Wyoming to North Dakota via a Nebraska/South Dakota Dryline

August 5, 2012 by · Comments Off on Wyoming to North Dakota via a Nebraska/South Dakota Dryline
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Cheyenne WY to Bowman ND
8 Jun 12

SHORT: Observed dryline towers, sometimes with smoke, near the NE-SD-WY state-line junction. Nice sunset over the SW corner of ND.

LONG:
Three main target areas presented themselves to us as we pulled out of CYS on a sunny morning:

    1. The closest but probably lamest: a high-based, deeply-mixed prospect for short-lvied, late-afternoon convection along the dryline, near the S rim of the Black Hills;
    2. A middle play along the NW rim of a narrow plume of relatively righ boundary-layer moisture, collcated witha confluence belt, in the SE MT/NW SD/SW ND area. This had been apparent for a few days–distant but reachable, given the likelihood of a stout cap holding off storm potential until late afternoon.
    3. More certain risk for a photogenic supercell or two in central MT, more removed from the richer moisture but in favorable deep-layer wind profiles. his was barely reachable with some long, hard driving and only brief stops, followed by a short night’s sleep and another day of long, hard driving to get all the way over to NE ND. That’s hardly the recipe to be able to stop occasionally and get out to appreciate the Great Plains!

Given the low likelihood of tremendous tornado action in the middle of Montana, we nixed option 3 early and decided to make a conditional play on the first two. We would head NNE to the CDR-CUT area for the dryline, then if it looked unpromising by around 21Z, be ready to zoom up through RAP toward 2WX where at least one high-resolution model (HRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR) forecast a distinct supercell to develop.

Lunch in Lusk was good–Deacon’s Restaurant is one we can recommend! Appetites satiated, we took a back road–sometimes paved, sometimes not–to Van Tassell, stopping here and there to appreciate geologic formations as well as photograph abandoned structures from up close, in the middle and back a little.

The whole way from Torrington to Van Tassel, we kept an eye on the high-based cumuli accumulating in a persistent area of lift that passed overhead, then shifted E to the Nebraska border in step with the mixing-driven movement of the dryline. This photograph depicts the deepening convection from near Van Tassell WY, gazing ESE toward the dryline. A horizontally narrow but vertically thick ribbon of smoke from the Cow Camp fire in Wyoming (the inferno whose pyro-convection started the Wheatland supercell the day before) also was streaming steadily northeastward toward us, several thousand feet above ground level.

Van Tassell in the review mirror, we headed through Fort Robinson on the Nebraska side, passed through the dryline near Harrison, gathered some rocks on the escarpment E of Harrison, stopped briefly for supplies in Chadron, then headed NW toward the South Dakota border and one skiny but persistently deep tower. When we got to it, the tower obviously was suffering from dry entrainment, but presented a peculiar picture of light and shadow, as seen from underneath the ribbon of smoke and very near the state line.

Unconvinced of its future, we proceeded N beneath the ENE-moving tower’s base, encountering a few raindrops. A small Cb actually did develop briefly as we passed just to its N, and weak reflectivity appeared with it as seen from RAP radar. Still, given the degree of entrainment, and the presence of a few more hours of daylight, we headed up past RAP, Spearfish and Belle Fourche toward 2WX. We were worried that a traffic jam, in an I-90 roadwork zone NW of RAP, would make us miss any storms that formed to our NNW; that turned out to be a moot concern.

We waited for a spell in 2WX, calling Bowman to reserve a room, the threw in the towel on any model-phantom storm formation nearby and headed N to our lodging. Along the way, we stopped on a hilltop just N of the Dakota divider for a photogenic Northern Plains sunset. OF Crowther’s supercell is the Montana storm silhouetted on the horizon, about 190 miles away. Ain’t it amazing to be able to see that far?

Even though the chase day didn’t amount to a whole lot convectively, we enjoyed each other’s company, had a few unusual and welcomed photo opportunities, and positioned ourselves to get a good night’s sleep before the diagonal crossing of North Dakota the following day. In Bowman, we even saw a long, bright, overhead flyover of the International Space Station before turning in.

Storm Observing Drama in Four Acts

July 28, 2012 by · 2 Comments
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Southeastern WY near Cheyenne
7 Jun 12

This storm day was striking in that it unfolded as a four-act drama–each one quite distinctive, essentially a quartet of distinct chases in one day. Seldom have I experienced so much logistical and emotional ups-and-downs in such a small area in one trip! We went from intense frustration to elation and satisfaction, with one or two minor dollops of danger thrown into the storm-intercept recipe for good measure.

