Storm Highway by Dan Robinson
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Tornado at Windthorst, Texas - May 25, 2024


ABOVE: The forms of the Windthorst, Texas tornado on May 25, 2024

By DAN ROBINSON
Editor/Photographer
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I observed a tornado in north Texas on May 25, 2024. The following is a log of the day's chase. Video from this day:

This chase would end up as my all-time longest distance driven in a single day: 1,082 miles. I started in Ottawa, Kansas after chasing supercells back home in St. Louis the previous day. The setup was a shortwave trough ejection producing an expected dryline supercell tornado outbreak from near the Red River through central Kansas. At my first data check of the day at 9AM, I was shocked to see the moisture needed for this setup to materialize was still way south of I-20 in Texas! As the main shortwave trough ejected over the Plains, strong southerly winds were expected to bring this moisture northward rapidly through the day in time for supercells to develop by late afternoon. Southern Kansas and northern Oklahoma would have great wind fields for tornadoes, but the long distance that moisture had to travel in such a short time was a big concern for me. I decided to go south to Oklahoma City, expecting (and hoping) to end up somewhere north of I-40 or even in Kansas - but keeping Texas in play in case I needed to go that far.

As I approached Oklahoma City on I-35 southbound, satellite showed that an area of cirrus was already starting to cross the Texas panhandle. Cirrus is often an indicator of faster upper-level winds and therefore is a pretty good sign of an expected upper level wave's arrival. It was coming in very early, which usually means that storms will fire early, many times *too* early before adequate instability can develop and in this case, before the moisture can make its long trek north in time. And sure enough, storms developed east of Lubbock close to the time I traversed the OKC metro area.

The southern storms firing early were on a course to potentially cut off that critical advancement of moisture return for areas farther north. For that reason, I didn't stop in OKC and continued south on I-44 toward Lawton in case that area of storms would become the day's target. It wasn't long before a nice-looking-on-radar supercell emerged in that area near Vernon, and I was thinking we were going to start seeing tornado reports from it within the hour. I was still 2 hours away from it. It definitely helped that a lot of Oklahoma's turnpikes - the H.E. Baily included - have 80mph speed limits!

At Lawton, I pulled over to do one last evaluation. I would need to commit to a target soon. The options looked to me to be either the southern supercell now approaching the Wichita Falls area, or the dryline farther west in Oklahoma where it appeared some moisture was starting to make its way north to the west of the Texas storms' outflow. After a few new radar scans, I saw the outflow from the Texas storms showing up clearly on radar pushing both westward toward the dryline and northward into southwestern Oklahoma, the only other area that looked like it would see the better moisture in time. That outflow sealed the deal for me in committing to the southern storm.

I just barely made it to the storm's crossing of the highway south of Wichita Falls, having just enough time to refuel in the supercell's forward flank precip in Windthorst. I parked on the south side of town to watch the storm's updraft region approach only minutes from the tornado developing. A ominously-structured and imminently-tornadic base came into view, with RFD already fully cutting in around a developing circulation.

A funnel quickly formed with a debris cloud underneath:

It was apparent that I was in the tornado's path, so I moved south about 1/2 mile to give it some extra room. The second I stopped, two narrow vortices developed just west of the road, fully condensing briefly. They were similar in appearance to the Wakita, Oklahoma multiple-vortex tornado of May 10, 2010.

The southern vortex hit an indeterminate object, lofting debris into the air as it crossed the field just to my northwest:

The non-condensed tornado passed over the eastern part of Windthorst, but thankfully did not appear to be hitting anything or doing any significant damage. I did not see much debris being lofted at this point. I paced the tornado east as it strengthened on the far northeast side of town. A cone funnel appeared overhead, producing power flashes...

...followed by multiple vortices condensing at ground level under the growing funnel:

I decided to try for a close approach on a gravel road northeast of town. During this move, the tornado fully condensed into a strong cone, unfortunately while I was driving:

This phase did not last long. By the time I reached the tornado's road crossing point, it was back into a multiple-vortex phase with a funnel aloft:

I stopped to get a more stable shot, but the tornado was roping out...

..vanishing shortly after I got a steady shot framed.

By this time, chaser traffic on the main road was picking up. The supercell's next viable road crossing point was south of Henrietta via the next highway north, but traffic maps showed a long segment of red and orange near Bluegrove. In the Plains, that usually means a one-lane road construction with a long traffic light. With the moderate chaser traffic, I feared this would take too long to get through to make it to another intercept in time. So, I decided to continue east to Bowie then north on Highway 81 to intercept the storm again at Ringgold. Doing this cost me views of a couple of additional tornadoes the storm produced near Bluegrove.

I made it to Ringgold in time, but the storm looked like it was in between cycles. The storm was now tracking along the Red River, so I needed to decide on whether to follow it on the north or south side of the river. There were no apparent bridges between Ringgold and I-35 (I later learned there was one, but I could not determine if the roads to it were paved). I chose the north side, since it looked like the storm would continue to have at least some north component of motion given the Windthorst tornado's northeastward movement. I headed north back into Oklahoma and then east at Ryan, re-intercepting the storm at Leon after managing to avoid any hail in a brief transect through the core.

The storm didn't have much of a focused area of rotation at this point, with no dominant meso. But, several smaller transient circulations were present. This behavior continued while I stairstepped northeast with the storm to Madill. Some brief tornadoes were reported during this time, but I didn't see any of them. I stopped to get some video of this dramatic cascading downward motion along the edge of the RFD near Marietta:

Before I reached Madill, the storm was beginning to shrink on radar with its lightning slowing and the couplets on radar weakening. When I stopped to refuel in town, I saw that models had started showing a monster bow echo storm complex forming in western Missouri in the next few hours and plowing through the St. Louis metro area just after sunrise. I had already been expecting a short nights' sleep to get back home for a potential major tornado event in or near St. Louis the next day, but this new situation would necessitate an all-night haul to get home in time. I headed east to US 75 at Caddo and north through McAlester toward I-44 at Big Cabin to start this epic trek back.

At a stop to get dinner in Muskogee, I saw the potent supercell organizing north of Tulsa that produced the strong tornado in Claremore. As I continued northbound, I realized I might actually be able to intercept the storm somewhere near Pryor or Salina (Oklahoma). I turned east at Chouteau onto US 412, but unfortunately took the wrong fork in the highway that led me down a long, windy road into downtown Locust Grove with no easy way to get back to the highway. By the time I got back on 412, the storm was way ahead of me. I regained some ground on it before stopping in the town of Kansas, OK. I sent my drone up to see if I could get a look at several strong circulations that were coming and going. I monitored the storm for 20 minutes via drone as it moved off to the east, but didn't see anything. This storm went on to produce more strong tornadoes in northeastern Arkansas, but due to my long drive ahead and the horrible terrain/road network there, I didn't continue pursuing it.

As I reached I-44, thunderstorms began developing all around me, completely enveloping me by the time I got to Joplin. There were a few nice tall cloud-to-ground bolts in clear air here, but none were cooperative for my cameras as I attempted some shots through the windshield. As these storms congealed into a large complex around me and to my south, it started to look like they would greatly alter the environment in Missouri ahead of the expected bow echo later. And sure enough, models began backing way off of the morning bow echo idea in St. Louis. With a sigh of relief that I would not need to make the all-night drive home, I stopped for the night in Marshfield, MO to bring an end to my record-long thousand-mile-plus chase day.

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