If a tornado touches down right next to me but I don’t see it… Did it really happen?

Classic hook echo tornadic storm near Philip, SD

We found our first tornado — sort of.

It was a frustrating day for many chasers in South Dakota, as “chaser convergence” in Murdo proved fruitless for most. We actually ended up traveling west early in the day to get some distance from the group that included Discovery’s “Storm Chasers”, led by Reed Timmer. I even got a snapshot of the Dominator vehicle driven in the show.

After a long day of waiting to the west of Murdo we were about to give up ourselves around 8:00 p.m. when we noticed towering cumulus quickly shooting skyward to the west. A new cluster of storms was forming right near Wall, South Dakota. Rather than eating dinner and heading back to the hotel (most chasers had already given up), we pressed on.

We were on the storm from the time it got going on the northern end of the Badlands through most of its life and all of its tornadic cycle. The journey took us down many backroads (read, dirt) of South Dakota, mainly in the pitch black landscape, only rarely dotted by a light or two from a farmhouse or nearby town.

Strong couplet passes by our location

As the storm developed, it quickly began to take on supercell characteristics and rapidly contorted itself into a hook echo, indicative of circulation. As the light dwindled we witnessed the storm congeal and an area of smoothed clouds develop near the rotation center on radar. This ultimately lowered a bit and we saw at least a rough wall cloud, if not a funnel cloud as well, in the dying light.

Once darkness hit, we traveled along the southeast side of the tornadic circulation for about 90 minutes. At one point (the image embedded here) we stopped and turned around as we got hit by strong inflow and heavy rain while a NWS meteorologist friend at home was letting us know he believed a tornado was on the ground, wrapped in rain, just to our north.

Another chaser who ended up on the storm did manage to get photos of the tornado. A meteorology student/chaser at Oklahoma who saw the photos said, “Most other chasers would’ve been where you were, but they didn’t want to battle the mud roads after dark, so they sat on the highway to watch the storm ‘move away’ and ended up lucking out.”

Here are a few iPhone radar grabs showing our location in relation to the storm as it developed, became severe warned, then tornado warned. Grab 1 | Grab 2 | Grab 3 | Grab 4 | Grab 5.

So, the chase was successful even if we did not personally witness the tornado. Out of dozens of chasers in the area we were the only ones on the storm the whole time. In this case, maybe we were “too good” at tracking it with the roped out tornado to the west of where you’d expect it on radar.

Now we’re on the road to Kansas in anticipation of tomorrow’s “main event” that has been on our forecasting radar for some time now. The Storm Prediction Center has issued a moderate risk, with tornadoes likely across the region. Some issues potentially remain, but this kind of setup often produces at least a mini tornado outbreak of 10-20+ touchdowns. More later, or tomorrow morning.,

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