May 22, 2002: Smith Center, Kansas storms and Sheriffnado

chase images and log by William T. Hark, M.D.


Dave Lewison, Chris Kridler and I started the day at a Super 8 in North Platte, Nebraska. Although the day was still marginal, we would at least have a chase day. Storms were expected to form ahead of a cold front. There was slightly better moisture, especially in Kansas and there was the possibility of supercell thunderstorms.

After chatting with several other chasers staying at the hotel, we left North Platte and headed east on I-80. We had a quick lunch and checked data at a truck stop in Grand Island, Nebraska. The area west of Concordia to Russell, Kansas appeared to have the greatest chance of rotating storms and possible tornadoes. We dropped south at Hastings and east on 6 to avoid a ten car pile-up due to blowing dust. I-80 was closed in that area. At 4:15PM, we arrived at Concordia, Kansas (north of Salina). The cumulus clouds were fading and storm formation appeared unlikely. We would have to head west toward better moisture. I talked with Tim Vasquez (1V) who informed me that storms were beginning to form near Phillipsburg, Kansas (north-central by the Nebraska border). They were forming a line and would be heading northeast at 40 miles per hour. We couldn't catch those storms but the line was likely to develop farther south in a northeast to southwest diagonal line. The most southerly storms in a line are usually the most severe since there is less competition for energy. We blasted west on 28. Along the way, We observed a "horseshoe vortex" (2V), which is a curved funnel cloud (close-up pic 3V) which can occur after a cumulus cloud has evaporated. This is a sign of instability. At the small town of Beloit, we could see distant storms to the northwest. A few phone calls to Jason Politte, who was helping "nowcast," confirmed that the storms were in a line which continued southwest to Hays, Kansas. The line was moving slowly east and the individual storms were moving northeast at 40 mph. We continued west to intercept the line. By 6PM, we turned north on 281. The sky to the west was black. The storms (4V) were in a line but the southerly ones appeared stronger. Soon, we could see the bases of the storms. At 6:15PM, a ominous dark lowering (wall cloud) (5V) and pointed area developed by the rain shaft. It initially appeared to be a funnel cloud though the storm didn't look like a supercell. It was not rotating. Near Smith Center, scud clouds (6V) swirled to our north, and there almost was some rotation. We watched one of the more severe storms (7V) approach Smith Center from the southwest. A dark finger-like projection (8V) formed adjacent to the rain shaft and the town's tornado siren briefly sounded at about 7PM. The thunderstorm (9V) (now more isolated) had become a supercell by our radar reports. We could see a wall cloud and heard a report of some rotation. The tornado warning alarm from the National Weather Service sounded and they stated that a tornado had been spotted by a sheriff near Gaylord and was headed toward our exact location. With an approaching "tornado" and now complete loss of visibility from blinding rain, we retreated through the town of Smith Center and headed east to get out of the precipitation core and watch the storm. A downburst was visible in the precipitation core (10V) . Along State Road 36, we saw many chasers parked along every available pull-off watching the storm. We stopped and watched the storm became more linear in appearance (losing strength). The sky glowed with shades of gray, orange and black. Frequent lightning bolts (11V) flashed near the edge of the storm. We dropped south on 128 and west on 9 to attempt an intercept of a newer more isolated storm which was rotating. It died before we arrived. The evening ended with a great lightning (12V) show and the distant roar of hail. We spent the night in Hays, Kansas looking forward the next and more promisong chase day.

We later found out that there was never any rotation on the reported tornado. The storm was surrounded by chasers and storm spotters who didn't see any tornado, funnel or rotating wall cloud. The tornado report is now called a "sheriffnado" by many chasers.


1V
pic by Chris Kridler
2V 3V
4V 5V 6V
7V 8V 9V
10V 11V 12V


(P -- Photo) (V -- Video Still)


Next Page: May 23, 2002

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