Colby, Kansas July 21, 1996, Chase
By Martin Lisius
I awoke at about 3:00 AM on the morning of July 21, 1996 at my home in Arlington, Texas. I had been watching the persistent northwesterly flow that had set up over the Central Plains for days. I had interviews scheduled the next day, on the 22nd, in Colorado for my newest documentary.
I wanted to leave early in hopes of getting a good chase in along the way. The early morning SPC severe weather is the first product I usually look at on an expected chase day as it gives a good summary of both existing and forecasted parameters. Unfortunately, the early morning outlook did not place my preferred chase area (Northwest Kansas) in a risk area. I then pulled down surface data and forecasted winds. They indicated weak upslope flow and good moisture in the Goodland area.
Forecasted winds at 18,000 feet for 00Z indicated northwesterly flow at around 35 to 40 kts. Finally, I accessed the early morning Goodland forecast discussion that mentioned a possibility of afternoon convection forming along a local "pseudo dryline just east of Goodland. I departed Arlington for Northwest Kansas via 1-35 and I-70 around 7:00 AM. My chase partner and fellow producer, Kurt Ugland, and I reached the Oakley area a little after 4:00 PM CDT just in time to see towers go up in the bright sun. Winds were out of the east-southeast at about 10-15 kts. The air was warm and moist.
Soon, two small, dark storm bases formed to our west-northwest and northwest. A small lowering dipped down from the southern storm just as a severe thunderstorm was issued for it over weather radio. But the main updraft tower on the northern storm near Colby looked more impressive and its dark, rain-free base was growing. Suddenly, a small, sharp funnel dipped down. Within a minute, the funnel had reached the ground. "Tornado on the ground!," I exclaimed to Kurt We raced north on U.S. Highway 83 and then west on U.S. Highway 24 toward Colby. We were afforded an excellent view of the tornado as the storm was low-precip and very well backlit. The hose-shaped funnel snaked lazily over the flat Kansas farmland as it kicked dust halfway to storm base. According to reports over HAM, the tornado was moving south at only 5 mph. Interestingly, as we passed motorists on Highway 24, we observed that they seemed either unaware or uninterested in the tornado just to the northwest. They were simply going about their daily business in a relaxed manner.
Finally, we pulled to within a mile east of the tornado, or about 3 miles northeast of Colby. At that moment, the tornado roped out leaving behind a ghost-like plume of brown dust suspended three or four hundred feet above an open field. Looking straight up, we could see the entire storm spinning rapidly. The base, by this time, was quite small and was more like a large wall cloud in size. The storm quickly fell apart as we waited for another touchdown. Hard storm towers were observed to the south. We headed that direction and intercepted several ground-hugging wall clouds, tennis ball hail and a warm, 80 kt. rear flank downdraft gust south of Monument. Not a bad chase for late July in Kansas!