SWAT’s Great Plains Chase Trip

SWAT left Indiana and headed west on Saturday, May 28th. The destination of the trip was the Kansas/Nebraska area, but on the way, strong and severe thunderstorms had developed over Eastern Missouri and Western Illinois. Of course we had no option but to chase those severe thunderstorms.

As we headed towards an elevated supercells crossing into Western Illinois, numerous reports of large hail were being received by the National Weather Service. We positioned ourselves about 30 miles North of St. Louis and waited for the storm to arrive. As the storm moved our direction, we saw amazing cloud structure as the hail core passed just to our North. After the storm moved passed just to our North, we followed the storm and drove through areas that got pummeled by the hail core. We found hail stones over 2″ in diameter covering the ground in numerous areas. With the storm moving at a good clip to the East, we did not pursue the storm and instead chose to drive back to St. Louis.

While in St. Louis, we grabbed some lunch at the Panera Bread Company and spent some time going over weather data for the afternoon. After it was determined that the severe weather threat had diminished over Missouri and Illinois, we began our drive West towards Kansas City. We arrived in Kansas City late and had very few restaurant options so we reluctantly grabbed some dinner at McDonalds. The plan for the next day was to either chase on the warm front in Iowa or the dryline in Kansas.

After waking up Sunday Morning, I began looking at the latest weather data and decided that the dryline in Kansas appeared to have the most potential. Thankfully we made the right choice/decision as severe weather focused along the dryline with no severe weather occurring across Iowa on the warm front. While waiting for severe storms to develop, we stopped and grabbed some lunch at the Cozy Inn in Saline, Kansas. If you are ever in Saline, we all highly recommend the Cozy Inn and their hamburgers (similar to a White Castle variation).

After our lunch, we headed North towards the Kansas/Nebraska line where we waited for storm initiation. Storms fired along the dryline just to our Southwest at 5 PM. The storms originally struggled to punch through the cap, however after about 30 minutes, the storms finally gained strength and organization. While the storms looked impressive initially on radar, they became messy very quickly. We did manage to see some beautiful cloud structure over a lake in Northern Kansas and saw a wall cloud/gorgeous lightning show on our way to Nebraska later that evening.

Sunday was never expected to be a “big” severe weather day, so needless to say after making the right decisions, being in the right place and chasing the only storms of the day, we were quite pleased with the day.

With a moderate risk of severe weather on Monday (Memorial Day) for Nebraska and South Dakota, we headed North towards Norfolk, Nebraska to grab some sleep and prepare for what was likely to be the most significant chase day of the trip.

When I woke up Monday morning all data and guidance continued to point towards a significant severe weather outbreak occurring across Nebraska and South Dakota. While the storm prediction center had the moderate risk extending into South Dakota & North Dakota, I personally liked the potential in West Central Nebraska near the dryline much better. We departed our hotel and headed towards Taylor, Nebraska. We stopped for lunch in Burwell, Nebraska at the Pizza Palace – again another local eatery we highly recommend. After lunch, we finished our drive to Taylor (a very small town with 1 gas station) and arrived to find major chaser convergence at the local gas station with over 30 chase teams parked in the parking lot. I figured at that point that we must have chose the right location to begin our chase!

After networking with some of the other chasers in the parking lot of the local gas station, I got back in the SWERV and started looking at radar as we saw cumulus towers building to our West. Sure enough radar showed the first storm of the day developing West of Taylor. After watching the storm organize we decided that the storm was developing quickly and we headed West to intercept it. The storm continued to organize and as we arrived to sit stationary and observe the incoming storm, we began to notice a rapidly rotating wall cloud. The storm also took on a classic “spaceship” appearance. After watching the storm for about 10 minutes, the other chasers from the gas station began to arrive and chaser convergence resumed.

With no good road network to stay up with the storm, after the storm passed by, we had no choice but to head back East and then North to try to get ahead of the storm to make a second intercept on it. After about 45 minutes of driving we arrived in O’Neill, Nebraska and waited for the storms to arrive. The storm had been tornado warned however right as we got to O’Neill, the tornado warning for the storm was dropped and replaced with a severe thunderstorm warning. We waited in the middle of an open area just Northeast of O’Neill. As the storm moved our direction, the structure and organization the storm displayed was amazing. Inflow winds really increased into the storm and a rapidly rotating wall cloud was noted just to our West. Shortly thereafter, a funnel cloud began to descend and we then noticed dirt and debris being kicked up on the ground. For a few minutes, a very clearly defined tornado was on the ground with a condensation funnel connecting from the cloud base all the way to the ground. We immediately notified the National Weather Service so a tornado could be issued.

While on the phone with the National Weather Service, strong winds began kicking up all around us as we were outside of the SWERV. Winds gusted to well over 60 mph and only after the fact did we realize that we were caught in a gustnado. While watching the tornado to our West and the gustnado directly over us, we also noticed what appeared to be an extremely large gustnado to our East. The gustnado appeared to be at least a half mile wide and at one point connected with the cloud base. With tornado sirens sounding in the background, we were surrounded by a tornado to our West and a large gustnado to the East. The storm was extremely photogenic and demonstrated amazing storm structure.

For those of you reading this, thinking what in the world is a gustnado, here is your answer. A gustnado is a violently rotating vortex in contact with the ground, and for this reason it is like a tornado. Although similar to a tornado, a gustnado is given a special name because it develops in a different way than a classic super cell tornado. A super cell tornado forms from a long lasting and rotating thunderstorm called a super cell. However, a gustnado occurs on a gust front. A gust front is the leading edge of gusty winds that are produced from downdraft winds in a thunderstorm.

After an extremely impressive chase day, we decided to head South towards Grand Island, Nebraska where we would be staying for the night. The drive to the hotel unfortunately meant we had no option but to drive through a powerful squall line that had developed along the cold front. The squall line had been producing widespread damage and winds over 70 mph. We drove through the squall, albeit slowly, but eventually made it to Grand Island. Once we arrived in Grand Island, we immediately began noticing damage including power outages, structural damage and numerous emergency vehicles converging on the South side of town. We briefly looked at some of the damage Monday Night and decided that we would do a full damage survey during the day on Tuesday.

Tuesday arrived and there was really no risk of severe weather, so as stated above, we took the day off from chasing to relax and survey the damage across Grand Island. The day got started with a wonderful lunch at Valentinos, a Nebraska Italian Buffet Chain, which we highly recommend. After lunch, we drove back to the South side of Grand Island where we noted damage the night before. We arrived at the site of what used to be a storage unit/storage facility.

The storage unit/storage facility had extensive damage with the roof peeled off of the building, the Western half of the unit completely exposed with debris covering the area and with the rest of the garage doors all pushed in towards the East. The building appeared to be well built for a storage unit with reinforcing cinder block construction. The damage path was very short, beginning just to the West of the storage units near a metal fence and ending just to the East. After surveying all of the damage very thoroughly, no tornado damage was noted with a damage path in one direction, all pointing towards the East. While I feel that the damage was likely caused by a microburst, winds within the microburst were most likely well over 90 to 100 mph to cause the type of damage observed.

We continued on to the hospital where we were told by locals more damage had occurred. Upon our arrival, we were extremely impressed with the tree damage on the South side of the Hospital where numerous trees had not only been knocked down, but healthy trees there had also been completely uprooted. Again, while extremely impressive, no tornado damage was observed and it is believed that this damage was also likely caused by a microburst embedded within the straight line wind damage path. The microburst likely had winds of near 90 mph.

Farther North on the Northeast side of the hospital, two additional trees were noted down. These trees proved to be slightly more interesting as the tops were not only twisted, but also were missing some of their bark. These trees were also completely uprooted. After closely looking at the trees and their damage, it is my believe that the damage was likely caused by a weak embedded tornado as the damage is consistent with that of tornadic damage. Winds were likely80-90 mph or an EF-0.

After surveying the damage across Grand Island, we took the rest of the day off and relaxed at the hotel/went to the movies to see Hangover 2. Wednesday was looking better and better for severe storms across South Central Nebraska and not all that far from our hotel.

We woke up Wednesday Morning and drove towards Arapahoe, Nebraska where we expected severe storm development by the middle of the afternoon. Storms began firing both to our North and South and we quickly had a difficult decision to make – which storms to pursue. After a very quick radar and surface analysis, the storms to the South appeared to be “messy” where the storm to the North near Elwood, Nebraska was discrete, albeit still very week. Ultimately, I believed that the storm to the North near Elwood had the most potential to become a classic supercell/tornado producer.

Once we got in position Northwest of Elwood, the storm cycled several times and was having a difficult time organizing. The storm had produced several wall clouds and several brief funnels. After watching the storm for several minutes, we decided we had to big on the “right” storm as all of the big names began to arrive including Reed Timmer, Sean Casey and Tim Samaras.

The storm began to show signs of rapid strengthening and organization and began to take on that classic supercell like look. Watching some of the most amazing rotation I had personally ever witnessed, I was confident the storm would produce a tornado………….and then came the RFD winds, and as the RFD winds wrapped into the circulation, any chances of a tornado died. We did witness two brief rope tornadoes farther Northeast in the storm. These two rope tornadoes appeared to form under the earlier meso that was getting shunted by the new one we had been watching. Even without any major tornadoes, the storm was gorgeous. We again felt very good about our chase as the day was expected to be a marginal severe weather day and once again we were on the “right storm” and we were in the “right location”.

After several days of amazing storm chasing, we headed back to Indiana on Thursday. We will be back out on the Plains soon enough, and for those of you who didn’t know, we are planning on doing storm tours in 2011! Stay tuned for more information & thanks for reading this very lengthy blog entry!

Brandon

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