May 9th, 2015 in Colorado and western Kansas began initially with a Moderate Risk for severe storms, as issued by the SPC in the Day 1 convective outlook. A 10% tornado risk stretched across portions of far eastern Colorado, southwestern Kansas, and southward into portions of the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles. A shortwave trough was progged to track eastward across the southern Rockies throughout the day, with associated lee cyclogenesis expected to occur in east/southeastern Colorado. Favorable upslope flow, modest instability, surface dewpoints in the low 50s (sufficient in CO), steep lapse rates and a strong 75kt mid-level jet were all signaling a potent atmosphere for robust severe storm development, especially in the vicinity of the triple point east of the low in south/central Colorado.
I partnered up with a female meteorologist from Australia who lives in Denver for this particular chase. I agreed (and prefer) to drive, so I picked her up from her home in Denver and we made our way east on I-70 into Kansas. Our initial plan, which she insisted on, was to target the warm sector in Dodge City, KS. We dropped south on HWY 27 out of Goodland until we reached Syracuse, KS. At this point I really felt urged to head back west to Colorado and reposition closer to the triple point/low, as storms were beginning to fire near and north of the Raton Mesa and move NE into southeastern CO. However, my chase partner was very set on sticking to our original target in DDC. But DDC was sitting under a strong inversion, and I felt the cap was going to be too strong to overcome; meanwhile the cap had already eroded in SE CO. Storms were firing. We needed to get there.
Finally, after much debate, I persuaded my chase partner to get on board with my strong urging that we needed to get west, and quickly. So we darted west on HWY 96 towards Lamar, CO, then northward on HWY 287 towards Eads, CO toward a gorgeous maturing supercell. The lighting on this storm as we viewed it from the south was so beautiful. Bright white clouds billowed upward in front of us, and as we maneuvered closer on our northward route, the lowering wall cloud began to dangle little swirling, white tendrils of condensation from its base. Like twirling ribbons, they swirled and swirled, and reached toward the ground, so delicately you might have missed the little dust swirl that kicked up beneath the white funnel.
We pulled off on the side of the highway, and I hastily grabbed my camera and ran off into the field to photograph this incredible tornado. I could hardly believe what I was seeing. After 3 years of chasing storms in Colorado, I was finally witnessing my very first tornado. And what a spectacular one she was. I furiously snapped countless photos, then made a very poor attempt to capture video, then switched back to still photos again. Then stopped to just watch it with my mouth hanging open.
This beautiful white tornado spun majestically across desolate farmland in Kiowa County for maybe 10 minutes before it roped out completely. Even the rope out stage was very photogenic, and it was at this stage that the ground circulation below the condensation funnel was most pronounced and visible.
After the tornado dissipated, I ran back to my car and sat in the passenger seat, scrolling through the many photos I just captured and pinching myself as I tried to process what I just witnessed. Was it a dream? Was that perfect, ethereal tornado actually real? For far too long, I sat there admiring the incredible display of nature I just captured on camera. I truly could not believe it.
Finally, I suggested we continue with the storm, so we continued driving north and east, but by this point we were very far from the storm’s base. And yet, at the corner of my eye, I spotted it. Far in the distance, a second, larger tornado! At this point I began kicking myself for sitting there so long looking at photos instead of keeping up with the storm.
We were really far behind the storm at this point, and road networks were just not in our favor at all, so we pulled off again and I ran up a steep, muddy embankment to grab some distant shots of the tornado as it grew to its largest, widest stage. The tornado was NE of Eads by about 13 miles, and had just crossed into Cheyenne County as of 5:10pm MDT.
I could not believe the incredible mesocyclone associated with this tornado! It was so beefy and well-defined, very good indicators of a stronger tornado. Unfortunately for NWS damage surveyors (but fortunate for people and property), these tornadoes occurred largely over rural farmland and did not significantly damage any structures. Therefore, the EF rating of these tornadoes could not be determined through damage surveys.
There were a few smaller tornadoes and subvortices that occurred with this cyclical tornado-producing supercell, however due to my distance from the storm I wasn’t able to view these. We worked hard to catch up to the storm again and finally made it to HWY 385 north ahead of the storm, just north of Cheyenne Wells, CO. At this point the storm was strongly undercut, and my chase partner and I were starving, so we slowly trudged along with hordes of other storm chasers, northward to Burlington. Many chasers continued east and encountered more tornadoes in Kansas after dark, but my chase partner and I were starving and ready to call the chase, so we grabbed dinner at a small diner in Burlington. I must have looked quite hysterical covered in mud from my chase, and my appearance seemed to attract a lot of attention from the staff. They hovered around our table and asked a hundred questions about our chase as they watched me edit photos from the day.
Little did we know, as we wrapped up our dinner and began to head for home, what a harrowing journey awaited us. On the back side of this potent system, an incredible snow storm was unfolding, and conditions were deteriorating rapidly. We trekked westward on I-70 from Burlington through heavy, blowing snow and blizzard conditions for the entire stretch of our drive back to my chase partner’s home in west Denver. It seemed there were cars spun off in ditches or stuck in high snow drifts every quarter to half mile on I-70. By the time we made it to her home, I ended up having to spend the night. The roads were far too treacherous to attempt the remainder of my drive home to Colorado Springs.
So many lessons were learned from this chase, with the number one lesson being DO NOT fall behind your storm! Just because your storm has produced one tornado, doesn’t mean it’s done producing tornadoes! Having to play catch up to storms and watch tornadoes occur from 10+ miles away while you navigate impossible road networks is highly frustrating.
But I saw my FIRST tornado, and it was incredible.
This was the moment I knew.
This is what I want to do, for the rest of my life.