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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 05/26/2011

Roadtripping the Great Plains: Starring a lull in the 2011 tornado season


Towering cumulus threatening, and failing, to become a thunderstorm over northeast Nebraska on May 8.
The tornado hits keep on coming. After an April for the record books, May has joined it in other infamous ways. On top of the Southeast disasters and the Joplin nightmare that killed at least 125 people, along came a “classic” Plains tornado outbreak that killed at least 15 people in Arkansas, Kansas and Oklahoma on Tuesday before pummeling the Midwest to Ohio Valley yesterday. A good year to storm chase during part of the “prime season,” right? Well, if you timed it correctly...

Between the late-April Alabama tornado outbreak and the increase in twister activity in the days before tornadoes struck Joplin, Mo., and Topeka, Kan., this past weekend, there was a mysterious pause. NOAA meteorologists have noted the historic lows of tornadic activity during the period. It just so happened to coincide with my “chasecation.”

Keep reading for more photos from the Plains, some including storms!

Before the photos, a short recap of how I missed out on big action during the most intense tornado season in recent memory…

Even without copious storms, the Plains (and a few stops on the way there and back) proved to be quiet picturesque. I did not plan on seeing a tornado on my first real outing, but the lack of storms of note was a little surprising given that early May is the beginning of the peak of the season in the southern Plains, and a period that has featured many major outbreaks in the past.

One culprit for the break in extreme weather during the first two-thirds of May 2011 was that “blocky” pattern that gave the D.C. area an extended nice period followed by a stormy one. The storm-system logjam over the eastern half of the U.S. helped keep moisture from streaming back into the Plains with any ease, while also slowing and altering the progression of this spring’s typically fast jet stream across the country.

It was still quite an experience – one which featured a few exciting moments, particularly a tornado chase in South Dakota after dark. Also, too many “blue sky busts.” But given that many of this year’s tornadoes have come in “all-or-nothing” bursts that can’t seem to avoid populated areas, I actually look back at my trip with a sense of relief - even a weather-lover like myself does not wish to personally witness or be part of massive human suffering.

Below is a brief look at my two weeks away from the D.C. area. For the most part I chose one photo for each day of note, with the exception of the trip out as we hit two areas of storminess that were quite separated. More in the way of photos will ultimately be housed here. And at the end is a video compilation of the South Dakota tornado chase on May 9.


Chase partner Jason Foster photographs Asperatus clouds over east-central Tennessee on May 1. The clouds were seen on the leading edge of a dying mesoscale convective system (MCS) around sunrise.

View asperatus panorama


A shelf cloud on the leading edge of a severe thunderstorm in northeast Arkansas on May 1. This storm was warned for a tornado shortly after as it headed toward Memphis. This is a multi-image panorama.

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Light convective showers around dusk on May 2 in southern Kansas.

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A large brush fire burns in central Kansas on May 3. This is a multi-image panorama.
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Wakita, Oklahoma -- home of the Twister movie and museum on May 5. It was sunny, but I did witness a tornado (well, maybe it’s a funnel cloud).

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An elevated severe warned supercell on May 6 to the northwest of Abilene, Texas. A rotating updraft is seen at lower left. This is a multi-image panorama.

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A supercell on the western horizon at sunset, as seen from southeastern South Dakota on the evening of May 8. Note shadows in the bright high clouds above the storm, caused by the sun falling behind higher storm tops. Also, an inflow tail on the left side. This is a multi-image panorama.

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An organizing tornadic supercell, with developing wall cloud, north of the Badlands in south-central South Dakota on the evening of May 9. This is a multi-image panorama.

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A previously severe warned thunderstorm north of Dodge City, Kansas on May 11. Though this was to be the “big day,” not much happened. This is a multi-image panorama.

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Back edge of a severe thunderstorm over east-central Missouri on May 12. Storms would later become a large MCS that we drove east with for three hours in the dark. This is a multi-image panorama.

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Note: additional video from the trip will someday find its way here. More details of the 2011 storm chase can be found on my site.

By  |  10:30 AM ET, 05/26/2011

Categories:  Photography, U.S. Weather, Thunderstorms, Latest

 
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