Each year, in conjunction with our sister website, www.southwestphotographytours.com, we spend 2 weeks in Arizona conducting our popular Desert Thunder Tours. We keep these as small one van tours, with 6 guests. The Arizona monsoon season peaks in July and August, with southern Arizona receiving the brunt of the thunderstorm activity. We had a very successful monsoon season in 2017, with storms on 75% of the days! We travel anywhere we believe the most intense, and pretty, storms will occur. We spent time in southeast, southern and central Arizona, and even in southwest New Mexico. We photographed storms over Saguaro National Park, Kitt Peak, the desert floors, Sedona, Cathedral Rock, the Chiricahuas, the Superstition Mountains and many others. Some of the most spectacular lightning in the country occurs here each season! Below are many photos of the events we captured while on tour this season. We hope you enjoy the photos and we hope to see you with us on tour in the years ahead!
After our adventure in North Dakota on July 11th we knew we had to head well into Canada. A strong upper level low with great flow aloft, good moisture and instability, and lift along a dry line /Canadian Rockies foothills, would keep us in this region for several days. However, July 13th was by far the best set up in the area! We spent several nights in Red Deer, Alberta and chased west and north of there each day, capturing everything from supercells and tornadoes, great lightning, large hail, clusters of storms, and even a superb Aurora Borealis display on night!
July 13th looked like the peak of action and it certainly was. We targeted a boundary and foothills intersection west of Drayton Valley and we were on the storm as it developed west of there by mid afternoon. We watched the storm cycle several times until it finally intercepted better moisture and instability and took off. It rapidly intensified and started rotating. Soon the roar of the winds with the RFD of the supercell could be heard, followed by the winds from the tornado it produced. It started as a multivortex and morphed into a cone before it completely wrapped in rain. It was rated EF1, the strongest tornado in Alberta in 2017. The storm had fantastic structure, and throw in the canola fields of Canada and it was stunning! A great day and 4 day period for us in Alberta. Beautiful countryside there! Enjoy the pics and the Aurora as well!
July 11th took as to eastern North Dakota. An advancing dryline, strong moisture return and extreme instability would set the stage for numerous supercells, some tornadic. We started the day just west of Grand Forks, ND as convergence caused cumulus towers to explode. It didn’t take long for severe and tornado warnings to be issued! We played with the first to do so northwest of town. It had decent structure and very large hail. A large wall cloud formed and spun strongly. An occasional shear funnel would occur, but nothing imminent to touch down. Soon, a supercell formed on the southern end of the line and quickly became severe. It developed a strong area of rotation and a hook on radar. we quickly dropped south to intercept the storm, driving through blinding rain and hail golfball sized. As we cleared the core, a large circular updraft came into view and it was obvious it was spinning strongly. A mulitvortex tornado occurred back in the core that we couldn’t see. It stayed on the ground for over 20 miles as it approached the Minnesota border.
We stayed with the storm all the way to northeast of Fargo is the structure was jaw dropping! At one point, the rain cleared enough to get a brief glimpse of the large tornado! (pic below) Eventually it weakened as upshear convection would form and interfere with the supercell. The lightning was extreme, intense and very close numerous times. Several times we had to get back into the vans for our safety and to keep our guests safe. Finally near sunset, we let the storm cluster go and headed west for what would be several days of chasing in Canada!
June 28th held good promise for supercell storms and potentially tornadic ones to boot. Great moisture, instability and wind shear were forecast across southwest through northeast Iowa. A composite warm front/outflow boundary existed along that corridor and would be to focal point for several tornadic supercells. We were in the Des Moines area and drifted southwest towards Winterset. Soon a cluster of updrafts rapidly formed at the triple point south of Nebraska City, Nebraska. One dominant storm emerged from them. As we blasted west, then south towards Bedford, Iowa (our target!) a tornadic storm developed southwest of Corning, or about 25 miles north of the Bedford target. Since this storm was insanely electrified, had a large wall cloud and great structure, we couldn’t leave it to drop to Bedford for the approaching tornadic storm west of town. It became tornado warned, like the Bedford storm did as well. We stayed with it and watched several tornadoes form and the storm cycle numerous times. We thought it would produce a significant tornado a few times. Most were short lived and sometimes hard to view. Still, a very successful day, 4 tornadoes later, and a pretty supercell. There were over a dozen tornadoes in Iowa this day and a couple were very pretty. Late June and July in Iowa can sometimes be magical!
June 26th on paper didn’t have a lot going for it. We fully expected high based storms to form along a slowly advancing cold front over northern Kansas and southern Nebraska. Early afternoon storms formed in south central Nebraska, but we decided to wait till later and chase in the area where the best parameters were, over northwest and west central Kansas. The wait was well worth it! One storm formed northeast of Colby, Kansas and became severe. Structure was decent and hail large. Soon another 2 storms formed west of it along the same boundary. The lead storm left an outflow boundary that the second storm injested. The air, full of moisture and helicity caused the updraft of the second storm to spin, soon becoming tornado warned near Oakley, Kansas. We intercepted it there and stayed in front of it all the way south of Scott City, Kansas where it moved south of the instability axis and weakened. The storm had top notch structure, was tornado warned its entire life cycle and also produced hail the size of softballs. An amazing and unexpected treat to watch this thing on the first day of the Reunion Tour for hours!
June 20th took us to southern Nebraska. Excessive heat, steep lapse rates, moderate CAPE and moisture, as well as a local boundary across the I-80 corridor would set the stage for severe storms this afternoon and evening. Clusters of storms formed west of Kearney, NE and drifted south. Their outflows kicked up new storms ahead of them by early evening. Due to steep lapse rates and optimum freezing levels, the storms were incredibly electrified! Some of the best lightning of 2017 occurred that evening, well into the night time hours. We stayed in front of the cluster of severe storms into Kansas well into the night time hours. A great day for the lightning lovers! And who isn’t one????
