Autumn Tornadic Supercell and Monster Hailstorm
Cherokee, Oklahoma

About one out of every five years the southern plains experiences a secondary tornado season in the fall. On September 22, 1985 a stalled front in northwest Oklahoma combined with low 90 degree temperatures to produce a spectuclar supercell. In addition to dropping an F-2 tornado this storm was responsible for the second largest hailstones I have witnessed in 28 years of chasing. The diameter of the stones was approximately six inches. This is close to the size of the record setting hail that fell in September of 1970 on Coffeyville, Kansas.

updraft area NE of town violent up motion

This image depicts an extensive updraft area over and to the northeast of Cherokee. Only narrow streamers of precipitation were falling at the time and the storm appeared to lack many supercell characteristics. The reason I picked this particular area was the 30 minutes the updraft persisted without precipitation falling. The atmosphere was extremely unstable and I expected quite a show when this updraft collapsed. I had no idea just how bad it would be.

During this image the almost stationary storm produced a very strong outflow from the weak precipitation area to the north. I was shocked by not only the magnitude of the wind, but the events that followed. I estimated the speed of the downburst close to 80 MPH. The leading edge of this surge of wind moved rapidly south, then suddenly stopped and went directly up into the nearby updraft. This was the first time I had seen the process of a forming tornado happen so quickly. The long streamer shown in the image was rotating and lifting up at a phenomenal speed.

Can you find the tornado?

As the tornado formed I moved north to a road that would allow freedom of movement to the east. During this maneuver I passed under the updraft to the northeast of the forming funnel and got wacked with 4 and 5 inch hailstones. I backed off then tried again. As I punched through the hail it became 6 inches in diameter. The spiked and irregular sized stones were falling from a dark rain free updraft. As I sped east the bed of my small Toyota pickup took a couple of hits from the large stones. Each hit was accompanied by the sound of bending metal. In order to escape the hail I had to travel further east than I desired, thus losing position on the developing tornado. I did stop for a few minutes to take this image. Can you see the tornado? It's in the rain on the left side of the image. Another funnel is forming in te center of the image but it never got planted like the one on the left. I provided a second enhanced image (below) that brings out the tornado better. The contrast was run up higher to bring out the details in the combination debris cloud - rotating rain curtain. Within seconds of taking this image the massive hail caught me again. As I ran from the hail the tornado extended a black condensation funnel to ground.


This slow moving tornado produced F-2 damage and a path width of 500 yards for a distance of 4 miles. Note the width of the circulation on the ground compared with the funnel. This appearance is much like the beginning stages of the Red Rock tornado where the circulation on the ground was dramatically wider than the pointed V funnel. Note a more intense area of debris is depicted on the far right side of the image. The circulation may have been concentrated in this area. On high resolution systems you may be able to make out a thin needle funnel curving down to the right. This may have been responsible for the more concentrated debris on the right side.

During this time I attempted to warn motorists of the danger from the very large hail. As I tried to tell them about the size of the hail a few listened and some only laughed. One individual did take me seriously and drove south to escape the storm. He returned in a few minutes with very large dents. The hail was falling from the anvil to the south and he had driven into the worst streamer. I remember in particular one person with a new red Firebird. He gave me a big smile upon hearing my story then sped into the storm with a wave. His vehicle came to a screaming halt about one mile to my west. I could see the massive stones busting on the pavement and large chunks scattering across the highway. Moments later he roared by me, headed east at a high rate of speed. Large chunks of ice were stuck in the cowling below the windshield.

rotating storm on OK hwy 11

The storm became a large HP (heavy precip) cell as it moved east over hwy #11 to the Great Salt Plains. The strong rotation persisted as depicted here by the spiral banding. The two low level cloud bands were converging at the center of the image. Hard to see on the far right is a large flock of birds flying out of the storm's path.

Return to Chase Day Archive Page