2012-04-14: Tornadofest in Northwest Oklahoma

Today, I broke my personal record for the number of tornadoes seen in a single day (9, 10, or 11). Two were small funnels near Freedom, OK; the remainder were produced by a single supercell that we followed from Mooreland to Manchester, OK.

SPC 1630 UTC Day 1 Convective Outlook on 14 April 2012

SPC 1630 UTC Day 1 Convective Outlook on 14 April 2012. Copyright NOAA.

I had some trepidation heading out on 14 April because it was a widely-publicized SPC high risk on a Saturday. I had no wish to re-experience the Kingfisher, OK Charlie Foxtrot of 19 May 2010 (when it seemed like every storm chaser on the Great Plains converged on one two-lane highway, with a solid line of cars from horizon to horizon – not even joking). However, the moderate risk area stretched from the Missouri River to the Red River, encompassing Nebraska, Kansas, and most of Oklahoma, so I figured the atmospheric playground would be big enough to handle the chaser convergence. We decided to target the Oklahoma portion of the high risk, where the moisture was better and supercell shear was forecast. With the storm motions progged to be 35 mph or faster, our strategy was to follow tail-end Charlie storms until they raced northeast out of our reach, then turn back southwest to catch the next in line.

Our mini-caravan consisted of two cars: Jeff S., Howie B., and John L. in the first, while I drove Dan D. and Michael H. in the second. We departed Norman just after noon and drove up the Northwest Passage. From Seiling, we headed north on U.S. Hwy. 281, then west on U.S. Hwy. 412 after the first tail-end Charlie storm. Near Freedom, OK, we caught a glimpse of a slender needle funnel as we crossed the OK-50 bridge over the Cimarron River around 4:30 p.m. About 10 minutes later, just east of Freedom, it again produced a slender needle, both of which we captured on video. We were a bit disappointed at the brevity of both tornadoes; neither lasted more than 30 s. Knowing that a new storm was forming down the line, we decided to end round #1 and head back southwest toward Woodward.

Back on U.S. Hwy. 412, we stopped about halfway between Moreland and Woodward. A second supercell with a vigorously rotating wall cloud churned past us just a few miles to our west, but did not produce any funnels. We followed that storm east along 412 almost to the intersection with U.S. Hwy. 281, where we decided to head south a mile or so and find an unobstructed view towards the next storm erupting back to our southwest. We staked out a claim on a pull-off near the top of a hill, and waited. Several other chasers joined us there.

2012-04-14: Woodward Co., OK tornado

2012-04-14: Woodward Co., OK tornado around 7:00 p.m. The view is toward the west.

Around 7:00 p.m., excitement began to build as the target storm grew near and a fat funnel descended about 10 mi to our west, playfully twirling a cloud of dirt at its base. That tornado had a lengthy (<15 min) rope-out phase as we trained our cameras on a new mesocyclone to its east, which also dropped a truncated funnel halfway to the ground to our NNW. We were elated to finally see some tornadoes with decent longevity and contrast, and we couldn't tear ourselves away. By the time we finally did pile back into our vehicles and headed back north on 281, yet another new meso was taking shape directly to our north. With the storm scurrying away toward the northeast, we were considerably behind it for the remainder of the chase. The new lowering narrowed almost to a square. The lower portion then tapered into an unequivocal funnel, and tornado #5 was born. Returning to the U.S. 412/281 intersection, we found that 281 northbound toward Waynoka was blocked by two police cruisers, forcing us to turn east. The chaser crowds had by then thickened considerably, and I focused my eyes on the eastbound shoulder of U.S. Hwy. 412, only stealing occasional glimpses toward the north, where Tornado #5 was churning happily away. (I trust that my husband got HD video for me to enjoy later.)

At some point, we stopped to film again, and I witnessed a bizarre handoff between two tornadoes. (It occurs at about the 3:00 minute mark in the YouTube video above.) One vortex eroded as another descended right next to it. We can be heard disagreeing verbally about whether we were witnessing multiple vortices within the same tornado revolving around a common center, or two separate tornadoes doing a graceful dance. (Mobile radar data could have settled that question, but unfortunately, RaXPol was in the shop.)

We then drove up OK-8 towards Cherokee, OK, with tornadoes (sometimes multiple tornadoes) visible almost all the way there. On our approach to Cherokee at around 8 p.m., I shot my first-ever 3D footage of a tornado with my new Bloggie pocketcam, and was pleasantly surprised by how well it turned out. (I’ll review the camera later.)

Tornadoes continued to snake out of the storm as darkness descended. As the driver of my vehicle, I had to keep my eyes on the road rather than the tornadoes, and I didn’t particularly care about an accurate count. I was simply enjoying sharing the spectacle with my passengers.

Our chase was ended by downed power lines just after dusk, a few hundred feet north of the Kansas border near Manchester, OK. There was still an unmistakable, lightning-illuminated funnel visible to our northeast. That tornado later triggered a tornado emergency for Conway Springs, KS, southwest of Wichita, but thankfully dissipated before reaching town. We made our way back to Norman by way of Enid, OK.

After midnight, as we straggled back into Norman, word began to filter through that a tornado, spawned from a trailing line of storms, had ravaged parts of Woodward, OK. Woodward suffered greatly at the hands of an F-5 tornado in 1947, an event that still figures prominently in Oklahoma lore. Unfortunately, six fatalities resulted, and cleanup and recovery efforts are still ongoing as of this writing. Donations for the victims can be made to the American Red Cross.