May 18, 2017 Great Bend, KS Chase

by John Farley

After reviewing my pictures and video and comparing notes with other chasers, I am feeling better about this chase than I initially did. Although I knew I had at least one tornado, my video of it was poor, distant, and low contrast, and a bad navigation choice had deprived me of an at least somewhat better/closer view. However, I now know that I saw at least two tornadoes, and very possibly three - and my video of the second one is better, even though at the time I was not at all sure it was a tornado. And I got some nice pictures of other storms, too, including at least one more funnel cloud on another storm. So all told, 2 or 3 tornadoes, at least 2 funnel clouds, and a couple storms that were in some ways more photogenic than the ones that produced the tornadoes.

The previous night, I drove 336 miles Santa Fe to Guymon, OK to pre-position for a chase somewhere likely in northwest OK or southwest KS - exact target would be determined in the morning.

I left Guymon mid-morning with a preliminary target of Coldwater, KS. This turned out to be a rare SPC high-risk day. Storms would form along both a dryline that would form near or just east of the border between the TX Panhandle and OK extending northward to a triple-point low that would move into SW KS, and a warm front that would move north from the KS-OK border area into KS. Triple point low would move from SE CO into SW KS. Very high instability with CAPE 3000-4000 was forecast to develop in the warm sector. Very strong low-level and deep layer shear would also be present, especially after around 21Z (4 p.m. CDT). The EHI was predicted as high as 6 near the warm front in KS, but adequate anywhere along dryline or warm front. Around 3 is enough for tornadoes, and it would be that or more most everywhere in the area of interest. Storms were expected to initiate in TX ahead of the dryline, then in OK along the dryline, then in KS along the dryline and warm front. Main possible failure mode would be if too many storms fired at once, and possible HP modes. These did occur in many areas, including my target area of S KS (but also in parts of the OK target, though not all of it). The condensation level would be low, which favors tornadoes, but can also favor low, gungy cloud bases that make it hard to see, so in this environment that would also be a mixed blessing. I chose the KS target becuase it had the best combination of instability and shear (highest storm parameters overall), and also thinking that large crowds of chasers would be possible closer to I-40. (Though I knew I would have plenty of company where I was, too.) Detours on 160 and 183 led me to shift my target north from Coldwater to Greensburg, or somewhere a little east.

Around 1 p.m., I make a gas/data stop in Greensburg. I always try to spend some money there when I am in that area. SPC has by this time issued a mesoscale discussion saying that a PDS (particularly dangerous situation) tornado watch is coming soon, with development of storms likely somewhere in a cumulus field in southern/central KS - which I am under. I notice agitated cumulus to the east around 1:30, so figure that is where initiation will occur and head east toward Pratt, passing under the growing TCU. I turn north from Pratt, and by 2:15 the storms have initiated NNW of Pratt.

By around 2:20, the storm was starting to look pretty good, and I knew this would be my target storm, at least for now:

I follow the storms north. The expected PDS tornado watch is issued for central and southern KS at 3:30 p.m., valid until 11 p.m. More storms rapidly develop all around, and my storm takes on more of an HP character and interacts with other storms nearby. By around or a little after 4 p.m., it looks like the "too many storms and HP storms" scenario is unfolding. But the parameters are good and the storm is intense, if becoming more HP, so I follow it north through Iuka and St. John toward Great Bend on 281 with growing numbers of chasers. I see attempts at mesos along a flanking line SW of my northward-moving storm, and consider turning west at one of the rare paved roads. I lose data availability as I head north on 281, so am going by visuals. Around 4:30 I see a west option and decide to take it, but just as I am turning I see a funnel ahead along or just east of 281. But I am too far into the turn not to complete it. Should have stopped the first place I could and got out the camera, but it was crowded with chasers so I decided to go to the first good turnaround spot, turn around, and return to 281 to go north. As I am heading back to 281 I can see the funnel in and out of the trees to my N (there are more trees in this part of KS than farther west, I found out), and I grab my video camera and try to get video through the window as I head east. However, it had somehow been recording on my seat, and when I thought I was turning on "record" I turned it off. Arrrgh! Anyway when I got back onto 281 heading north, I could now see that there was a funnel on the west side of the road and I did get video of it through the windshield.

