It is time again for a chase season summary. I recently completed my final chase account on Stormbruiser for my 2011 May/June/early July storm chase season on the Plains, and the wrap-up is below. A companion Stormbruiser post contains some of the top images for Chase 2011 with links to the specific chase days. Keep in mind the following is my own personal perspective on the chase season, and is from someone who directs storm chase tours for most of May and June and the first week of July. If a region had good chasing in March or April, you might not learn about that here because I didn’t start chasing until early May!
There were a handful of very major tornado events in the United States during the spring. The tornado outbreak in MS and AL was in late April, a week before the beginning of my first chase tour for Tempest Tours. A violent tornado mauled Joplin, Missouri, on May 22. Our tour was on the storm early on, near Parsons, KS, but we were out of position to catch the Joplin tornado later. We managed to view a large tornado later in the evening a county or two south of Joplin. Two days later we busted in northern OK during an outbreak closer to I-40 in OK, but we made up for it the next day in Missouri. So, the chase season offered several opportunities for chasers to capture amazing and dramatic tornado and severe storm footage and images. However, the bulk of the big stuff was shunted eastward away from the western and central Great Plains in marginal chase terrain.
I would characterize my personal chase season and chase success in 2011 as about average to a little below average. The day that sticks in my craw the most is May 24th in OK. If I had played that one better then I would probably have a much better feeling about 2011. Nevertheless, I can’t really point to any other day and say that I really messed up, and overall I thought that my chase decision-making was very good. Oh, yes — one other big tornado day for many chasers was June 20 in northern KS and southern NE, but this was during my week off. It happens every year!
Outside of the above-mentioned big events, the prime-time chase period of early May to about July 5th was not bountiful tornado-wise. The first three weeks of May were poor to very poor. The big week was May 19 to May 25. The final week of May was generally slow, the first two weeks of June were mixed. I didn’t chase from June 12 to June 20 (when there were a couple excellent chase days), and the period from June 21 to July 5 was generally a little poorer-than-normal with respect to tornadoes and spectacular supercells. For the season, I took only a few tornado images, and I didn’t get any GOOD tornado images! This is in stark contrast to 2010, when photogenic tornadoes were nearby on several occasions. Fortunately, I had a generally good season with the camera due to a number of amazing and colorful stormy sunset shoots.
Spring and summer on the Plains were dominated by a large and warm upper-level high in the vicinity of TX and NM. This feature suppressed storminess on the Southern Plains and caused persistent hot to very hot weather south of Interstate 40. Severe weather was very infrequent south of I-40 after the first of May. In addition, the High Plains region was drier than normal this spring south of the Cheyenne Ridge and I-80. Thus, the bulk of my chases were on the Central and Northern Plains, near or east of U.S. 83 (which runs from Bismarck to Pierre to North Platte to Liberal).
I was on the Plains and generally in chase mode or able to chase for 56 days, from May 2 to June 11 and June 21 to July 5. Some of these days were “change-over” days between tours, but, fortunately, there were no missed big chase days because of tour logistics. The season breaks down thusly:
Great chase days — 4
Good chase days — 20
Junky chase days — 9
Busts — 5
No chase and/or no storms — 18
The great chase days for me were May 21, 22 and 25, and June 11. A great chase day is typically one with a long-lived tornado and/or exceptional supercell. A good chase day falls short of being a great chase day usually because there was no tornado or drop-dead gorgeous structure, but the general feel of the chase and the storms is positive. A junky chase day is a dud chase day. It means that there were storms to observe, but they were generally weak or failed to impress, and the photo opportunities were not good enough to salvage the day. A bust day is one where there seemed to be good severe potential, but either: a) I missed the good storm(s) for some reason, such as a poor forecast or poor chase decision, or b) the atmosphere did not cooperate and there was little or nothing to actually see or chase. Many junky chase days might be considered busts. For the “no chase or no storms” category, there might have been something happening somewhere on the Plains, but, if there was, it was considered too distant and/or un-chase-worthy logistically to consider. About half of these 18 days were due to tour group change-overs, but, again, I didn’t miss much on these occasions…unless you count June 20, when I was stuck in Denver to start a tour the next morning!
So, as you can see, less than half of my available chase days were good or great for 2011.
Let’s look at where I did and did not chase in 2011 and how the Tornado Alley states rated:
TX —- amazingly awful. I drove through TX on May 2 and 3 to pick up the van for my first tour out of OKC on May 4, and there was no moisture. My only storm chase in TX was northwest of Fort Worth on May 12, when a small supercell persisted long enough to make it a “good” chase day. We headed to West TX from OKC on May 16 because it looked like the next day might be good that way, but on the morning of the 17th it was obvious that that would not be the case. There was a big hail event in West Texas and far eastern NM on May 31, but our group was up in NE and SD and not able to get there. An impressive supercell or two skirted through the northeastern TX Panhandle on June 11, but we were on a supercell near Liberal, KS. There were a few days with tornadoes in central and eastern TX towards the end of April, but the remainder of the spring was generally hot and dry and storm-free for the state.
NM — amazingly awful. Eastern NM and the TX Panhandle region and southwest TX suffered from drought conditions from late winter into summer, 2011. It was not a place for storm chasers to be outside of one or two days, perhaps. I did not target NM on any chase days, and I was only in the state during my drive from CA to TX on May 1.
CO — very poor. Decent low-level moisture from lower-elevation areas to the east made very few forays into eastern CO. The Plains of eastern CO were generally dry and local moisture sources were distant. Days with dew points above 50F were few, storms were high-based, and tornado threat was persistently very low. I usually favor the High Plains versus the lower Plains when there is a choice, but this year I stayed away from the High Plains unless it was the only game or it was logistically convenient. I was not in CO until June 5, when we observed some junky cells near Eads while on our way from OKC to the western Dakotas. The two final tours were out of Denver, and we were bailing north out of the state at the beginning of both tours! I had one good chase day in CO (June 27), thanks to a pretty high-based supercell on the Palmer Divide. On June 11 some chasers targeted southeastern CO and found an interesting supercell near Pritchett, but we played a little farther east, in the central OK Panhandle, where moisture was a bit better.
