The first post in this series detailed an exhilarating and dangerous chase under cover of night in northwestern Iowa. As a storm chaser, the drawback to a night chase is the near impossibility of acquiring photos and videos of the storms. On the afternoon of May 18th, 2013, darkness was not an issue as a violent tornado tracked across the open country of southwestern Kansas.
I had just graduated from Iowa State University the week before. My thoughts at the time were not on severe weather, but that would quickly change as long range forecast models indicated a multiple day severe weather threat across the Southern Plains. Recent grads and I made the decision to embark on one last chase in Oklahoma and Kansas before moving into the “real world.”
As is the case with many storm chases, it was quite foggy when we left Ames, Iowa the morning of May 18th. The plan was to drive down I-35 through Iowa, Missouri, and Kansas before catching storms as they formed in northwestern Oklahoma. After reaching Wichita, Kansas, we turned west to head toward Dodge City. On the way we passed through the small town of Greensburg, which was devastated by an EF5 tornado in 2007. Six years later, there were still signs of the destruction that had occurred, a chilling reminder of the potential devastating consequences of these storm systems.
After passing through Greensburg, we turned north toward the small town of Kinsley. This town happened to be a hotspot for storm chasers that afternoon, for no reason other than it had perfect roads in every direction out of town. This is very helpful when chasing as it provides added flexibility when determining which storms to chase. Our group remained in town for 30 minutes waiting for convection to fire.
Most successful storm chases can be traced back to one decision: Did we pick the right target area? Did we go to the correct storm? Did we use the correct road? May 18th, 2013, was no different. It was quite apparent that there would be two main areas of thunderstorms that would be chaseable. The first was nearly 20 minutes north and northwest of our location in Kinsley. The second was further south, just east of the Oklahoma Panhandle.
Generally while storm chasing, the southern target is the best option because there are less issues with additional storms disrupting the cell you are trying to chase. For this reason, we made the decision to head south toward Oklahoma.
We drovelink 5 minutes south before, for reasons I do not remember, we pulled over to discuss further. After a few minutes of deliberation, we turned around to play the northern target, under the assumption that a terrible road network to the south would make it difficult to be in a position to see any developing tornadoes.
Heading north we spotted a storm forming northeast of Dodge City. This cell quickly become our target. Unlike many chases I have been on, we were perfectly positioned to sit and wait for the storm to come to us. At the time, I wasn’t confident that we would be seeing a tornado that afternoon. Visually, the storm was very high based, meaning any funnel that formed would need sufficient energy to make it do the ground. In fact, we saw many weak and short-lived funnel clouds in the next 15 minutes as the storm slowly approached. What happened next was the difference between seeing nothing and observing what would be one of the strongest tornadoes of the year.
Over the next 10 minutes, another storm quickly formed south of the cell we were observing. This was the risk we took when deciding to play the northern target, and this type of situation often reduces the chance for tornado f
ormation. However in this case, a storm merger was exactly what the environment needed to explode. The impacts of storm mergers on tornadogenesis is still a relatively understudied topic in meteorology, but the effects on this particular situation were quite apparent. As the southern cell was pulled into the northern storm, the cloud base dropped rapidly. This likely occurred as a result of rain cooled air from the south. In addition, inflow into cell had greatly strengthened, significantly increasing low level wind shear in the area.
Within minutes of the merger a broad funnel began to form and quickly stretched to the ground. I will let the video below tell most of the story of the actual tornadoes. Overall, there were two separate tornadoes that day, although at the time we believed there were four. The first, and strongest, was rated EF4. Thankfully this rating was based on observed winds within the tornado (via a mobile radar truck), and not based on storm damage. In fact, the tornado made a very sharp turn to the north sparing the small community of Rozel, Kansas. If it had not made that turn, much of the town would likely have been destroyed.
We continued chasing this tornado until it roped out northeast of Rozel. As seen in the video above, the final stage of each of the tornadoes was quite gorgeous, with small ropes being illuminated by the approaching sunset. I look back on this day fondly because much like my April 9th chase, not a single person lost their life as a result of these tornadoes. In fact, not a single injury was reported in association with the two Rozel twisters. This is not common, and quite miraculous, for an EF4 tornado.
Our chase group stayed in the Southern Plains for the next two days attempting to observe additional tornadoes. On both days, we failed. May 19th produced another EF4 tornado which impacted the community of Shawnee, Oklahoma, located just east of the Oklahoma City metro area. We had decided to play a target further north that day, and did not see this particular tornado. The final day of this chase, May 20th, was a tragedy that seems to happen all too often in central Oklahoma. That afternoon, an EF5 tornado struck the community of Moore, Oklahoma, killing 24 people and injuring 212 others. When driving through the damage the next day, I honestly couldn’t fathom how those numbers weren’t significant higher, as it seemed like an atomic bomb was set off in that city.
Moore wasn’t the first city I passed through that had recently been devastated by an EF5 tornado, but it was another stark reminder that the phenomenon many meteorologists seek out has real and heartbreaking impacts on the communities we live in. No storm chaser hopes these catastrophic events happen, but seeing them occur in person brings an incredible amount of perspective to how important it is to get a forecast correct and clearly communicate that forecast to the public
The May 18th, 2013 tornadoes were two of the last tornadoes I have seen in person, but they will not be the end of this series. Next month, I will trek back to 2011 to detail a tornado filled afternoon in rural eastern Nebraska. Until then, I hope everyone continues to remain safe during the remainder of the severe weather season, especially today. There is a high risk for tornadoes, which happens to include Rozel, Kansas.