Video capture of what turned out to be Tornado 1:

When I took this video I thought this was a new funnel that formed west of the original one. What I did not realize was that it was the same circulation but was moving toward the southwest, an unusual direction to say the least. And that although the condensation did not extend all the way to the ground for much of the funnel's life, the circulation did, so this was a tornado! Based on the reported location of the tornado and where I was, I think I was around seven or eight miles south of it - too far, especially with all the trees, to tell whether there was any ground circulation. But a handful of chasers, ahead of the main crowds, were very close to it (within a mile or less), and video from those chasers, including Bill Hark, show clearly that there was a continuous dust swirl under the condensation funnel as it lowered, rose, and lowered again multiple times and moved across the highway toward the southwest. In the picture above, the funnel is clearly west of the highway, so this would have been near the end of the tornado. But when I first saw it, it was just east of or very near the highway. Its unusual movement to the SW confused me at the time, but now it is pretty clear what happened. I would presume that the movement to the southwest was because of the strong northeasterly outflow coming out of the storm, which seemed to push the entire meso to the southwest.

After the tornado lifted, another meso that formed to its SW - It produced two interesting features, one of which turned out to be a second tornado. An area of very rapid rotation developed on the southwestern portion of the meso, which for a short time appeared to be two or three small funnels rotating around each other very rapidly. At the time I noted the very strong rotation, but did not immediately think tornado because the funnels and other cloud elements rotating around each other did not extend very low from the meso. But then later I saw Ethan Schisler's picture on Stormtrack that matched these features and was from the same time, and it clearly shows a dust swirl on the ground underneath. I could not see that from my viewpoint because my view of the ground under the funnels was blocked by trees. He said that there were several dust swirls at various times, indicating a multi-vortex tornado. So I know I saw and got video of a second tornado here, but as I elaborate below, I do not know how long it lasted. The location of this tornado, according to Ethan Schisler, was about a mile southwest of Seward, which matches up pretty well with where I think I was.

Video capture of Tornado 2:

The multi-vortex tornado is just left of center in the picture above, where you can see at least two small funnels as well as some cloud tags, all of which were rapidly rotating around one another.

The other intersting feature at this time was another funnel on the northeastern side of the lowered area, which also shows up in the picture above, to the right of the tornado at the right edge of the lowered area. It lasted a minute or two but remained in one position and did not rotate around the other funnels and cloud features to its southwest that were rotating around each other. Here is a video capture of that funnel, taken a little later:

I briefly accidentally zoomed in the video camera too far so I have a gap in the video around this time for a minute or so, but when I fixed that, the area where the tornado had been was still rotating pretty strongly, but the cloud features looked a little disorganized. So I don't know if it was still down or not. If so it would be in the left of this picture, behind and just to the right of the yellow post. There did at one point appear in my video that there could have been a dust swirl rising above the trees, but contrast is poor so I can't say for sure.

Then, another minute or two later, a larger lowering appeared farther back to the northwest that I thought could have been a tornado. This would have been closer to Great Bend than the first two tornadoes. I saw no LSR showing a tornado there at that time, though there was one about 10 minutes earlier up that way but probably somewhat to the northeast of this feature (that reported tornado was a mile or so SW of Great Bend), so after looking at LSRs that evening, I thought maybe not a tornado in the case of this feature. But it does have the look - although I was not completely sure whether it was a cloud feature or precipitation in real time, I actually thought it had more of the look of a tornado from where I was than the other two features that turned out to be definitive tornadoes. So I may have seen three! Here are a couple video captures of this lowering:

Looking at the video and at these captures, I do not think this lowering looks like a precipitation shaft - more like a cloud feature or some combination of cloud and dust being lofted. But the contrast is too low to tell with certainty, and there could be an illusion created by scud or cloud tags in front of a rain shaft. In any case, looking at other chasers' accounts and LSRs, there were probably somewhere between 5 and possibly as many as 7 tornadoes in the general area from the Seward vicinity up to just S or SW of Great Bend, but all of them were brief and weak. (There were also more later northwest of Great Bend.) And from a photo/video standpoint, trees, low cloud bases, and low contrast were issues. A little like back in the days when I chased in MO! In fact, this storm reminds me a lot of my April 23, 2010 chase near Hawk Point and Warrenton, MO. That storm, also associated with a warm front, produced a number of weak, short-lived tornadoes, but nothing sustained or very strong. I saw three that day, also interestingly enough one multi-vortex one that appeared as multiple funnels that did not condense to anywhere near the ground rotating around each other. And that day, too, I could not tell looking through the trees whether there was any ground circulation on that one, but spotters closer to the location did confirm that. The terrain, trees, and low cloud bases were all pretty similar that day to today's chase, too. So a lot of similarities!

