Weather Blog

Photographer captures 2nd highest-altitude tornado on record in U.S.

Photographer captures 2nd highest-altitude tornado on record in U.S.
Tornado touches down at 11,900 feet near Mt. Evans in Colorado on July 28, 2012. Photo ©Chris Kirby

Chris Kirby of Denver has chased storms across the Western Plains for five years, but sometimes, the storms come to him.

Kirby was up about 1-2 miles from the summit of Colorado's Mt. Evans at Lincoln Lake Saturday afternoon to test some Ham radio equipment, "and take some photos of the summit and the mountain goats," he said.

But then something came along a bit more interesting than the goats: a tornado.

He said it was very weak and just briefly touched the ground, but enough to count.

Tornadoes are rarely spotted in the mountains, but Kirby says sometimes the mountainous terrain creates so much shear and uplift that a weak tornado can spin up.

"One of those fluke events," he said. "This just happened."

He sent the photo to the National Weather Service in Boulder to see if by chance it was the highest altitude tornado on record in the United States. Turns out, it's the second-highest, but just barely missed the record. Their forecasters estimated Kirby's tornado touched down at 11,900 feet, based on Google Earth topography and line of site from the photo point to Mt. Evans.

The highest tornado documented on record was on July 7, 2004 when a hiker snapped a photo of a tornado at the 12,000 foot level in Sequoia National Park in California, the NWS Boulder office wrote on its Facebook page.

But Kirby is satisfied even with his tornado ranking No. 2.

"Being able to witness an event that was second highest, I don't feel any different," Kirby said.

You can see more of Kirby's photographs of the tornado and funnel on his Flickr page