This is going to be a doozy of a chase log. Not only will we be discussing a beautiful supercell that produced multiple tornadoes, but we’ll be talking about walkie talkies, me yelling at Jason, and a “poop emergency”. The final real chase of the 2020 season ended in a fitting way – with a great storm, great times with friends, and questionable camerawork by me.
The day started with a good old-fashioned Broyles 10 hatched. What could go wrong?
As we realized at 6:00 a.m, and overnight MCS pushing southward through Oklahoma would do the job.
I was only kind of joking. We’d already had a couple of scouring outflow boundaries in the month of May, so I fully expected the outflow to end up well south of the Red River. By late morning, the outflow was indeed south of the Red River. But… it was late May on the Southern Plains. I’d pretty much thrown the HRRR out because it rapidly destabilized the environment north of the outflow boundary, but that was indeed what began happening. Furthermore, the boundary began to stall on satellite north of Dallas-Fort Worth. I began to think that maybe a storm was possible, particularly further west of the earlier storm complex near Wichita Falls. James and I made plans to leave in early afternoon, and, once we determined that Elizabeth would not be able to join us, we added Sam to the mix.
The sky was blue as the three of us took my Mariner down I-44 to the Red River. Sam was texting Jason, who was with Mark, Jack, and Chris about a half hour behind us. After consulting with him and WoFS, we decided to stop near Burkburnett and await CI there. I found a gas station to get a water bottle (left a full water bottle on Elizabeth’s counter like a dummy) and a stick of beef jerky, and the three of us settled down in the shade outside a Braum’s to try and remain distant from the other chasers flocking to the area.
Jason and co. eventually arrived on the scene. Mark particularly was quite amused by the disparaging comments I had for the developing cumulus field.
It was still early in the day, and we clearly had some time to kill. Jack went inside the Braum’s and ordered ice cream. It looked really good, although he suffered a tragedy when his spoon fell out of the cup and hit the ground. Pretty soon, Jason had ice cream too (he spilled some ice cream as well). I looked at James. “Do you want to go get some?”
And that is the story of how I waited for convection initiation with red velvet ice cream from Braum’s.
A more robust cumulus field began developing due west of Burkburnett around the Red River region. With nowhere urgent to be, I suggested that we head west a little bit. Adding to the amusement was that the road we chose to head west on was called Bacon Switch Road. Admittedly, we were farting around, but this was likely Jason’s last chase before he entered the Air Force. Farting around was justified under the circumstances.
Yes, I made that name up on the spot.
A little after 4:00, a somewhat more robust area of cumulus developed just west of us along the Red River. Two towers in particular, straddling the river, began to show up on KFDR. Nobody felt like there was an urgent rush to go west, but surface observations suggested that we were near a surface low. After some landspouts the day before in Kansas early in storm’s life cycles, I pointed out that maybe we wanted to be a bit closer in case the storms stretched out the surface vorticity from the cyclone. Jason handed us a walkie-talkie that they had been using all year to convoy chase, and we headed west on US-287 toward Electra, with Jason and Sam comparing echo tops via radio the whole way.
The two initial updrafts collapsed somewhat as we got close, but a new one developed between the two and began developing a broad, blocky base, the kind that you like to see for lasting storm development. We headed north past Electra a few miles until we were nearing the Red River. Directly ahead, CG strikes began filling in the nascent forward flank region. I grabbed the radio from Sam as Jason mentioned heading through Electra.
“Jason. Jason. Hey Jason.”
A crackle on the radio. “Yeah?”
“This storm looks… electric.”
A pause. Another crackle on the radio. “Dammit Nolan.”
A few miles north of Haynesville, we pulled off for the first time in chase mode. The earlier southern updraft was completely disintegrated, but we still had to deal with anvil rain for it. No matter. The storm to our northwest quickly showed that it was the real deal. It had the kind of crisp left edge and explosive updraft that makes you just want to stare at it in awe. The base rapidly became broad and flat. We had a supercell on our hands in the Red River valley.
Jack got out his timelapsing camera and Chris popped his drone in the air. I think we were among the first of the late May hordes to get into a decent position on our storm, and as such our positioning was pretty A1 for a slowly east-southeast drifting storm. Not much need to move, particularly as it turned right and gradually approached.
It was about this point that I realized that I had to poop. Yes, the chase had just begun. When it happens, it happens. I tried to ignore that and focus my attention on the storm, but I did earn some razzing from the guys. Everyone was loose, relaxed. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that this had the potential and the look to be a special supercell.
Around 5:20, after we’d been sitting for 20 minutes or so, the base began to organize a wall cloud. Small at first, it grew as a solid inflow tail developed from the direction of the forward flank and began streaming into it.
This gif cobbled together from shots taken on the Canon sort of shows how the storm had that “powerful supercell” look to it:
When your base looks like that on the first cycle… yow.
The cycle finally wound down near 5:35 as the inflow tail lost definition, and the modest rotation we’d noted in the wall cloud began to decelerate. All that was left was a small rain-free occlusion in the center of the circulation.
Expert navigator Jason Myers decided it was time that we got back ahead of the storm. We backtracked into Haynesville and headed east on 240 several miles to its junction with 1739.
My first impression when we got to the intersection and got out was that the storm was rather outflow-dominant. Surely it wasn’t as organized as that crisp base we had seen moments before. In a rather low-shear environment, this didn’t seem like a huge shock to me.
After a couple of minutes, though, the storm developed a rather robust RFD. The weak RFD gust front (the closer band to us under the storm base above) finally started to curl back in toward the storm, producing a focused area of rotation in the low-level meso once more.
I was all for waiting this cycle out from our spot, particularly given that the storm was about to pass right over our heads. Sam and Jason were adamant, though. We needed to get south and east to stay ahead of the chaser train. In a fateful mistake, shortly before we pulled out from that spot I put on the zoom lens on the Canon to take pictures of RFD dust. I didn’t replace the trusty 10-18 mm when we left.
I pulled across the (rather modestly trafficked) 240 onto 1739 south behind Mark, then we took a weird left turn to head east on 2345. After a minute or two driving east, I got a look through a stand of trees to our left and saw a wall of dust under the meso.
Sam’s head jerked up like a deer. He got a glimpse as well and got on the radio.
“Tornado to our left.”
There was a delay. Jason came back on the radio nonchalantly and told us to find the next pull-off. 2345 bent north for a mile before bending back east at the site of a cell tower. With some relief, because we didn’t want to miss the tornado, James noted that Mark could pull off at the cell tower. Except, to our consternation, he didn’t. They kept driving east with a tornado ongoing a mile or two to our north. “What the hell?”
Sam got on the radio and insisted we pull off. Shortly afterward, Mark pulled off on the side of the road. I hesitated just long enough to grab the camera and the wide angle lens and sprinted across the road to the fenceline. I fumbled with the lens and couldn’t get it on. In my desperation, I asked James to do so. One of us knocked it into manual, and the shots thus came out looking like this:
I paid $230 for that lens and in the moment of truth, this is how bad I choked. Recognizing the futility, I quickly switched back to the phone and old reliable just in time for a funnel to poke out of the boiling mesocyclone and pull up one of the reddest dust clouds I’ve ever seen.
The second image is one of my favorites from the entire year. The RFD clear slot becomes clearly evident, and the tornado itself is actually pretty photogenic.
After a couple of minutes, the funnel had receded from view. That mesocyclone wasn’t done, though, as it continued to intermittently produce tornadic circulations. Jason repositioned us further eastward to the intersection with 368. I felt like if the cycle finished itself with a bang, we were perfectly positioned.
Then, inexplicably to my point of view, Jason decided we needed to head south on 368. The storm was just to our northwest and might plant a hose any second. I didn’t, and still don’t, understand the decision.
Nearly as soon as we turned away from the storm, it did produce a tornado. Sam and James looked back on it as I angrily kept my focus on the road. I consoled myself my figuring soon we would be east and in position for any tornado to come right at us. But we continued to head south, following Mark. I started to get angrier. Sam prodded Jason to turn east on the radio. Jason, once again nonchalantly, replied that we would continue heading south before turning east.
Now I was apoplectic, and I don’t think James was far behind me. We headed south for a whole 5 dang miles until we’d reached Bacon Switch Road once more. When we approached the intersection, James and I were openly discussing mutiny. “If he keeps going south, I’ll get you east Nolan.” Fortunately for everyone, Mark turned east on Bacon Switch.
