Cory Pagel, an experienced storm chaser, found himself up close and personal Saturday with a tornado near Bluff City, Ill. His proximity and location gave us a unique look at the twister, which was one of at least 27 to touch down in the state’s worst December outbreak on record.

The National Weather Service in Lincoln, Ill., confirmed that this EF-1 tornado was on the ground for 27 minutes. At times up to 450 yards wide, it raked the landscape east of Illinois’s Highway 100 with winds near 105 mph. Hardest hit were Schuyler and Fulton counties. The Weather Service said the twister caused “extensive” damage to trees and a winery, as well as a number of homes, but no injuries or deaths.

Pagel’s video of the beastly tempest is remarkable.

He approaches from the rain-free base west of the circulation, the voracious vortex plowing through fields in front of him. Interacting with a tornado like this is risky — in this case, table tennis ball-size hail is falling just a mile behind him in addition to the twister. In this case, his calculated gamble paid off big-time.

The video starts with a bang as a farmhouse lies in the twister’s crosshairs, prompting the chaser to plead: “For the love of God, please miss that farm!”

Debris begins to rain down onto the roadway, narrowly missing Pagel’s windshield. The perfectly still trees in the foreground mark a curious contrast with the roaring funnel barely the length of a football field away. A few branches begin to sway as winds from the rear flank downdraft — a rush of cooler air coming out of the storm — stir up the air.


Radar at the time of the tornado. (GR2Analyst via author)

Moments later, the tornado emerges from behind a cluster of trees. Thin tubelike tendrils of dirt and condensation whip about the whirlwind’s center. These suction vortices are only a few meters wide, but their winds add to the parent funnel’s rotational speed and can produce narrow swaths of exceptional damage.

To the right of the condensation funnel, a hazy strip of dirt appears to linger in the tornado’s wake. This is the result of a conveyor belt of rapidly moving air at ground level that streams air in to feed the vortex. This feature forms thanks to the tornado’s low pressure interacting with the ground, and is only a few yards in depth. But even structures that dodge the tornado can fall victim to its powerful winds.

As Pagel’s camera pivots to the east, clearer skies come into view on the right (south) side of the image. Odd as it may sound, tornadoes are frequently accompanied by sunshine within a minute or two of their passage. That’s because they form in the updraft region on the storm’s backside. Rain doesn’t fall there, and dry air wrapping down from aloft erodes most clouds behind the funnel. An additional towering cloud — possibly another developing thunderstorm — can be seen looming ominously to the northeast near Delavan, Ill.

The tornado eventually loses much of its steam, the parent storm overhead outrunning the lagging surface connection behind. A brief but wild scene.