Act I: Early Poor Decisions and Frustration
Elke and I targeted southeastern Wyoming for the potential of a supercell or two forming in a region of decent upslope lift . As we headed W from Pine Bluffs WY toward CYS, a storm formed in the Laramie Range and stem-wound itself into an intense supercell while still in high, rugged terrain. It turns out that storm formed as a pyro-convective plume off the Cow Camp wildfire, and became tornadic while still sucking smoke up in the mountains.

[NOTE: The write-up in that link does contain one major error–tornadoes cannot “skip”. By definition, if it’s “not on the ground the entire time”, it’s not a tornado the entire time! As such, each segment had to be a different tornado.]

We arrived in CYS intending to head N on I-25 and intercept that supercell, or whatever was left of it, somewhere not far N of Chugwater. Then a new storm exploded into the Wyoming sky just to our NE. A bit of indecision followed, before we made the fateful choice to take a look at the younger cell. The storm farther away looked better on radar, but the new one was right there! How do you blow off a storm blowing up practically in your lap? We should have. This move ultimately cost us any shot at a decent view of the Wheatland/Chugwater tornado(es).

We headed the short distance back E toward Burns and then N, finding that the newer storm was shriveling, while the fire-generated, tornadic supercell to the NW still was going (and still had a likely tornado, given its radar signature). I was not happy. Still, zooming up US-83 toward the west turn to Chugwater, we thought we were in great position to intercept the big supercell while still tornadic. Indeed, given the official timeline for the event and our terrain-truncated vantages, Elke and I are now sure we caught some glimpses of a cylindrical, mostly rain-wrapped tornado just over the high ridge line in the distant WNW, while driving.

I turned the vehicle W on WY-314, seemingly in ideal position to catch the end of the tornadic stage, and then about 8 miles along…a one-lane road, pilot-car closure with no pilot car! This was about when it seemed that our chase day just wasn’t meant to be. One lone lady in an orange vest was standing there with a flag, stopping all westbound traffic–most unfortunately, in about the lowest bottomlands where neither she or we could see diddly-squat.

Diddly-squat, in this case, consisted of a tornadic supercell and its approaching forward flank. We told her about the storm, its likelihood of lightning, skull-cracking hail and flash flooding…but she seemed oblivious, and totally dependent on a radio dispatcher who was (quite irresponsibly) giving her no information at all about the storm. She finally assured me she would crawl into a nearby tinhorn if it “got bad”–which wasn’t much assurance with regards to her safety. Other than that culvert, there was nothing out there in which to take shelter! Alas, that was the best I could do to convince her she was in potential danger.

Thus thwarted, we turned around and headed E and uphill several miles, finally getting a view of the storm’s base less then 7 minutes after the tornado is on record as dissipating. [Without the closure, we easily would have gotten on the plateau E of Chugwater in plenty of time to see the last moments of the tornado, across a flat and unobstructed landscape.] The supercell appeared to be getting more disorganized, with newer development to the SW…so we headed back E to US-83 then SSW toward CYS. That turned out to be the first good maneuver we made all day!

Act II: Storm Structure Bliss
As we approached the newer storm, more and more chase vehicles appeared beside and on the road–the only decent road around for miles and miles. It was easy to see why–the storm erupted SE of the first one, right along the way for a lot of observers from Colorado and elsewhere who were zooming up toward the Wheatland storm when it fell apart. By contrast, we came around it from the NE and E, found a vantage to let it move toward us, and marveled at how the structure was getting better and better as it drew closer and closer.

The main updraft base sported a persistent, broad wall cloud with occasionally fast rising motion on the downshear (core-facing) side, but never anything I would call rapid or tornado-like rotation. Meanwhile, the storm-scale formation assumed a sweeping, curvaceous stack across several layers in the vertical.

With a dearth of road options in the general direction of storm motion (SE), we kept letting it come our way until the wide-angle lens needed switching from 24 mm to 17 mm. At one point, I recall telling Elke that I wished I could teleport Al Moller here–he would go absolutely euphoric over seeing this storm in person!

The old wall cloud and mesocyclone area began to assume a more shelf-like appearance as they passed our location, and the entire storm looked a little more disorganized. The only roads back ahead of the supercell led through the core; so we had to retreat away from it in order to reposition.

