May 22 2010 Bowdle South Dakota Tornadoes and Chasers Stuck in Farmers Field

Feb 27, 2012

CRAZIEST DAY OF MY LIFE [so far!]

Summary:
Intercepted multiple tornadoes of all shapes and sizes from a massive supercell. False information from our navigation software led to us being trapped with tornadoes bearing down on us, prompting us to make a desperate dash [unfortunately] through a farmers field. Got stuck in the field with one tornado passing only 10 yards away from us. Forced to abandon vehicles and shuttled back to Aberdeen after a very intense day.
Stats:
Tornadoes:10
Hail: 1.25′ [half dollar]
Wind: 60mph inflow, intense RFD est.
Lesson learned: Mapping software is not always accurate!
Detailed Account:
Today looked marginal when we awoke. Good shear and extreme cape but a potential cap could have put a damper on the day. Regardless it is hard to ignore a day when surface dewpoints reach the 70s and there is great shear with slow storm speeds. Plus the terrain in South Dakota is supreme for chasing. We left Valentine, NE and began the trek north.
We stopped in Murdo to monitor data, I had been here before and am quite fond of the area.
Conditions began to zero in on the area towards Aberdeen with strong convergence along the surface flow and the main trough axis surging east. We began to head that way, along the way we began to notice the cu field going up. Repeated attempts failed as the storms bounced off the cap.
We stopped in Gettysburg for gas and munchies and when I stepped out I was awed by an exploding storm. The cap had broken and a storm was rapidly going up. In 5000 CAPE I knew this was going to be huge. The chase was on. We would be on the storm since it was just a cumulus that just breached the cap.
The terrain in the area is as good as it gets. We were easily able to get into position as the storm went tornado warned. There we were able to sit and watch the storm as it began to mature.
Scott B of CTV along with our tripods [don’t worry, it was desolate and not a single vehicle went by!]
Looking up I could already see that there was ample helicity in the air.
The storm began to organize a couple wall clouds but they failed to produce. I began to get frustrated that every time we make a perfect intercept on a storm it would fail to produce. After sitting there for nearly 40 minutes it was time to reposition.
On our way to reposition it happened, an RFD surged in.
We quickly found a new place to pull over and a funnel formed.
Then the funnel finally touched down as it crossed the road.
Tornado #1 was underway, we were in great position and I was ecstatic. RFD quickly wrapped around and nailed us with wind driven rain and we were forced to move as the tornado grew larger.
This tornado wound up crossing the road directly in front of us and we had an excellent shot of it. We got pounded by intense RFD as we held our position but I accidentally stopped recording, luckily that didn’t happen during the tornado. A new tornado touched down during the RFD and moved off to our northeast. Storm chaser Andrew Pritchard was behind me and snapped an amazing picture of this. The vehicle down the road with the door open is mine. The whole meso is pictured here as a tornado begins to form!
Once that was over we attempted to follow it but became gridlocked due to downed powerlines.
We made a U-turn and headed back south, what none of us knew is that cone tornado that touched down during the RFD blast had turned into a massive, violent wedge tornado. We desperately attempted to catch back up to it as reports began pouring in. Eventually we got close enough to get a view from the backside.
The wedge dissipated and we positioned ourselves towards the new area of interest developing. The storm was showing some amazing structure.
We repositioned ourselves in the hook area just as another beautiful trunk touches down. Tornado #3!

