William Reid's Chase Summary

5/12/95-Kansas/I-70 Supercell

The following is my storm chase account of Friday, May 12, 1995. I will write primarily from memory---all times are rough estimates.

By sunrise on Friday (and even Thursday afternoon), it appeared obvious that big tornadic storms were quite possible north and/or east of the TX/OK Panhandles. Both upper and lower level energy were coming together at the right time (Friday afternoon and evening), forecast capes and helicities were awesome and the dry line would help to focus convergence. Early Friday morning, TWC showed a big red severe blotch from north-central TX northward through much of OK and KS, and extending west into northeast CO. This area was roughly similar to SELS' 07Z "high risk" area. The discussions out of Dodge City Thu p.m. and Fri a.m. were very optimistic in regards to the chances for tornadic supercells in Central Kansas, saying that Great Bend and Russell could be hot spots (Jim Johnson---can we get some cape and helicity figures for Fri afternoon?). Bary Nusz, Charlie Sill, Kinney Adams and I left Amarillo at 10:30 a.m. We hoped that we wouldn't have to stray much farther than western Oklahoma or southwest Kansas (Charlie had to be back to work in AMA by 2 p.m. Saturday afternoon). We aimed for Dodge City.

Though scattered stratus streamed northward above Amarillo at sunrise, we cringed as dew points dipped a little and the surface flow became a little more southwesterly as we headed towards Pampa. High clouds were thick, too. At Perryton we were downright miserable, as very dry southwest winds were blowing. Is that darn dry line going to leave us in the dust? We had little weather information to rely on at the time, so we headed east to Woodward to find some moist air. We arrived in Woodward, OK, around 1:30 p.m. There was still a thick, high overcast, but at least dew points were back up into the upper 50s with a SSW to S wind. We felt safe to head north again, so we jumped on Hwy 34 north towards Coldwater, KS.

Our prospects finally started to brighten as we entered southern Kansas. The high overcast was now mostly gone, and a tornado watch was being issued for most of NW and central Kansas. We learned from a.m. radio (Wichita/1070) that tornado warnings were already out for counties around Goodland, but surely another strong cell or two would develop farther south, and we would be in perfect position to intercept it.

Our northbound highway turned into U.S. 183 and we sailed through Greensburg and Kinsley with just clear skies to look at, except for a little cumulus development to our northwest. We kept thinking that these would become the great big, new supercells in the southern portion of the tornado watch box, but they just kind of sputtered along. It also seemed like they were avoiding us, as they remained to our northwest and never seemed to get closer. (Though we were going north at 60 mph, they were likely doing the same on the low-level jet.) It was during this time that we began to get quite frustrated again, as southwest winds and dry air were overtaking us. To our horror, the wind at Dodge City (one county to our west) was strong and from the southwest, and dew points were going down in flames. Just to our east, however, purplish low-level moisture lurked.

The cell north of I-70 was still chugging eastward---at about 30 to 35 mph. It seemed to devour one county per hour. We had come too far to turn around and hope for miracles back in extreme southern Kansas or Oklahoma. Though we still could not see it, we felt we could intercept the tornadic cell just north of Interstate 70. Northward we continued.

We passed through Rush Center and LaCrosse around 5 p.m., and we still did not have a good view of the tornadic supercell. (Which was still on its eastward course, thank God.) There were other very good signs, though, as we approached Hays. Surface winds started to back to southeasterly, and the relative humidity readout on my Micronta sensor started to soar! Small and high-based LP (low precipitation) cells (or NP cells-no precipitation) were now to our northwest. This was getting VERY WEIRD!! Those certainly don't look like tornadic supercells! We were unable to judge just how far away these shallow and stunted cells were, and they obscured anything that lurked behind them. A thunderstorm warning was issued for Hays because of these things. We couldn't figure out what exactly was going on.

Finally, as we neared Hays, we saw it---a massive, tall, billowing cumulus tower to our northwest. The (severe?) cell (or cells) which had been forecast for Hays upon our arrival had collapsed. The monster tornadic supercell was now in our sights, and it was not going to let any wimpy satellite storm cell grab any headlines. The supercell was controlling the atmosphere in north-central Kansas. (Those brief LP cells had great structure for a few fleeting moments. Apparently they formed along a very tight surface moisture gradient, just north of the bulging dry line.)

