Epic, Jaw-Dropping, Amazing. I could keep going for days. The Northern Plains storm chasing season hardly ever disappoints. Tour 8 sealed the deal for an incredible ending to our tour season. The 2017 storm season was memorable, providing incredible sights of supercells and tornadoes for our guests from near the Mexico border to nearly Canada. Unlike 2016, which was a tornado producing machine, 2017 was a hard year for chasers and tour operators alike. There were several periods of longer than normal stretches of pleasant weather and many of the days of severe weather that should have produced tornadoes just didn't. That didn't stop us though, we pushed on for excellence, chased our tails off and gave our guests experiences of a lifetime!
The Northern Plains are personally my favorite place to chase. The terrain, road networks, and most of all the storms! It's a storm chasing paradise!
Tour 8 arrived in Rapid City, South Dakota for the start of the tour. After meeting and dinner we had some time to kill, so we visited Mount Rushmore right after dark. It's a really cool place to visit at night, they light up the entire display of our former presidents. When combined with a star-filled sky over the Black Hills, it's quite impressive to view and photograph.
The next morning we met up early and headed west to Minnesota for our first day of storm chasing. Our target area for the day was Willmar, Minnesota. A warm front was setting up near the area with a surface trough off to our west. We were positioned so we could be in the play of both areas. Capping was quite strong this day and there was a risk that storms would not fire until after dark.
The sun was quite intense this day and some of the moisture had started to mix out a little bit, which had me worried. Luckily as the storm system started to tighten up a new fetch of moisture moved into the area. Patiently waiting, we hung out keeping a close eye on the radar and watching convection starting to initiate. One of the updrafts we were observing suddenly started to break the cap and the upward motion of updraft had accelerated to tremendous speeds. The chase was about to be on! As we moved into position another storm off to our west on the surface trough had begun to take off as well. Now we were torn between storms, they both looked fantastic and both had the same potential to produce tornadoes. After a moment of pulling over and looking over some observations, we had decided to head west to the surface trough storm. We cruised down highway 40 west out of Willmar and soon we could see a large wall cloud and base. The storm had become tornado warned and as we continued our approach, large feeder bands began to form into the base. All you could hear in the van was the word WOW being repeated over and over again mixed in with the sound of camera shutters going to work. The first day of the tour was starting with a bang! Upon reaching the storm we dropped south to avoid the large hail and get into a position to photograph this beast!
Sunset back-lit supercell with wall cloud north of Montevideo, Minnesota.
This supercell was one of the most impressive of the year. The Northern Plains does it again!
This storm was angry, producing crazy amounts of lightning all around us! At times, it was much too dangerous to get out of the van. The storm was moving almost due south and now the chasers were the ones being chased! Driving and stopping every few miles to avoid certain punishment from large hail. The National Weather Service continued to issue several tornado warnings on the storm. The radar was showing very impressive rotation and we could see it with our own eyes. The storm made several attempts at producing a tornado but it just could not get the job done. As darkness was falling we made some stops to photograph the spectacular lightning show. Other storms began to form and merge into our storm. Quickly the storm grew upscale into a linear mode and we began the hunt for food and a hotel. Amazing first day!
The following day was spent as a travel day to get in position for some up coming chasing opportunity in North Dakota. We headed to Fargo, ND and spent the day meandering the beautiful country side. Once we arrived, we decided to live life a little higher, so we got our rooms at the Radisson in Downtown Fargo! It was awesome! One of the rooms had a Jacuzzi in the middle of the room and the other had panoramic views of downtown Fargo. Super awesome place! We always stay at quality hotels but sometimes we can treat our guests to really really nice places! (On tour 6 - 2016 we stayed in a 5-star hotel in Montana! That was amazing! ) After getting into our rooms we met back downstairs and walked the downtown area on the hunt for some high-quality steaks! We came to the HoDo restaurant which was said to have the best steaks in Fargo. They were not lying, they were outstanding!
Next morning I jumped on the computer and made my forecast for the day. It looked very promising. In fact, it looked like it could be the chase of the tour. Little did I expect, it would be one of the best days of the year. When forecasting and chasing it's best to never have really high expectations. You learn to take things day by day.
After breakfast, we headed out west and explored a small town west of Fargo and look over more data. We found a nice park that was peaceful away from town. Observations showed that we needed to head north, so we decided to grab some lunch at Space Aliens Bar and Grill. A really cool alien-themed restaurant. I had the biggest and cheesiest grilled cheese sandwich ever! So good! Lunch was over and it was time to head back on the road.
My target area was Northwood, ND. We got into position and kept a close eye on GOES 16 visible satellite. It wasn't too long of a wait when convection began to fire to our NW. Waiting patiently, we watched the sky and radar to see how our new infant storms were going to behave. I was closely watching for a storm that had a more South-easterly storm motion. That SE storm motion was going to be key for storms to take use of the available helicity. It was a very difficult wait. Storms now to the north of us were maturing and becoming tornado warned! The issue was these storms were moving East North-east. It was extremely tempting to go investigate them, but I knew that would come with a risk of missing out on the storm I was really looking for. Finally, one storm had begun to show some deviant characteristics! It was the storm we were looking for, we headed towards it immediately!
