Volcanic Tower and Convective Power

June 9, 2006 by · Comments Off on Volcanic Tower and Convective Power
Filed under: Summary 

Northeastern WY, 9 Jun 6

SHORT: Abundant wildflower, Devils Tower and convective power photography. Intercepted tornado warned supercell between Sundance and Newcastle WY. Probable tornado observed, numerous daytime CGs photographed. Great dinner and sunset.

LONG: This was one of the finest Great Plains chase/photography days I’ve ever had, with or without a probable tornado in the western Black Hills of Wyoming.

The day began with a great breakfast cooked by the 81 year old female proprietor of Bob’s Cafe (or “Bob Afe,” depending on which side of the sign you view). We highly recommend this place in Belle Fourche — a 1940s/1950s era diner where the locals have gathered for generations. One of these locals we befriended was a SD native just returned home from many years in Maine, a keen and highly talented outdoor photographer named Bob Clements. We ended up spending an hour or so with Bob, talking photography and getting the grand tour of his future gallery, in a musty old downtown brownstone that he is renovating himself. If you ever make it to Belle Fourche, and Bob’s gallery is open, check it out.

Next came the drive to Devils Tower, which conveniently was on the way and very close to our forecast area of interest in SW SD and NE WY. We spent the midday hours photographing wildflowers and their surroundings, horses, sweeping landscape scenes across verdant valleys, and numerous scenes around the tower itself.

On the way to the tower, we noticed anvils streaming off convection unseen in the distant SW. Without live radar data, I still was (correctly) confident this was the result of high-based and rather moisture-starved storms around the Bighorns. An outflow-reinforced cold front had moved through, but not too cold to allow storms to form once the sun heated the air mass enough. The northeast and east winds behnd the front also would advect more moisture into the area with time. For the time being, though, I knew we had a little while to hang out near the tower and wait for better storms to form, closer by. So we did.

We found a great overlook a mile W of Devils Tower where only one other person came by in an hour, great for afternoon shots of the tower with not a single human artifact of any kind in view. Under the lazy drift of floating cumulus clouds, the tower’s appearance never was the same from any given minute to the next, and we relished its many moods of light and shadow. I also shot time lapse video of the tower in the right foreground and distant cumulonimbi building in the background, over SD.

Those weren’t our target storms, though, so we stayed put and experimented with other ways to view and photograph this amazing volcanic landmark. Patiently we waited for more storms that had formed over the Bighorns region to move our way and into better moisture. When the anvils moved overhead and the western skies grew dark with the looming bulk of robust, newer storms, it was time to go.

While driving about 10 W Sundance, we heard a SVR from RAP for what was then a tail-end cell over NW Weston County, moving E. Within a minute or two we found a high overlook from which we barely could see the updraft base about 25-30 miles SW, a dense core to its N, an inflow tail to its SE, and ragged attempts at a wall cloud.

We raced toward Sundance to get in intercept position, deciding to go SE of Sundance on the road to Newcastle, in order to stay ahead of the cell. It was evident the storm was a supercell, now right-moving E toward the unchaseable morass of the Black Hills. The roads were few, and the gamble was this:

1. Go SW of Sundance on WY-116 toward Upton and get closer to it faster (but spend much less time watching it) or

2. Head SE of town into higher terrain, temporarily losing view of it around Sundance and Inyan Kara Mountains, but getting in position to watch it longer from more of a distance…if we could find a good vantage looking SW.

We deiced to go with option 2, about the time a TOR warning blared through NWR. We were entangled with the town of Sundance at the time, unable to view the base due to buildings, trees and hills. For the next 16-18 minutes we couldn’t see under the base S of Sundance either, thanks to rolling higher terrain W of the road.

I was wondering if my eastern decision would hose us out of a chance to see a tornado, while driving mile afer mile with the SW sky obstructed. This was very frustrating, but the annoyance proved to be blissfully ephemeral. Motoring S on the spaghetti road, through the rolling western foothills of the Black Hills, we finally found a good westward viewing spot 5 NW of “Four Corners.”

The supercell had something of a wet, outflow-dominant appearance when we first took position. Soon it sported a very low wall cloud 10-15 miles to our WSW (wide angle view), which intermittently wrapped in rain, then re-emerged. To its ESE (our SW-SSW) a heavy and elongated rear-flank core appeared, along with other, newer updraft bases. This gave the whole process the look of a supercell evolving into either a deep LEWP notch or an HP “Pac Man” type storm, with the mesocyclone in the inner corner of Pac Man’s mouth.

At times it looked like a “meso on the ground,” though it was hard to see true ground thanks to a gentle rise about 7-8 miles to our W. One thick pile of tail cloud material appeared to form near the ground and race southward into the wall cloud. Meanwhile, all sorts of wild looking bands and patches of cloud material overhead and into the storm, along with the green landscape of grassland and broken short pine, and an astounding barrage of strobe-style lightning bolts, made for wonderful wide-angle landscape photography.

A small core formed SSE of the meso and grew bigger, merging with the rear-flank (wrap-around hook) core until the meso itself became a deeply occluding notch. The strengthening inflow felt cold and was — 65-67 deg F, but it was from the E, and our elevation was 5700 feet. Normalize those temps at lower elevations, or put them in at our elevation on a sounding diagram, and the thermal characteristics actually look pretty nice for supercell inflow.

