Tag Archives: photography

Good Ol’ Fashioned Colorado Chasing

The best thing about storm chasing in Colorado is that it is usually free of the long lines of gawkers and chasers that you will typically encounter in Oklahoma or Kansas on a High Risk weekend. It’s storm chasing the Old Fashioned Way; where you don’t have to worry about being trapped on a crowded street as a rain-wrapped wedge tornado descends on you. It’s almost like the heyday of chasing when every person you met on the road was someone you knew from either a previous chase or from the community of storm chasers. So, not surprisingly, when I chased this past weekend I ran into several other storm chasers who I knew either personally or by reputation. The first chasers I ran into on Saturday were Justin Drake and Simon Brewer, the stars of The Weather Channel’s “Storm Riders”. Since our chosen storm was not terribly exciting at the time, I had a nice conversation with them about chasing and photography, two subjects that we are all pretty passionate about. Shortly after, I stopped to say high to Roger Hill, one of the most acclaimed and respected pros, on a quiet road heading south with the storm. I’ve run into Roger at least a dozen times over the last 10 years, and he’s been a bit of a good luck charm for me, probably because he holds the Guinness record for most tornadoes seen. No terrific luck this time, though–just some real pretty storms and a nice sunset over the plains of Colorado.

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Chasing the Wind : Prints Available

Wind Farm near the Nebraska border.

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Glowing Fields : Prints Available

Wheat fields and storm as the sun sets.


Colorful Colorado : Prints Available

Thunderstorm and hail shaft at sunset, on the Colorado Plains.


Rural Sunset : Prints Available

Sunset on the northeast plains of Colorado.

After a day’s break to let my tired car rest, I headed out again on Monday to chase some more Colorado storms. After making a traditional stop in Limon for some lunch at Oscar’s Bar & Grill, I caught a storm forming near the small town of Seibert, Colorado, in the midst of intersecting lines of cumulus clouds that I had picked out in a visible satellite image. I watched the clouds rapidly expand and eventually split into two separate storms, which is classic behavior for a fledgling supercell (rotating) thunderstorm. I ran into John Farley, who I knew from online forums but had never met in person, as he sat on the roadside waiting for the storm to strengthen. And Todd Thorn, another long-time chaser who runs a popular storm-chasing tour company. The storm eventually was tornado-warned after it dropped a small tornado near the town of Kit Carson. I must have been driving or simply not at the right location since I missed the landspout/tornado, but the storm had some impressive structure and I followed it all the way to the tiny town of Towner, Colorado, near the Kansas Border. I waited out a quick blast of quarter-sized hail driven by strong winds, then stopped for a bit at the town cemetery to take a few photos as the storm moved away and the sun set over the Colorado Plains. Not a bad way to spend a weekend–good Ol’ Fashioned Chasing!

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Wall Cloud : Prints Available

Thunderstorm and wall cloud on a deserted road in eastern Colorado

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Chasing the Plains : Prints Available

Tornadic storm moves through eastern Colorado

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Beauty and the Beast : Prints Available

Supercell thunderstorm and wildflowers.


Home of the Dead : Prints Available

A thunderstorm moves away from the small town of Towner, Colorado.

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Tornadoes, Tragedy, and Photography

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Mercy : Prints Available

A large wall cloud develops on a monster supercell in Oklahoma. This was the storm just south of the killer tornado that hit Moore on May 20, 2013.

I was in Ponca City, Oklahoma, on the last day of a five day storm chase. 2,400 miles from Colorado to South Dakota and eventually down to North Texas. Monday, May 20th, and it looked like this day would be the most conducive to producing strong tornadoes; the Storm Prediction Center in Norman had already issued a moderate risk for much of eastern Oklahoma. I left Ponca City around 10 am and began driving south towards Ardmore, my target for the day. Ardmore is a town about 60 miles south of the Oklahoma City area. Numerous storm chasers from around the country and world were headed with me south on I-35. As I got south of Oklahoma City, I passed the entourage from the “Great Tornado Hunt”; a Weather Channel group. The air was murky with poor visibility; the humidity was high and I felt like I was ingesting pea soup with every breath. But everything was still–no sign of the impending doom that would strike that afternoon.

When I got to Ardmore, the first storms of the day were already exploding to the west along a cold front. It looked like the most dominant storm would pass north of Ardmore, so I headed back north, then pulled into a rest stop to check the radar. Storm chasing solo is a tricky and sometimes dangerous proposition, since without a dedicated radar screen and GPS mounted on your dashboard (too much effort for my occasional storm chases) you have to frequently stop to figure out where you’re headed. I checked on the radar and saw a small but intense storm to the north, headed towards Oklahoma City. It was in the exact place that the RUC, a computerized forecast model, had predicted it would occur that afternoon. I had discounted that particular forecast in favor of another computer model (the WRF) which predicted stronger storms occurring to the south. But It was quickly becoming apparent that this northern storm meant business.

I turned on the radio to check for warnings, and I was shocked to hear the voice of Gary England, describing reports of a large, rotating wall cloud southwest of the city. Wall clouds are the clouds that produce strong tornadoes. England is a well-known Oklahoma TV personality and weather forecaster, who gained recognition for his on-the-air tornado warnings, particularly the May 3, 1999 killer tornado that struck the city of Moore. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing; at first I thought it was some bizarre dramatization, like an Orson Welles broadcast. But the live broadcast that unfolded was sobering–very quickly the wall cloud metamorphasized into a huge wedge tornado, a mile wide and headed directly towards Moore. England and his crew of spotters in the field were in shock as well; the beast of a storm was following nearly the same path that the 1999 storm had taken. Mass destruction and fatalities were inevitable.

I looked at my map and saw that I was a mere 40 miles south of the tornado–if I gunned it I could probably get south of the beast before it moved away from the area. But I wasn’t really anxious to chase a mile wide EF-4 tornado through city streets that I was unfamiliar with. I decided to stay the course and chase the storm north of Ardmore. That storm developed a large wall cloud, and I was concerned that it might follow suit to ther northern cell, and drop a massive tornado as well. But for whatever reason–we may never know why–the storm I was chasing spared the countryside. A tornado was reported near Pauls Valley, north of Ardmore, but it must have been brief and/or weak, because I didn’t see it.

With the Interstate now closed to the north, I continued south into northern Texas towards another tornado-warned supercell thunderstorm. I continued to listen to the radio reports of the massive destruction in Moore. On the one hand, I was glad I was not part of that horrifying event. It was an ugly black storm and nothing but destructive power to look at. But as a photographer and journalist, I was also dissapointed that I was not present to document and be a part of this somber but historic event. My profession is to warn the public about dangerous weather, and I felt powerless that I was not able to be there for that tragedy and do what I could to help the community. My heart goes out to the victims of the tornado. Nature can be cruel, unforgiving, but it can also be beautiful.

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