Tornado | Akron to Wray, Colorado | 22 May 2021

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This second day of my chase trip started with a stalled cold front/boundary across northeast Colorado. With moderate instability forecast beneath 40+ kt shear, supercells were on the menu, with a slight possibility of a tornado, particularly with any boundary interactions. Before I got rolling, my target was Sterling, Colorado, with a goal of lining up convection firing on the dryline or stalled front and shooting for best options as it followed or began to cross the boundary. I really wanted to be mindful of the boundary’s location and not to follow storms too far across it before retargeting anything new firing upstream with a fresh fetch of unstable air.

I began the day boondocking near Scottsbluff, Nebraska, under low, gray stratus and headed southward. I had to take a photo detour near the Wildcat Hills when I saw how the low clouds and fog were dressing up the terrain.

By the time I got Sterling, it was evident the boundary had set up near Akron and was curling up to the northeast corner of the state. So I decided to set up shop further south near Akron. As I headed that way, a horseshoe vortex arched above the bubbling cumulus. That seemed like a good sign for vorticity charging the atmosphere.

I eventually sidled up to Akron and watched as agitated convection sheared downwind and distant upstream bases grew heavier. Eventually a cell to the southwest started to get itself together and I moved a dirt road a mile east of town to watch it approach. It was distant enough that the base was mostly in profile, but some detail was becoming visible with scud fingers constantly grabbing my attention.

Rain free base with attention seeking scud appendages looking west from Akron, Colorado. 1923Z

I finally moved north a bit to keep pace with it, figuring it still needed time to gather strength as it gradually edged further east and closer to my chosen road network. Just three and a half minutes after making that move I glanced out the side window and noticed a thick rope funnel descending to the tree line. I quickly pulled into a broad field access, grabbed the telephoto and snagged a few quick shots. I foolishly tried to get the video camera set up on a tripod to record it, but in the 60-ish seconds it took me to fumble around with that, the tube had started to separate and degenerate. So I grabbed a couple more shots of that before it completely dissipated. I dropped a spotter report for a funnel with inconclusive ground contact. Others that were closer confirmed it as a tornado though.

Tornado looking west across Akron, Colorado. 1929Z
Dissipating rope. 1930Z

For being 26 miles out, I was pretty happy with how the telephoto shots turned out. I kept pacing it further north, to see if it would produce again. It developed a new wall cloud with a robust cauda, but the terrain was preventing me from getting a decent idea of what was happening at various points, as far east as I still was from it.

New wall and tail cloud looking west from one miles north of Akron, Colorado. 1937Z

Meanwhile, convection to the south was getting serious and I needed to keep an eye on that to be sure I had escape routes and needle-threading options ready to go. At 2003Z, some scud fingers to the southwest caught my eye and I took a couple shots. The time, position, and angle on those shots correlate to a tornado report. Very much uncertain from my perspective though.

Looking south at approaching convection midway between Akron and Atwood, Colorado. 1956Z
Looking southwest from a locaiton just east of Route 63 and CR55. 2003Z
Funnel shaped scud at left side lines up to a 2003Z tornado report at that alignment.

As I kept heading north, a new storm formed in my path and developed rotation. I followed it from behind and had a chance to watch the base lower a bit before it wrapped up in precipitation. The sky was getting a bit crowded for my taste by this point, so I stopped at Sinclair to let things move by. I headed northeast from there to see if any new convection might interact with the boundary, but nothing new was firing southward and what was already active was moving too fast and far out of reach to catch up with. So I finally called it off a few miles north of Holyoke and watched things recede to the north.

Lowering beneath new mesocyclone. Looking north-northeast from six miles south of Sinclair, Colorado. 2017Z
Watching convection recede north of Holyoke, Colorado. 2222Z

I decided I’d get a hotel for the night in Wray to freshen up for the next day’s setup. On my way back south, I found this sassy bull snake sunning in the road. Before moving it into the field, I decided to be annoying and interact and get a bunch of photos. It was a persistent lunger, but only bounced its head off me even when I gave it a chance to latch onto my arm. Something seemed to be wrong with its mouth, which had a strange smirk to it. Looking close at a couple photos, I think it had an abscess/infection in its lower right jaw. Hopefully it recovers from that.

Spunky bull snake aggravated that some creep wants to move it off that nice warm road. North of Holyoke. 2340Z

After checking in to my hotel, new storms were moving in from the west. So I explored a bit and found an unpaved road on a ridge just north of town that had a great view all around. I stopped there and shot stills and time lapse as the line moved in. Deep into blue hour, it’s fascinating how scud bombs, fingers and edge-on shelf clouds get especially ominous. This one showed plenty of rising motion and a bit of rotation on time lapse, but that was still consistent with the side view of a fresh shelf cloud ingesting a bit of vorticity as it moves by.

Lightning and approaching gust front, looking northwest from north of Wray, Colorado. 0202Z
Tantalizing scud/edge-on shelf, looking north from north of Wray, Colorado. 0218Z

As those storms receded to the east, they put on a beautiful, moonlit lightning display that ended the day perfectly.

Receding line of moonlit storms with photo-bombing Starlink satellite train at upper right.
Looking east from north of Wray, Colorado. 0315Z

The tornado is now documented in the Storm Events Database:
EF-0 | Morgan County, Colorado | 22 May 2021 | 1929Z



Community Comments

Travis Farncombe Travis Farncombe   •   May 23, 2021 1:41 pm

Hey Jeremy - Great job bagging the Akron tornado yesterday, even if from a distance! I have a question for you about your hero image of the tornado: How do you achieve such precision with your focus, especially from that distance? Are you using auto focus (servo?)? Or are you on manual focus? Were you shooting on a tripod at the time? Deeply envious of the crisp image quality! - Travis

Jeremy Perez Jeremy Perez   •   May 29, 2021 11:24 am

Hi Travis! Thanks! Busy week :)

That shot was with a Canon 6D Mark II and Canon EF 70-300mm lens and this was zoomed in to the full 300mm. The lens has great stabilization built into it and auto-focus works nicely. I use back button focus so I can lock it on something on the horizon, shoot a few frames, and keep relocking focus any time I change up zoom level or if some time has gone by to be sure it hasn't drifted. I think I was also bracing it on the card door at the time. I'll also use a monopod for quick moving around if I have time to attach it...which I didn't at this point.

I had the exposure set at 1/320 sec to help reduce any shakiness and f/7.1 for the focus sweet spot. If it was darker, I think it would be better to bump up ISO (at ISO 200 here) than slow down shutter speed too much. Maybe open to f/5.0-5.6 too if it helps, but 7.1 seems best on that lens.

Hope that helps! Wouldn't mind another chance photographing one before heading home. But glad to have had that one.

Jeremy

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