The fun began just before 6 p.m. as we headed north out of Hays (which is in Ellis County). We quickly passed underneath some mid-level supercell cloudiness, and we saw a couple VORTEX vehicles. The next county north--Rooks County--was under a tornado warning, and the town of Palco was mentioned as being in the path of the storm. We dipped into the Saline River bottoms and quickly rose back up just north of the river and about 10 miles north of Hays (and Interstate 70). It was apparent that we couldn't reach Plainville and Highway 18, 6 miles away, without getting clobbered by the core. (It would have been great to have been able to stay in front of the storm on Highway 18!) Paved east-west road options were slim and none between Plainville and Hays. The dark and ragged storm base was approaching fast, but we had time to set up the camcorder for a little bit.

The updraft base of the supercell was quite large, with a couple of lowerings and lots of fast-moving scud just beneath it. Near the south end the low base had a good, laminar, rotational look. It was perhaps 8 to 10 miles WSW of us when we stopped in its projected path. About two minutes after we arrived, a funnel cloud formed beneath this "meso" and appeared to reach the ground. It then dissipated rapidly---its lifespan no more than 10 seconds. My camcorder had it centered, but it was at wide-angle, unfortunately. Contrast was not real good as rain curtains were wrapping behind the tornado.

For the next 5 minutes or so we watched a turbulent updraft base churn away, but there was never any clear-cut and persistent low rotation. We abandoned our site (which we shared with a dozen other curious-types-----boy, is that a generous description) as the cloud base neared. We tried our luck on a dirt road south of the Saline River for about a half hour and tried to keep pace with the storm. The base seemed to get better organized during this stage and we were quite close and in good position to its southwest, but we saw no tornados. There were only a couple of other chasers and spotters following the storm at this time, at least in our proximity.

The dirt-road scene got old fast, so we went back south towards I-70. Our plan was to charge east of the storm again before daylight ran out. We streaked east on I-70 from Russell to Wilson; the supercell about 15 miles north of us. I'm sorry folks, but I am at a loss for words in trying to descibe the beautiful storm structure which I observed along I-70 between 7 and 7:30 p.m. in Russell County, Kansas. The supercell had an incredibly smooth and sculptured look. The west side of it was bathed in sunlight, giving the storm a brilliant white glow. Its anvil contained moderate, dark mammatus. There was a slightly tilting, anvil-like "disk," which abruptly protruded from the updraft at mid-levels, giving the cloud the look of a flying saucer taking off. Several unusual "protrusions" stuck out of the updraft at low levels. These protrusions looked like the necks and heads of large birds or something---and they were perfectly spaced and uniformly directional (like Kelvin-Helmholtz wave clouds?).

This was an incredibly-awesome-looking storm. It was angelic-looking.

We got a little ahead and went north towards Sylvan Grove around 8 p.m. Of course, the town was under a tornado warning as we neared it. Just south of town we saw a radiosonde/balloon launch and Howie Bluestein and his portable Doppler Radar team. Again, the storm's dark updraft base just to the north and northeast had several conspicuous areas with rapid rising and turning, but no obvious, large-scale, persistent rotation. We got behind the storm and followed it east on Highway 18 towards Lincoln. By this time there were numerous chasers, cops, and curious, but a sense of respect and maturity prevailed--which allowed everyone to chase safely. West of Lincoln we drove through a light rain curtain and entered the "bear's cage" portion of the storm. In this case it might be called a "cubby's cage with broken wires," as the rain around this meso was not heavy or complete, and there was no tornado. While inside this "cage" I set up the camcorder and shot a lot more turning and twisting motions. At one point a large anti-cyclonic funnel cloud angled down in a threatening manner. Scud did their best to impersonate tornados, but we wouldn't buy it. Warren Faidley and the VORTEX team of Rasmussen and Stumpf joined us to watch all of this teasing. A decent-looking, long and slender funnel angled halfway to the ground again up towards Lincoln, and we all were back into our cars and east on 18. That funnel fizzled and it was quite dark now. Lightning was occasional and sporadic with the storm all along. We waved goodbye at Interstate 135 and went south to Salina, where we buffeted with Tim Marshall, Carson Eads, and several other chasers while swapping stories.

The big question on everyone's mind was this---why couldn't this thing produce a wedge? Hopefully VORTEX will provide the clues.

We stayed at Bary's brother-in-law's apartment in Wichita Friday night, and got back to Amarillo at 2 p.m. Saturday. The trip totalled 1050 miles, but it was well worth it. I believe that this I-70 supercell was the only severe storm in the entire "high-risk" region on Friday.

By the way, I called The Weather Channel Saturday afternoon to see if they were interested in my video of this storm. They had already broadcast some chaser video of the storm and they had more ready to go on, so they said "sorry, we can only buy so much." That's understandable, considering I was calling almost 24 hours after the fact and I had no real good tornado footage........

William Reid

Woodland Hills, California
(Amarillo, May and June!)
CompuServe 73551,2512: Internet:73551,2512@compuserve.com