Easily the best chase of my life so far, I witnessed two tornadoes in north-central Kansas, including the large, intense Tescott/Culver, Kansas tornado.
This day (and week) had been on many chasers’ minds for a while, as computer models indicated a large trough would develop in the western US and move slowly eastward. May 2nd had looked like the biggest day for some time, while May 1st was a “day before the day” kind of setup. I had planned on chasing for a few days, as central Kansas is not far from home, and I felt like there would be a good chance for tornadoes. The SPC issued a 10% significant tornado risk for May 1st, in a relatively small area of central Kansas, including Great Bend and Salina. Supercell thunderstorms were forecast to develop in the mid-afternoon, and if they remained isolated long enough, would have significant tornado potential closer to sunset. I decided that Great Bend would be a good starting point for my day and left home around 9:30 am.
I topped off my gas tank in Ellsworth and briefly visited the Cheyenne Bottoms nature center before arriving in Great Bend. There were a lot of chasers in Great Bend (and other towns nearby) as many people from out-of-state had decided to take a chasing vacation (chasecation) for this week. I met some of my fellow chasers before storms developed, and around 2:30 pm I headed north to Hoisington. Several storms were forming from north of Hays south to Dodge City; the question was which storm would go on to be a long-lived supercell. A couple of strong cells developed east of Jetmore, so I drove west of Hoisington to near the small town of Olmitz and found a nice spot to let the storms come to me.
3:31 pm near Olmitz, looking WSW. At this point, storm cells/updrafts were still getting organized. I was pretty sure one of the cells to my southwest was going to be a good one, it was just a matter of waiting. Once an updraft became established, I moved a few miles further west to near Otis to await the storm.
4:17 pm near Otis, to my southwest. An updraft became dominant southwest of Rush Center, with a base visible in the middle-left of the image. The storm is still 30-40 miles away from me at this time, and is moving in my general direction, so I figured staying at this spot and waiting for a while would be a good course of action. I kept seeing chasers heading west around this time so I figured I must be doing something right.
4:24 pm, same location. It didn’t take long after the supercell fully developed for a healthy wall cloud to appear. Chasers closer to the storm reported some light rotation in it at this time. After a few minutes, the wall cloud became obscured by rain from my vantage point. Some rotation was continuously occurring on the storm.
4:48 pm, same location. As the storm got closer to me, it started to lose some of its splendor. It became largely outflow dominant, with little tornado potential. I moved back eastwards to near my first spotting location. At this point I realized that my camera had low battery (rookie mistake) and I didn’t get many good photos for a while, as I had to conserve my battery. The storm, while still a supercell, continued to lose its good structure. A supercell had begun to develop on the southwest flank of the first storm, and another storm was approaching from the south, likely to kill the first storm. Seeing as there was another impressive supercell near Greensburg, and some other chasers I knew moved towards it, I began to head to the south to intercept that one. I traveled down dirt and gravel roads for around 20 minutes and began moving east on K-4 east of Claflin, thinking I could quickly go south. However, I began to realize that it was likely too far to go. Some chasers who were on the first storm reported that the supercell that developed on its flanks had begun to organize, so I decided that hell or high water, I was going to stick with the northern storms.
Driving northward from near Bushton, I had to drive down dirt road after gravel road to get to the new supercell. I’m glad this area has such good roads, as they afforded me the chance to catch up with the storm. I could make out the mesocyclone of the supercell, with a relatively high base. The area became very hilly southwest of Ellsworth, and while beautiful, was getting somewhat difficult for chasing.
7:08 pm, west of Ellsworth, looking north. While contrast isn’t very good, it’s easy to pick out the funnel cloud. Some chasers closer reported that there was ground circulation at the time, so it appears as if this was a tornado. The storm still has a fairly high base, which explains why the funnel didn’t reach the ground. I stopped a few minutes for pictures, and the tornado dissipated. I continued east to Ellsworth, and drove north through town. The storm was to my northwest by this point, so I got on I-70 eastbound to get east and then north of it. Driving east, I noticed the storm was looking pretty impressive, with a strong rear-flanking downdraft cut in the base, and although it was tough to see in the rain, a wall cloud appeared to be taking shape. Many chasers were doing the same thing I did, and some got off I-70 at Brookville Road in western Saline County, heading north. I thought about doing that, but decided one more exit would be best. I got off at Hedville Road with a couple other chasing vehicles, and turned north.
As I drove north towards the small town of Culver, a large lowering was evident. Due to the hills/trees, I couldn’t see what was going on at ground level, but I remarked “it looks like that whole thing is a tornado.” Surprisingly, I was right. In a chatroom I use for weather and chasing, another chaser reported a cone tornado, but he got too far behind it to tell what was going on. I thought I saw something in the mesocyclone, but rain and scud clouds obscured my view. I drove northward until I finally came into a relative low spot and the town of Culver was in front of me.
My jaw dropped as I looked to my left (northwest) and a large, violent-looking tornado loomed in the distance.
7:53 pm on the south edge of Culver. Tornado is approximately 3-4 miles to my northwest at this point. There’s even some greenish colors east of the tornado. The guy in the foreground is Aussie storm chaser Daniel Shaw, who I follow extensively.
7:55 pm, same location. The tornado began to grow larger as it continued northeastward. The motion at the base of the tornado was quite impressive. Although the tornado was rated EF3, it was likely capable of causing EF4 damage at some point during its life.
7:57 pm, same location. Tornado is moving more north than east now and is heavily rain-wrapped. I stayed in this spot for a few minutes, and although rain was covering the tornado, I could still see the violent motion of the vortex. Many chasers were driving north, hoping to get a better view. I decided to head eastwards, thinking I could take US 81 towards Minneapolis for another intercept. However, the sun was setting, and the storm looked like it was going to stay HP (high-precipitation) so I drove south on US 81, got on I-70 east, and made it home.
The National Weather Service in Topeka surveyed the tornado the next day and rated it EF3 based on damage to a home southwest of Minneapolis (far to the north of where I saw it). It touched down at 7:41 pm in far northwest Saline County, moved into Ottawa County, missed Tescott to the southeast by about a mile, moved north of Culver and dissipated southwest of Minneapolis around 8:10 pm. It was on the ground for 14.5 miles and 29 minutes.
Interestingly, I chased twice in this area last April. I even drove down this same road chasing some garbage storms (can’t even remember the day) and on April 19th, I drove through Tescott. Third time’s the charm, I guess. A great start to May for me, and hopefully there will be more to come.