May 26, 2019 New Mexico Chase
Tornado Southwest of Clayton

by John Farley

The Setup

With low pressure over Colorado and the continuation of a big weatern though and eastern ridge, a long dryline would set up and sharpen today. The dryline would extend southward from somewhere around northeast CO through eastern CO or western KS southward into SW TX, setting up somewhere near the NM/TX state line. Conditions along and east of the dryline would be favorable for supercells and possible tornadoes, with plenty of instability and at least decent wind shear. CAPE would be around 3000 through the afternoon, maybe higher. Southerly or SSE surface winds would combine with a strenthening upper jet from the SW to produce substantial wind shear, which according to some forecast models would combine with the instability to produce an EHI as high as 6 in some areas along and just ahead of the dryline. Potential flies in the ointment included 1) potential massive chaser convergence, since it was Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, 2) somewhat of a veer-back-veer wind pattern with height predicted by some models, and 3) some potential for rapid upscale growth of storms into a large complex that would make chasing more difficult and potentially limit tornado potential. There was some disagreement among the convection-allowing models (CAMS) on exactly when and where storms would develop. All of the CAMS agreed on multiple rounds of storms along and ahead of the dryline, but the specifics of when and where they would occur varied from model to model. A possible scenario was one complex of storms starting around mid-day or in the early afternoon ahead of the dryline that would shift east across the panhandles in to western OK and SW/SC KS, followed by a new batch of storms later right near the dryline, which might rather quickly grow upscale into a line of storms. Some models had a bullseye of high EHI in the northwest TX Panhandle or far NE New Mexico, along with others farther north or south. I knew I did not want to be too close to I-40 because of the potential for chaser crowds, especially on any big storm that went up near the freeway. Colorado and Kansas were a bit too far from where I started out so I did not seriously consider them, even though SPC had a higher tornado probability there than farther south. (Turns out this northern target was where the massive crowds ended up, so although I did not really expect that, I am glad I did not go there. Guess there were a lot whose thinking was influenced by the SPC forecast.) I also did not really want to go south of I-40 because if you get too far east in the TX Panhandle, you get into the caprock canyons which are not an ideal chase location. Taking all this into consideration, I decided on the northern Texas Panhandle/NE New Mexico area as the place that had the best storm potential and chase terrain along with less potential for massive crowds.

The Chase:

Out the door at 9:50 from Santa Fe with a target of the northern TX Panhandle or northeast NM - generally along or north of the U.S. 54 corridor from Logan, NM to Dalhart, TX. I figured this would put me into my target area by around 1:30 or 2:00 p.m. MDT, the approximate time it looked like storms might get going there. As it turns out, some storms were early and some were late. The scenario of multiple rounds of storms absolutely did play out, but relative to what at least some models were predicting, some of the storms were early and some were late. The first round of storms started in the morning, but they were well to the east and, although some were strong, they were elevated. Meaning they were forming above a layer of cooler air near the surface, probably as a result of overnight storms. And also meaning this group of storms would have little tornado potential. Early on these storms were lined up north and south through the Dalhart and Amarillo areas, and then they shifted eastward. The expectation was that another batch of storms would develop to the west, closer to the dryline, which was still in CO and NM, toward the western range of forecasts of where it might be. This did happen, but it took a little longer than I expected to unfold.

After a couple quick stops for lunch and data, I was heading northeast on U.S. 54 from Tucumcari, as planned. Nothing I was seeing up to this point led me to change my thinking. By the time I reached the TX/NM state line a little before 2:00 p.m. MDT, I was clearly ahead of the dryline, as the air was moist and sticky. Also, the surface plot for NM showed dewpoints in the low 60s in Tucumcari and Clayton, compared to 30s and lower farther west. But there were a couple flies in the ointment. First off, most of the Panhandles, and for a while also eastern NM, were covered in cirrus overcast, probably at least in part arising from the elevated storms to the east. This tends to hold down instability and can delay the formation of storms and/or lead to weaker storms. Secondly, although the storms to my east were elevated, I could see that there were a lot of surface based cumulus - I would call them moderate, not towering, cumulus - under the cirrus over and ahead of me. And sometimes, the edge of an area covered by high clouds can be a location for the development of strong storms. That is where these clouds were, and although I knew I was ahead of the dryline and storms could form to my west, they could also form from these clouds to my east, and I did not want to play catch up. Hence, rather than staying in NM, I decided to continue on to Dalhart.

