It has been said by seasoned storm chasers that Colorado can be a tricky place to see a tornado and after Sunday, May 23, I am inclined to agree with them.
The days before May 23 were characterized by strong winds from the south, abundant moisture transport and no strong upper level waves to mess with the low level characteristics. So by the time Sunday arrived, most of the High Plains and Great Plains were under a moist environment, marked by dewpoints in the 60s.
In the upper levels, a closed low over the Great Basin was set to eject out into the Plains and kick off severe thunderstorms. Colorado seemed to be the prime place for this to occur. There were some issues with the setup, storms would fire early in the day and leave anyone who was late behind and storm mode seemed to favor a line of storms rather than discrete cells on their own.
Still, the Storm Prediction Center upgraded east central Colorado to a 10 percent chance for tornadoes, so it seemed like a promising chance and I took it.
In hindsight, I should have left and hour earlier than I did, storms fired east of Colorado Springs around 1 p.m. and as a result I was going to be playing catch up only for the first four hours.
The lead storm took on mid-level rotation and picked up a tornado warning, as it moved near Limon, Colo., I was still near the Colorado/Kansas state border. By the time I neared Limon, the storm was already well off to the north and I turned north at Genoa in an effort to catch up.
My fear about a line of storms forming was coming true, but it was stunning to see the thunderheads building just off to my west as I plowed north on a gravel road.
By the time I reached Akron, Colo., around 4 p.m., it was clear I could not catch up with the tornado warned storm. I made the decision to just sit where I was and let the ominously dark squall line to the west approach me for some storm structure photos.
I slowly headed to the east, keep just ahead of the squall line and again in hindsight I should have been paying more attention to the rotation going on inside the squall line. It is not as common, but sometimes there can be embedded rotation inside these lines of storms and this is what I missed by not looking at the rotation velocity on radar.
Outside of Yuma, Colo., my phone flashed a message at me, saying I was inside a tornado warned area and needed to take shelter. I scoffed at it, thinking it had my location wrong, as the only tornado warned area was well to the north. Then I decided to check my radar and it updated, I was just inside a tornado warned portion near the squall line, mid-level rotation had picked up and this area of the storm had the ability to produce a tornado.
I admit I was just in the right place at the right time and did not predict this happening. Better lucky than good I have been told.
Cresting a hill near Yuma, I spotted a lowering in the cloud base, a wall cloud, tornadoes can form near these features, but I had my doubts as the structure around it was rather murky and the inflow into the storm was rather cold.
There was no tornado development and I drove farther east to stay out of the rain and hail in the squall line. The tail end of the storm was approaching me and I was nearly ready to call the chase, when around 6 p.m. the end of the storm began to show mid-level rotation and this area ahead of the storm was tornado warned.
I found a path into a pasture off the main road to stop and watch this part of the storm. Between the sage brush stretching out before me and the clearest supercell structure I had seen that day above it, I had to admit the High Plains has its own charm during storm season.
Still no tornado, but I wasn’t surprised by this. The storm kept cycling and new wall clouds were forming, but it was clear the structure was falling apart. Taking stock of the situation I decided to call the chase and began heading down the road through Wray, Colo., back across the state border into Nebraska.
A few miles inside Nebraska, I turned around as the sun was lowering and witnessed a gorgeous parting site from the storm. Amid some lush green, the horizon was turning a golden color as new towers of clouds were going up with the sunlight cutting through it; the storm even had a last raggedy wall cloud.