WY — poor. Like eastern CO, eastern WY found quality low-level moisture a rare commodity. My first visit was on June 6 on the way to MT and SD. I had three good chase days in eastern WY in late June and early July.
MT — poor. I targeted southeastern MT on two occasions. On June 23 we found a decent cell near the WY/MT border northwest of Sheridan. On June 6th I was in Gillette, WY, and was contemplating a run towards Billings. The tornado threat was a bit too marginal to commit that far west, especially since the next day’s target was up towards southeastern ND. We wound up with some so-so stuff northeast of Rapid City, and there was a tornado at dusk north of Billings.
OK — fair. The OK chase season was severely diminished by the nearby persistent high pressure dome over TX after April. I had a junky chase near Woodward on May 18, a good chase with a small tornado near Okeene on May 23, and a bust near Medford on May 24 (a good day to forget entirely). We busted near Enid on May 28, bit we were there only because our tour had just begun out of OKC. My big OK day was actually on June 11, when a nasty supercell was observed in the OK Panhandle southwest and south of Liberal. I saw no storms in OK thereafter. So, on just four days this season was OK a target state for me, and only a couple of these OK chases were worthwhile. On May 22, the strong tornado that we observed from near Southwest City, MO, actually began well to the west, near Grove, OK, and was in OK for most of the time that we were observing it. Several photogenic tornadoes swept through southwestern OK on November 7.
KS — fair. The better upper flow and reasonably cool air aloft in May and June were generally north of I-70, so I spent many days in KS. I show about 8 chase days this year with a target in KS, but about half of these days were duds. May 22 began in southeast KS and ended with the big tornado at Southwest City. The day prior featured a spectacular supercell at Topeka, KS. Three Kansas days were noteworthy for amazingly colorful and stormy-sky sunsets: May 19 at Rozel (west of Larned), May 20 at St. Leo (west of Kingman), and June 3 at Angelus (north of Grinnell). June 20 was big in north-central KS for some chasers, as was May 24 in central KS, but I was elsewhere.
NE — poor. Nebraska was my target state on about a half dozen days, and I witnessed a tornado in the extreme northwest NE Panhandle on May 9. We saw a handful of dusty gustnado/tornado hybrids near Kearney on May 30, and had a woeful murky chase of a fairly significant supercell on June 26. Outside of these, there was little fun to be had in the Big Red State. NE would have been upgraded to “fair” had I been able to chase June 19 and 20, I figure.
SD and ND and, heck, let’s throw MN in, too — poor. On many chase seasons, magnificent storms in the Dakotas can salvage an otherwise poor-to-mediocre season. Not this year. We had to head to Presho, SD, on May 8 to find a nice supercell, and returned to SD on June 2, June 6, June 25, June 30, July 1 and July 4, with a mix of dud and good days. Perhaps the most significant chase for me in SD was July 1, when a long-lived tornadic supercell went up near Spencer. We caught it near Colton, but it was already a messy HP. It outraced us into MN, where it caused damage on a path all of the way to Duluth! That was my only day in MN. I was in ND on just one day, June 7th, for a so-so fast-moving supercell on the southwest side of the surface low. Tornado count for the Dokotas — zero. A handful of good tornado days made some chasers very happy in the Dakotas later in July, while I was recovering on the Malibu beach.
IA — poor. I chase Iowa as a last resort, or on obviously big days which do not look big farther west. The only day when IA was considered was June 8, but logistics and marginal tornado threat along a front through sw IA kept me from darting eastward from Council Bluffs. The cap held in our ultimate target area around the MO/NE/KS/IA area, unfortunately. No big tornado days in Iowa come to mind this year, at least while I was in chase mode!
MO — very good. Much like Iowa, I avoid Missouri — even more-so! The trees and uneven terrain and grim road network in much of MO make chasing more dangerous and less-than-fun. I chased in MO on three days, and two of these featured large, long-lived tornadoes! These were on May 22 and 25. The chase into nw MO on June 9 was not too good.
Elsewhere — fortunately, I was not pulled into the jungles of AR and LA or the Corn Belt farmlands of WI, IL and IN this season. Our tour group chased as far south as the Fort Worth area, as far west as Sheridan, WY, and Castle Rock, CO, as far north as I-94 between Bismarck and Jamestown, ND, and as far east as Poplar Bluff, MO. It was out of the ordinary that the tour and I were never in central or southwest TX, never in NM, and had no decent chases on the Plains of CO. We were in SK for four days in early July in 2010, but Canada did not beckon in 2011.
Finally, since I was not in chase mode from June 12 to June 20, I should mention where Brian Morganti and the Tempest group chased during this time frame:
June 12 — return to OKC for next tour group (a few tornadoes in sw ND)
June 13 — marginal storms west of Emporia, KS (tornadic cell in Cherry County, NE)
June 14 — generally junky cap bust in nw MO
June 15 — nw KS pretty high-based supercells
June 16 — outflowing HP supercell along I-70 in eastern CO
June 17 — pretty supercell south of Limon, CO (Brian is making up for my lack of CO chases)
June 18 — nice tornadic supercell near Arkansas City, KS, then back to OKC to conclude tour
June 19 — amazing sculpted supercell in sw NE near Cambridge
June 20 — headed to Denver and could not chase nc KS/sc NE tornadic supercells
If you are interested in a storm chase tour with me and Tempest Tours, then please send me and e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) and/or visit