If I had to estimate, I’d say that storm chasing involves roughly 75 percent planning and 25 percent luck. This chase was solely about the 75 percent; the research done earlier came back to pay off during the critical moments. Proper planning and understanding of the road network and conditions led me into a very favorable spot with a perfect view of a strong tornado.
I’d also be lying if I said it was all butterflies and rainbows. Hours before I watched a beautiful tornado move through the fields of Nebraska, I found myself at The Maven in Denver, Co – or more specifically Huckleberry Roasters, which I cannot recommend highly enough. One of the things needed to buy a coffee there is money, typically kept in a wallet. I decided it would be a good idea to leave said wallet on the top of my car as I departed Denver.
I narrowly avoided disaster by stopping at Walmart about 30 miles away. Realizing I didn’t have my wallet, I frantically (okay, maybe not frantically, but swiftly) drove back to where I thought it may have fallen off the roof of my car. Lo and behold, there it was on the side of the highway. It was a stroke of complete luck – the 25% I spoke about earlier – and I was on my merry way to Nebraska once again.
Once arriving in Nebraska, I was greeted by the development of strong updrafts. They were discrete and perfectly sheared, a testament to the environment in place. It was volatile, and the ample shear and strong cap meant that discrete storms would have room to control the environments around them. I decided to leave the initial cell behind in Western Nebraska, but did stop to take this beautiful shot of its development. This one went on to produce tornadoes in Northwestern Nebraska later.
I had my eye on a storm in South-Central Nebraska which was in a far more favorable environment. Surface based CAPE over 3500 j/kg, ample mid level shear and a strengthening low level wind profile – with excellent storm relative helicity – suggested the potential for tornadoes as the afternoon went on. I approached the severe-warned storm from the Northeast, and it was tornado warned rather quickly.
Approaching from the southeast, I observed the first tornado as the storm moved near or just northeast of McCook, NE. This tornado was weaker and more ropey in nature. It was rated as an EF-1 by the National Weather Service, producing some weak damage but nothing substantial. The storm began to cycle.
It was at this time that the research done beforehand helped me. The following things were working in my favor, per my earlier research:
- The roads were very dry, which meant dirt roads were an option
- There was a moderately favorable road network in the area
- Storm motion was mostly northeast, so I could stair-step
- There were a few paved east and north options nearby
As the storm began to cycle, it became clear to me that it was coming close to producing a tornado. I had two options here – go east, or go north. I decided to be more aggressive given the conditions above and go north, not wanting to miss the cycle of the storm riding too far east.
I was rewarded for this decision. The road network was excellent, dry dirt roads and I was able to track alongside the storm and watch it produce a strong tornado. This was one of the most photogenic tornadoes I have ever seen – it picked up a ton of dust and produced an incredible visual. After initially forming as a strong wide base, it began to congeal into a more laminar tornado, it was an absolutely beautiful evolution. I was able to track the tornado east/northeast as it cycled.
Eventually, the storm began to drift further and further northeast toward the Sand Hills. This meant that the visuals on the storm would be significantly reduced. I decided to bail on the storm at this point and let it continue on.
This was an amazing day – one of my favorite storm chases of all time and one where it became exceedingly clear that risks, when calculated, are beneficial in storm chasing. I won’t forget this storm any time soon. I won’t forget my wallet again either.