Below is the review of the 2015 Storm Chase second trip, as written by co-leader Kevin Myatt. The first 2015 Storm Chase trip also has a review, written by co-leader Chris White, linked here.
STORM CHASE 2015, PART II, JUNE 1-8
by Kevin Myatt
The story of the 2015 storm chase second trip begins with the automotive difficulties of the first trip. One of three Virginia Tech Fleet Services vans used by the first group suffered transmission failure in the Texas Panhandle, necessitating it to be put in a dealership auto shop for repair in Dumas, Texas, and a rental van to be procured in nearby Amarillo. Upon learning that the van would take several more days to be repaired than originally hoped, the first group completed its trip and returned to Blacksburg with the rental van. By the time the trip was ending, one of the two remaining Fleet Services vans was also exhibiting transmission difficulties, and was sidelined.
With only 15 people going on the second trip instead of the 18 that went on the first, a sedan was secured from Fleet Services to replace the second van. Meanwhile, an initial trip decision loomed on whether we would first travel to Nebraska for storm potential, then drop down to Texas to deal with the repaired van and rental van a little later, or whether we would just get the van mess out of the way first even though it took us way from the core of early storm potential. It was decided the early setup in Nebraska wasn’t all that compelling, and it was best to go ahead and target Dumas/Amarillo for arrival on the afternoon of the second day, then bounce northward to eastern Colorado or western Kansas for potential storms on Day 3.
So our motley crew of a dark blue rental van, a car and a single remaining Fleet Services van rolled out from Blacksburg on June 1, and we made it all the way to Van Buren, Arkansas, on the Oklahoma border by late evening. That 904 miles was apparently a first-day Hokie Storm Chase travel record. Core-punching a pulse storm in Tennessee was really the only weather event of note on the route. The second day was a quick roll across Oklahoma to the Texas Panhandle. We arrived in Dumas about 3 p.m. and were ready to leave by 7 p.m. with the rental van turned in and the repaired van in our possession. We drove northward to Garden City, Kansas, late on the evening of June 2 to put us in reasonable position for potential severe weather to the north and west the next day.
Chase 1: Colorado Front Range, June 3
Our morning analysis on June 3 indicated three areas of supercell potential: (1) southeastern Wyoming, (2) the Colorado Front Range/Palmer Divide area and (3) north-central Kansas. Wyoming was the hardest to reach but offered the greatest likelihood of storms firing. North-central Kansas offered the least chance of storms developing but, if they did fire, the greatest chance that some could become violent supercells with tornado potential. We opted for the middle ground, Colorado, more reachable than Wyoming, more storm potential than Kansas, but somewhat less chance of storms developing than Wyoming and somewhat less potential for high-end supercells than Kansas.
By mid-afternoon we arrived at a railroad park in Limon, Colorado, where three of us on board (leader Dave Carroll, alum and Weather Channel producer Kathryn Prociv, and yours truly, co-leader Kevin Myatt) had waited out a total bust to end a frustrating June 2011 chase trip. But this time, storms began developing along the Front Range of the Rockies, and we eventually motored west toward Kiowa, Colorado, to take a closer look. Diving south from Kiowa to the ghost-town-like Elbert (complete with a saloon), we traversed a gravel road onto a foothills plateau (6,500 feet above sea level) that afforded us an unobstructed view of a developing low-precipitation supercell to the west.
We watched as the cell cycled a few times, producing wall clouds and textbook LP structure. We were often in bright sunshine as the storm moved almost nowhere.
Finally grudgingly drifting a little northeast, we headed back to Kiowa and to a water tower-graced hilltop spot east of town to watch the storm. This is where we met up with two Hokie Storm Chase alums — Stephanie Pilkington (2010), who now lives in Colorado, and Seth Price (2003-06) who lives in New Mexico. A WeatherNation TV crew also interviewed Dave as a dark lowered base on the storm cycled behind us.
The first cell began dying as it began ingesting cooler, drier air from the east, and new storm base to the west looked considerably more robust. We pushed west as far as the southern Denver suburb of Elizabeth to take a look, but both chaser convergence and normal commuter traffic became problematic. So we tracked back eastward toward Kiowa. At one point, a lowering just to our north developed rapid rotation, and many of us thought it was about to drop a tornado nearby as we stopped to watch behind a steakhouse. The supercell was apparently ingesting helicity left behind by the original storm we had followed.
No funnel dropped, and we continued eastward, back to the same hilltop we were at earlier, and then further eastward, occasionally stopping for a view. The storm gradually became undone, choking on the same cooler, drier air to the east as the first.
We retreated back to Limon to spend the night.
Chase 2: North-central/northwest Kansas, June 4
A cold front had cleared the instability out of southeast Wyoming, so this basically left the two other options from the previous day for June 4 — the Colorado Front Range/Palmer Divide area, and north-central Kansas. In both cases, it appeared instability and shear were a tick higher than the previous day, so there was more chance for violent supercells and possible tornadoes.
