Autumn Panhandle Chase

Today's target area for severe storms and tornadoes was a small area in the northeast Texas Panhandle where surface temperatures were heating rapidly. During the early afternoon storms began lighting-off in the northeastern panhandle counties. A warm front was also included in the synoptic mix and it was firing a few cells along the far northern counties. The day quickly became less than rewarding after navigating through and around flooded roads and ho-hum rain storms. A train of severe storms had unloaded on the area during the previous night filling many houses with muddy water. The passable roads were a mess, some covered with a couple feet of swiftly moving muddy water. Adding to the event, a helicopter was rescuing stranded families while Wolf Creek, south of Perryton, TX, aspired to become the Mississippi River. Unfortunately, today's storms lacked buoyancy in the worked over air mass; and were suffering in an environment of increasing wind shear. During the late afternoon more heavy storms lit off south of Perryton, but a washed-out bridge on highway 83 diverted travel west to Canadian, TX. No loss here, the storms were dying as they moved into rain cooled air in Oklahoma. Elsewhere, the cooler air behind the warm front in Kansas kept a lid on development to the north.

After a quick lunch in Canadian, and a tour through Miami (not the one on TV), a break from the flooding was in order. While traveling north on highway 70, a hilltop rest stop came into view. It was one of those roadside picnic areas where families are suppose to have lunch in the usual 35 knot winds and truck exhaust. Needless to say, I didn't have to wait for a table. The place was abandoned except for flies buzzing happily about a nearby garbage can, and off to the far end, one other vehicle. After thinking to myself that the other vehicle can only be another chaser, I walked across the oil stained asphalt to a car with numerous antennas and a front seat full of crumpled road maps. Indeed, it's a chaser -- Dean Cosgrove out of Colorado. We exchanged stories about the previous day. He had fought "cold storms" and hail in Colorado while I had made an unfortunate navigation mistake on a tornadic storm near Guthrie, TX. We were both ready for a good storm. The towers along the dryline formed and died while we chatted. The warm front to our north remained active with occasional thunder; but, the storms were still junky. We expected strong jet stream support, a short wave, to move in late in the day, so we watched and waited. During the early evening hours the dryline had given up its eastward push. Now replaced by a surge of moisture, low clouds pushed in from the southeast. Our line of weak storms along the warm front made a sudden move to the north. This was a big change for a front that had been locked into one position all day. Simultaneously, big cumulus towers began to anvil along the new wind shift boundary to the west and southwest, but none of them would hold together. The synoptic deck was getting reshuffled and deserved close observation. One area to the northwest released a tower much higher than anything that had occurred during the afternoon. This "hot spot" appeared to be the dryline warm front intersection, an area previously cut-off from moisture. The chase was on. The old Jeep would be pushed hard again, daylight was in short supply. The the odometer rolled over the 210,000 mile mark, how long can it last? Perryton again, the flood waters were receding and it was time to top-off the gas tank.

At the cash register a voice in the crowd asked if I was a tornado chaser. I wasn't wearing one of those "I'm a Brave Chaser" Tee shirts, so I guess this individual just figured it out. Without looking, I politely replied "yes ma'am" and sprinted for the vehicle. Foot steps followed behind me. Not losing momentum, I spun with backward steps to find a rather large nicely dressed woman close behind. Again she said, "Are you really a storm chaser?" Again, I replied "yes." She said "Ohhhh, I just love storm chasers." Apparently the movie "Twister" had made it to town. We smiled, I pointed the Jeep north. By the time 5th gear was engaged I remembered a time in Sweetwater, TX when a waitress asked if I was a tornado chaser, there to I replied "yes ma'am" with a big smile. She sarcastically dropped the menu and walked away. Of course, not long before on that day Sweetwater had been trashed by an early morning F4. I got my tacos from someone else.

Thirty minutes of daylight remained on Oklahoma highway 3 near Hardesty. The anvil lengthened downstream while the low sun angle filtered through exploding towers northwest. The structure under this updraft remained elusive. Meanwhile a new cell was tossing out lightning bolts about 12 miles north. This would become the first "carrot" of the day. A small wall cloud extended half way to ground with a well-defined funnel hanging out of the back side. The precipitation core was weak and lacked inflow. The Jeep continued west while the Baker, OK, Sheriff's Department reported more funnels. Topping the a hill just west of Hardesty, OK a stunning wall cloud scene unfolded across the windshield. What a sight after looking at garden variety rain storms all day. The storm appeared ready to change into a class act. developing supercell northA darkening core was getting larger as flanking line towers stacked against it. From the east, an inflow band carried low moisture to intersect the mesocyclone and flanking line -- a set-up with great potential! Northwest of Optima Lake the storm took on supercell characteristics. Two-lane boredom had shifted to pure adrenaline. The broad mesocyclone was producing rotation in a couple areas. I slowed to photograph a funnel spinning up on the southwest edge of the dry slot. The motor-drive spun through film while the funnel repeatedly came close to the ground and then dissipated, meanwhile the main updraft sped about 4 miles further northeast. The back of the wall cloud was fighting off a dry surge as great swirls of clouds dove for the ground and dissipated. After a mile of white knuckle driving through this chaos the main wall cloud was a few miles ahead. The waning sunlight "front lit" a wedge funnel under the mesocyclone. At 8:00 PM multiple suction spots formed under the funnel as it extended to ground to form a spectacular dark orange tornado. As I pulled over to photograph the scene the tornado appeared to dissipate without a rope stage. Feeling my slack jaw on the floor I knew I had just lost the only daylight tornado opportunity. Mechanically, I began to grab for the tripod and high speed film.baker tornado by lightning I had missed a beautiful photograph, but too much was going on to give it a second thought. Shortly after sunset, a tilted funnel formed on the back edge of the mesocyclone west of Turpin, OK. It was 8:10 PM. The laminar funnel, now nearing highway 64 was hanging a third of the way down from cloud base. It turned white, reflecting lights from a nearby business, then rapidly shot a needle to ground. A debris cloud of mud and spray from the water logged fields rose up from the ground. Lightning lit the north side of the expanding tornado providing a awesome sight. This time I burned up film as fast a possible. Later, the bottom half of the tornado narrowed and lifted leaving a funnel aloft to continue to intimidate those in its path as it slowly dissipated. As the storm neared Liberal, Kansas, a doppler indicated tornado warning was getting air time on the local stations. As the warning came out, a huge scud cloud formed about 500 feet off the ground and rapidly rose to cloud base. The storm was now sporting continuous lightning for excellent night visibility. Within a few minutes another threatening wall cloud was moving on a path just to the southeast of Liberal. Highway Patrol cars sped northward, lights flashing, to engage the storm. Numerous funnels formed and dissipated with no confirmed tornadoes; although, I can't account for all the wall cloud's next move because I had stopped to help someone get their van out of a ditch. The storm remained severe as it continued into the colder air of west-central Kansas where it merged with a squall line.

Radar images courtesy the DDC office:

Here is an image of the KDDC Base Reflectivity of the storm and the Base Velocity at the same time.

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