Chase Accounts

May 28, 2001
Pictures from this day.

The previous day, May 27, a flat tire forced Scott Blair and I to end our chase prematurely near Garden City, Kansas. We checked in early at the Garden City Days Inn that night and forecasted extensively for the upcoming Memorial Day, which, because of the last few years, has become synonymous with severe weather events (ever wondered why I plan my vacations around the end of May). After checking data and model runs, it became clear to both Scott and I that we'd be blowing off the moderate risk in the Texas panhandle and targeting the upslope-flow along the southeast Colorado front range.

Upon awakening the next morning, we immediately began analyzing the latest data. With a surface convergence bullseye setting up with the upslope and a 300 mb jet streak nosing in that afternoon, intense UVV's were predicted along the front range in southeast Colorado. Along with favorable veering wind profiles, all signs still pointed to our target area as the most promising location for isolated supercells and tornadoes.

With our target finalized, our next task was to get Scott's tire replaced at the local Wal-Mart. Our 8:30 a.m. arrival and Wal-Mart's timely work allowed us to be on the road within an hour. Taking Hwy. 50/400 west out of Garden City, we began our journey; a journey that twelve hours later would conclude with the most amazing view.

Our arrival in Colorado just after 11 a.m., or 10 a.m. MDT (times will be in MDT for the remainder of the account), was marked by thin cirrus overspreading the area. After a data stop in Lamar, we decided to continue west on Hwy. 50 to Las Animas, where clearing was taking place and moisture was beginning to pool along the front range. During that time, we also encountered a welcome sight, the Arkansas River. Because we were relatively close to the river's point of origin, the Sawatch Range of the Rocky Mountains, it was quite narrow and creek-like. However, considering how far away from Arkansas we were, it was still a nice reminder of home.

Near 12:30 p.m., Scott and I pulled off at a parking lot in Las Animas and began the wait that frequently accompanies chases after arriving in the target area. With our antennae-laden vehicles, we looked quite out-of-place in the small town and attracted plenty of attention from passersby. The curious stares, combined with a chain-link fence that surrounded the lot, made us feel as if we were some type of zoo attraction.

After about 1 1/2 hours of sitting in Las Animas while listening to NOAA WX Radio and challenging each other to rock-tossing contests to see who could get closest to a target rock, we finally began noticing some cumulus to our west and southwest. It was time to leave, and we continued west on Hwy. 50 toward the forming cumulus. Now, at this point, I must commend Philip Flory for his excellent job of nowcasting. From the "wait at Las Animas" until the end of the chase, Philip, who always does an outstanding job, provided Scott and I with important and timely information when needed throughout the day.

Arriving at La Junta, we took Hwy. 350 southwest toward a developing storm near Thatcher. However, once we got close enough for observation, it was readily apparent that the storm was quite disorganized. We decided to press on toward an impressive anvil of a developing cell that was about 30 miles southwest of Raton, New Mexico and moving northeast at 20 m.p.h. This storm soon developed into the first supercell of the day.

Taking I-25 south, we crossed into Colfax County, New Mexico at 4:10, and our anticipation was peaked; we had entered the county that was now under a severe-thunderstorm warning for "our storm". However, our trek toward Raton was not without difficulty as we crossed the Sangre de Cristo Range of the Rocky Mountains. Not only did the mountain range leave us with scarce opportunities to view the cell, but the altitude-rise also bogged down our cars' engines considerably as they choked for the oxygen they so badly needed to climb the mountain. The tough going abruptly came to an end though as we topped the range; able to coast downhill now, we had a magnificent view as the storm's dark precipitation core came into view.

We pulled off just east of Raton and watched for about 30 minutes as the cell attempted to get its act together. It exhibited several inflow-tails at times and lowered its ambient base considerably but never could develop a full-blown wall cloud. As the storm continued toward Colorado, we now found ourselves in an unfavorable viewing area, and it was now time to reposition.

Once again, we found ourselves climbing the mountain range as we backtracked north on I-25 toward the Colorado/New Mexico border, but this time the least of our concerns was the inability of our engines to breathe properly. The cell had dropped copious amounts of small hail on the freeway. Not only was the hail several inches deep, but it also left some areas of the freeway covered with patchy sheets of ice.

"It's like driving in snow in Denver," Scott said just seconds before plowing through and kicking up a large amount of the ice marbles. I was also amazed and enjoying the scenery of the sunlight glittering off the hail that had fallen on the mountains. Although the hail was small, I had never before seen that much gathered in one place, and at the time, the scene was quite impressive (within two days, this would become a rather non-impressive event comparatively).

Because of the "hail-delay", we were concerned about not being in position for the storm once it moved off the mountains. Our thoughts were that after moving into flatter terrain, the storm would organize it's inflow and become tornadic, and we wouldn't be there to see it. However, our fears were unfounded; instead of going tornadic, it simply croaked for some reason. However, we soon spotted our next target.

While slowly traversing the icy freeway, another developing cell became noticeable to our west at about 5:20. Clearing the ice, we finally re-crossed the Colorado/New Mexico border into Las Animas County and began closing on the cell. It soon became apparent that this was no garden-variety storm but was instead, a beautifully sculpted LP supercell that had prompted a severe-thunderstorm warning.

After finding the perfect observation spot at a gas station parking lot off I-25, we quickly set up. The LP was moving directly toward us, and I shot extended video for use as a time-lapse while discussing the situation with a lady and her children. I was amazed at how long it took them to see the supercell, which exhibited a well-defined beaver's tail; a round updraft base; and many curved inflow bands leading into the updraft, but after several explanations, they eventually recognized the rotating updraft and were awed by its beauty. The mother was also thankful that she and the kids would be traveling in the opposite direction after getting back on the road. We let the LP, which didn't pose any immediate tornado threat, move quite near our position, but soon after, it was again time to reposition ourselves.