We decided to travel east for north-central Kansas, where a warm front lifting northward seemed to offer the potential for lift and helicity that could ramp up some mean supercells. Kansas had produced at least one very picturesque and tornadic supercell the day before.
By mid-afternoon we arrived at Stockton, north of Hays, and everything suggested a Kansas tornado threat — breezy southeasterly winds, oppressive humidity, and darkening bases of growing cumulus towers. Short term models showed that the Significant Tornado parameter — SigTor — was 11 just 1 county to our east, when 5 is often considered a red flag for the potential of long-track, violent tornadoes. As we waited at a town park, turkey towers began poking high a few miles north toward Phillipsburg, and we thought that soon we’d be moving on a severe storm.
But something strange happened as we drove north toward Phillipsburg for a better looked — the sky began clearing. A stout cap and perhaps some subsidence on the backside of a passing upper-level shortwave were too much for convection to overcoming. A gnawing feeling of a “bust” began to grip us — intensified by the social media photos pouring in of several spectacular tornadoes not far west of Limon, where we had started the day.
We reserved hotel rooms in Colby, Kansas, back on I-70 in the western part of the state, and expected to return for an early dinner and turn-in (8:30 being early on a chase day). But as we traveled west from Phillipsburg, a storm popped up in southwest Nebraska, a little too far for us to engage. Then, another developed due west of our location near Atwood, Kansas. So we quickly decided to head toward it, hoping to salvage something out of the day.
When we finally got a full view of the storm from base to anvil, our jaws collectively dropped at the intense structure of a low-precipitation supercell with a tight, twisting updraft almost like a barber pole. We dropped southward on a gravel road to get in good position to view this hail-chunking beauty without being dented by it. Soon, it was tornado-warned.
While pausing to examine the LP supercell, we noticed dark bases to our south and southeast, and tall bubbly cauliflower above them poking skyward. We realized that new storms were starting to develop. Traveling west and north wasn’t really an option with the LP dropping hail up to the size of tennis balls, so all we could do was poke south on the gravel road right under the storm bases, hopefully getting out from under them before they decided to dump torrential rain — or worse — on us.
We made it out to a highway at Rexford, Kansas, and turned back to watch the cell we were just under continue to grow, then start to spin noticeably, and eventually pull cloud material underneath it into a lowered base or “wall cloud.” Our second supercell of what looked to be a busted afternoon had formed right before our eyes. It also soon gained a tornado warning. We were eventually chased away from our viewing location by a very close bolt of lightning, and we retreated back to near Rexford to continue watching the storm.
As darkness fell, the supercell we were watching and two others to the east and south began to coalesce into a cluster. A frenetic lightning show — 30 to 50 flashes per second at its peak — ensued. Thoroughly mesmerized, we stayed on a country road and watched this for about 90 minutes.
Fully sated by an evening of storm structure and continuous lightning, we drifted back to Colby after 11 p.m.
Chase 3: Eastern Colorado, June 5
The 3 options of our first day and 2 options of our second day appeared to be narrowed to just one on the third day: Colorado. A passing shortwave promised to give a little boost to the storms that had been occurring along the Front Range and Palmer Divide on the previous two days.
We were strongly questioning the decision to head toward the Front Range again when we encountered foggy, drizzly, chilly weather for 60 miles in eastern Colorado. At a rest stop not far east of Limon, we re-evaluated, and decided that any storms of note to the west would develop only right in the Denver metro area with both heavy chaser convergence and Saturday local traffic. We decided to head eastward, closer to the Kansas border, where sunshine was eroding the wedge of cool, damp air and would lead to greater instability, though later firing storms.
We motored back to Burlington, not far west of the Kansas line, on I-70, then north to the small town of Wray, where we waited outside a 7-Eleven. Storms began to develop to our west and southwest, and gained tornado warnings fairly quickly. The storms closest to us to the west were in a tangled mess, so we targeted the storm to our southwest, near I-70, that was still discrete.
Reversing course on U.S. 385 south to Idalia, we caught a view of a rain-free base on the storm to our southwest. Finding a viewing spot just west of the town, it quickly became obvious that what we thought at first to be a rain shaft near the right edge of the rain free base was more solid. Our eyes and more advanced camera equipment quickly made out one tornado on the horizon, soon confirmed by spotters much closer to the storm north of Stratton, Colorado, as NOAA weather radio warned of a “large and dangerous tornado” with the storm.
Storm coverage soon became a problem, as storms popped up in numerous locations and began to fuse into an organized cluster or MCS. Visibility on any tornado was soon obscured by rain, and we had little choice but to make a run for it north and east. We saw at least one nice LP-like structure on the road ahead of us, but the curtain was closing behind us.
Most of Nebraska was behind an outflow boundary, so the cooler, more stable air reduced the tornado and severe storms risk as the storms moved northeast. But we drove through periods of heavy rain and vivid lightning through the evening all the way to Kearney in the central part of the state, where we overnighted to set up for the next day’s potential.
