From the time we departed New York City on May 13th, we knew it would be an active week of weather ahead. Forecasts models showed several active days but May 20th began looking more impressive and even potentially historic. All signs indicated a higher than normal strength of the upper-level jet stream winds and a northward surge of highly unstable, tropical air with high moisture off the Gulf of Mexico.
Fast forward to the evening of May 19th. Besides being the series finale of Game of Thrones, we were on the brink of a potential tornado outbreak the following day. We spent hours that evening reviewing the latest weather data and anxiously awaited the Storm predictions centers day 1 outlook. The day 2 outlook had Monday in a moderate risk, but we knew based off the latest information that it would likely be upgraded to a high risk. The high risk category is not something that gets used often; in fact to find the last high risk day you'd have to go back two years. 1:00 A.M. came around and the high risk was in fact issued.
Two of my three chase partners went to sleep after that but I sat there just staring at the ceiling, asking myself "Could this really be happening?" I didn't know how to feel. I was concerned for the possible devastation and destruction, but I was also excited to witness a historic event. The last time I felt this way was the day we chased Hurricane Michael. Myself and Michael Koch went down to the truck to hang out for an hour or two longer. As we scrolled through social media late that night, many storm chasers and meteorologists were predicting an extreme setup that would trigger rotating super cells, occurring in several rounds from early afternoon through late evening. Most schools closed for the day across Oklahoma, and many businesses shut their doors as well for the anticipated severe weather outbreak.
We woke up around 8:00 A.M. and began looking for any changes in the forecast during breakfast. Everything seemed locked in for a severe weather outbreak over the next 12 hours. We did notice that the cloud cover was very thick however it was forecasted to clear out over the next few hours.
We checked out of the Hotel around 11:00 am be headed south to our target area. I noticed the SPC tweeted this:
The latest forecast from SPC has increased the tornado probabilities from 30% to 45% from northwest Texas into central Oklahoma.
— NWS SPC (@NWSSPC) May 20, 2019
The SPC also issued a "Particularly Dangerous Situation (PDS)" tornado watch for parts of Texas and Oklahoma. SPC noted that "This is only the second watch in SPC history where every category of watch probabilities (torn, wind, hail) are at greater than 95%."
We arrived at our target area just outside of Mangum, Oklahoma and met up with a few friends (David Baxter, Matt Hollamon and Ryan Meyer) who were also chasing the same area. We chatted about the current pattern and discussed our thoughts on what the day would bring. As you can see in this photograph, we still had overcast skies at 1:00 PM. I was beginning to question weather a high risk day would still be likely.
By 4:30 P.M., storms were firing up all around us. There were several severe warned thunderstorms and one or two tornado warnings as well. We watched as the lightning increased and the storm began tightening up. You can see some of the amazing bolts in the video below. It seemed more and more likely a tornado would be on the ground soon however because of the precipitation and the hazy conditions from the Mexican wildfires, we were not sure if we would even see it.
We decided to head north to put ourselves in a better position. A hook echo was clearly visible on radar. This occurs when the strong counter-clockwise winds circling the mesocyclone (rotating updraft) are strong enough to wrap precipitation around the rain-free updraft area of the storm. At 4:48 we saw the first funnel cloud of the day. You can see visibility was not very good in the video below. We continued on to get even closer to the storm path. We saw very few chasers out so far, probably because we ended up being so close to the storm from its beginning. Looking at the radar around the rest of the state, it was clear a high risk day would not happen.
By 5:15 P.M., the storm had confirmed reports of a tornado on the ground. Visibility remained poor from our location, making it hard to see the tornado.
We arrived in the town of Mangum, Oklahoma at 5:30 P.M., and for the first time had a clear visual of the EF-2 Tornado.
The tornado dissipated shortly after but not before giving us some amazing lightning bolts as well as wind from the RFD.
There were several notable events that took place on May 20th including:
That night, and in the following days, there was a large discussion surrounding the forecast for May 20th. Personally, I am not calling that day a bust. We got close to the Mangum tornado and I had one of the most enjoyable chases of my life. However that day did not produce what the short term models had depicted nor was it what the Storm Prediction Center had forecasted either. Many people were questioning the SPCs decision to make May 20th a high risk day however people tend to forget the job of the National Weather Service. Their job is to warning people of the potential weather hazards that may exist based off the tools they have in front of them. Weather is not a perfect science and the computer models used to forecast weather is certainly not perfect either. Every single forecast model and piece of information monday morning indicated a severe weather outbreak would happen. It is better to be prepared then to be caught off guard.
3-6 hours difference is what saved Oklahoma today. That is beyond our current abilities to forecast in any longer-term forecast. It wasn’t even apparent until *maybe* 21z special OUN RAOB at the earliest.
— Elizabeth Leitman (@WxLiz) May 21, 2019
Storm Chase Details