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Gorgeous Tornadoes Touch Down in Kansas

Posted on Friday, May 18, 2012 at 5:00 PM MST

HARPER, KS -- After a three-week hiatus from chasing due to exams and lack of storms, I resumed chasing with a huge score in south-central Kansas. My initial target was storms along the dryline near the Kansas-Oklahoma border, adjusting north or south as needed. The morning model runs did show a brief window of conditions that supported tornadoes ahead of the dryline in central and southern Kansas, but did not extend south into Oklahoma. A lot of things had to fall into place first, and tornado potential was pretty low to begin with, so I was not expecting much. I set off from Norman hoping to get some nice shots of supercells.

I pulled off I-35 in Tonkawa, OK and had another look at the models and radar before making my final decision on a target. Supercells had fired in central Kansas and were beginning to backbuild to the south along the dryline, and more storms were beginning to initiate to the southwest of Woodward, OK. After a quick look at the radar, there was no doubt in my mind which storm to target. I headed north on US-81 into Kansas.

I had earlier identified two east-west roads to use as my main chase route. One was US-64 in Oklahoma, and the other was US-160 in Kansas. As I headed north out of Caldwell, KS, I had a spectacular view of the supercell developing to the west of Harper, KS, and could also see the storms starting to initiate in northwest Oklahoma. That visual alone made for a very simple reinforcement of which target to go to. No doubt, head to the supercell developing near Harper.

By the time I got to US-160 and turned west, the supercell had exploded into a monster (got some amazing shots of it on the approach). It had a Severe Thunderstorm Warning on it, and about five minutes later, when I found a strong enough cell phone signal to refresh the radar, the storm had gotten Tornado Warned. You could see the huge rain core to the north, so I just thought, "Okay, it's probably wrapped up in the rain core. Just focus on the supercell shots." No more than 30 seconds after I had that thought, I came over the top of a hill, and boom. Circulation on the ground (this was the landspout). I couldn't tell at first if it was an actual tornado or whether it was just blowing dust (there was no funnel or connection to the cloud base), but it looked more and more like a tornado as time went on. Later analysis of pictures and storm reports confirmed it was likely a landspout.

As the landspout dissipated, I saw another rotating debris cloud on the ground just to the north of where the landspout was. This one had a funnel and vigorous rotation, so there was no doubt that this was a tornado. There was nowhere to pull over, so I continued slowly west on US-160, keeping a close eye on it and snapping a few pictures. It roped out and dissipated just before I got to Harper.

I knew that this storm likely wasn't done producing tornadoes, so I turned around in Harper and headed back east on US-160 to find a place to stop and pull over to shoot more photos of the storm. The Tornado Warning was reissued as I was leaving Harper, and a few minutes later, I could look in the rear view mirror to see another tornado on the ground. This one was bigger and much more well-established than the first one.

I finally found a spot to pull over, got the big lens on the camera, and just went trigger happy shooting the tornado. That big telephoto lens is absolutely perfect for shooting tornadoes from a distance, and the pictures came out amazing. I was surprised I didn't see very many other chasers out there, but I can't complain at all about having the whole show to myself.

As far as the chase goes, it was mission accomplished both in terms of getting shots of tornadoes and in terms of my goal of topping the April 9th chase in Woodward. I likely got my picture of the year, too. It's gonna be hard to top those shots with the chase season starting to wind down in a couple weeks, but I'm sure gonna try.


Posted In: Chase Recaps

Tagged: Tornado, Memorable