Chase 4: Northern Nebraska, June 6
We awoke in Kearney with plans to motor toward the SPC’s 10% tornado risk zone in north-central and northeastern Nebraska. The zone had shifted northward and eastward overnight, touching parts of neighboring South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa. A cold front would be moving into warm, humid air to trigger initiation, with a moderate amount of shear aloft.
We drove to Norfolk, Nebraska, for lunch and recon. A couple of storms began to fire to our northwest near O’Neill, and we made our way northwestward. Early on, it looked promising as the storm we viewed from a highway hilltop vantage point several miles southeast of O’Neill had solid early-stage supercell structure, periodically dropping a wall cloud. At first it was heading east parallel to the U.S. 220, but then angled more east-northeastward. There were no good road options to hang closer to the storm.
And then, storms began going up everywhere. The radar quickly turned into a cluster of cells all over north-central and northeast Nebraska, some severe with notable hail cores. We ended up spending more than an hour under a gas overhang at Plainview, Nebraska, protecting the vehicles from possible hail, until we finally had an opening to head southward.
We got a few decent looks at supercell storm structure within a mostly multicell as we motored south to Norfolk, but the day had not turned out anything like we expected or hoped.
We ate a quick dinner at Norfolk and then headed south and east into Iowa, barely outrunning a squall line, arriving at Stuart, Iowa for the night.
Chase 5: Central Illinois, June 7
Though it was only the seventh day of our planned 10-12-day storm chase trip, we began our trip east toward home. It did not appear the next trough in the Plains would set up shop until late in the week when we would already be having to head home, anyway, and central Illinois offered the best shot at high-end severe storms on this Sunday. Dave and I have a strong love for central Illinois as a chase target, because of its Kansas-quality prairie chase terrain in many locations, little or no chaser traffic and successful chases we have had there in 2006, 2007 and 2009.
East of Des Moines, we encountered another automotive obstacle: A blown tire on the one remaining chase van that had no experienced transmission problems. Blessedly, this blowout occurred right as we were exiting for gas anyway. The tire had a large patch of missing rubber, and all we had was a “doughnut” spare, so the tire would have to be replaced. Newton, Iowa, had a Wal-Mart nearby, so 3 of us drove there to let them have the old tire and replace it with a new one while the rest of the crew waited at the gas station. All told we were only off the road about 90 minutes.
Still, it was a delay that put us behind the day’s storm activity. But the time we got to Galesburg, Illinois, in the western part of the state, storm towers were already climbing to our south and southeast, and quickly went severe while we ate a quick lunch. We had wanted to be south of the storms when they fired. So this left us with having to weave our way between cells and through weaker cells southward on state highways through rural Illinois towns that slowed us down. We hit many periods of heavy rain and gusty winds — and had one road detour where large trees had been toppled by wind minutes before we arrived — but we eventually punched through the storms into sunshine.
We worked our way back north to a cell on the southern edge of the scattered cluster draped east-west through central Illinois, catching some nice shelf cloud structure. As a “tail-end Charlie” cell on that particular line segment pulled eastward, it developed some storm-scale rotation and picked up cloud material for a wall cloud.
When that cell passed, we headed southward — right past Abraham Lincoln’s gravesite at Springfield — and then eastward as the storms to the north coagulated into another big rainy mess, similar to Nebraska the day before. But again, radar was showing significant rotation in another tail-end Charlie cell on the southwest edge of main mass, and after some debate and discussion, we eventually made our way northward toward that storm.
We entered Piatt County, Illinois, and tracked northward to a spot between Monticello and Maroa Illinois — very near where we made our storied “Maroa Miracle” supercell intercept in a nearly dead northwest flow severe pattern in 2006 — and watched as the lightning-heavy, striated mesocyclone tracked to our north, providing one final (or so we thought) jaw-dropping spectacle to the 2015 Storm Chase second trip.
The storms on the nearest edge of the complex quickly formed a bowing segment that began expanding south and racing more rapidly southeastward. This necessitated a quick retreat southward as dark fell, which put us sideswiping wind gusts exceeding 50 mph, with plenty of dust kicked up. We attempted to outrun the bow for a couple hours, but finally decided it was futile, that it would overtake us, so we pulled off I-57 and let it run over us. Fortunately, the part of the storm that came over us at that location did not have winds that were even greater than 40 mph.
After sitting through downpours for a while, we finally headed back north to Champaign and eventually Danville, almost right at the Indiana border, for the night, encountering some flooded parts of the interstate along the way.
Return to Blacksburg, June 8
We went home on the eighth day of the trip, a couple days earlier than expected but with a quiver of interesting storm intercepts more full than most of our longer trips.
We ate a group lunch at Steak & Shake in Chillicothe, Ohio, and then made our traditional last stop at the Tamarack travel center in West Virginia.
But this trip had one last amazing storm moment for us. A line segment formed in southern West Virginia, and we were outrunning it on our last 50 miles into Blacksburg.
As we got to Blacksburg, a multi-layered shelf cloud filled the sky and rolled over the Virginia Tech campus. The chasers in the car went to the top of a parking deck to get a good look, but it was impressive from any viewing point.
What an ending to the 2015 Hokie Storm Chase season.