Sunlit elephant trunk tornado of a supercell with rainbow fragment on May 29th 2015 near Milnesand, Dora, Roosevelt County, New Mexico, USA

The Milnesand tornado

After an overnight stay in Liberal (KS) Markus, Karsten, Janek, Stefan and I were headed to New Mexico crossing the Oklahoma and Texas Panhandle on the way. It was May 29th 2015. After a beautiful roadtrip through the Southwest of the USA we found ourselves as a group in the Great Plains for two more weeks of Storm Chasing in Tornado Alley. While it was the first time being in the US for Markus ( and me, Janek, Karsten and Stefan were our US experienced guides (see their project: SChaPLe) so to say.

After having seen some well-organized storms the days earlier this one would become one for the books.

The Storm Prediction Center in Norman (OK) mentioned a »slight risk«. Ergo: »scattered severe storms possible« for parts of New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma with a 2% tornado probability in the area shown in the right picture. Image Source:

1:27 pm. Arriving in New Mexico with a view on Stratocumulus floccus (Sc flo) – the low cloud layer – as an indication of instability. After a tasty lunch break at the Annex Bar and Grill in Logan, NM we continued our ride further southwest.

Looking for towering cumulus clouds. View from the backseat (c) Karsten Haustein

3:24 pm. Well, that escalated quickly. Nah – just kidding. This is a tele photo of a Cumulus congestus growing next to Tucumcari, NM.

3:37 pm. It became a Cumulonimbus and brought some hail northwest of the town.

4:09 pm. Somewhere in Quay County. Besides that t-storm near Tucumcari we are standing under some new developing cells.

4:11 pm. Making new friends: the dogs of the ranch owner came by as we looked through our options at the sky.

4:23 pm. Well, even if the rain evaporates before reaching the ground… a thunderstorm is a thunderstorm and potentially deadly. This lightning strike occured while we were chatting with another chaser who was struggeling with one of the ranch dogs in his car’s legroom – LOL.

4:42 pm. We decided to go further to the south approximating a new, fast developing cell.

4:54 pm. Markus watching the distinct structure of the cell near McAlister, NM.

5:33 pm. We succeded in overtaking the cell. Viewing direction: W/NW on the cell’s updraft region which looked quite crispy.

5:36 pm. With several cg-lightnings the cell came closer.

5:43 pm. Repositioning. Driving through Melrose, NM. The mood outside was impressive as the cell reached its peak.

6:21 pm. Following and watching that storm a while it finally became outflow dominant.

6:37 pm. But… there was a strong new cell to our south. Now we had to be quick. In order to reach the leading edge we had to overtake this one aswell.

7:15 pm. During an intense corepunch our mates discussed wether to break up or … through. Karsten encouraged us to go further which led to a drive under the hail shaft. Luckily the hail stones were just about two centimeters in diameter.

7:17 pm. After leaving the hail behind us we drove directly under the updraft and the »interesting« part of the supercell when it comes to tornadoes.

7:19 pm. Looking straight upward. I’d never seen anything like this before. The motion of the clouds was fast and turbulent. We’ve been exactly under the rotation.

7:21 pm. Wait. What’s this to our south?

7:30 pm. Oh my – it’s a burning oil production site. Maybe a lightning striked there.

7:30 pm. 25 minutes before sunset and the light went gorgeous.

7:30 pm. Again. WHAT’S THAT? There’s a tiny condensed funnel over the power pole. Do you recognized where it belongs to?

7:31 pm. Now we’re more than focussed. The whole updraft region seemed to wrap around that tiny funnelcloud.

7:31 pm. Tiny? Majestically the funnelcloud continued to condense.

7:32 pm. We couldn’t believe our eyes. While the sun stood close above the horizon a sunbeam illuminated the cone drawing als a fragment of the rainbow to the right.

7:32 pm. Touchdown! An so-called elephant trunk tornado infront of Markus.

Panorama of Storm Chasers in front of a sunlit elephant trunk tornado with rainbow fragment and burning oil production facility on May 29th 2015 near Milnesand, Dora, Roosevelt County, New Mexico, USA
Sunlit elephant trunk tornado of a supercell with double rainbow on May 29th 2015 near Milnesand, Dora, Roosevelt County, New Mexico, USA (Power poles digitally removed in this one)

7:34 pm. The slowly rotating tornado lifted again. 16mm fullframe image. Now he was closer than a mile. We went a little bit further south.

7:36 pm. The rotation visibly was weakening now.

7:39 pm. But a second touchdown happened a few minutes later.

7:41 pm. The tornado finally went into the roping out stadium. Shortly after he was gone. 10 minutes of pure joy.

GoPro video still image of lightning, tornado and rainbow.

See the realtime and timelapse footage by Markus, Stefan and me:

7:43 pm. After the encounter we drove by the burning oil tanks.

7:43 pm. Saw one of the brightest rainbows in my life.

7:47 pm. And a marvellous sunset.

7:49 pm. While our tornadic supercell …

… moved on under the rainbow with frequent sheet lightning.

Since this day my perception of how beautiful and desirous weather can be reached a whole new level. Janek’s forecast and Karsten’s progressive chase led to an unforgettable experience. We’d seen what the majority of storm chasers – even the locals – dream for: a beautifully illuminated, well condensed, calm and peacefully rotating prairie tornado – with a double rainbow!