My first tornado on a chase and second overall came on a 2% tornado risk day in August 2016 in North-Central Kansas. A brief tornado occurred near Miltonvale, Kansas around 7:15 pm, and I observed it from over 25 miles away. Because I was so far from it, and I was driving at the time, I didn’t get any pictures of it, but it is a memory I will hold forever.
I payed attention to the SPC forecast for August 23rd, as they had mentioned some tornado potential in Nebraska the day before. The day of the event, however, the morning discussions only had a 2% tornado risk in Nebraska and Iowa, so I didn’t think much about it. In the 3 pm update, a 5% tornado risk area had been added to Southern Kansas and Northern Oklahoma, where a couple tornadoes were possible. Many chasers went to that area. There was also a 2% risk that extended across Central and North-Central Kansas. Around this time, I noticed some echoes on the radar near Salina, Kansas. I set off for Manhattan, Kansas, where I planned to go fishing, and if the storms looked good, I could go west and chase. I fished until about 6 pm, when I noticed on radar that a single, isolated supercell had developed in Cloud County, Kansas, about 60 miles from where I was fishing. I decided to head towards Clay Center, Kansas and try to intercept the storm.
As I approached Clay Center from the west, the storm was due west of me by over 25 miles. However, I could clearly see the updraft base, and as I continued westward, a small lowering. I kept an eye on this lowering, and within a few minutes it turned into a full-fledged funnel. It appeared to me to be about a quarter ways from the cloud base to the ground. As I was driving, I was unable to get a picture of it. It wasn’t until hours later that I knew that it had actually briefly touched the ground, and thus was a tornado. A storm chaser who was less than a mile from the tornado recorded it and posted it on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YPpKrirWxmc&feature=youtu.be&a
Around the 1-minute mark, the funnel can be seen in its developmental stage. Further along the video, it becomes a full-fledged funnel cloud, and the video then shows the debris cloud where the funnel cloud touches down and becomes a tornado. I was unable to see the touchdown, but I am certain I saw the funnel. As I went into Clay Center, the tornado/funnel dissipated. I decided to head south from Clay Center, as the storm was slowly moving southeastward, and heading south and then west would be my best option.
Heading south of Clay Center, I drove through a network of gravel and dirt roads. I figured it would be best to stay well away from the precipitation of the storm, but close enough to see the mesocyclone. I never got too close to the storm, and stayed out of the rain and hail the entire chase. The following photos are in chronological order.
7:32 pm, looking west. The updraft base is visible in the middle, where there is little precipitation falling. I had bad data coverage at this juncture, but a Tornado Warning was issued a few minutes before this.
7:44 pm. I repositioned south and west to get further away from the precipitation and wind of the storm. the rotation in the storm is evident in this image, as the mesocyclone is visible in the center-left. A new mesocyclone is forming to the right. Not long after this picture was taken, a bolt of lightning flashed overhead, and the thunder was deafening. I wouldn’t be surprised i
8:00 pm. Heading further south, a new updraft formed to the east of the first one. They competed for control of inflow, and neither produced a tornado after this point.
Both updrafts are visible in this picture, with the old one that produced the tornado to the left (west), and the new one to the right (east). Some sort of gust front started to move towards me at this time, so I repositioned southward.
8:16 pm. Although the new updraft to the east had taken some of the old one’s inflow, it appeared that the old updraft was trying to produce a wall cloud. More upward motion was occurring at the base, and the cloud base was lowering.
8:20 pm. The attempt at a wall cloud didn’t last long, however, and soon returned to an updraft base that has some rain falling in it.
After this picture was taken, sunlight began to fade, making it difficult to see features in the storm. It also appeared that the storm began to weaken in terms of rotation, so I decided to head home. I was treated to a spectacular lightning show on my way home.
As I came home, I checked the SPC page. To my surprise, the page listed that a brief touchdown occurred around 7:15 pm west of Miltonvale, Kansas. I checked some things and I discovered that the report and the funnel I saw were at the same time. I didn’t realize I saw my first tornado until 3 hours later!
Brief Meteorological Analysis
The tornadic storm was not forecasted very well, but the NWS did well as it occurred. Looking at a sounding from Topeka, Kansas (the closest site), we can make some guesses to the storm’s environment.
The picture is hard to make out, but at 7 pm at Topeka, there was ~2200 MLCAPE, 31 kts of bulk shear, and 272 SRH. I would be willing to bet that both bulk shear and SRH were higher in the storm’s inflow environment, with something like ~40 kts of shear and 300 SRH probably a good estimate. While this is not an outbreak setup, it is definitely conducive for tornadoes. A look at the hodograph shows that slow, southeastward-moving supercells have potential for tornadoes. Generally speaking, between 30-35 kts of flow at 500mb won’t get you much, but as there was a strong low-level jet, and slightly backed winds at the surface coming from the south-southeast, it was enough to produce a brief tornado.
My fourth chase of the year was my best so far, before I knew about the tornado. Great structure, beautiful landscapes and nice images produced my best day chasing. The tornado was just icing on the cake.