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                   Tuesday, May 31, 2022

2022 Great Plains storm expedition logs

By DAN ROBINSON
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This page is a log-in-progress covering this year's Great Plains storm observing trips between April and June.

Season Totals:

  • Plains expedition trips: 2
  • Plains storm days: 2
  • Days on the road: 4
  • Plains tornadoes: 1
  • States: Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma

Great Plains Expedition Days

Day 1, April 29: Elmo, Kansas tornado (Trip #1)

I made my first trip of the season to the Great Plains on Friday the 29th, a single-day outing starting at 8AM and ending at 3:30AM Saturday. So far this season, I have not been as motivated to bite on any of the Plains setups due to the long distances involved during this period of high gas prices. But with Friday's event focused on central and eastern Kansas, tornado targets were all within a 7-hour drive that would minimize the fuel expenses. I departed westbound on I-70 out of St. Louis at 8AM, with a ill-defined target along the dryline between I-70 and the Oklahoma/Kansas border (roughly from Salina to Wellington).

By midday, radar and surface data showed a dryline bulge taking shape north of Wichita, focusing the tornadic supercell risk generally there and a bit northward. Accordingly, I continued west on I-70 to Junction City, arriving just as the first towering cumulus began showing up on satellite to the southwest. It was an easy drive to get into position for these near Heringon. I arrived to find two updrafts with lightning, but with shriveling bases as they struggled against the strong cap. Finally, more robust updrafts started forming to the west and southwest. I moved down to Elmo to get into position on the southernmost one. While making this move, the storm produced a small tornado, which I shot from about 5 miles to its northeast. Storm obeservers who were closer confirmed a ground circulation under the funnel (most funnels that are this well-defined have ground circulations, therefore making them tornadoes by definition).

With the unusually-high tornadic base of the storm and the frequent cloud-to-ground lightning, the scene was reminiscent of the Mulvane tornado and supercell from June of 2004. I felt the storm had a good chance of producing something similar, so I stayed close to the meso all the way into Chapman. In doing so, I sacrificed what would have been some good high-speed lighting video here. Despite several circulations tightening to tornadic speeds, I saw nothing else come close to the first one. As the storm entered Chapman, the cold front was beginning to impinge on it from the west, and its appearance dminished. With the sun setting, I decided to head west to Topeka and wait for the back side of the storms. I hoped to try for upward lightning from the towers near the city. As I made this drive east, I saw a suspicious feature north of Fort Riley, but by the time I found a clear view to get a good look, it had dissipated. I later viewed my driver's side dashcam video to see that this may have been another tornado:

West of Topeka, I stopped at a location with a good view of one of the tall towers and let the storms pass overhead. I witnessed one weak upward discharge to the structure, but it was too faint for the high-speed camera to pick up.

I continued into Kansas City, catching up to the main cores of the squall line again. As I entered downtown, a barrage of upward lightning began occuring to the city's numerous tall towers in the eastern and southern parts of the metro area. There were at least ten upward lightning events all within a short 10-minute timeframe, every cloud flash was producing upward strikes to the towers. However, I could not find a place with a view of any of the towers until I reached I-435. I finally found a spot and set up for 15 minutes, but no additional upward flashes occurred - I had missed it all.

I decided to get back on I-70 eastbound, get ahead of the squall line and try again for upward lightning at one of the towers near Columbia, Missouri. The Kansas City upward events were all unusually right behind the squall line cores instead of deeper back into the stratiform precip area, so I figured I would need to be set up at the Columbia towers ahead of the storms. The battle to get ahead of the line was a long one that I didn't accomplish until Booneville. It was an exercise in futility, as the entire complex was weakening. Furthermore, if I stayed in Columbia for several more hours to shoot upward lightning, I would not be able to drive the rest of the way home without needing to stop for sleep. So, I made the choice to use the remaining awake hours to just get home and be rested up for Saturday's event in the Midwest.

Day 2, May 1: St. Louis to Vinita, Oklahoma (Trip #2 start)

The period of Monday, May 2 through Thursday the 5th looked like another trip-worthy active period as two back-to-back potent shortwave troughs ejected across the Plains. The original plan was to cover Monday's event in Oklahoma/Kansas, spend a down day in the Plains on Tuesday, then stay for the next big event on Wednesday the 4th. This would be followed by a potential on-the-way-home (or *at* home) event in the Midwest on Thursday. After the standard multi-day trip preps were finished, I left home late on Sunday night. With the expected target to be along or just south of the Oklahoma/Kansas border, I chose I-44 as the route out of St. Louis. I stopped for a short sleep interval at Vinita, Oklahoma.

Day 3, May 2: Hennessey, Oklahoma supercell; Broken Arrow, OK lightning

After starting the day in Vinita, Oklahoma, I stopped for breakfast in Sand Springs and to do the morning's forecast. It didn't take long to see that the day's setup was not looking as good as it had the night before. A persistent stratus cloud deck was stubbornly refusing to clear out behind the wave of early morning thunderstorms in central Oklahoma, with barely any clear skies in the area storms would mature. The second main negative for the setup was the speed of the cold front, which looked to risk undercutting the dryline storms soon after they formed. The supercell/tornado potential looked bad enough that I considered just turning around and going back home. What kept me in Oklahoma was the potential for a large line of storms to pass through either Tulsa or Oklahoma City later in the evening, which looked good for lightning opportunities. I decided to continue on west on Highway 412 toward Woodward.

