Awe of the Above

Photography, Travel, and Adventure Blog

The Tornado Machine – June 28, 2018

The spring of 2018 had been a pretty good year for chasing storms across the Northern Plains. I had seen some impressive structure, powerful lightning, and gorgeous sunsets. But at the end of June the season was starting to draw to a close, and I still had yet to capture a time lapse clip of a tornado that I needed to finish up a film I was working on. Unlike many other chase days, the June 28th setup showed itself on weather models a full week in advance. The extreme instability, strong wind shear, and 70° dew points all at the same time simply does not occur often this far north. The Storm Prediction Center issued a moderate risk. I knew I needed to do everything I could to clear my schedule and chase this day.

SPC Convective Outlook | Storm Reports

My target was Baker, Montana. I arrived there at 1PM which was perhaps too early, but I’ve learned it’s always better to be early than late. I fully expected to be chasing in North Dakota later on. But it didn’t feel right jumping on the early storms that formed there, before the atmosphere was primed. I grew restless waiting around, wondering if I made the right call and how long I should stay put. But at 5PM, a weak cell near Broadus showed signs on radar that it was strengthening. It was moving northeast into a potent environment. Finally I hit the road and headed south to Ekalaka.

Ominous supercell above a ranch near Ekalaka [Buy Print]
Passing through the Ekalaka Hills [Buy Print]

The ominous structure was visible from a long ways off. It looked like a giant curling wave, with the base scraping the ground. I saw features I had never seen before, including Kelvin-Helmholtz waves and a giant shear funnel disconnected from the main storm. But I was unable to capture those as I kept moving closer. Eventually I reached a junction and had to make a decision. Do I continue moving towards the storm in Montana and risk getting trapped on dirt roads? Or do I head east into South Dakota to get ahead of the storm? I chose the latter, and as a result I missed the first 4 twisters in Montana. But I don’t think it would have been possible to see everything anyway.

Mammatus clouds over Belltower Butte
Threatening sky over an abandoned house [Buy Print]

Mammatus clouds bubbled overhead at the state line. But then rain began to fall and obscure the base. I passed through the town of Buffalo where powerful cloud-to-ground lightning bolts were striking, before heading south a few miles to a scenic prairie road. Now I just needed to wait. As the cell moved northeast, the rain shaft should move out of my way and let me see the tornado that I knew was on the ground based on radar. I had never seen a supercell spin like this, right before my eyes. It looked like it belonged on another planet. Finally there it was, a cone tornado about 8 miles away. I didn’t know at the time that this was the strongest twister of the day, an EF-3. It destroyed a few ranch buildings, and threw a 5-ton tractor into another state, but thankfully no one was injured.

Supercell, lightning, and funnel above the prairie [Buy Print]
The moment the EF-3 tornado first emerged [Buy Print]
Skinny tornado #2 [Buy Print]

Just 3 minutes after spotting the 1st twister, it lifted. Then a skinny funnel descended and danced around, touching the ground briefly. A larger wall cloud was forming again to the right. That’s when I moved in closer. While driving, a wedge-shaped tornado formed, but my views were obscured by hills. Finally I got a clear view and stopped to shoot my 3rd time lapse of the day. The sun had set and it was getting dark so I had to shoot at a higher ISO. The overall storm structure and rapid movement was just incredible. Eventually this twister roped out, but yet another wall cloud formed in it’s place.

A close-up of tornado #3 [Buy Print]
Tornado #3 with incredible structure above [Buy Print]

Another tube dropped from the clouds, which was the 4th tornado I witnessed that day. It was 9:15 at this point, and it slowly faded into the darkness. I tried to capture one of the frequent bolts next to the last tornado, but had no luck. The lingering lightning made it hard to call it quits. But I finally rolled into Belle Fourche, where I spent the night. It was a day I won’t forget, and the season couldn’t have ended on a better note. I couldn’t find any stats about how often a single supercell has produced 8 tornadoes, but suffice it to say that storms like this one are exceedingly rare. To see some of these scenes in motion, check out my time lapse film, ‘Upslope Flow.’

Tornado #4 at 9:13PM [Buy Print]
Lightning after dark

I was glad I could contribute images and information to the NWS storm survey: https://www.weather.gov/unr/2018-06-28

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