Another consideration on today's chase is that I was a little farther from the funnels and tornadoes than I would like to have been - but with so much going on with this storm and the poor visibility, I was reluctant to get too close. But you can't complain about a day when you see two tornadoes and maybe three. Also from what I can see in storm chaser reports on Stormtrack and Facebook, some of the chasers that were up close to the first tornado (and thereby got much better pics and video than I did) missed the subsequent tornadoes, perhaps because they formed behind the chasers. So I guess when it comes to how close you get, like most things in life, there are tradeoffs. (Disclaimer - even with my cautious position, I missed a couple that formed behind me, southeast of Seward, as I resumed heading north toward Great Bend.)

Here is my edited video of the two definite tornadoes and one possible tornado (best if watched full-screen):

After the tornadoes I watched the storm for a while, then continued north into Great Bend. I observed some wild cloud motion including some rotation, but no funnels or tornadoes. (Though as I noted above, there were apparently a couple more behind me to my southeast.) As I came into town the storm I had been on had gradually become very messy and multicellular, but I could see what looked like a pretty intense updraft that appeared to be not too far northeast of town. Should have gotten a picture of this, but was more intent on trying to catch up to it. After I turned east on route 56 I almost immediately encountered major street flooding with the whole street under water. But I saw a truck get through and figured I could, too, expecially if I stayed near the center of the road, which was highest. Drove in the left-turn lane some of the time but better than getting in water that was too deep! Again, I should have gotten a picture or two of the flooding but was pretty intent on getting after the storm so I did not. I did get through the water with no problem, went east to Ellinwood, then north and east from there on whatever paved roads I could find. The storm developed a nice wall cloud and a TOR warning was issued for it, and then two more later. So far as I know or could see, it never produced, though - and keeping up with it from behind on the limited network of paved roads proved impossible after a while. Here is a picture of the aforementioned wall cloud:

I gave up on that storm and headed back the way I came. Heard about tornado reports on a new TOR-warned storm northwest/north of Great Bend moving northeast, so stopped to watch that storm, off to my west, for a while. This storm did exhibit some rotation and formed what appeared to be some funnels, but none of them close to the ground and no ground circulation that I could see. This was around or just before 6 p.m. Here are a couple pictures of a funnel cloud associated with this storm:

After a while a line of storms coming up from my south strengthened and gave me a nice shelf cloud as it moved into my location. With no real escape I just decided to ride it out; got heavy rain and some well sub-severe wind, no hail. Here is a picture of this storm and its shelf cloud as it approached:

By now, a little past 6 p.m., it was evident that nothing more was coming into the Great Bend area, so I decided to start working south for the next day's chase, and perhaps to intercept some storms coming up out of southwest Kansas toward the Kinsley area. The tail-end of this storm was TOR-warned out to the southwest of Greensburg, but I knew these storms were quite far away and could be quite different in character by the time I got to them. I went south on 281 then west on 50, hoping to intercept the storms along what I thought/hoped would be a paved road south from Lewis, which would let me see the storms then head into Greensburg on route 183. However, I made the rookie mistake of turning at Belpre rather than Lewis, onto what was a paved road but was nine miles farther east than what I thought. I did manage to stick to mainly paved roads (and only paved roads once the storm arrived), but was not where I thought I was and ended up having to ride out the storm where the pavement unexpectedly ended. As to the storm, it had totally lined out but got a new severe warning as it approached me, and like the previous line of storms was rather photogenic. I was near the southern end of the line north of Greensburg and encountered no hail or high wind, but both occurred in this line of storms just to my north. A little before 8 p.m., Kinsley got quarter-sized hail, and driving back to 183 to get to Greensburg via paved routes (the roads I had originally been looking for), I noticed both leaves stripped from trees by hail and a number of branches down.

Here is a picture of this line of SVR-warned storms as they approached:

On the way to Greensburg, where I would overnight, I got a couple sunset pics of a rainbow, sunlit clouds, and mammatus, as the storms moved away to my east. Here is one:

The next day, I decided, perhaps unwisely as it turns out, to call off any more chasing and head home, as it appeared in the morning that the chances of any good storms that day would be far to my southeast and rather marginal. Of course as it turns out, a northward moving outflow boundary and mesoscale convective vortex led to some much more photogenic tornadoes around the Medicine Lodge area than anything that had happened on the 18th. Congratulations to the handful of chasers who either stayed in the area or returned when they saw what was going on - they were well rewarded! But I was part of a much larger group who either left the area to chase elsewhere or headed home. I did see a couple decent-looking storms in NM on the way home, and may post pictures and a short report on these as time permits.

Chase mileage:

Total chase trip: 1190.3 miles.

Miles to Guymon to pre-position on May 17: 336.
Chase-day miles May 18: 370.
Miles from Greensburg to Santa Fe on May 19, including a few short turnouts to view storms along the way: 484.

Return to 2017 Severe Weather Observation Page.