My pessimism about the day continued as I made a fuel stop in Enid, where the gray overcast skies were still persisting at 1:30PM, and the air felt so cold that I almost needed a jacket. Not good signs for a Plains storm day! I finally broke into some sunny skies among the mesas west of Orienta, where temperatures started feeling more like a spring storm day. I stopped here to mount the hail shields (I'm keeping them stowed during non-storm times due to the high gas prices). As I did this, a cluster of cells began firing about 40 miles due west. Thankfully, I was in a good position on Highway 412 to simply wait for a dominant cell to emerge. The main consideration was the Cimmaron River crossing just to the east and whether to be north or south of the river. Eventually, the southern storm became dominant and the clear target, and I moved south to Fairview to watch it approach.

The Fairview storm had a solid wall cloud which developed a few instances of tight rotation that appeared to be minutes from producing, but the surging RFD was overpowering the inflow side of things - apparently a consequence of the late airmass recovery behind the early-day storms. The storm was also moving northeast at a good clip, and I was having trouble keeping up with it, especially after the passage back eastbound through Fairview. East of Fairview, I noticed two things happening - one, the cold front was on our doorstep. The bases of new storms firing on the front were not very far to the distant west. Secondly, new storms to the south were looking more interesting. The southern storm had also split, sending the "left mover" racing northward toward the original Fairview storm. The "right mover" of this split was rapidly intensifying, and looked like the obvious new target. I had a fairly long distance to cover to get to the storm. It was 30 miles due south, and I'd need to go at least 20 miles east to have a shot at getting in front of it.

Thanks to slow-moving trucks, the trek south and east took much longer than it should have. Before I lost visual of the storm's updraft due to its precip core, I had a faint low-contrast view of what looked like a low wall cloud and funnel. A tornado was reported shortly after this near the town of Loyal, but I can't be sure if I was seeing it at that point. I made it to Hennessey and was finally about 20 miles out from intercepting the updraft, but radar was showing that the cold front was already catching up to the storm. When I finally had a visual of the updraft south of Hennessey, it looked like it might have a shot of a tornado - if it could happen within 5 minutes. An occluded circulation appeared under the base, but the cold front was right on its doorstep:

As the storm's base moved closer, all I could see was cloud material and rain bands all moving eastward: the cold front was in the process of killing the supercell. But as the rain bands overtook Highway 81 north of Dover, I saw a small debris cloud visible in the field just to the east. I got my camera on it, but quickly lost visual of it as the precip engulfed me. The small, tight circulation looked tornadic, but the all-westerly winds I could see suggested it was a gustnado. For now, I won't count it as a tornado unless I see more evidence from others who had a better/longer view.

With the cold front now eating the supercell and the only other discrete storm that had tornado potential way down near Chickasha (south of Oklahoma City), I chose to call the tornado portion of the day and shift into lightning mode. Tulsa looked to get a better stratiform precipitation region than Oklahoma City, so I started heading east, staying just ahead of the advancing squall line behind me. Up to this point, there had been very little visible lightning, and I wasn't optimistic about that improving since the storms were moving deeper into the cold socked-in-with-clouds region from earlier in the day. At Guthrie, I stopped briefly for dinner and to take a quick look at the next day's prospects. Models were pushing the tornado risk much farther south, with another episode of persistent morning convection plaguing areas north of the Red River. I'd need to go even farther from home for Wednesday's target, something I was not very motivated to do with the high gas prices and the way this day's events were turning out. This solidified the choice to continue on to Tulsa to shoot lightning, then pass on Wednesday's setup and thus end the trip early.

My route eastward was on Highway 33 through Cushing and Drumright. Some kinks were developing in the squall line with QLCS circulations that prompted tornado warnings just behind me for most of the drive east into Tulsa. I stopped for each one to look back at the storm, but could see nothing in the rain. The outflow was also pushing far ahead of the storms, further reducing the chances for any visible tornadoes. The terrain in this region is also very difficult for observing storms, with forested hills and very few open views.

My main focus was getting to the tall broadcast towers near Coweta for upward lightning in the squall line's trailing stratiform region. But as I made my way east on the Creek Turnpike on the south side of Tulsa, visible positive cloud-to-ground bolts were starting to occur ahead of the storms. The rate of these increased to several per minute. I needed to find viewing spots at the towers, but the positive CG activity was just too good to pass up. I stopped at Broken Arrow to shoot high speed video of these. The thunder was also impressive enough that I started recording audio on the A-camera. As the zone of positive CGs moved overhead, I could feel the thunder shock waves in my chest with the closer strikes! As this region moved east over the Coweta towers, several strikes to the towers occurred. I assembled a Youtube video consisting of the strikes captured on dashcam and high speed (Chronos at 10,034 FPS) along with the thunder audio from my A-camera:

As this activity subsided, I let the squall line overtake me while looking for places to shoot the towers. This part of Oklahoma is also highly forested with very few open views, and it took me quite some time to find a view facing northward (winds were still southerly even behind the line). As I did this, two strikes occurred to the southernmost tower near Coweta, one a negative downward CG and a conventional positive upward. I finally found a spot near the Muskogee Turnpike, and rolled the high speed camera as the trailing stratiform region moved overhead.

After nearly 2 hours with no upward flashes and very little lightning activity in the stratiform region, I gave up on the upward flashes and started packing up to leave. Not a minute later, an upward flash occurred to the closest tower. My dashcam was the only camera that captured it:

This prompted me to set the high speed camera back up and keep shooting for another 30 minutes, but the storm would not do it again. The lightning activity moved farther and farther east, and it was time to call it a day. I headed to Joplin to stop for the night, arriving at 1AM.

Day 4, May 3: Joplin, MO to St. Louis (Trip #2 end)

This was a leisurely travel day, with no storms within range in either the Plains or Midwest. I slept late, left Joplin at midday and arrived home by late afternoon.

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