What appeared to be a marginal risk day in Kansas ended up producing a decent supercell. High CAPE, moderate shear and moisture, with convergence along an old frontal boundary, would spawn severe storms this day. A couple supercells became tornado warned not far from Hays. They also produced hail baseball sized. Very steep lapse rates would be the culprit for the large hail, as well as decent directional and speed shear. The storms persisted through early evening as the turned southeast towards the Wichita, Kansas area, maintaining their severity all the way.
June 12, 2017….it started out like any other day. Too busy to think, let alone chase and then load a trailer for a big show in Amarillo, TX that I was leaving for the next day. But I did and the reward was worth the, “Am I going to get there in time” thoughts I was having. And that is because I didn’t leave Denver until 2:15PM. Yes, 2:15pm. And no, there wasn’t any speeding involved. Just pure LUCK. That and Starbucks, YES, you read that right. I stopped at Starbucks on my way to catching the Carpenter, Wyoming tornado.
Roger had told me that morning, as well as several days before, that if there was “ANY WAY YOU CAN CHASE”, how many times have I heard that phrase???…I should do it. I was torn on going as I also had a gal coming in from Yuma, AZ that afternoon that was going to TX with me the next day. It wasn’t until noon that day that I just told her I couldn’t resist the chase. The sky in Colorado was showing me I HAD to chase! Sooooo, I did. After contemplating on which route would get me north the quickest, I soon decided to high tail it on up I-25 and then north on highway 85 from I-76. My first stop was in Brighton, CO for a STARBUCKS. What???? With a sky like THAT…I stopped??? Can’t a girl eat, drink and chase all at the same time???!!! As I sat ordering my drink and munchies, I watched as a HUGE towering CU was going up directly to my N/NW and man was it GROWING. As I watched radar, I could soon tell I wasn’t going to make that first cell but little booger blowing up on the south side was soon showing me I had a chance! So with renewed hope, I took off with my Grande Very Berry Hibiscus and headed north. And then it happened…that darn Highway 85 construction happened. UGH. I said MANY cuss words as the 45mph speed limit was starting to give me heart palpitations. I soon realized that if it wasn’t meant to be, well, it just wasn’t meant to be. BUT…I DO NOT GIVE UP EASILY!!! I eventually conquered the chase that day, as I remained steadfast with trusty ol’ Radarscope…yes, I chase mostly by Radarscope, and Google maps by my side. I managed to chase the sequence of events that day as instinct lead me along several dirt roads, a herd of cows and eventually to the promise land of Carpenter, Wyoming where I eventually watched an a “drill bit” tornado that lead itself in to an incredible rope out. I also came across the damage path where a barn roof was laying in the middle of road. I did stop to make sure no one was hurt and when I realized all were OK and that hissing sound wasn’t a snake in the grass, it was high time to boogie on! Several houses had damage but from what I understand, no one was injured.
And if you are wondering, Roger and I like to cover 2 target areas, when and if needed. He remained up north and managed to catch tornadoes with his tour group, as I fed him images from my solo chase. My chase ended that day when my gps went out and I had NO idea where I was at. I chuckled as I knew if I just headed towards those Rocky Mts, I would eventually find my way home. Most chasers continued on that day and went north with what ended up being a beautiful supercell. (check Roger’s chase account from this day) But as you have read, I had a huge show to cover the next day in Amarillo, TX and had to get home. I hope you enjoy the sequence of events that unfolded for me on June 12, 2017 as I sure had fun with my Starbucks, Radarscope and that never-ending feeling of, “Gotta get there!!!”.
June 12th had the potential to be a record breaking event for eastern Wyoming, as well as the Nebraska panhandle. At the end of the day numerous tornadoes formed across the landscape! Very high moisture, extreme CAPE, very strong wind shear and upslope into the Laramie Range would cause several supercells to form. We chased the first supercell of the day, which produced a couple of tornadoes near Lingle, Wyoming. This storm was tornado warned for many hours as it moved northeast across eastern Wyoming and western Nebraska.
Later we would drop south towards Scottsbluff, Nebraska and catch a tornadic storm that came out of Colorado (See the next chase account from SLT co-owner Caryn Hill!!!!!). We witnessed 3 tornadoes from this storm. Later in it’s life cycle, it would become one of the most photogenic supercells of 2017 as it rolled across the Nebraska Sand Hills headed for southern South Dakota where it dissipated after midnight. For an event to be this strong, this far west, it was almost unprecedented. SPC even had a Moderate Risk for eastern Wyoming, only the second one in history! They were also forecasting strong tornadoes, which did occur. Hail and lightning in these monster supercells were incredible as well! Enjoy the photos!!!!
June 8th on paper didn’t look that great. Limited moisture would be the biggest factor in getting tornadic storms. However, decent shear, CAPE, and a sharp dryline would provide the necessary ingredients to sustain severe storms. By mid afternoon a couple of storms formed on the dryline near Dumas. They quickly went severe due to very steep lapse rates which enhanced hail size. It took awhile for the tail end storm to take over the show, but it did, and it gave us quite the view from our position. The storm spun hard and produced copious amounts of hail to baseball size. It also produced a couple of funnels that never had the appearance of touching down. For several hours the supercell persisted while slowly drifting south. Well south of Amarillo it eventually dissipated in the night sky after a gorgeous sunset. It was a treat to watch this storm for hours!