Last week, two undergrad meteorology buddies and I decided to use our precious private-sector PTO to nerd out in the Great Plains on an proper chasecation. After choosing the work week of April 30th through May 4th back in January, we were lucky as hell to have selected the most active severe weather week of 2018 thus far. Since our jobs don’t give us the most flexible schedules, we needed to pick a chasecation week well before we could have any inkling of the synoptic setup. We committed to last week partly because of the severe weather climatology, but mostly because it concluded with a weekend in Louisville during the Kentucky Derby for Landon’s 30 birthday. To begin our chasecation, he and Michael joined me in Dallas on the evening Friday, April 27th. The next day we picked up our rental car and immediately began seeing tornadoes galore.
…Wait, that’s not at all what happened.
In our 9-day chasecation, we logged 3,151 miles across 7 states from over 50 hours in the car. We spent roughly 15 hours watching actual storms.
It only takes a couple of chases for someone to realize just how much additional time a trip consumes outside of the storm watching. You’ll spend several hours driving to your target area. Another hour re-positioning. Another couple hours waiting for the cap to erode. An additional hour dropping south to the next cell because the one you were on fizzled out. Then if you’re chasing the next day, you have to decide if you’d rather enjoy your evening or get a head start toward your new target. Figuring out how to keep yourself entertained and awake during the ample downtime is a skill in itself. Because the overwhelming majority of our chasecastion consisted of said downtime, we’re making our recap a 2-part post in which the next section will discuss all the other fun and wacky activities on our trip.
For now, it’s time to brag about our accomplishments. Let’s talk storms.
Chase Day 1 (Sunday, April 29)
With the ridge over the central US beginning to relent to the deep pacific trough, the first storms of last week’s system were set to fire in the High Plains of Colorado and New Mexico. On a weak forcing, low moisture day however, only a marginal risk was issued by the SPC. After waiting in Boise City, OK for a couple hours, a few late-afternoon storms finally developed to our south along the Texas-New Mexico border. We intercepted a cell that wasn’t even remotely severe, but it’s low-precipitation structure along the Texas Panhandle backdrop gave us a few incredibly photogenic moments.
To make things even better, we got cows.
Chase Day 2 (Monday, April 30)
Monday provided a nearly identical high-plains dryline setup, only with slightly better forcing and moisture as the pacific trough inched closer to the Central US and the surface low began to develop in the lee of the Rockies. As a result, the SPC issued a slight risk across the high plains, and our expectations were slightly higher as we chased across the eastern Texas Panhandle.
Perhaps this attitude was a mistake, as Monday’s storms never could never find a region containing both good instability and shear. Any meso that formed was short-lived within a clunky parent cell.
Thankfully the structure and backdrop remained pretty.
If the storms didn’t live up to our standards, this West Texas sunset certainly did.
Perhaps most noteworthy about our Day 2 chase was the rare horseshoe cloud we spotted. On the seldom occasions these clouds occur, they are usually found in environments capable of producing severe weather (strong instability and vertical wind shear). Was it a sign of good luck to follow?
Chase Day 3 (Tuesday, May 1)
YOU BET YOUR HORSE’S ASS THAT HORSESHOE CLOUD WAS GOOD LUCK.
Day 3 had everything. It was the classic “day before the day” setup with all the necessary tornadic ingredients converging along the triple point and dryline in Central Kansas. The night before, #wxtwitter joked that Bennington 3.0 was going to happen. SPOILER ALERT: Bennington 3.0 happened.
We’ll get to that in a moment. Tuesday was a superb chase from start to finish, and I want to recap the full day. When towers began to bubble along the dryline west of our target in Great Bend, we set off toward US-183 near Rush Center to greet the baby storms.
We then dropped south a tad to meet a cell that we’d ultimately follow for the entire day. Even early on it produced an impressive wall cloud. I decided to play around with the time-lapse feature on my iPhone.
Shortly after it passed to our north, our supercell began dropping one beast of a hail shaft.
As the storm trekked northeast, we followed behind it on KS-4 from La Crosse to Hoisington. Just west of Otis, KS, we picked up a few recently-fallen hailstones in the 2-3 inch range.
Just north of Hoisington, a new meso re-formed, and and as the wall cloud wrapped tightly, we thought for sure a tornado would drop. Unfortunately, the cell appeared to be too outflow dominated, but it still created another great time-lapse.
We continued following the supercell northeast along KS-156 until we reached Ellsworth. On a dirt road just south of town, we watched the storm approach us from our best vantage point yet. The structure was unbelievable.
If the hailstones hadn’t already proved it earlier, our storm had become a monster. It had done everything but produce a tornado thus far. As afternoon drew late on a day with such high tornadic potential, we begun to worry we’d strike out. A change of fortune was desperately needed.
TWO HORSESHOE CLOUDS IN TWO DAYS. This could only mean one thing: KANSAS SUNSET MAGIC. We followed the supercell north across I-70, and as it approached Bennington, the storm we had followed all day finally came through for us.
If you only take away one lesson from this blog post, we hope that it’s #AlwaysKansas.
After a celebratory steak dinner in Salina that evening, we walked outside to one of the most incredible lightning shows to our north. The line of supercells from earlier had stalled leading to quite possibly the highest frequency of lightning strikes we’d ever seen.
The three of us standing in a filed, polishing a six pack, and watching the light show was the ultimate nightcap for the ultimate chase day.
Chase Day 4 (Wednesday, May 2)
By Wednesday, the strong synoptic lift associated with the approaching Vort-max produced a cluster of rain-wrapped storms across Kansas. In order to have a chance at viewing discrete supercells, we were forced to drop south into Oklahoma, where the dryline was set to produce storms with less than ideal veer-back-veer vertical wind shear profiles. The sloppy day 4 setup following a classic day of Kansas magic significantly tempered our initial enthusiasm for the long drive.
Fortunately, our dedication to the chasecation paid further dividends. We found a supercell with incredible structure west of Leedey, OK.
As this particular cell weakened, we dropped further south to I-40 and began following another supercell toward Oklahoma City. After positioning ourselves in front of this much stronger storm, we dipped south toward Anadarko and captured some impressive lightning beneath a monster wall cloud.
As sundown loomed, the storms became linear, rain-wrapped, and crawled closer to the OKC metro. Nope, nope, nope, nope. So much nope. Our storm chase was over. However, even as we sped off ahead of the storm toward our Wednesday night destination of Tulsa, the anvil gave us one last delightful view.
With the best tornado chances of the following day’s setup shifting to Iowa, we turned our sights toward the upcoming birthday and Derby festivities. The chasing part of our chasecation was complete. Unfortunately, we never saw anything horse related on Day 4 that would provide us with good betting fortune on the horse races.
…Wait, that’s not at all what happened.
What’s this here in Western Oklahoma from earlier in the day?
Thanks for reading, y’all! Part II of our chasecation recap will discuss all the non-storm related happenings when we were chasing. Part II will also discuss some storm related happenings when we weren’t chasing (i.e. the wettest Kentucky Derby ever). Stay tuned!