On Capturing Tornadoes and Stopping Time
July 13, 2018 ProPHOTO Daily
I've always wanted to photograph an outbreak of tornadoes, and two weeks ago I got my chance as a swarm of them swept from Montana into northwest South Dakota. Chasing storms is a long, arduous process, often filled with frustration, near-misses, and every so often the spectacular structure of a supercell. On June 28, 2018, I was fortunate to photograph a series of tornadoes in a remote area of the Great Plains.
Early in the last week in June, NOAA's (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Storm Prediction Center (SPC) showed a relatively quiet week for storms, but on that Monday they showed a slight risk for Thursday in the Dakotas. (Go here to see the archived outlooks for that week.)
I had been chasing with Tempest Tours—in my opinion, the best storm-chasing tour company in the business—for more than 25 days this spring, and I wasn't surprised when tour director and meteorologist William T. Reid opted for a 738-mile drive on Tuesday to put us in position for what was already shaping up to be the most significant storm day this year. In a dismal season with few tornadoes, and few storms with supercell structure, Thursday, June 28 was looking very auspicious.
Quoting Bill Reid: "We drove that long distance on Tuesday, first and foremost, to get to what I thought was a very good chase opportunity up near Bowman, North Dakota, on Tuesday evening. I did not think that the KS/MO option presented a decent tornado chance (we missed a rain-wrapped tornado at Eureka, KS, which most chasers missed), and I did not want to make the drive to MT/SD/ND any longer than it was already going to be."
We tracked a storm late in the day near Scranton, North Dakota, and got on a nice supercell. Unfortunately, rooms were not available in either Lemmon or Faith, South Dakota, and we had to drive far to the southeast to the only motel with enough rooms, the Cheyenne River Motel in Eagle Butte, South Dakota. Staying in the poorest county in the United States was a humbling experience...ahhh, the glory of storm chasing.
On Wednesday we made a "sightseeing" trip to the Badlands and spent the night in Belle Fourche, South Dakota.
After Bill Reid's detailed weather briefing with us on Thursday morning, in which he said all the conditions necessary for tornadoes to form were indicated in the data, we drove north on a hot and humid morning to southwest North Dakota, cooling off inside a small cafe in the town of Rhame. The SPC had expanded the risk area to include parts of eastern Montana. Much of the Dakotas was still in the slight risk. Much of North Dakota and eastern Montana eventually were covered by a tornado watch, but most chasers were looking at an area further to the north, and the target area covered thousands of square miles in North Dakota.
Bill was suffering from a persistent cold, which was unusual for him. In between hacking coughs and sips of Mello Yellow soda, he kept returning to the dew points, instability levels and the backed winds (ESE 20 knots) west of Buffalo, South Dakota. Bill recalls: "SPC's wording said that a 'warm front' would be lifting north towards Canada. Usually, the warm front is the favored area for tornadoes. I think that is a big reason why many chasers were hedging to the north. The warm front was not obvious to me in the surface data, so I had little reason to drift north and away from the surface low. The dew points and backed winds in the Buffalo area were too good to stray from."
After two more hours, Bill suddenly announced it was time to go, and from Rhame, we first went east about 15 miles to Bowman. He adds, "I still was not sure about where I needed to go, if anywhere. But it was not looking like anything was going to initiate near Buffalo/Bowman/Baker, so I headed to Bowman to provide the quick north option in case I needed it. At the Bowman pit stop, I saw the explosion of convection on the satellite loop near the WY/MT border not far from Broadus. I decided that was probably what we wanted, as it should eventually be approaching my favored target area as we rushed southwest towards the ghost town of Albion, Montana.”
A sculpted supercell was suspended above the horizon, with a long inflow band. As we explored a marshy area, Tom Trott, our driver, found a large western pond turtle he promptly announced was "good luck," and he christened it "Terrence the Turtle." Far to our northwest, about ten miles away, we saw a suspicious shadow nestled in between the low-slung mountains, and suddenly realized we had spotted our first tornado, as the shadow shimmered in the precipitation that cloaked the valley in mist. It barely appeared as a streak in our photographs. "We gotta go, NOW!" Bill yelled, following it with, "More tornadoes are gonna drop, SOON!" He notes: "We saw that first tornado, and I tried to reposition by heading SE (away from it) and NE, but then it reappeared and we had to stop again. I didn't really want to stop for it again. We had to make sure that we were in the right spot for what was to come.”
Sunset was only 90 minutes away, and for the next hour we rushed along a dirt and gravel road, to Capitol, Montana, then Camp Crook, South Dakota, and finally east on State Road 20 to Buffalo, South Dakota. Just as Bill had predicted, a number of tornadoes began to form and for more than an hour we chased them as they dropped to our north, northeast, and east, crossing back and forth across Camp Crook Road as we drove northeast across the Montana border into South Dakota. We passed the Little Missouri Lutheran Church just before we crossed the State line.
A damage survey by the National Weather Service can be found here, noting at least one of the tornadoes was an EF-3.
As we drove into South Dakota, one of the tornadoes expanded to a half-mile-wide wedge, with wind estimates at 136 mph. Suddenly, Bill threw open the van door and ran into the field beyond the power lines, his arms open wide as if he wanted to wrap them around the tornado and take a ride. Somewhat bemused, he states that "I was focused and determined to get the shot that I wanted to get, without the dumb power lines in my wide angle view. I feel a little ashamed for abandoning my tour guests like that...there's no other word for it." The collective frustration of hundreds of chasers went away in that moment, in the rebel yell of one of its most serious, most analytic statisticians. Asked about it later, Bill demurred, his eyelids dropping, as a slight smile crossed his lips as if to say, "Who, me?"
After an hour that seemed like an eternity, darkness fell, but the best was yet to come. Well-known and respected meteorologist Charles A. Doswell III states that "time stands still during tornadoes." As we drove along State Road 20, heading east to Buffalo, South Dakota, Bill announced we were stopping to shoot lightning. There were a few bolts and a sporadic crack of thunder. But nothing dramatic, or was there...? Every so often I could swear I saw, outlined in the flashes of lightning....another tornado! Then Bill yelled, "There's another tornado out there!”
I rushed to set up my tripod, and dialed the camera to a preset for long exposures, making a wild guess at the number, framing the road in the foreground, although I could barely see it. I gently released the shutter: f/4, 4 seconds, ISO 200. In my utter rain-soaked exhaustion, I heard it go off three times, and I repeated the process. Then, after only a few more frames, Bill announced it was time to go—we had a long drive ahead of us. Later, in the van, I blinked as I saw a clear image of a tornado on a mesa, silhouetted by lightning, as clear as could be under a cumulonimbus cloud out on the horizon. I had photographed the most dangerous of all tornadoes, the ones that form at night, a nocturnal tornado (at top). Time had, for me, stood still.