The Sitka, Kansas Tornado

May 31, 1999

The Woodward, Oklahoma to Liberal, Kansas area was my forecast target.  I drove up highway 287 to Oklaunion, Texas, then north through western Oklahoma to Woodward.  I stopped on the eastern edge of town to top off the gas tank, which was about half full.  I've developed the habit of filling up the tank whenever it gets to or below 1/2 full.   This avoids fuel shortages when engaged in a chase.

As I drove through Woodward, I could see a developing thunderstorm to the distant northwest.  Also in view were hoards of chasers gathered at gas stations, the Dairy Queen, McDonalds and other spots in Woodward, undoubtedly discussing their chase strategies for the day and perhaps telling stories of recent chases.

I targeted the Woodward/Liberal area because after reviewing weather data over several hours and studying several numerical model forecasts, I felt this region would offer the best combination of atmospheric instability,  upper level difluence, wind shear and surface wind convergence.

As I began closing in on  the storm from the southeast, I had to make a decision whether to drive closer to the updraft base or stop and let the storm come to me.  NOAA Weather Radio said the storm was moving northeast.  From past experience, I knew that when a supercell updraft develops and intensifies, it often forces the storm to take a right turn from its previous motion.   I decided that if a high unobstructed view of the storm could be found, I would stop and let the storm come to me.   I found a great spot on a dry dirt road less than a mile off the highway.

Fortunately, the storm turned right as rotation in the updraft strengthened and it began moving almost due east.  I was able to set up two video cameras on tripods, one set to a wide angle view to record storm structure development and a second for zooming in to record wrapping rain curtains, dust plumes, an aircraft that repeatedly flew up to the rain free base in an attempt to seed the storm and reduce hail production for the local farmers, a brief tornadic dust whirl and other interesting details.   While the video cameras were running, I  shot a sequence of 35mm photos too.  Two chasers from Kansas contacted me on 146.520 MHz.   I guided them to my location where they also set up their cameras.

When the outflow boundary passed over my shooting location, I packed up and headed east.  I stopped briefly near Ashland, Kansas and again farther east at the intersection of highways 160 and 183 on a hill overlooking several rock piles, north of Sitka.  As the precipitation core got too close, I drove east while watching a developing funnel in my rear view mirror. 

The Kansas chasers had left a little before I did.  The tornado developed quickly.  They had stopped at the side of the road and were already set up and probably got the development of the tornado.  I was focused on putting distance between the reported 4 inch diameter hail and myself.  Fortunately, the Kansas chasers called on 146.520 MHz to tell me that a tornado had formed!   I  stopped on the other side of the road and set up the video camera on a tripod and started shooting.  I grabbed my 35mm camera, and promptly ran out of film after five quick shots of the tornado.   I spent the next several minutes trying to reload film into the camera, while struggling with fingers that had all suddenly turned into thumbs.

After the tornado ended, I drove east to highway 1 and turned south toward Oklahoma, stopping again just south of the Oklahoma/Kansas border.   A meso emerged from the rain (it had been previously rain wrapped) and produced wild up and down motions as well as numerous funnels.

Most of the following images are video freeze frame images, with a few images from the 35mm camera.  The original video was shot on high quality mini-DV format. Video of this event is available through StormStock.  

99053101.jpg (26258 bytes) Looking WNW,  this image shows an inflow band flowing into the updraft base of the storm.  The southern edge of the anvil is visible in the upper left section of the image.  The image was taken from a high spot on a dirt road about 3/4s of a mile west of a north/south section of highways 160/283, east of Proffitt Lake, which is a few miles ESE of Meade in western Clark County.  I was able to photograph the storm from this location for about 40 minutes.  (photo)

99053102.jpg (40675 bytes)

