A (mostly) Colorado Storm Chase Odyssey — May 25–27, 2017

Despite my chase vacation starting with some down time, things looked to ramp up Thursday the 25th through Saturday the 27th of May. The good news was that all three plays looked to be High Plains chases which makes Scott very happy. Below are the photo’s and details of the chases.

Thursday May 25th — This day started as only a marginal risk for eastern Colorado in to western Kansas. It was later upgraded to a slight risk. This seemed like the ‘day before the day’ as Friday had much better ingredients. I chased with Michael and Eric Carlson and our goal was to head out east and hopefully get some decent structure and who knows, maybe a surprise? We debated heading up I-76 after a storm that had formed earlier than we anticipated. As we left my house and got on to I-25, we hit bumper to bumper traffic. The traffic was normally not this bad so something had to be up. Turns out, there was a fatal accident further N on I-25, so they had shut the highway down completely. This forced us to forget about the storm up 76 and we opted to head east on I-70 instead. We got to Byers and then drifted east on highway 36 going out past Last Chance. It was there we sat up on the boundary and little towers were popping up near us. One started looking stronger and started showing some decent structure.

Initial structure along highway 36
Storm started to show a nice overshooting top

We stayed with this storm for a little bit but noticed further east, a different storm was starting to become the dominant cell. The hail core on the stronger storm to our east was really ramping up. We decided then that we needed to push east fast if we wanted to get out ahead of it. There is a jaunt of highway 36 the moves north right before the border. This brought us to a cross road with tennis ball sized hail complicating matters. Do we push it and try to beat the hail north, or do we wait for the core to cross first and then we duck in behind the storm? Michael made the decision to go for it. It was a nervous stretch of 2 miles to say the least. I tried to keep Michael calm by calling out the distance we had left. Not sure if that helped or not, haha! We completed the northern stretch and then blasted east with the hail core right in our rear view. We made it. We pushed a few miles east getting a safe distance out ahead of the storm, when Eric noticed that behind us there was a big dust plume being kicked up. Likely a gustnado but definitely worth pulling over and having a look. The plume looked more focused at the ground level and slightly stronger than I’d expect of a gustnado. The first photo below didn’t reveal too much.

Suspected gustnado on the CO/KS border (literally)

We watched for a few minutes and the feature in the base over the dust kick up started to show some motion in it. Sure enough, a nubby little funnel poked out. It was actually a small, weak tornado.

Small funnel reveals itself
Funnel broadens
Tornado dissipates

As the tornado dissipated, a really cool spiral/cinnamon bun type feature in the base revealed itself and continued to rotate. We never got another tornado though, and the feature quickly went away. This pretty much ended our day. We drifted east and then south back toward Colby, KS to look at another storm to our south but it had gone really HP and didn’t have any decent structure. Getting that tornado on such a low risk day, really boosted my ‘chasing spirits’ as I’d been pretty sour on the whole hobby recently. Huge shout out to Michael for being a great high plains forecaster and more importantly, being one of the best now casters I know. He always knows when we need to move, adjust, or hold tight. He gets all the credit on this one for making the call to move east ahead of the giant hail core.

Friday May 26th — As I mentioned above, Friday seemed like the best day of the three. The setup was similar to Thursday’s but all the ingredients were ramped up a bit. As we looked at the forecast in the morning, we faced a difficult decision. There were 3 separate targets to choose from. The safe bet was in the exact same place we’d chased Thursday in eastern CO. There was another decent play in southeastern CO and lastly, a play up in Wyoming near Cheyenne. We opted for Wyoming. This decision was made due to two main reasons; First, we wanted to avoid the chaser hoards that were going to be on the obvious E CO target. Second, our surprise success from Thursday left us more willing to roll the dice on a riskier target for Friday. So we went up to Cheyenne. Non-severe storms rolled off the Laramie range and it was really grungy and cold. We started having some doubts about if we played the setup right. But patience eventually paid off and we got on a good storm near the WY/NE border along I-80. The storm started to get organized, went severe warned, and started to take on some interesting characteristics.

Scuddy wall cloud formed
Wall cloud started to show some slight rotation

We watched this storm get its act together from the Kimball exit on I-80. The wall cloud we’d seen form had some slight left to right motion in it. We had a minute or two where we thought we might get lucky for the second day in a row. But then some smaller storms that had formed just to our south, moved in and ran in to the main storm, really killing any tornado potential. We moved further east to Sidney to see if the storm could reorganize. It did slightly, but mostly just yielded some nice structure.

Some cool shelf cloud-esque structure

At this point we decided to bail south back down in to Colorado. We eyed a severe warned storm near Akron that went tornado warned as we moved in. As we approached from the back side of the storm, we noticed some really nice mammatus clouds that made a good photo.

Mammatus and a fading rainbow in the distance.

At this point, an angry farmer who I decided was named Gus, kicked us off the side of the road claiming we were trespassing on private property. Not wanting to start a fight, or get shot, we obliged and left. As we went through Akron, the storm started to look less impressive. The tornado warning got dropped and our hunger took over. We pointed back toward Brush but as the sun started to set, we noticed that the mammatus feature on the storm had really started looking good. Time for more photo’s. It was a pretty stunning sight to see in person.

Wide angle shot
More zoomed in, dramatic shot of the left side

After we watched this through sunset, we stopped at Sonic in Ft. Morgan for dinner and then made our way home. We felt pretty accomplished with the day. We’d seen good storms in 3 different states, and had managed to see a grand total of ZERO other chasers the entire day. Well done.

Saturday May 27th — This was definitely the ‘lesser’ of the three days but did offer a chase relatively close to home down in southeastern Colorado. I chased with Dann and Erika (who were in town from California), Christa (who was in town from Washington), and Michael and Eric. We targeted Punkin Center with the anticipation of moving south from there. We reached Punkin Center and saw 2 storms of interest, one near us by Fowler and one further south and west toward Trinidad.

Storm to our south near Fowler, CO

The Trinidad cell was the one to go after we decided. As we approached, it became tornado warned briefly. There were a ton of lightning bolts coming out of the anvil which left us hesitant to jump out for photos. I grabbed one from the passenger seat of Dann’s car as we approached.

Tornado warned storm near Trinidad, CO

We approached the storm but didn’t have great road options to stay with it on the side we wanted. We let the core pass over the highway and then we passed behind it. We stopped for a quick minute to look at the large hail it had dropped. We measured close to golf ball size, 1.5". We then met up with highway 160 and pursued east. Unfortunately, we never really got a good look at the structure again. More storms were trailing along that highway and a serious lack of road options left us in a bad spot. We decided to punch in to the core again, cautiously, to sample the hail size. There were mostly peas and some larger to dime size. Although the hail wasn’t particularly large in size, there was a lot of it!

hail covered highway 160 W of Kim, CO
hail covered highway 160 shot #2

After messing around in the hail for a little bit, we decided to call it a day. Again, our hunger led us back to Trinidad where we ate some delicious pizza. Trinidad was a little bigger than I remembered and actually had a pretty active main street.

That concluded the 3 day chase extravaganza. It was an absolute blast! It was great to get out there and see some good storms again. It also reinforces my belief that chasing with friends is an unbeatable experience. I say it repeatedly, but my friends who I chase with are not only incredible forecasters but are some of my best friends in the world. Thanks again guys and gals for putting up with me on the road and getting out there with me for some good memories.

The rest of this week is looking questionable for chasing but since Dann is in town for the rest of it, I’m sure we will find something to go after later in the week.