I’ve always had a fascination with the weather. Growing up, I was the nerdy kid who was glued to the weather channel during Hurricane Andrew trying to predict where it would strike. I was told throughout my life that I should have studied meteorology and there might be validity to that, but nonetheless, I have always been captivated by the weather. After all, it dictates so much about landscape photography that it is hard NOT to have some level of admiration for the weather. The old adage is, “bad weather makes for good photos.” and that saying is incredibly accurate most times.
I’ve written about storm chasing before on this blog and surveying the weather is one of the fun things I look forward to in the spring when the weather is at it’s most volatile. During the spring, I keep tabs on the Storm Prediction Center (SPC) based in Norman, OK because they release convective outlooks where big storms might build and if there will be a chance of things like; tornadoes, large hail, flooding, and damaging winds. Last year when took two days to go out to the Colorado plains, there was a 5% tornado probability on the second day of storm chasing. That day ended up seeing 9 tornadoes but we missed them all, you can read more about that day here.
Fast forward to this year, the SPC released an “enhanced” risk day for Nebraska and parts of Texas on May 17th with a 15% tornado probability, I made plans right away to go out to Nebraska since there would be a decent change of seeing my first tornado. There looked like a decent chance of seeing strong thunderstorms from about the Nebraska/Colorado border to north-central Nebraska and that’s quite a lot of land to cover. The area roughly covers North Platte to Grand Island from east to west, so I made plans to go to North Platte and hang out there until storms started to initiate then I would make adjustments from there.
Because we just don’t know where storms will be at a certain time before they form, it’s a big guessing game. Advances in modeling and getting realtime data can certainly help with predictions but since I don’t have access to that sort of information nor do I possess the skill to decode it, I rely on other professionals/storm chasers. Most seemed to be hanging out in western Nebraska from Ogallalah to North Platte, so I caught a late lunch in North Platte while checking the weather constantly.
There was a cell in Kansas that looked promising on radar and it had even produced a weak tornado, so I made my way south out of North Platte toward McCook, NE. I stopped about 20 mins out of North Platte because I was afraid I had made the wrong choice, I was looking at storms that were to my west and they looked beautiful! Towering columns of boiling clouds. Whereas to my south looked like one big cloud mass and didn’t appear to be promising. I saw that a number of chasers were heading south to the McCook area so I continued onward but I had lost about 15 minutes.
I called a fellow weather-obsessed friend to help me get some directions on the storm and my current location while I was driving, so I wouldn’t have to text or look at my cell. He and I talked for a few mins and he said that I would be best stopping where I was because there was serious doubt that I would be able to beat the storm to McCook. Then the storm went back to “tornado-warned” and was looking much better on radar too. I hung up the phone with him saying that I would stop going south and hang out up north, but instead of doing that I sped up a little and raced south to beat the storm.
Thankfully there was very little traffic on US Hwy. 83 on the way down to McCook and it looked like I would beat the storm to there once I was able to see the supercell. Though I will admit seeing the tornado warning extend to McCook a little later made me doubt I was making a safe decision. Plus, the cell phone warning alerting me that I was in an active tornado warning was a little ominous. When I pulled into McCook, I immediately heard tornado sirens and I could see that the cell was just south and west of town. I pulled off the road on the northside of town and waited to see if this storm would produce a tornado, the signs were all there; a rotating wall cloud, strong inflow winds, and lots of scud clouds.
A few minutes later, a funnel cloud started to lower from the clouds while strong winds on the ground were kicking up a tremendous amount of dirt and dust. It was looking probable that I would see a tornado and right then, the condensation cloud met the dirt in the air and I was seeing my first tornado! It was unlike anything I have ever seen and I’ll never forget that sight. By then, lots and lots of storm chasers had arrived in my area and we were all witnessing one of the coolest sights there is; a large tornado swirling silently off in the distance. Unfortunately, the tornado wouldn’t stay over farmland and would cause EF-2 damage to a few farm buildings northwest of McCook.
For about five minutes, I took pictures of the storm and generally just watched in awe as this tornado kicked up dirt until dying out by roping out. Roping out is when the tornado begins to twist and the circulation on the ground is getting weaker. Finally, the tornado retreated back into the dark storm clouds and I had to pinch myself to make sure I knew what I had just saw, then I looked at the photos I shot and I couldn’t wait to go home and edit them. They were going to be good! But the storm wasn’t over and the afternoon was still young, there was more chasing to do.
I talked with my friend again about where to go and he recommended that I head to the Curtis - Farnam area because there was a strong thunderstorm over those areas. I headed north on Hwy. 83 until I reached extremely heavy rain and I pulled over to wait out the rain, no sense in hydroplaning off the road. I finally made it to the NE State Highway 23 exit and to headed toward Curtis. The Farnam area had very strong rotation but it was almost 20 miles down the road, and I wasn’t alone on my travels as probably 50 other chasers were on the same road.
Approaching the thunderstorm from the west is always a gamble because you can get into trouble with heavy rain and large hail, especially since we were going to north of the circulation in what is called the “whale’s mouth”. Not usually something you want to do, and predictably, I found the heavy rain and large hail outside of Farnam. I would estimate ping pong ball sized hail and very heavy rain making driving conditions very challenging, so I pulled off on a county road and waited there for several minutes. Once rain subsided, it was back on the road to Farnam but as soon as I entered town, I was again forced to pull over due to very heavy rain.
As the rain was once again letting up, a group of us were heading down the road east out of Farnam. I was looking at the radar and knew that heading toward Lexington was going to be where I needed to be, the storm was likely going to cross I-80 near there. Suddenly, there was a traffic jam and lots of cars turning around ahead of me with lots of police lights ahead too. There had been a tornado east of Farnam and it had brought down power lines over the roads, it didn’t occur to me until I looked to my right or left and saw trees that had been snapped that I realized I was looking at tornado damage.
I turned around and tried to find a county road that would allow me to reach Lexington but there weren’t many choices, finally going out of Moorefield I found a county road that would go to Brady, NE and that wasn’t too far away from Lexington. When I started driving down this road, I knew I was making a bad choice. The area had just received over an inch of heavy rain and the dirt road was incredibly muddy under the surface. After going down a small hill and sliding a little while in 4WD, I decided that I had enough chasing for the day and headed back to North Platte instead of pressing onward on some hazardous county road in the middle of nowhere.
Upon arriving back in North Platte, another thunderstorm had built up just east of the town and was putting on a gorgeous display of constant lightning. I drove east of town just a few miles and found a good county road away from any lights and started to take photos that I wanted to make into a timelapse to show how intense and constant the lightning was. It ended up being another highlight to an already spectacular day! I suppose good things can happen in Nebraska after all.