Although the aforementioned batch of low clouds did generate a few relatively localized and short-lived showers, it was evident by the time I got to Dalhart that they were not going to blow up into storms. By then, there was nothing on the radar in the Panhandles west of the elevated convection now well to the east. But I could see on radar that a few storms were starting to pop up along the dryline in NM, perhaps located a bit farther west than I would have suspected. These storms were forming, quite isolated at this time, along a NW-SE line from east of Raton and Springer to around Mosquero. The initial storm in this group may have been a continuation of one that had formed earlier near Las Vegas, NM, which I had disregarded because it was on thw wrong side (west) of the dryline. However, it now appeard that these storms were on the dryline, and their NW-SE orientation suggested a dryline bulge, i.e. that the dryline up there was alligned more NW-SE than the N-S dryline farther south closer to I-40, and thus the movement of the storms up there would be somewhat more perpendicular to the dryline. This usually increases the chance of supercells and tornadoes. I knew I had to get back to NM, and taking the dryline orientation and the location of the storms into consideration, going NW toward Clayton looked like a better choice than heading back SW or going due W, which would have been the fastest way from Dalhart back into NM.

I headed NW on U.S. 87 toward the Clayton area. It became increasingly clear that a strong storm still well to the southwest of Clayton would be my target storm. The storm was moving NNE, in the general direction of Clayton. I thought that if it did not turn right it might pass just west/NW of Clayton, but it would be close, and if it turned right at all it might actually pass SE of Clayton. Hence, when I got to Texline, TX, just before the NM state line and 10 miles or so SE of Clayton, I decided to go west into NM on a gravel road. This would keep me on the front side of the storm without having to worry about getting run over by it. I was confident this road would get me to the north-south NM route 402 before the storm arrived, which it did, easily, by around 4:00 p.m. MDT. The storm was still well to my southwest, so I decided to approach it more closely by stairstepping west, south, and west again on NM 562, which conveniently for me, follows such a route. When I started onto 562, and again a few minutes later, I stopped a couple times to take pictures of the now very impressive supercell, of which I now had a much better view than earlier around Texline:

Note the rock-hard updraft tower in the second picture - a definite sign of an intense storm. I was getting myself on a supercell thunderstorm, and it was getting stronger. By the time I was on 562, the anvil was spreading overhead and beyond to my north, where some rather impressive mammatus formed on its underside:

I headed down route 562, west, then south, then west again, to where state maintenance ends. So does the pavement, so I stopped just past there to watch the storm. As I headed that way, two things became evident. First, the storm was cycling, something it continued to do the rest of the time I was on it. Second, the predicted upscale growth was occuring. Another cell was just south of mine, and both showed wall clouds at times. And there were lots more down the line from that, including a very intesne one down closer to I-40. After a while, the storm I was mainly interested in formed a funnel cloud around 4:35 p.m., which lasted about 3 minutes before it roped out, and at one point reached about halfway to the ground. No ground contact that I am aware of, though. This funnel formed in a little different place than I expected, north of what I thought was the main wall cloud or was becoming so, between it and the main precipiation area. Here is a picture of this funnel cloud:

After this, I began to think the show was over, as the storms to the south seemed to be interfering more with my storm. I decided to retrace my steps back to the east and north, in part to keep up with the storm, and in part to get out of the way of the next two storms, which were coming my way and beginning to produce a little rain at my location. As I headed east, I kept glancing in my mirrors to see what the storm was doing, and after a few miles it became evident that my storm was ramping up again. I stopped again, now perhaps 10 miles west and a little north of Sedan, NM along route 562. There was a definite wall cloud now, and soon I knew something was about to happen. There was a sudden and dramatic upsurge of CG lightning around the wall cloud, about as pronounced as I have ever seen. And then, around 4:57, a tornado formed. At the time I was not 100 percent sure that it was a tornado, but I thought it probably was and said so as I recorded video. The condensation did not appear to quite reach the ground, but it was very close, and on my video there are a couple places where it looks like some dust might be getting lofted, though it is not completely definitive. However, at least two spotters who were closer than I was said that it was a tornado, located 16 miles SSW of Mount Dora in one report and 14 miles south of there in the other. This puts it about 18-20 miles SW of Clayton, probably somewhere near route 56/412, right about where I was looking at. I would have been between 10 and 15 miles from the tornado - not close, but it was beautifully backlit - in that regard I was in the perfect position. Here are some video captures of the tornado:

The bolt of lightning in the second picture above appears to have been very close to the tornado, judging from how brightly it lit up the front side of it. This is very evident in this still, but not so much in real time in the video. At some point I paused recording to call in the tornado to the ABQ National Weather Service, but could not get a call to go through. Maybe no signal, maybe I just messed up with the phone in my excitement. In any case, my phone alarmed for a TOR warning a few minutes later, and I was relieved to know they were aware of the tornado. While I had the video recording paused, I also took this still photo of the tornado, not quite as zoomed as the video:

A couple minutes after this, the tornado dissipated. In the video, there does seem to be some dust lofted right before it began to dissipate. Not sure from the distance I was at, but it looked like the tornado lasted about five minutes, from around 4:57 to about 5:02. Also noteworthy is that during the time the tornado was occuring there were multiple reports of large hail to its north or NE closer to Mount Dora, with a couple reports of 3" diameter hail. After the tornado ended, the storm gradually took on more of an HP character, and storms to the south gradually merged into it to form a line. It also seemed like the original supercell took somewhat of a rightward turn during this period. There were more reports of tornadoes closer to Clayton between around 5:25 and 6:00. However, I could not see any tornado during this time period, in part because as the storm went more HP, the meso became increasingly rain-wrapped from my point of view. Here are a couple pictures of the storm in this phase, taken from along route 402 after I got back to it, looking northwest:

These were the best views I had from route 402. As I got closer to Clayton, the RFD gust front surged forward, so that I was getting into the rain and the west wind of the RFD by the time I got in town. I got through town as fast as I could, and headed back SE toward Texline on route 87 until I was clear of the storm. There I stopped at a small rest stop with (for the first time all day) a number of other chasers, getting a little video of the structure and lightning - but there really was not a lot to see. I then called it a chase and returned to town to get a room.

A couple of observations. First, I saw very few chasers - nobody at all I would definitively say was a chaser until after the tornado, and even after that while still on route 562, just a van from Oklahoma State University and one car. Only when the show was mostly over and I was closer to Clayton did I see more chasers, and even then it was not a lot. And I am not sure how many of these were locals versus serious longer-distance chasers, but they clearly were taking pictures and video of the storm. Second, I think there was some confusion in the initial PNS from the Albuquerque NWS about this storm and the number, timing, and location of tornadoes. It reported one tornado, on the ground for nearly an hour, starting 8 miles SW of Clayton and ending up 5 miles NW of Clayton. I think there more likely were two tornadoes - the one I saw and a rain-wrapped one later closer to Clayton - and they got conflated somehow. I do not think there was any tornado on the ground for nearly an hour, and if there was, it would likely have moved more than 8-10 miles. Hopefully this will get cleared up in the final input to Storm Data. To wrap up, this was one of my best chases since 2016 near Dodge City. The tornado was rather far away, but I was in the perfect position with regard to lighting - perfect backlighting. And no crowd, even as massive chaser jams apparently occurred one state north in Colorado. Competing commitments kept me from chasing very much this year, but a combination of good forecasts and luck rewarded me when I did chase, as this was the second photogenic tornado and fourth tornado overall this year in just three days of chasing. And although they do not always give you a tornado, New Mexico storms rarely disappoint!

Here is my video of the tornado, prety much from start to apparent finish of the tornado:

Total chase distance (including return to Santa Fe the next day): 585 miles.

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