My travels took me to four states I’d never been to before — Colorado, Wyoming, and North and South Dakota — and allowed me to travel thousands of miles down unfamiliar roads. And though the 2020 chase season may have drawn to a close, the memories and pictures will last a lifetime.
Here’s what it was like.
May 13: Western Oklahoma
On May 12, I hopped on a flight from Washington to Tulsa, connecting in Houston on the way. My friend met me at the airport with my truck, which I had parked nearby. We drove across the Sooner State to Elk City, Okla., a favorite city of mine. (Three years ago, I shattered a windshield there in softball-sized hail, while two years ago, I encountered a wildfire-induced rotating thunderstorm.)
The next day, we waited patiently for storms, driving to nearby Shamrock, Tex., beneath blue, sunny skies. The storms were delayed, but when they finally got going, they meant business.
Winds gusting to 60 mph, along with blinding downpours, accompanied a storm minutes before sunset, the sun emerging amid the deluge as the scene transformed into a fiery landscape. As I hopped out to snag the windmill photograph, I was blasted by severe wind gusts and sideways rain.
Radar revealed a core of quarter to golf-ball-sized hail slipping just to our south. As it passed, I glanced east, where the rosy hail core passed over open farmland. See how sharp that southern (right) cutoff is? Now you know why forecasting where hail will hit is so difficult!
That night, we drove to Woodward, Okla. I knew the chance of a storm the next day was slim to none, but when you roll the dice on marginal setups enough times, the atmosphere is bound to deliver once in a while.
May 14: Woodward, Okla.
The day passed uneventfully in Woodward, with hardly a cloud in the sky. Temperatures at the mid-levels of the atmosphere were relatively warm — capping any thunderstorm development. But a triple-point low-pressure area lingered nearby, marking the juxtaposition of hot and dry, warm and humid and slightly cooler air masses. On the chance a storm developed, it would be over my head, and it would be intense.
We spent the afternoon hiking through a forest — until I saw a spider. Thereafter, the daylight began to wane, and it becoming apparent that a storm would not fire. Disappointed, we headed to dinner.
But en route, I noticed a line of very shallow clouds — marking the stalled boundary between dry and humid air passing nearby. That would be the only triggering mechanism. I remarked to my friend that “that one is our only chance of a storm,” pointing to a cloud slightly taller than the rest.
Before long, it broke the cap, an explosive updraft releasing pent-up instability as the vigorously rising air towered into a rotating supercell thunderstorm. It began as a classic “LP,” or low-precipitation supercell, its updraft nearly devoid of any rain. Look at the rotation visible in the 50,000-foot tower!
I positioned myself directly beneath the updraft, watching as the striated area of spin posed with the setting sun as the saucer-like apparition whirled harmlessly overhead. Crackling lightning shot out the side of the updraft into thin air.
Two hours later, I was still chasing the storm — carefully avoiding baseball-sized hail as ominous positively charged lightning bolts leaped well ahead of the storm. The rotating updraft can be seen in the distance, partially cloaked by a forceful downdraft of rain, hail and wind to the right.
The next day — May 15 — was spent on a marginal storm chase that featured a pelting of golf-ball-sized hail that tracked me down at my hotel in Altus, Okla. On May 20, I drove through Nebraska and into Wyoming, only to be disappointed by another “busted” storm chase. May 21, however, proved to be different.
May 21: Lakin, Kan.
I drove to Lakin, Kan., and parked at the Dollar General. Eventually, a powerful thunderstorm developed across the Colorado border near the town of Holly. An ominous green sky accompanied it, along with several weak “landspouts,” a marginal species of tornado that forms when surface whirls are stretched up to the cloud base.
The real show came later, when I backtracked to Lakin, Colo. An unbelievable green-blue supercell thunderstorm approached me, the sky bathed in colors I had never seen before. A tornado warning was issued as a rotating wall cloud developed along the storm’s leading edge. I let the wall cloud pass a few hundred yards to the south, bathed in an eerie green light.
That night, I drove to Dodge City, Kan. I fell asleep at 1 a.m., woke up at 4:15 a.m., wrote two articles, did two radio hits and was off to southern Oklahoma. I had the feeling it would be a special day.
May 22: Burkburnett, Tex.
May 22 proved to be among my most memorable storm chases. I drove five and a half hours, first to Ardmore, Okla., but rapidly changing parameters prompted me to drive another hour and a half to Wichita Falls, Tex. By the time I arrived in the 90-degree heat and stifling humidity, I was wondering whether the chase would be worth it. I bought myself an ice cream and parked in a field near Devol, Okla., where I watched cumulus clouds bubble.
I watched as one blew up into a thunderstorm, before long rotating as it took on a sculpted supercell appearance. Even outside the storm, the rotation was rapid enough to slingshot half-dollar-sized hail at me in an area that was partly sunny and devoid of rain.
I raced south to reposition in Burkburnett, Tex., about 10 minutes away. When I parked, I couldn’t believe what I saw — an enormous rotating “mother ship” above me. Five- to six-inch hail was falling a few blocks to my north at the time, vying for, but falling short of, a Texas state record.
A dusty weak tornado was pendant beneath the base, but it was dwarfed by the incredible structure. I drove east, but eventually abandoned the storm for a new cell to the south near Bellevue. That storm prompted a tornado warning too, with baseball-sized hail falling all around me.
Eventually, a number of storms merged into a vicious cluster that produced widespread 80- to 90-mph winds near Bowie, Tex. I had intentionally hunkered down in Bowie, knowing that power lines along the roadside could topple and become potentially deadly debris — which they did.
Amid the chaos, a quickly developing EF1 tornado sideswiped me, my vehicle buffeted by 90- to 100-mph winds. I was glad to have made the decision to remain in a sheltered location rather than be on the road.
On May 24, I chased storms near Lubbock, Tex. They were not overly intense, but their chaotic outflow winds kicked up widespread dust and a few gustnadoes. Gustnadoes are vortices that spin along the leading edge of a thunderstorm’s cool-air exhaust, occasionally producing winds up to 70 mph.
June 4: Rapid City, S.D.
The next week featured rather unimpressive storms but afforded some memorable sights — towering sunset storms near Snyder, Tex., and “virga” produced by evaporating rain in Minnesota.
But the most sublime show was still to come. After a damaging hailstorm moved through Rapid City, S.D., a blanket of “hail fog” hung just over the ice-cooled ground, obscuring trees and power lines as the surface disappeared into a condensed vapor of white. It was like walking on a cloud, made all the more magical as the late evening sun poured in and washed the empty fields in a yellow light.
The chase culminated in one final thunderstorm at sunset. I perched myself on a hill by the Rapid City airport, watching the last glints of daylight conspire with the storm to produce a cotton candy-colored hail core.
All told, I wound up seeing only one tornado this year, the infamous Tornado Alley’s most fearsome visitors failing to materialize. Yet the sights, sounds and scenery of the Great Plains can’t be matched anywhere else. And it reminds you that, no matter the forecast, beauty is everywhere — you just have to take the time to look.
Here are some more memories: