By midmorning Monday, however, a localized tornado threat was brewing in northwestern Kansas. An outflow boundary, or line of exhaust from Sunday’s since-dead storms, had kinked winds to be easterly in a narrow strip. That enhanced low-level spin. Meanwhile, a bull’s eye of spin was present in western Kansas. The sun was out south of the boundary, with heat and humidity building.
After seeing some midmorning chatter on Twitter, I decided to check out the setup for myself. I pored over data, suddenly snapping to the realization that this would be a chase day after all. I hastily grabbed my keys and sprinted out the door. I wanted to get south before storms fired.
As I was already late to the party, I had to take a road that would get me ahead of the storms by going due south. The only problem? Apple Maps and the state of Kansas are apparently generous in what they consider a “road.” I’ve driven through baseball-size hail, 90-mph winds and torrential downpours, but the 35 miles I navigated slipping and sliding through muddy rural slop proved the wildest ride of my life. I unstuck my truck three times. Mud somehow coated my roof.
I finally got to my destination and encountered a wall cloud, a low-hanging cloud beneath the storm’s updraft. The rotating storm or supercell was moving slowly but struggled to produce a tornado.
Meanwhile, tornado reports began popping up from a small, weak cell near — wait for it — Colby, the town I had stayed at overnight and been in an hour earlier. Sometimes the atmosphere has a cruel sense of humor.
I waited around hoping for the storm I was on to get its act together but finally gave up around 5 p.m. I decided to return to Colby, an hour north, and meet my friend from study abroad for dinner.
About 30 minutes into my drive, I began noticing a towering cloud to my north that was leaning, heaps of cauliflower-like billows sloping eastward like a mountain. It had “that look.” I called my friend and asked to push dinner back an hour. I was heading east to briefly investigate.
I blasted toward the storm. I had to get around its “rear flank downdraft,” or a blast of cold air, wind and hail on the backside of the rotation. “Tornado,” I muttered to myself excitedly as a distant funnel came into view to the right of the eerily green precipitation core. I knew I was late, but I wasn’t throwing in the towel.
Farther east, scores of other storm chasers captured the tall, sculpted funnel as it plowed through largely open fields. The condensation funnel lifted briefly as the tornado reorganized. That’s when I began closing in on the rotation.
In all my years of chasing, I’ve never witnessed such an elegant collar of glowing aquamarine around a funnel. It was sublime and foreboding. On the left, a “beaver’s tail” of inflow, or air being swept into the circulation from the north as its moisture condensed, was visibly scraping the ground. Dirt was apparent under the funnel, some kicked up by strong rear flank downdraft winds and the rest associated with the tornado.
I filmed a quick video report, the tornado now barely a mile away.
You’ll notice in the video the strong winds from the left, or north, and heavy rainfall accompanying the rear flank downdraft. Then watch as that vanishes as I get closer to the tornado. I was in the “doughnut hole” that sometimes appears on radar surrounding a twister. I was getting close.
The condensation funnel continually re-formed and vanished, circulations suddenly appearing and dancing furiously and wildly. It was a beast with personality.
Within a few moments, the funnel disappeared, replaced by large wispy tendrils of vapor clouds rapidly orbiting a common center just above the ground. It looked like chimney smoke spinning around in a circle. Other cars pulled over, but I knew I could safely approach for a closer view.
I carefully steered east, bypassing dozens of vehicles pulled to the shoulder of the roadway. The edge of the rotating wall cloud was over me, with a swirl of debris below. I couldn’t believe what was right in front of me.
Being within a quarter-mile of a massive, destructive tornado has a way of convincing you that the atmosphere is alive. I often feel a subliminal sense of reverence toward the storm, as if needing to make respectful eye contact and acknowledge that it is in charge. I’m just a guest, after all, observing its capricious performance. I’m in the tornado’s territory.
There are moments I realize how strange and truly bizarre my life is — driving into an area from where ordinary people would flee. But that’s how it goes when your life revolves around capturing and sharing the atmosphere’s power and beauty.
Once I was sufficiently close — a little more than 1,000 feet away — I pulled to the side of the road west of the town of Selden, opened the door and stepped out in 70-mph winds. Only half a dozen vehicles or so were farther up than I, including one semi tractor-trailer; I wonder how on Earth the driver unwittingly got that close.
I watched as the large multi-vortex tornado carved through the edge of town, tossing debris into the air as additional whirls snaked around an enormous funnel. Screaming wind spiraled into the vortex from all sides. I was on the backside of the storm, meaning the tornado was moving away from me.
Ultimately the tornado continued to plow east before dissipating, the funnel at times vanishing despite ground contact remaining. I drove west to my hotel in Colby, just 25 minutes away, as streams of emergency vehicles flocked east. I sat in silence.
As meteorologists, we can’t help but revel in the science of what’s happening — a passion we’ve dedicated our lives to. But as humans, our hearts sink when we learn folks have been affected. It’s a challenging balance and an emotional tug-of-war that laces every storm chase with cognitive dissonance.
Local media reported that the tornado caused damage in Selden but no major injuries.
Around 7:45 p.m., storms had exited to the east and I was trying — with no avail — to detach myself from staring at radar data. After dinner, I stepped outside into a scene from a 1930s silent film surrounded by yellow sepia hues. Mammatus, or pouch-like clouds hanging down from the dying storms’ anvils, covered the sky, catching the setting sun and bathing the landscape in pure yellow.
The ambient light changed in a way that I had never seen before. We’re used to sunset colors, but this wasn’t that — it was like the entire landscape was being seen through a filter. It had to be experienced to be understood.
This week probably marks my last on the Plains this year after seven tornadoes and countless breathtaking skyscapes. More severe weather is in the offing later this week, and, unfortunately for beleaguered residents of the central United States, there’s no meteorological rest for the weary.
Check out these other storm-chaser captures from Monday: