May 7th, 2016: Careers Are Made in Colorado

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Every couple years or so you stumble across what chasers would call a “career” tornado. These are the storms that live on in chaser lore for years to come and capturing that storm is like winning the Superbowl. This lucrative list includes tornadoes like Simla, DDC, Bowdle, and in this case Wray Colorado. What really differentiates these storms is that they are generally picturesque and tend to occur on low-risk days in areas far away from the chaser Disney World of Oklahoma. I call it Disney World because you’ll have a great time 9 out of 10 times but it’s going to cost a lot and there’s always the chance of getting run over by a stroller (chaser convergence).

The low-risk marginal tornado setup was especially true for Wray. The setup was a casual Colorado upslope flow day, which to many isn’t worth the multi-hour drive to central Colorado for. However, if there is one place that can produce picturesque tornadoes on marginal days it’s the high plains of Colorado and Wyoming. SPC threw out the run of the mill slight with a 5% tor for the day. For a group of NC State students puttering our way out for a quick 3-day chase, it was juicy enough not to ignore. In hindsight, we were just hoping to get lucky and take some stress off the remainder of the trip.

0600Z Day 1 SPC Tornado Outlook (image from SPC)

Like many other hardy chasers who raced out to northern Colorado that day we targeted Brush Colorado, giving us some ability to move around. The day started slow with a lot of upslope showers and a few storms but after some re-analysis, we decided to head east a little and intercept a line of semi-discreet supercells. Really didn’t show much promise but a few chasers reported an active wall cloud so we decided to get in position to make a play. After a quick view of some questionable mesos and a possible brief funnel, the hail chased us back out of the way. This wouldn’t be the last time we would be chased that day due to difficult storm motions.

Lowering on one of the wall clouds and possible brief funnel.

By this point in the day, the clock to sunset was beginning to approach zero. The frustration was beginning to build as we have seen about everything from Mammatus to a possible funnel but no tornadoes. Meanwhile, back near Brush Colorado, there was a tornado on the ground. A chasers worst nightmare is to leave a location that produces later in the day. We kept pushing east to the small little town of Wray where we were stuck with a decision. Stay with the storms we just left or drop south to a couple of discreet cells way to our south. Just so happens around the time of that decision, a certain well-known storm chaser *cough cough Reed* tweeted out that there was a brief tornado on the cell we were on. We quickly jumped north a couple of miles to get a vantage point of the cell and low and behold there was a nice funnel about 3/4 of the way down. After a few minutes of waiting, mother nature presented the gift we were looking for. A nice little elephant trunk tornado in the open plains of Colorado. The trip was a success but little did we know the proverbial flood gates were about to open.

Once the first tornado lifted, I looked back to our south to see a beautiful high based meso slowly drifting north towards us giving the perfect opportunity to run a time-lapse not thinking it would produce. This would end up being a very interesting decision later down the road. As this cell drifted towards us, we could see the dust from the RFD blowing across the plains and out of the blue a ground circulation formed. No apparent funnel just a ground circulation. This was about the moment in time where the alarm bells began to go off in my head that something didn’t feel right.

At this moment I decided to gather the troops back into the car and drift south to get back into the town of Wray to give us an east road option. This time around mother nature had other plans. We pulled off just before getting to town and you could see the motions of the meso and the beginnings of a funnel. Within minutes, a ground circulation developed just north of town right on the road we were on. It was time to get out of the way and the next east road was north. As we bailed back north with all the other chasers, our “career” tornado was quickly developing behind us. For the next what 30 min or so we were in a game of cat and mouse watching what could possibly be one of the top 10 most beautiful tornadoes in recent memory. After getting out of the way, which is another story in of itself, we were able to watch the remainder of its life cycle as it tore through open fields to our northeast. To this day I am still not sure if I will ever experience a tornado like that again and the moral of the story is not to sleep on 5% tornado days as they can become your “career” tornado. If Wayne Gretzky was a storm chaser you know he would say “Youll miss 100% of the tornadoes that you never chase”. So if you’re out on a chasecation, don’t sleep on the marginal days it may surprise you. Also, want to thank my navigator Ryan Rackliffe and passenger Mackenzie King who took all the pictures as I drove. Great shots guys!

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