All images and text © copyright Gene
unless otherwise indicated.
Seeing The Tornado & The Storm
Many tornadoes are buried under the storm. It's a treat for meteorologists to see both the tornado and the cloud that's producing it. In this image taken at Deport, TX the tornado is observed from the west side of the storm, but we can also see the towering clouds responsible for powering the vortex. The condensation funnel of this tornado is not visible on the ground; a feature common to many tornadoes, but that didn't diminish it's intensity. It had a 13 mile long F-2 damage track that destroyed 4 rural homes and barns in the area. The premium visibility allowed me to set up and shoot both the tornado and storm for its complete 20 minute life cycle without moving. This tornado and many others on this page will be included in the tornado archives as time permits. I saw five tornadoes on this day, but after this very photogenic event the others occurred in the rain or while I was driving. To be able to shoot one tornado without moving is rare.
Viewing a tornado under a monster supercell
Strong tornadoes are driven by the thermodynamics of the supercell thunderstorm. This image demonstrates the scale of that energy as these clouds tower to 60,000 feet in the atmosphere. To power a tornado such as this one that destroys property, human life and stays on the ground for an hour requires the energy of a tremendous storm.
The shearing jet stream winds keep the tornado rain free in the updraft area of the storm while transporting the rain and hail down stream. It doesn't always work this way, but with the strongest storms there is a balance between the updraft and down draft, a steady state that keeps cold dry air from cutting off the inflow of warm moist air to the tornado. The image was shot with a 17mm wide angle lens. The open prairie of western Kansas provided a spectacular unobstructed view of the whole storm.
This shot may not look that close, but it was within about 100 yards. Today, chasers get closer pushing the limit to get video for TV stations. The dangers of approaching a tornado, especially one with winds of 200 m.p.h. like the one are many. It just takes one rock flying that fast to hit a chaser in the head and they are in serious trouble. Getting closer than one mile (generally considered a safe distance by many) brings a number of dangers to include satellite vortices that rotate around the main funnel and other tornadoes that can form in the inflow bands. Objects thrown by the tornado become missiles and heavy debris is dropped out of the cloud around the tornado. On this day chase teams approaching the town of Wichita Falls, Texas encountered appliances falling out of the sky a couple miles in advance of the tornado. At the time it was happening they could not see the tornado. As for getting close. It's silly for one to advise others against taking chances that the author has gotten away with, so I won't. Know the danger is there!
Tornado chasing is not all terror, fear and high anxiety. Some supercells and their tornados are approachable. The tornado may be in the rain free updraft area of the storm extending from a relatively high cloud base. This combination provides for easy photography and comfortable viewing.
This tornado was on a flanking line of towering cumulus far from the main storm. At the time of this photo it was about three miles west and it was quiet at our location. No rain was in the immediate area and only a rumble of thunder was heard. The birds were still singing, but not for long.