Looking WNW at dust plumes that were kicked up by the rear flank downdraft (RFD).  While no tight dust whirls were noted that could be identified as tornadic, the dust did exhibit rotation, although on a fairly large scale.
99053103.jpg (41516 bytes) Looking WNW at the first substantial wall cloud.   There had been other shallower lowerings of the rain free base (RFB), but this was the first well defined wall cloud.  .
99053104.jpg (20628 bytes) Looking west at the rain free base, with an area of precipitation at the south end.  This area of rain was rotating.  Chaotic and sometimes swirling motions were visible within this feature.  I've seen tornadoes develop within features like this on other storms, but did not see any tornadoes within this one. (photo)
99053105.jpg (37838 bytes) The first tornadic dust whirl that I saw with this storm.   This spin up occurred under an area of rapid rotation at cloud base with several "appendages", any of which could have been the parent funnel.
990531x7.JPG (45958 bytes) A second updraft/CB developed under the anvil, east of the main storm.  Looking ENE at the most intense horizontal vortex that I have ever seen.   This horizontal vortex exhibited tornadic intensity motion.  This image does not communicate the intensity of this vortex.  It was connected to the base of the new updraft and appeared to link it to the main storm which was located west of me.   At the moment when this image was made, the horizontal vortex tube opened up to provide a view  that reminded me of the view when surfers enter the wave tubes.   I saw someone stopped at the side of the road videoing this feature.  I'd really like to see their video.
99053106.jpg (45104 bytes) Looking almost due west from the intersection of highways 160 and 183, north of Sitka.  The large RFB was associated with the "main" storm.  The bowl shaped lowering was the base of the "new" storm as it was merging with the "main" storm.  The Sitka tornado developed from the bowl shaped lowering.
99053107.jpg (46512 bytes) The bowl shaped lowering appears smooth, but it was rapidly rotating.    The lowering on the right exhibited rotation too, but it appeared that outflow was undercutting it.
99053109.jpg (26118 bytes)  (photo)
99053110.jpg (42356 bytes) In this image, a third updraft base became visible to the distant west.   It appeared that there could have been  at least three closely spaced but distinct mesocyclones in an east/west line when this image was taken.
99053111.jpg (41739 bytes)  
99053112.jpg (43293 bytes)  
99053113.jpg (42204 bytes) As the precipitation area began to surge southeast, a cyclonic/anticyclonic couplet formed.  The blocky wall cloud on the right was actually spinning clockwise (anticyclonically), while the lowering to its immediate left was spinning counterclockwise (cyclonically).
99053114.jpg (42763 bytes) Looking WSW.  Two or so miles east of the 160/183 intersection, I stopped and setup the video camera to shoot the tornado.  The tornado was being shoved SE or ESE by outflow from the precipitation core. (photo)
99053115.jpg (44128 bytes) I didn't know it at the time, but several chasers had stayed at the 160/183 intersection and lost their chance to drive east down 160 ahead of the rain and hail core (hail up to 4 inches in diameter had been reported earlier just north and northeast of the updraft base).  They had to drive south down 183 through Sitka.  This is not a desirable position to be in since you must stay in a relatively small space between the tornado and the big hail.  With this storm, the distance between the tornado and the damaging hail may have been slightly over one mile.  A precarious situation at best.  However, they did get some excellent images of the tornado and they used up bit of adrenaline in the process.  (One chaser I talked to afterwards said that he was so wound up from the experience that he had trouble sleeping that night.)
99053116.jpg (41103 bytes) Although it may not appear as such, the tornado was actually in front of and separated from the precipitation core.
99053117.jpg (41616 bytes) Tornado warning sirens could be heard in the distance, perhaps coming from the town of Protection, a few miles east of my location.
99053118.jpg (44798 bytes) The view from Kansas hwy 160 ENE of Sitka looking SSW.
99053119.jpg (49125 bytes) Looking west from Kansas highway 1 at clouds which were piling into a rain wrapped mesocyclone.  Was there a tornado inside?  I don't know, but the cloud motions were spectacular.
99053120.jpg (39677 bytes) Looking WNW from near the Kansas/Oklahoma border where Kansas highway 1 turns into Oklahoma highway 34.
99053121.jpg (50247 bytes) Chasers on a hill observing and commenting on the storm.   I had been up there too a few seconds before, but decided it was time to leave because rain was approaching.  As I departed,  I glanced back and saw the rain core engulf these chasers.  You've got to know when to leave to stay dry.
99053122.jpg (52741 bytes) Just over the Oklahoma border on highway 34,  the previously rain wrapped mesocyclone emerged into clear air again.  A new mesocyclone had formed earlier farther north, as this one became rain wrapped.  The new HP meso had become wrapped around the east side of the main precip core and raced off to the east.   This one emerged south of the main precipitation core and produced some of the wildest, most chaotic motions I have ever seen.  The three fingers of clouds in this image were rotating wildly and exhibited rapid and violent upward motion.  Was this a tornado?  I can't say for sure since I couldn't see over the hill to confirm contact with the ground, but I suspect it was.
99053125.jpg (41617 bytes) X marks the spot.  Can you find the two funnels that form the letter X in the right part of this image?
99053126.jpg (40333 bytes) One of the two funnels pictured above actually touched down and became a tornado.  If you look closely, you can see the narrow funnel.
99053127.jpg (44172 bytes) Another of the numerous funnels.
99053128.jpg (49061 bytes) And another.  Note the illumination on the clouds from an RFD slot that developed just south of the meso, between my location and the clouds.

What a chase!

Copyright 1999 - Samuel D. Barricklow - All rights reserved.

Video of this event is available through StormStock

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Last revised: February 5, 2007