Monday, April 16, 2012

2012 Chase #2: A Chase to Remember

When I was young, the only storm chasers I knew of were the Harding’s: Jo and Bill or better known as Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton. Over the years, I have met many a storm chasers, but none better than the Carlsons. Thursday April 12th, 2012 Michael Carlson and myself headed out I70 to chase a solid set up in western Kansas. The conditions were favorable for tornadoes and we were both thrilled to hit the road to chase, however both of us were looking down the road to the weekend where two days out the Storm Prediction Center (SPC) had already had a moderate risk setup for much of Kansas. As April 12th didn’t pan out as we had hoped due to energy coming in a bit latter than expected, our attention was quickly turned to April 14th, 2012. If The SPC had issued a Moderate Risk two days out everything pointed to a High Risk. The highest categorical outlook issued by the SPC.

Carlson and I headed back out I70 thirty six hours later, in route to Russell, Kansas to stay the night and be in prime position for what looked to be a historic tornado out break. We rolled into Russell near 1am, with high risk in place and 45% hatched tornado probability, the second highest probability that is issued by the SPC needless to say a big day was in store.

The set up had plenty of moisture pumping straight north from the Gulf of Mexico. Waking up in the High Risk zone we had an extremely low, dense CU field screaming northward. Dewpoints all across the risk area were going to be in the 60’s and temperatures in the upper 70’s in most locations, meaning low LCLs.

The warm front was draped from nearly west to east near the boarder of Kansas and Nebraska. The upper level trough still remained in the western half of the United States and the upper level jet was moving right across the Midwest. There were short waves visible in advance of the upper level trough that showed hope of providing enough energy to kick storms off. The majority of the risk area was uncapped most of the day; when storms were firing just east of the panhandle of Nebraska we knew we were in for a long day. With values of CAPE around 4000 J/KG, EHI values of 3 in many locations and strong low level shear all the elements seemed to be in place for very large violent tornadoes.

Shortly after 8am we headed north toward our first target of the day, Smith Center, Kansas. With storms already firing in the area and the warm front just to the north our hopes were if a supercell formed it was turn right and ride the warm front. After sitting in a car port waiting for the first storm of the day to core us, we decided to plow east and get into position for another storm riding its coat tails that would go tornado warned. Michael and I found out the hard way how truly bad Kansas mud can be. After fishing tailing from rut to rut with mud half way up the tires down a four mile road we made it to pavement, however not before narrowly missing another motorist who lost control in the mud. At this point the chase had come to a halt due to the fact that the wheels were loaded with mud and made driving in normal conditions nearly impossible, let alone chasing supercells. Being sidelined for nearly an hour with issues to the vehicle and a wicked dense LCLs and no sign of any storm producing anything of significance, the decision was made to head south with developing supercells in central Kansas. That was a decision we would not regret.

This was a similar radar image that we were monitoring of supercells to our south. Hoping we would manage to get there in time before all the action was over.

The storm motions were heading to the Northeast at approximately 45mph and we were dropping south on a collision course for them at 65 mph. Luckily the storm motions were as fast as they were because at this time we were more than 100 miles away from them and there was an uneasiness that we would get to the show to late and were in danger of a bust on a high risk day. The time was nearing 3pm Central, so time was not an issue. Shortly after we had dropped south a rock solid updraft was visible. Finally we had visual of a storm; there were also reports coming in on spotter network of wall clouds and brief tornadoes. Perhaps our luck had yet to run out. We finally made it to the storm near Rice County in Kansas. The storm was well organized, but just did have enough to produce. After watching a couple of circulations reform with the cell and realizing it didn’t quite have its act together, Michael made the decision to head back east before everyone and wait for the storm to get a bit more organized. We repositioned to the north and to the east a couple of miles; passing by many redneck Kansas folk, drinking Keystone light in there jean shorts and tank tops curios to all the commotion happening in their rural farm town. Our stopping point came to the vacant corner of 22nd RD and AVE G just in time to see what was then a wedge tornado emerge from the trees.

As we caressed a hill it was difficult to tell what we were looking at. Once this monster emerged from the trees and the violent motion on the sides of the tornado it became evident.

The tornado continued on a northeast track. The condensation funnel at this point wasn't great, however extremely violent motion was evident and at this time you could hear the roar of the tornado. It sound like a deafening waterfall. A sound that will never be forgotten.

A town policeman screams down the road to the damage path. The tornado went from a large wedge tornado, to a multiple vortex to this very photogenic LP cone tornado.

Michael and I were on this corner all by our lonesome for sometime, enjoying this majestic EF4 monster, until the locals and other chasers realized what a great vantage point we had.

Being such a long track tornado it had many forms. This was an image from the first tornado after changing positions and peaking over the valley while driving.

We quickly stopped to snap a quick image of the second tornado the supercell put down and continued to chase it to the northeast.

Michael Carlson managed to get a screen grab from the video of the third tornado we saw as it was roping out.

This was the best chase I have yet to be on. The chase started at 9am on the morning of the 14th of April and we chased storms for 12 hours straight over a 500 mile trip. The initial tornado was on the ground for nearly 45 minutes and Michael and myself saw the entire life cycle. Below is an image of our location during the supercell. The tornado was on the ground for an amazing amount of time. With many reports.

Its evident of the long track the tornado had. Luckily there was minamal damage to persons and property during this EF4 tornado. The tornado came dangerously close to taking out the town of Salina, KS. It is truly breathtaking when one realizes the power of these storms. That was evident while driving through the damage path and smell fresh scored land, broken power poles, downed power lines and ripped apart structures.

April 14th, 2012 will always be a chase to remember. Witnessing 3 tornadoes, one wedge that was classified as an EF4, hearing a tornado roar and smelling the scored Earth. Many thanks to Michael Carlson for piloting and Verne Carlson for his hospitality!

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