West Texas Tornadoes of 21 April, 2007

 

All images and text
© copyright Gene Moore

 

Another round of tornadic storm moved across west Texas to add to a very busy year for that part of the country. Other that occasional events the Texas Panhandle and west Texas have been relatively quite in recent seasons. This year is much like the old chase days when this area was battered with severe weather events. Now the population is much higher even in rural areas and the once open country tornadoes have more targets in the small but growing towns of the area. On this chase I was with Bill Tabor and David Douglas, both from the Austin area. We left cloudy conditions in south Texas with gusty winds and drizzle that morning. The sunshine broke out as we entered west Texas and the clouds began to build. As usual, we never quite know how any particular storm day will turn out, but this one was yet another rat-race to keep up with the storms. Generally, a strong jet stream like we have this season will power up the storms to produce tornadoes, but keep them moving fast.

On this day the storms formed far to the west along the New Mexico border in air too dry for tornadic supercells. As the storms moved rapidly east they encountered deeper moisture exploding one storm in particular to become much stronger than the pack. This cell moved near the town of Littlefield where it took on supercell characteristics. At that time a weak tornado passed NW of town. This tornado moved close to us, but we could not see the funnel at cloud base due to obscuring dust. Fortunately we moved before the funnel passed our position. We headed south to Littlefield and northeast toward Fieldton on FM37 following the developing supercell. The image on the left shows the forming tornado shrouded in blowing dust. At times the funnel was totally obscured until we were north of the dry blowing fields.

 
   
 

This tornado did not extend the condensation funnel to ground through much of its initial 15 minutes but it still did damage. During this trip north on FM 168 to Olton we got hammered by a surprise RFD (rear flank down draft), or should I say down burst that rocked the vehicle. We estimated the winds crossing the road at 70+ MPH.

   

A broad view of the tornado and the lay of the land it was crossing. Note the sharp line of curvature where the edge of the supercell updraft meets the precipitation down draft.

 
  tornado passes behind house  
 

A nice home on the hill escapes the tornado's winds, others were not so fortunate. Behind the funnel is a heavy precipitation area, or at lest is seems from this angle. Chasers watching the storm from further east could at times see through the rain. Meanwhile Doppler radar indicated 75 dBZ reflectivity, very high. Perhaps much of the precipitation load was being exhausted out the anvil, not uncommon with supercells in a strong jet.

   

This is one of the few times the tornado's condensation funnel got close to the ground during the early life cycle of the vortex. We paced the tornado as it moved north with little or no time to stop for photos, or we would lose our view in the nearby rain.

 
   
 

At this point we had caught up with the funnel, but our good fortune was about to end. Downed power lines and busted poles slowed or trip north. I didn't photograph that part as I was trying to navigate Bill safely through the mess of debris on the roadway.

   

Driving through town moments after the tornado struck the far eastern and northeast side. Emergency vehicles are in route to damaged homes. Note the large chunks of hail on the road.

 
   
 

We lost the tornado in the rain as we drove east on highway 70 but found it again to our NW after turning north at Halfway. The following shots were taken while traveling north on FM 179.

   

Sorry for the low contrast here, but as the mesocyclone occluded the tornado remained in light rain. Dry air from the RFD did give us a better view of the upper circulation as it wrapped around the circulation cylinder aloft.

 
   
 

The tornado remains quite large under the wide rotating cylinder cloud. Some lighting is getting in from the south during this image to improve our visibility.

   

Still pursuing the monster north hoping for a better view. The tornado remained wide through this series of images.

 
   
 

In this shot the vortex is beginning to shrink down to a wide tube and more rain is wrapping around the funnel. It remained in open country where there was little property to damage.

   

During the next few minutes the tornado rapidly narrows into the rope out stage. Meanwhile dry air has blow an hole in the back of the mesocyclone letting in sunshine and some blue sky. The tornado is in the dying stage.

 
   
 

The tornado weakens and gets serpentine arches in the funnel. A strong debris cloud remains at the base of the circulation. Finally, we were finally able to get out of the vehicle and shoot proper photography. All but one other time this whole event was shoot on the run.

   

I'ts difficult to know how long these rope out stages will last, but it's a good time to get closer to the funnel. Unfortunately this time the tornado was only accessible up some muddy roads and we weren't in a vehicle capable of four-wheeling those roads.

 
   

Cool air pushing out from the rain arches the funnel away from the storm in the final rope out stage. The tornado quickly dissipated northeast of Hilburn. This tornado was on the ground a total of 38 minutes. Most tornadoes I see don't last that long, so we wanted to capture it from beginning to the very end.

We waited until the end of the tornado before trying to dash northeast to the next wall cloud.....but we didn't make it. We first saw the Tulia wall cloud from 8 miles south of town, but missed photographing the tornado.

 

Later at night we watched a dramatic tornado form in the lightning east of Happy and move toward Vigo Park. I didn't do a very good job of capturing it though, but at least we got to see one more tornado before the chase was over.

We should have felt good about the day after getting three tornadoes. Unfortunately missing the main event at Tulia left us wondering what we could have done differently. Not many people stayed for the final rope out of the original Olton tornado giving them an edge on getting east to the next tornado.

 

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