Visual Splendor by Day and Night

May 26, 2007 by
Filed under: Summary 

Storm Structure, Tornado and Lightning

Graham, Rooks and Ellis Counties KS

22 May 7

Intercepted St. Peter storm along with throngs of others after long but pleasant solo drive. Excellent structure seen, tornado documented S of HLC, intense in-cloud lightning display after dark at HYS. Drove home.

This was my favorite kind of storm intercept: an old-fashioned, almost data-free endeavour: forecast, drive toward a classical triple-point target area, watch the storm go up from the first towers and produce great structure and a tornado, followed by a delightful lightning show after dark.

I say “almost data-free” because I forgot the laptop, but Matt Biddle and Elke each did call a few times to offer the latest obs and satellite info along the way (thanks!).

E of Dodge City, I could see robust towers building to the NE, which eventually formed a maturing Cb and moved into Gove County. It wasn’t even 4:30 when I saw the first towers, so I was mildly surprised — not complaining! — that the cap broke so soon. I charted an intercept course bearing north by northwest off port bow, in the direction of Wakeeney – snapping a few photos of the building storm along the way (upright wall, then nice backshear as seen from the Jetmore and Ness City area).

I pulled off a couple of times S of Wakeeney to watch the storm to my WNW, the longest being at the airstrip located barely S of town. There was nobody else around there at all, and I was able to sit there for over half an hour observing, immersing in the grandeur of that sky as storm structure improved, and occasionally snapping photos as the right and left movers shoved farther apart. The left mover sported a wall cloud (enhanced image), and even generated a few funnel reports, but I had no intention of following it as it raced off to the NNE (another actual and enhanced image). The right mover’s base was getting bigger and I was confident this would be the best show. Meanwhile, thinking of Neal Rasmussen’s penchant for having interesting objects whipping about in his time lapses (moving tractor, pumpjack, etc.) I got the wind sock in the view of the tripodded camcorder for about 20 minutes as the right mover spun along just to its left (image from still camera).

After topping off the tank in Wakeeney, I found a well maintained dirt road 6 N of town on which to pull off and observe for about half an hour. Imagine, a storm moving slowly enough to permit such a sublime luxury! The dirt road was sprinkled with quite a few other chasers, but their vehicles were fairly well spaced and leaving enough room for any and all to pass. The storm continued to put on a beautiful structural exhibit, even as it moved NNE and an increasingly dense precip load appeared in its midst.

The main meso area started to look more and more interesting with time, despite the precip-hampered contrast; and the storm began turning more rightward with tighter low level rotation visible in the murk. “Hailstone Jim” Leonard pulled up and offered brief greetings, saying he was going to relocate north because it was about to “plant one.” Given what I was seeing (enhanced version) — which was starting to remind me a lot of the Patricia TX storm morphology from 5 May 6 — I couldn’t argue either with the prediction or the rationale for moving, so I did likewise.

While cruising up US 183, the circulation was tightening noticeably and angular motion of scud started to accelerate, as if to say, “Get thine big ol’ butt into viewing position because thou art in for a treat.” So to keep the wires lining US 183 out of a projected NW-NNE view, I whipped leftward half a mile onto a little bitty dirt road 13 N of Wakeeney (and 12 E of St. Peter) which — quite conveniently, had its own little gravel pull-off atop a hill. Across beautiful fields of green and gold, I watched as a condensation funnel developed, quite tilted at first then more erect, intermittent wisps of dust and vapor faintly and ephemerally dancing beneath as the fields rippled in the inflow breezes.

Best of all, as the tornado matured, precip in the hook thinned considerably, allowing more western light to bathe the scene. Contrast improved quite a bit from this southerly angle, allowing me to take a series of near-normal view, zoomed and wide-angle shots from a distance of roughly 4-5 miles to its S. After all the darkness, rain-wrapping, and other contrast-destroying conditions around the other tornadoes I’ve seen in 2007, what a treat it was to finally behold a photogenic one this year! Best of all, I could sit in one spot and watch the whole life cycle – a rare luxury, snapping the shutter at will as video (another rarity for me lately) recorded the whole process from atop a tripod. And no other chasers could be seen within half a mile — the approximate distance I had pulled W from the highway. For seven blissful minutes, this was the good life.