In less than 20 minutes we had a clear view of the nice large flat base, the storm wasn't quite mature yet but it was trying to be. Soon a wall cloud had formed and the radar was showing strong mid-level rotation increasing. The storm was now moving SE. At this point, I had a strong feeling this was the storm of the day! As we hung out with the storm, it had trouble maintaining it's outflow, but it eventually overcame this problem. Continuing south-east with the storm an area of rapid rotation had begun to form nearly right over us! It was so exciting to watch, we quickly moved out of the way and watched the strong attempt of this supercell to produce a tornado! I knew things were quickly changing and the storm was becoming a beast. We headed east to get a better view and knew a tornado was imminent! When we finally stopped to look back to the west, the moment was speechless. Sometimes pictures tell the story better. This is what we saw. Textbook.
The inflow was racing into the storm, the rotation was just incredible and then it happened. A large multi-vortex tornado had formed right in front of us. This tornado would continue on for almost 30 miles and was rated EF3. Though our view of the tornado would not last long. The storm wrapped the tornado up in heavy rain and large hail. Knowing what was going on we had to move and get away from the storm quickly in order to get back in a better position.
The Mayville, ND EF3 Tornado.
Screaming and cheering ensued in the van, but the chase was far from over. This tornadic supercell was not done putting on its grand performance! Following the supercell into Minnesota, our jaws just kept hitting the floor! Here I'll show you!
Worn out from adrenaline we headed back to our rooms after dark. The excitement wearing off, the day we just experienced had started to feel more like a dream than reality. This was absolutely one of the best chase days of the year. It had it all. There is nothing more you can really ask for. Minus the tornado becoming rain wrapped it was the perfect chase.
The following day, we departed Fargo for the last time and headed to Wisconsin. I was reluctant to take the tour to Wisconsin since my forecast wasn't really showing great potential there, but it was a new state to add to the list and you never know the surprises mother nature will throw you. So we went!
We arrived at our target area in Osseo, WI and the storm was just maturing as we arrived. It displayed a really nice big wall cloud and had a severe thunderstorm warning. We were impressed! The shear was on the marginal side and the lapse rates were fairly poor for the day. Seeing the storm exhibiting solid supercell structure was a very good sign given the conditions mentioned above. Unfortunately, it would not last. The poor shear and lapse rates finally took the storm and soon nothing was left but cloudy skies and light rain. Watching the radar new storms were firing to our south, so south we went. Here is where things get a little crazy. As we are making our way south a new little storm develops. It is isolated and has a jelly bean shape. We move in! After going through some heavy rain on the backside of the little cell, we come out under a really nice base and even note some weak rotation. Excited about our new opportunity we head through the town of Tomah, WI and head a little east, just outside of town. Now mind you, this storm is no massive supercell, it's simply a weakly rotating garden shower. There is no tornado warning, there is no severe thunderstorm warning. We get just outside of town and BAM! A funnel cloud halfway to the ground! Success! The guest and I are just dumbfounded! It's the wonder of nature! All the risk was worth it! I reported the funnel cloud to the National Weather Service and they quickly call me to get some more information from me. I explained how everything came together and told them I would send them the video of what we captured. Right before the funnel had occurred another storm was merging into our storm, this sometimes causes an increase in helicity that a storm can use to form tornadoes and funnel clouds. Like all the other storms of the day, this one too also fell apart shortly after our exciting experience. We stayed the night in Tomah and had a long trip ahead of us back to North Dakota the following day!
Check out the video!
Waking up in Tomah, Wisconsin we headed to Bismark, North Dakota for some more storms in the coming days. During the long drive, we listened to stand up comedy and told each other stories, it was a casual journey to our destination. And of course, we spent a lot of time discussing the last several amazing days of chasing!
Arriving in Bismark, we headed downtown to check it out and enjoyed some great food at an Irish pub that had a fantastic selection of authentic Irish dishes and large beer menu. If you're ever in Bismark check this place out. It's called Blarney Irish Pub.
The following day, we went over the forecast that looked rather meager for tornadoes, but there was decent severe weather potential. Our goal. To find large hail and get into high winds! And we did just that! The storms were not too terribly photogenic and were very high based. It was a good time and intense at a few times! Following the storms out of North Dakota into South Dakota we headed towards Fort Pierre, South Dakota for the night. A fun day of chasing a marginal day!
For the final day of the tour, we headed back towards Rapid City, South Dakota to do some sightseeing and exploration! Our goals! Photograph and experience awesome landscapes, eat good food and find some buffalo! The guest had never seen a buffalo up close so we had to make that happen! Here are all the things we did on the final day!
Badlands National Park
Wall Drug Tourist Attraction
Custer State Park