I was able to get some great video of this tornado and more than satisfied, but the show was far from over! Ben and Scott tripoding some amazing colors in the storm.
The storm was starting to wrap up and transition into an HP monster at this point. Our plan the whole time was to head east on the main highway and turn north into the notch before dropping back south to go east. Eventually the storm wrapped up so much we had to jog quite a ways north to get back into the viewing area…but what a view!
The inflow to this storm revved up like nothing I have seen before. The storm was literally inhaling what looked like a row of cumulus clouds before my eyes as it was getting ready for its encore performance.
At this time tornadoes #4 and #5 touched down, heavily wrapped in the rain but I was focusing on the amazing inflow…video shows one of the tornadoes though. it became apparent that we jogged so far north that the tornado would move to our south so that option was out. Going north meant getting cored so the new plan was to stair step south on the backroads to get to the main road. This is when things began to turn ugly.
Danny and Ben were working the maps while I focused on driving. We had a perfect route that kept us safely ahead of the storm. We could see a new multi vortex tornado bearing down on us when all of a sudden, a nightmareish scenario unfolded as our road abrubtly came to an end. The mapping software had shown it going through. We hopped out and noticed we now had two tornadoes on the ground, one was a gorgeous drill bit churning away at the field no more than 100 yards away. The other was a large threatening stovepipe still about two miles away.
More chasers began arriving on scene and we began to bottleneck where the road ended. The tornadoes were not lifting and it became apparent we were in real danger, the land was flat and there was nowhere to seek shelter so the decision was made to bail south through the field to the next road.
Since I took no pictures but plenty of video I will now post the video, which shows everything I have mentioned. The onslaught of tornadoes once trapped brought numbers 6 through 10 for the day.

Needless to say, it was a bit terrifying at times despite the incredible, up close tornado video that came from it. Noone was hurt or killed and thats what matters most. I felt terrible about tearing up the field but at that point there was nothing more to do. Unfortunately during the onslaught of rain and hail the field, which was already waterlogged after a rough winter became a sponge and we all sank.
Me
Along with many others…
We were in a bad situation now. Luckily chaser Bart Comstock came to our aid and summoned help along with offering to shuttle people back into town. The hours passed and we sort of hung out in the field waiting for help to arrive. Around 11pm the first tractors arrived, but the farmer who owned the land was not happy, and rightfully so. He refused to pull out any vehicles until he had a chance to look over things in daylight. Those who never made it onto the field and got stuck on the road [and there were many of them as well] were pulled out.
We had to grab what we needed and hike nearly 1/2 a mile through the muddy field to a pickup truck which gave us a lift to the nearest town which was Ipswich. Now we had to wait for a ride. It was now 1am and even more bad news. Our ride had ran out of gas and was unable to fill up because all the towns were without power. We were stranded at a gas station with no power until 5am when we were finally picked up by Bart.
He had booked us all rooms. He is forever in my debt for going above and beyond to help us out. There were 7 vehicles and 16 or so individuals who became trapped, and all were accounted for. I finally was able to crash at 7am from the long, crazy day.
In the back of the pickup truck being shuttled back to town.
Stranded at the gas station in Ipswich along with Bob Hartig from MI.
Maps and Radar Images:
First, a closeup from the software that showed the road going through, the blue line is our track and indicates where the road suddenly ended and we had to bail south.
The following map is the chase as a whole, with the arrows showing where tornadoes were filmed. The pin icon shows where we were stuck.
Radar Images:
First is of the supercell with us in prime viewing position. Classic radar shape.
Second is a velocity scan as we were trapped, with a massive couplet nearly moving overhead. Good thing we bailed south!
The next day:
We had planned to chase but given the circumstances it was not happening. The drivers of the vehicles met in the field at 3pm while everyone else stayed behind. After long negotiations, and struggling for 3 more hours to free all the vehicles [which included getting stuck again, a tow rope that snapped and a dead battery on Scotts car] we were finally freed to come back and I returned with a muddy truck at 6pm, nearly a full 24hrs after getting stuck. The tornadoes destroyed some abandoned barns just on the other side of the field. He understood why we did what we did. We paid him full damages and in the end everyone was happy.
Conclusion:
The chase was amazing, hands down. Multiple gorgeous big tornadoes that didn’t hurt or kill anyone despite doing some significant damage. Capturing nearly every type of tornado at close range was just incredible. The field incident put a big damper on things, and started the latest controversy in the chasing community. I got into quite a few debates with people who think we were just joy riding and being reckless. That was not the case at all. It was an unwanted and potentially live saving move. I was ecstatic about the tornadoes and it was one of those chases that can make an entire season.
SPC storm reports:

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