The tornado roped out quickly, its condensation tube snapping into sinuous little segments before vanishing altogether. In the last shot, look closely at lower left: For just a few seconds, the parting kiss of the tornado vortex planted a detached condensation column right on the ground!

Wanting to keep the action end of this storm in view, if at all possible, I tried the unmarked gravel/dirt road that runs from the southern highway bend S of Hill City eastward toward Palco, the idea being to stop and turn around if it got too slippery. The road actually was in excellent condition — even in light to moderate rain of the rear flank downdraft. A thin veneer of dust and gravel coated a very hard packed surface, and much of the substrate seemed to be old pavement. I could drive 50 mph on this with ease, even in a 2WD sedan. Still, I was relieved the road became paved again near Palco, just W of which I took this goodbye shot of the (by now) diffuse, weaker looking and plainly HP storm.

After wandering around Graham and Rooks Counties for awhile, it was getting dark. I had to get back east then down to I-40 to stay ahead of the building line, in order not to deal with punching through a likely firehose of flooding rains on the way home. Around Plainville I barely beat a nasty looking, toothy and slowly rotating shelf cloud arc that was heaving eastward across 183. Once that surge was cleared with success and the glow of the lights of Hays appeared in the southern horizon, the adventure again grew unexpectedly interesting.

As the complex steadily approached, a tornado warning blared across weather radio, valid for Ellis County (Ellis and Hays), with the triggering circulation south of Ellis and purportedly moving east — toward Hays. This I had to see. There hadn’t been any TOR warnings for a good while, and two somewhat separated shelf clouds clearly were visible in the silhouettes of the in-cloud lightning. I wheeled around the NW side of Hays to a favorite viewing spot about a mile W of 183, just N of I-70, and set up shop with phone in one hand (in the unlikely event anything important would reveal itself to the eyeballs) and camera on tripod in the other.

Lightning filaments strobed with astonishing frequency through the region above and behind the shelf, giving off a glow of pulsating continuity that allowed me to see with almost diurnal clarity every camera setting, blade of grass and buzzing mosquito. What fun! Despite the lack of CGs, this eruption of convective pyrotechnics rivaled anything I’ve seen yet this year, not so much for the brilliance of any given flash as for the sheer number of them per unit time. Delicate latticeworks of indescribably powerful amperage shot hither and yon through the western sky, making me glad to be witness to such a splendid spectacle, and also, glad to not be in a high flying paraglider. A setting like this, with several bright artificial lights also in the view, forced me to crank up the F stop, short (3-10 second at F9-F11, ASA=400) exposures by the dozens rattling the night away. Here are just two of many more like them (1 and 2).

The mesocyclonic circulation was reported to be near Yocemento — just W of Hays and somewhere behind the north part of the southern shelf cloud. While I was at that viewing location, local law enforcement could be heard driving down nearby roads, tooting their car sirens and yelling “Tornado warning, take cover immediately!”) from their grille speakers. Meanwhile the Civil Defense sirens blared, and the whole experience became somewhat surreal. When the line got too close, I ratcheted eastward incrementally and could see a high based area curving behind the shelf — probably the meso — crossing 183 N of Hays.

It was after 10 p.m., and I needed to get back to Norman, so I finally decided to bail out of the scene and head home. Through the haze and intervening low clouds, I still could see at least faint lightning in the distant western sky all the way to Hesston. Norman didn’t arrive under my wheels until 4 a.m., after driving 872 miles for the day. It wasn’t cheap, given the record high fuel prices, but it was most certainly worthwhile.


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