The lightning with this storm was impressive, even for this 21-year storm intercept veteran. Dozens of CGs popped over the valley and ridges between us and the meso, but at a safe distance. Between Elke and me, we captured 20 or more in our hand-held photos, thanks to the ridiculous repetitiveness of the flashes. Several times we each shot the same lightning strike using only a finger reaction to the first flash. But that’s not all. Get this: I was able to take two separate, all-manual photos of one CG (the first one linked above)! I’ve never done this before, nor heard of it being done. That’s how long the strobing lasted with some of them. At times, it was like a giant atmospheric discotheque over there.

What is it about the electrical layout and resistance characteristics of supercell storms that causes some to produce strobing lightning strokes one after another, each lasting 2-3 seconds, while others simply hurl super-quick staccato bolts hither and yon?

Meanwhile, the meso tightened up dramatically and shed some precip from its E side, forming another very low wall cloud, scud rising fast up the N side. The horizontal and differential cloud tag motions got rapid as well, more so than several tornadic storms I’ve seen; and I was beginning to wonder if this one could spin something up before it got rain-wrapped. Thick precip already surrounded the meso in every direction except NE-E, but fortunately, we were tucked in the “notch” ENE of it.

Cloud base rotation under the wall cloud also became obvious, and at times, quite intense, as seen through zoom lenses due to the distance. At 5:07 pm MDT (6:07 pm CDT) one very suspicious lowering — tapered, fuzzy and rapidly evolving — developed under the wall cloud and appeared to reach ground, though the terrain precluded irrefutable confirmation.

I ran to the car to get binoculars, which revealed this feature as a furiously rotating funnel, at times extending below the level of the low ridge in the distance. I managed to snap a few photos in between careful eyeball coverage, the best being one which also captured one of those strobing CGs by chance (here’s a super-enhanced version).

Was it a tornado? I’m quite confident despite the limitations of terrain and distance. Probabilistically speaking, I’ll say at least 90%. It’s hard to conceive otherwise given the persistence of the funnel, as well as cloud motions both internal and ambient to the feature.

By 5:10 p.m. MDT, a thick bear’s cage wrapped around the wall cloud from the S, leaving it a mystery what was going on behind the orbiting rain curtains. Something suspicious might still be apparent in this shot at 5:11 p.m. (super-enhanced contrast version), but after that, the whole mesocyclonic circulation got too deeply buried in rain to infer much.

We reeled off a few more CG-over-landscape shots, and the electrical action and cores started getting close (wide angle). The last CG that I dared to shoot instantly ignited an orange fireball on the next hillside. I didn’t want to be next, so in the car we went.

Forward motion of the storms began to accelerate, and it appeared an MCS was spontaneously developing all around us. With the only east option extending into the depths of the Black Hills, and the sky erupting into MCS ALQDS, we decided to call off the chase and head SSW to Newcastle for dinner and lodging. [Also recommended — the Fountain Inn with free wi-fi, and collocated LaCosta Mexican Restaurant, with excellent steak-and-shrimp fajitas!]

After a great dinner we did some photography along WY 16, NW of town. This included a high-based, elevated storm in the golden light, near an old missile silo. As it moved toward its SE and to our S, a rainbow and some postcrepusculars became visible.

Clouds to the WNW blocked a lot of the best sunset light, but we enjoyed it immensely anyway. What couldn’t be photographed was the earthy-spicy smell of rain-washed sage, an aroma of life’s renewal rising from an arid land newly drenched, the joyful warble of hundreds of meadowlarks resonating across the Thunder Basin grasslands, the cool moist breezes carrying these scents and sounds to us and through us.

Back at the hotel I couldn’t resist taking couple of twilight and nighttime shots of their tornado shaped fountain, bathed in spotlights of alternating colors.

We had a long and amazing day, and slept very well that night… almost too well!

===== Roger =====

Pleasant Supercell in a Pleasant Landscape

June 8, 2006 by · Comments Off on Pleasant Supercell in a Pleasant Landscape
Filed under: Summary 

High Plains and Hills of Southeast MT, 8 Jun 6.

Our results didn’t match what happened 40 years before to VOF Johnson, who witnessed the Topeka F5 tornado on 8 Jun 66, but we were satisfied nonetheless.

After making a forecast for this event, general target area being the eastern border of WY-MT near a warm front, we had time for a morning tour of Fort Robinson (i.e, 1, 2, 3, 4). Then we headed into GCC the scenic way — through Lusk and Douglas, and as promised, across the Thunder Basin National Grassland. High-based “pancakus” and car thermometer readings soaring far into the 90s told us we needed to go N of GCC, into MT, to greet the warm front and any convection that could develop or propagate thereon.

A brief pit stop and data perusal at GCC showed a new storm rolling out of the northern Bighorns toward where US-412 and I-90 meet. Even though it would be two hours or more before we could get to this storm, or its progeny, we decided to go N to Broadus then W on 412 toward Lame Deer to intercept what was left. Distant anvil material was visible to the W from WY/MT 59, on that long but very scenic drive between GCC and Broadus. At Broadus we turned W, the anvil canopy climbing ever higher toward and above us, and above the beautiful rolling hills of the Custer National Forest.