We got out of the car a few minutes later and I let Jason have it. We argued in the way that only two dudes who have been chasing together for years can. I’m pretty sure it was amusing to everyone else watching it, particularly when I theatrically kicked up dust. (In the end, looking at Google maps, he was probably right to go that far south. Whatever). Now that I’d vented my spleen, the chase resumed in peace.
Our storm had seemingly lost its low-level rotation (although, given the fact that it was moving more nearly due east at this point, it may have just been obscured from our point of view). A nagging part of me thought that maybe it was time to get further away for some mothershipping structure shots, but after a few minutes Sam detected signs on radar that it was becoming inflow-dominant again. Back into Burkburnett we drove on Bacon Switch Road, passing under 44. We actually had to go back north on 240 a ways before we could get east again, putting us back in the path of the storm. Ever conscious of the chaser train, Sam and Jason continued to stairstep us south and east ahead of the storm. I actually think our stop around 7:00 was the most photogenic the storm would become, but we were just a hair too close to fully take advantage.
Of course at this most inconvenient moment, that need to poop that had been waiting patiently for 2 hours struck again. I was almost doubled over before we got back in the car and headed east. Mind you, we were headed away from I-44 and anywhere I could actually use the restroom. I didn’t want to give up the chase, but what at what cost!
After zigzagging across the Wichita River, we presently came to a location pretty much directly under the storm’s base. Mark pulled off the road and made a tight U-turn, preparing us to go back from where we came from. Rain was driving in my face, and I presently realized it was coming from the west. An RFD was coming in, and instead of being chilly it was rather warm. We all knew what that meant.
James pointed just to our north, where a hail shaft in the hook was dangling nearby. Not wanting to get scronched, we beat a quick tactical retreat to Gaines Road between Dean and Petrolia. At the next pull-off, on a little bend in the road, I stepped out and got a look at a classic horseshoe.
I’ll let the actual voices of the day take over from here. Start the video at about 0:50:
Jason, predictably, was very excited. Sam, predictably, was in my shot. Of course, I got in a livestream dude’s shot there too…
Within a few minutes, the tornado (such as it was) receded back into the circulation. As best we could tell, the storm would never make a serious run at tornadogenesis again. Perhaps my intestines knew that was the case, because a few minutes later a wave of pain in my stomach let me know that I was about to let loose in my pants.
Sam got on the radio. “We have a poop emergency. This is upgraded from our poop warning.” I told him through clenched teeth, “Get Jason to pull us off on a side road.” We did just that, and drove a few hundred yards until I saw some bushes along a fence line. No cars around. Mark chucked me the toilet paper that he apparently keeps in his car for god knows what reason. I had just enough time to make it to the bushes and squat when…
Ah, shit. Literally.
The car pulled in right behind us. I bent over and pulled my shorts up at least over my knees. Jack came over and handed me an umbrella while James and Sam made a wall any soccer team would be proud of. I stuck the umbrella up in front of myself, wiped as fast as I could, and released the toilet paper into the wild for some poor deer to find. Cars were now streaming past us, and another was right behind. Not a soul spared me another glance. It was a remarkably smooth (and hilarious to everyone involved) operation, and we were back on the chase within moments.
The storm didn’t have much left to give. The Red River region was lighting up with evening convection, and it seemed to be in everyone’s best interests when we called it a night instead of chancing the baseball-sized hail that was now in multiple directions from us. I did capture one more cool picture before Jason led us on an arduous, tortuous path through some of the worst gravel roads of northwest Texas and southwest Oklahoma.
By the time we made it to Ringling for gas and Sonic, my car was absolutely caked in dust. We hung out briefly at Sonic, enjoying the evening air and the sound of an approaching thunderstorm, before James, Sam and I decided to head back and beat the storm to Norman.
May 22 was one of my favorite days of the whole year. Not only did we land multiple tornadoes, but we managed to cap off Jason’s college chasing days in the proper fashion: with a lot of laughter, a good old-fashioned loud argument, and walkie-talkies. It was a treat getting to chase with Jack, Mark, and Chris, guys that I haven’t ever chased with before but each of whom brought entertainment factor to the evening. Although May 22 is still pretty early in the season, I’ve spent the last month pursuing other interests such as hiking, camping, and travel. Thus, this went down as likely my last chase of the spring 2020 season. It was a quiet season, but one that I think James and I marked by showing up consistently to the right storm at the right time. May 22 was a fitting capper to that – the perfect kind of shitstorm.