Category Archives: tornadoes

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.