorm.  In a way, it is the balance we are all seeking.  Very few people are satisfied continuing to do the same thing over and over again for their entire lifespan.  So, we all must learn new things, meet new people, and develop new experiences.  But, we must all do so at our own pace.

As I watched the sun slowly descend the horizon I continued to ponder what it meant.  I thought to the feelings I had on those countless Friday and Saturday evenings on the road last decade.  It is usually about what lies ahead.  Sometimes life can get frustrating.  When life does get frustrating, it is the promise of some kind of new experience that can help alleviate the feeling of melancholy that attempts to infect your mind.

It is impossible to know what kind of storms you are going to see when storm chasing.  Anyone that says they only want to go storm chasing if they know they will see a tornado simply does not understand storm chasing and should not be invited on future chases.  The unknown needs to be embraced.  It is the same with traveling to a place you have never been to before, trying something you have never done before, or meeting someone new.  The place may be a disappointment, like when I was 8 years old and I thought Plymouth Rock would be bigger.  You could always try a new activity or a new type of food and discover you don’t like it.  And, we have all met assholes.  But, the uncertainty is part of what makes it exciting.  Any task where a certain outcome is guaranteed quickly becomes just another task, indistinguishable from work, chores, etc.

This is why I gamble.  This is why I go to parties and dance with complete strangers.  This is why I am always looking to go somewhere I have never been to before.  And, in a way, this is why I chase storms and study the weather.  There is always a chance for a surprise, which makes these experiences the exact opposite of watching a movie you have already seen.  I for one, cannot wait for my next journey into the unknown, regardless of what type of unknown it is.