WKU Storm Chase Recap: Day 1

Well, as many of you know, myself and contributor Jessica Dobson are currently in the plains to storm chase with the WKU Storm Chase Class! We left May 15th, and will be out on the Great Plains (absolutely beautiful, by the way) for two weeks. I thought it would be cool and interesting to give the readers of wxornotBG a daily recap of our adventures and weather encounters.

Storm Chase Day 1: McLean, Texas

Yesterday, we woke up in Hays, Kansas looking for a relatively good storm chase day to start the trip. That more than panned out, but more on that in a second. We had to stop in Hays after leaving Bowling Green to pick up Dr. Dixon, one of Dr. Durkee’s colleagues, and Thomas Giebel, a student from Maryland going on the trip as well.

Our day began with a forecast discussion (led by me), and everything was looking good. We had a relatively deep shortwave trough in the mid and upper levels of the atmosphere, centered across southern Nevada and eastern California. This was propagating eastward, and as it did so, the closed low became open, allowing for mid level winds to flow out of the southwest. This was centered across the four-corners region by last evening, which was perfect to enhance shear across the lower Great Plains.

The mid-level pressure and wind set up last night. h/t SPC

Beneath this was a response in the low-level jet out of the south, helping to further enhance the shear. This was a relatively strong low-level jet for the evening, too, with a 40 knot maximum located near the region.

The low-level pressure and wind set up last evening. h/t SPC

At the surface, a low pressure that developed on the lee-side of the Rocky Mountains in southeastern Colorado, which allowed for winds at the surface to be southeasterly. This was the ideal scenario for supercell thunderstorms, and potential tornadoes during the day.

The surface pressure and wind field last evening. h/t SPC

We determined our target would be Shamrock, Texas by early afternoon, as the storms looked to initiate early in the day. This was the area that had the best instability, shear and forcing to produce potential supercells.

We got to Shamrock around 3 PM central time. We had to wait around for a little bit to decide what the best play was. There were a couple, too. We could go a bit further south to be in position for a very isolated supercell, or we could wait and see what happens with the situation to our west. We decided to wait it out a bit, and then this happened.

The storms initiated at this point, and they’re circled in red. h/t SPC

The first storm went up to our west, and we decided to engage with that one. They were actually two storms, really. They had developed separately, and they gradually merged. The southern storm was the one that ultimately became the tornado producer.

We headed out to an area south and west of McLean to try and get into position to see the storm better. The storm intensified, and became tornado warned by this point. We finally found a hill, and likely saw what was the beginning stages of a tornado forming.

This is me pointing towards the RFD and associated wall cloud. The circulation was broad at this point, but the RFD is in the left center where it is brighter than the clouds. It was awesome to see this.

A downdraft came down the backside of the storm (the clearing in the picture above), and this is key in the conceptual model of a supercell and tornadogenesis. The storm was moving to the north and northeast at approximately 30 mph, which put us in a pretty bad position to keep seeing the storm. We had to then retrace our steps, which involved a lot of hills and bad viewing, and try to catch up with the storm as it was strengthening.

However, this trek provided what was maybe the coolest thing I saw all day outside of the tornado itself. The storm was drawing surface air into it so rapidly that it literally created a mini dust storm on the roads we were traveling on. It was so dusty that we couldn’t really even see the road in front of us. It was incredible to see the storm actually drawing that air into it so rapidly.

Then it was game time. We emerged over a hill, and someone in the van pointed out a well-defined funnel cloud just to our northwest. We then gradually watched it dip down closer to the ground until it was on the ground. It was an awesome tornado formation. It was in the middle of a field, and just hung around that area. It was absolutely stunning. It went from a smaller funnel to a nice stovepipe looking tornado. Then we were driving to catch back up with it, and caught the back end of the tornado as it was dissipating. This was by far one of the most beautiful and picturesque things I have ever seen.

h/t Justin Hobbs

I mean, come on! A beautiful tornado that sits in a field and ropes out like that? Oh my goodness. Not only that, but this was the first tornado that I had ever seen. It was incredible!

We would follow this storm well into western Oklahoma. We saw another tornado with the same time shortly after the first McLean tornado, but have no pictures of it because we couldn’t confirm that it was actually a tornado. It was there though! So in total, we saw two tornadoes and beautiful storm structure with it.

h/t Josh Durkee
h/t Josh Durkee

Unfortunately, the storm we were on produced damage in Wheeler, Texas. The far south tornado impacted Elk City, Oklahoma and produced significant damage across the area, including one fatality. We actually ended up staying in Elk City in a powerless hotel last night. Tomorrow looks like another good chase day, so we are spending much of today preparing for that.


The surface analysis and radar images from the storms as they developed yesterday. h/t SPC

Awesome Satellite Images:

A satellite perspective of our storms as they developed yesterday. h/t COD GOES-16 Satellite Data