2013-05-18: Rozel, KS tornadoes

Rozel, KS tornado

Rozel, KS tornado, about 4 miles away at 7:34 p.m. CDT. The view is to the NW.

This day proved to be one of my favorite chases in the last five years. I saw two long-lived, photogenic, slow-moving tornadoes. The only thing that could have made it even more perfect would have been the absence of property damage. (Even when it is “just a house” destroyed, it still belonged to someone!) At least there were no injuries.

Given that it was a moderate-risk Saturday in what had theretofore been a rather lackluster, non-stormy May, we expected Kingfisher-esque crowds of storm chasers in western Kansas. In a bid to reduce the number of cars on the roads, Dan D. and I took two passengers along: Dan S. and Steven. W. of the UK Met Office, who were in Norman for the HWT Spring Experiment. Neither of them had seen a tornado before.

We found the crowds in Greensburg, KS – site of an infamous EF-5 tornado six years earlier. With that heavy history weighing on us, we spent a couple of hours hobnobbing with other chasers, munching convenience store food, and watching elevated showers percolate behind the dryline. In the meantime, a storm up near Ness City began to entice us with a hefty, 60 dBZ hail core and hook echo – but we judged it was too far away, and moving away too quickly, to be a viable target for us. One tower finally solidified northwest of Greensburg around 5 p.m., and we headed up U.S. Hwy. 183 to investigate. Its base was elevated, but persistent. We waffled on whether to stick with this target, or head back south to a less-organized cluster of thunderstorms in Lipscomb Co., TX. We eventually chose the bird in hand, and followed our target storm into Kinsley, KS.

As we drove through Kinsley, our radio crackled to life with reports of a high-based funnel beneath our storm’s still-elevated base. We spotted at least three of them between the buildings and trees. We continued north up U.S. Hwy. 183, and stopped once we noticed that our storm – now a supercell – was merging with a second, more modest cell approaching its right flank. (Part of my current research investigates whether this type of merger is beneficial to tornadogenesis. There are some anecdotes suggesting this might be the case.) We parked about four miles south of the intersection of U.S. Hwy. 183 and KS-156, where we watched the bases of the two storms merge and the cloud base drop.

Soon enough, the wall cloud extruded a few rotating scud fingers. We gingerly stepped out of our car (a few CGs were striking too close for comfort) and set up our tripods. Sure enough, around 7:15 p.m., a funnel cloud drilled lazily downward to our west. Over the course of the next several minutes, it morphed into a majestic stovepipe, and finally a symmetric cone with a flared dust cloud around its base. The funnel appeared to occlude at least two times, and disappeared entirely before returning for an encore performance. Our two guests from the UK seemed suitably impressed. This tornado is now known as Rozel, KS, tornado, in reference to the nearest town.

Sanford, KS tornado rope-out

Protracted rope-out phase of the Sanford, KS tornado. At this point, the condensation funnel was completely detached from the cloud base overhead.

The storm was now north of our latitude, so we packed our gear back up and headed east on KS-156. We hadn’t gotten more than a mile or two before Dan D. hollered for me to stop the car. In a field less than a mile to our north, a new lowering and dust whirl were visible. I backed into a small pull-off and we all set up our tripods again, watching as the Sanford, KS tornado took shape. From our vantage point, it moved from right to left, then back from left to right, then reversed its course yet again. (Watch my time lapse footage near the end of this video.) These motions may have been in response to rain-filled downdrafts that we observed in close proximity to the funnel.

As with the Rozel tornado, the Sanford tornado appeared to dissipate completely before returning for an encore (zombie-nado?). This is why I always try to leave the camera running for an extra minute or two when the show is apparently over! We called off the chase in Larned, KS, before heading to Wichita for the night.