Exiting off I-25, we took Hwy. 160/350 northeast out of Trinidad while getting pelted by marginally severe hail. The lure of shooting video of the hail was too much to pass up, and at 6:10, we pulled off on Hwy. 350, just northeast of the Hwy. 160/350 split. We sat through two spurts of hail falling at a fairly intense rate. To my right, the hail bounced nimbly in a field, looking like swarms of hopping insects. To my left, the ice splashed into pooled water on the road with a few of the larger stones creating large, reaching splashes, which I imagine as a minute version of how an asteroid must appear when plunging into a vast body of water. Despite the hail being only marginally severe, it formed in extremely cold-air aloft and was hard enough to also add a few new dimples to my T-bird.

So far, the day had been fantastic with two supercells observed, one being an amazing LP, and some great hail. Although I hoped the day would follow the trend and continue getting progressively better, I really couldn't ask for much more with this being only the third day into my chase vacation. However, with the unexpected arrival of friends and fellow chasers, Chris Kridler of Florida and Dave Lewison of New York, during the second wave of hail, the day continued to another level of enjoyment.

Once the hail ceased with the LP continuing east and suffering the same fate as the storm before it, Scott and I exchanged greetings with Chris and Dave, and during this brief lull in the chase, we all discussed how the day had unfolded so far. It had been about a year since I had last met up Chris or Dave, so it was great getting the chance to meet up with them again and chat for a bit. The four of us teamed up for the remainder of the chase, and by 6:45, our full attention focused a few miles west as yet another supercell formed in nearly the same location as the previous LP. We jogged a few miles west to intercept it.

By 7:20, we were in perfect position to observe what had materialized into an extremely organized supercell with a striated updraft tower, well-formed vault, and an inflow tail that streamed into the east side of the updraft tower. However, contrast to the previous storm, this cell featured a large precip core and could be considered either a wet-classic or dry-HP. Positioned just above a small mountain range, the cell sucked a long piece of scud, which emanated from a small rain-foot, up the east side of a mountain and into the updraft base at a rapid pace. A few minutes went by as the updrafted scud began taking shape, and soon, developed into a textbook rotating wall cloud.

Of the three storms we had observed so far, this one, with its beautiful meso and a hint of an RFD punch, appeared to be the most likely candidate for a tornado-producer. The RFD continued punching around the west side of the meso, and it appears that the cell produced at least one decent funnel. As the cell pushed closer to our location, rain and hail wrapped around the south side of the meso, obscuring our view. Bumping northeast on Hwy. 350 to get ahead of the storm and retain our view of the meso, the wall cloud continued to persist, but when the meso was about a mile to our north, it finally shelfed out, leaving only a disorganized mess. As before, the storm moved a few miles off the mountains and found its death.

Although I was disappointed that this third storm didn't produce, witnessing three supercells train over the same general area with each subsequent storm more organized than its predecessor is a rarity, and if the day had ended at this point, I would've been ecstatic with the end results. However, Mother Nature wasn't through yet and had one last hand to play. The day was far from over.

It was nearing 8:00; the sun was beginning to set. The fourth and last supercell of the day was now moving off the front range toward our location, a few miles northeast of the Hwy. 160/350 split on Hwy. 350 or just south of Hoehne. The cell's precip shaft acted as a divider between us and the sun on the horizon, creating a bronze luminescent glow. I wasn't immediately impressed with the cell, but it soon took on suggestive characteristics. A large area of scud condensed into the updraft base and a wall cloud formed abruptly. The wall cloud appeared low enough to the ground that if someone happened to be under it, they could've literally reached up and touched it.

The wall cloud, now a deep blue with the hue of twilight, continued its march toward our location. The RFD rapidly began wrapping around it, allowing light to filter through the clear slot. The cell was under a tornado warning, and the now nearly occluded meso quickly became better organized and exhibited violent rotation. Several small funnels formed and dissipated, none persisting for long. From our location, it was possible to look up and into the RFD, and cloud matter was streaming down the side of the updraft at such a rapid pace that the motion resembled a waterfall.

The meso, which was now beginning to appear like one large and long funnel, still wasn't organized enough for the circulation to reach ground level. However, a large horizontal roll, pushed by the RFD, began sliding down the side of the meso. As the roll continued its downward progression, the meso tightened up considerably with the left side of it rapidly evaporating. The roll, upon reaching the lower portion of the meso, was then tilted vertically and stretched. A smooth, well-formed funnel was born less than a mile away from our location.

The funnel continued tightening as it stretched lower to the ground. At its lowest, the funnel was more than 75% to the ground from cloud base, and fingers of condensation emanated from the tip yet could never quite reach the ground. Even though condensation never reached the ground, circulation did, and the tornado caused $5000 worth of damage to a garage. The top of the funnel now stretched high into the clouds above us, and it began moving into the rope-stage. The mid-section began pushing out and thinning while the tip remained full, and the funnel briefly took on a beautiful serpentine shape. Eventually though, the funnel began fading from the bottom up and finally ceased to exist once the meso was completely occluded. From start to finish, the funnel lasted nearly ten minutes with a brief touchdown.

After a brief celebration, the four of us continued northeast on Hwy. 350 and tracked the cell, which was still under a tornado warning, for a few miles and watched lightning occasionally illuminate the new meso. However, with the onset of darkness and being pelted by quarter-size hail, we decided to turn around and end the chase.

Before Scott and I checked into a hotel for the night in Trinidad, we joined Chris and Dave at a local diner where we recounted the day with each other and a few other chasers who also witnessed the tornado.

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