As it turns out, the original storm indeed had turned to garbage, manifesting its detritus as murky slate condensate and fuzzy rain shafts on the northwest horizon. By the time we reached Ashland, however, a second supercell became diffusely visible to the WSW, over the low hills between Ashland and Lame Deer. A small wall cloud developed then went away. Then the fun began.

For an hour or more, Elke and I parked at one spot ~4 W Ashland MT, viewing a picturesque and tiered supercell (23 mm wide angle or 50 mm f3.5 shot 8 minutes later) as it marched and twirled steadily toward its NE, over the rich grasslands and short-pine stands to our W, NW and N. The storm seemed to surround and then embed itself within a vast sheet of elevated stratocumulus, which if viewed from above probably had castellanus-like tops.

Several times this storm produced fakenadoes of rain-cooled scud, rising and moving horizontally but not rotating. Look carefully at lower left in this wide angle view to the WNW (or a strongly enhanced zoom+crop) at one of these “scudnadoes,” which made me look really hard through the binoculars, just to make sure.

A member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe and his family pulled up and asked me if what he had just driven past was a tornado, since the cloud was on the ground. I started to explain to him why it wasn’t, when another and very similar scudnado showed up, as if on cue for the atmosphere’s daily lab lesson. Satisfied with the storm’s encore demonstration of tornadic fakery, but maybe a little disappointed at not having witnessed the real thing, he said good-bye and zoomed off into Ashland. Still more scudnadoes periodically appeared along the storm’s southern (rear-flank) gust front.

Meanwhile, Elke and I alternated between snapping shot after shot, running time lapse video (my first video in two months or more) and simply watching the storm together amidst the warbling of the Western meadowlarks and the resonant rumbles of thunder deep within the slowly swirling supercellular cloudmass. One feature appeared that I may never have seen before: a thick spiral swath of ACCAS (not sfc-based cumulus) leading into the storm from the S ( as seen looking NNW). We also saw a nice rack of Kelvin-Helmholtz waves along the top of one of the striated plates when the storm was W of Ashland.

The storm finally gusted out to our N. After I collected some rocks from the ridges, we briefly headed back into Broadus, then back W again to watch two more small, rotating cells at sunset before they also got undercut.

We landed in Belle Fourche for the night at a motel being renovated by a recent Polish-German immigrant. [The guy had a Polish accent, but Elke conversed a little with him in German.] The Kings Inn probably is the cheapest place to stay in Belle Fourche with wi-fi, but the lime green paint in our rooms harkened back to the era when the younger siblings of the hippies were beginning to disco-dance.

===== Roger =====

Low Expectations, Low Results

June 7, 2006 by · Comments Off on Low Expectations, Low Results
Filed under: Summary 

Central-Western SD, NW NE Panhandle, 7 Jun 6.

Yeah, this day was basically a bustola for us as well as many other storm observers.

We left Chamberlain late in the morning, loosely targeting the area S or SE of the Black Hills near the differential heating or outflow boundary from onngoing, elevated convection. It looked like rather lame supercell potential, so we weren’t motivated to hurry. We spent the noontime hour visiting Wall Drug for the first time. If you’re amused by western kitsch, you’ll blow a belly gasket there.

I did buy the book “A Long Way from Home” by Tom Brokaw — one of the few TV personalities for whom I ever have sustained any respect. It should be an enjoyable read about growing up in mid-twentieth century South Dakota, as told from the perspective of a plainspoken, intelligent, sensible, well-grounded, common sense fellow who appears to have retained those great Middle American qualities through his celebrity adulthood.

As for storms…not much to say. The best convective action we saw all day was the booming, tall CGs slamming ferociously into the adjacent fields, from elevated noontime convection between Chamberlain and Kadoka. I did shoot one really sweet example of some undulatus features in what Steve Corfidi calls “warm advection clouds.” This was on the back (W) side of the elevated storms.

The farther W we went across south South Dakota, the less impressed we were with the day’s setup, as the deep and intensely heated and mixed boundary layer brutalized the NE Panhandle (103 deg F at BFF!). Although we wandered down through the Badlands toward the storms along the outflow boundary, I wasn’t too surprised they were outflow-spewing multicells (the stuff moving S through Cherry County) or orphan anvils (everything farther W around CDR, where we stayed for the night).

Later that night, in the motel in CDR, I read of an interesting event planned for July: An alcohol blockade by members of several tribes (including the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma) on the SD/NE border, where a road leads from the Nebraska town of Whiteclay into the Pine Ridge Reservation. It seems the Sioux leaders have had enough of Whiteclay liquor stores supplying booze to the residents of the reservation, where alcohol is forbidden. Passing through Whiteclay, it seemed to us the only reason for the town’s existence these days is to funnel liquor to the bootleggers who run it illegally across that border. If a blockade is what it takes, I don’t blame them. It’s their land and they have every right to do so. I hope it works.

===== Roger =====

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