My day began in Pratt, Kan., where I rendezvoused with Kelby, a friend of mine from northeast Oklahoma returning after completing her first year in law school in Boulder, Colo. After reviewing morning observations and model data, I decided we would venture to La Crosse, west of Great Bend, where I hoped storms would first fire.
The setup wasn’t overly robust for twisting storms, and I wasn’t anticipating a likelihood of tornadoes. Moisture was lacking, meaning storms would be too high above the ground. There was a chance they could produce around sunset, when storms would enter an area with more available moisture and a bit more low-level spin.
By suppertime, radar revealed the first cells popping, quickly towering to 50,000 feet. It was just a short drive south, so we positioned in a field and watched things unfold. I quickly realized that storms were splitting, colliding with each other and becoming messy. That limited the propensity for rotating thunderstorms or supercells to form. Dejectedly, I settled on showing Kelby the best lightning I could.
It wasn’t raining during our slow drive northward, but a brilliant purple bolt of lightning struck a field to our right. I did a double-take. Radar indicated that bolt was 30 miles from the thunderstorm core. Apparently, enough positive charge was carried downwind in the upper-level thunderstorm anvil that it touched off a rogue bolt. That’s why lightning scares me even far away from storms.
I pulled over and we stared upward, watching aquamarine-tinged clouds roil overhead. Otherwise, not much was going on. After glancing at current observations, I decided to drive east, hoping for a better overlap of storm ingredients by 7 or 8 p.m. The clock was ticking.
We hopped on Interstate 70 in the town of Russell. Kelby introduced me to Spotify and podcasts as we drove eastward. Apparently you can listen to books, programs and all sorts of stuff when driving. I had been using the same green iPod Shuffle I had in 2012; since then, I had managed to download 48 songs.
After a few minutes, I began noticing more storms brewing to our south, with graceful tendrils of rain in the distance quickly becoming hazy deluges. A glance at data revealed storm tops to 40,000 feet. Maybe ingredients were coming together.
“Look at those lines!” Kelby shouted eagerly, pointing out the passenger window. My eyes remained focused on the road, but I wanted to steal a look at what was happening. I pulled off an exit that would take me to Ellsworth, Kan., stopped at a Conoco, and looked upward.
A curtain of rain lurked to the right, by then probably filled with hail the size of golf balls. Radar showed a prominent supercell blossoming overhead. Sculpted striations marked the edge of the outflow, or thunderstorm exhaust, ahead of which air was feeding counterclockwise into the storm. I told Kelby we would head south briefly and then race east to position. As we made the turn onto eastbound Avenue J, blowing dust along the “gust front,” or outflow boundary, briefly obscured our view.
The storm was becoming outflow-dominant, meaning it was spitting out more air than it was ingesting. That didn’t bode well for tornado production, but I didn’t care. To the northwest, a brilliant clementine-shade shone ahead of the storm’s stunning shelf, with pinpoint bolts of forked lightning leaping out ahead. I snapped a few photos before the daylight disappeared.
By then, 8 p.m. had rolled around, and it was getting dark. Tornado potential was dwindling. We decided that we had gotten our shots, and dinnertime had arrived. Kelby recommended a barbecue place in Salina. We drove east, the storm overtaking us and showering us with penny-sized hail.
When we got there, it was closed. Chili’s, however, was not. Kelby rolled her eyes as I eagerly drove through blinding downpours and hail on a quest for a chicken sandwich. Quarter-sized hail was pelting the vehicle as we pulled into the parking lot. I shifted into park and turned off the truck.
“Aren’t we going to wait it out?” Kelby asked.
“Nope,” I stated hungrily, donning a hard-hat and marching into the restaurant despite the drenching downpours and wind-driven hail. She followed. It was quite the entrance.
Storms were winding down by the time we finished dinner around 9:30 p.m. We headed to the hotel on the west side of Interstate 35, checked in, and carried our bags up a precarious spiral staircase. I slumped into a chair, exhausted from the chase.
Thunder rumbled overhead. Odd, I thought. Wasn’t the storm too far east for me to be hearing thunder? I flipped up RadarScope on my phone.
“Oh jeez!” I said eagerly, jarring Kelby to attention. “We’ve got to go!”
We scurried back to the car. A newly formed rotating supercell was bearing down on us, a crisp hook on radar a telltale sign it was spinning like a top. As a general rule of thumb, I don’t chase tornadoes at night — but since I was in a populated area with a great paved road network, excellent cell service, and, frankly, the storm was chasing me, I decided to go for a stroll.
We settled near Salina’s airport, pulling onto a dirt road and looking west. Lightning flickered beneath an arcing cloud. I knew we were due east of the rotation. Kelby was nervous. I assured her we were in a good place and that we had a clear escape route.
Between lightning flashes, I could see an inflow tail on the right, marking where air was rushing into the rotating updraft. The spin was just west or southwest. I could see ragged clouds marking upward-moving air condensing. No obvious tornado though.
Ping! A half-dollar-size hailstone struck the roof, producing a metallic echo. It was soon joined by thousands of hailstones ranging from nickel size to a few the size of golf balls. The hail core grew as the storm passed overhead, the circulation fading east of the highway. No tornado touched down, but the storm tried.
This week, the pattern looks mostly quiet for storm chasers, but next week could be a bit more interesting. I’ll be here in Oklahoma City, waiting at the ready.