Act III: Outflow and Hail Machine
We went SW down US-85 and I-25, around CYS, then back E again, then S of I-80 between Burns and Carpenter, for an encore look at the increasingly messy storm. Another supercell also had developed to its east, its updraft base cloaked by precip for the time being; it was menacing Pine Bluffs.

We pulled onto a side road to observe the onrushing maelstrom, greeted by a big, very friendly and rambunctious chocolate Lab, muddy-legged but healthy and well-fed. He probably belonged to a farmstead about half a mile away. The pooch took a running, leaping jaunt through my vehicle and out the other side before we shut the doors! If you ever are traveling with me and happen upon dog-paw prints, that is the reason. He hung around nearby for a spell until the storm spooked him back toward home.

Since we had left it NE of CYS, the western supercell had become more elongated, with a somewhat surfboard-shaped base. Since it was riding its own outflow, this was appropriate! As that storm approached us from the northwest, the Pine Bluffs supercell weakened, shed some precip, and became higher-based. It also trailed a beautiful rear-flank arc cloud that curved right back into the updraft region of our storm (wide-angle view looking E).

Dropping S somewhat to get late-day light under the rear-flank gust front region, we had a decision to make: stay apace and just ahead of the increasingly messy storm and its neighbors southward into Colorado, thereby missing an opportunity for sunset light on the back (NW) side, or go for the colorful view. We usually choose the latter in such situations, and did here, with ease. What wasn’t easy was deciding how. The updraft and main core area each appeared to be weakening some, so one way was to head straight N through the precip and back to I-80. The other was to go W on an unfamiliar road zigzagging along the crest of the Cheyenne Ridge, and hope for a good view before reaching Cheyenne itself.

We chose to attempt the former, and if the hail started getting big, backtrack and do the latter. Just a mile or so into the precip core, we hit a very sudden wall of severe hail that started beating the hell out of the vehicle, somehow sparing the windshield. Spiked bombs of ice bounced high off the road, splashed in surrounding mud, and created sickening booms as they slammed into the metal skin above. So much for the “weakening” core!

Even the quickest of Bo Duke-style turnarounds on an empty road, in a vehicle that is not quite as nimble as the General Lee, couldn’t spare us from its first easily noticeable hail dents. I blasted back S and got out of there before the beatings became worse, then headed W out of Carpenter on Chalk Bluffs Road. We’re so glad too, and not just to avoid demolishing the outside of our ride…

Act IV: Amazing Stormy Skies on the Cheyenne Ridge
Eager to escape the ice monster, we bolted 12 miles W and NW on the road from Carpenter to Cheyenne, the stopped at a very nice 360-degree vantage for one last look back SE at what had tried to turn my finely tuned storm-intercept machine into Swiss cheese. The hail core is at left in the last shot. Yes, it was still a supercell…so what, and good riddance! It was almost time for sunset magic.

But wait…what happened to the sunlight that had been behind the storm we just got behind? All manner of cloud material had developed and masked much of the sky to the NW and W, and a small, left-moving storm was moving from my SW toward the NNE…dragging its precip core toward us. Furthermore, it was rather stinking cold up there on the High Plains ridge–low-50s temps and windy from the supercell’s torrent of outflow!

Just as I despaired over this seeming state of misfortune, two glorious happenings made our day. A mammatus field to our NE, its sunbathing not blocked by clouds, came aglow brilliantly for a few minutes, while casting reflected, bronze-toned front-light onto the landscape to our W.

Meanwhile, the left-mover to our WSW drew closer, strengthened, and unloaded a protracted, stupendous salvo of high-based, cloud-to-ground lightning strikes for many minutes more! Set amidst the warm chromatic ambiance the setting sun, the scene soothed the soul, even as sharp thunderclaps boomed across the miles of chilly High Plains air. Electrical jabs blasted to the ground, truncated up in the air and jolted forth at closer approaches, until we finally had to abandon our post
for safety’s sake.

Heading westward between Campstool and Altvan, through the edge of the left-mover’s translucent core and toward CYS, we encountered a second barrage of hail. Most mercifully were no bigger than dimes, but it was very hard and noisy. Leaving that barrage, our minds were firmly fixated on securing lodging and a hot meal, when a window of amazing color and light briefly opened in the southwestern sky, as if magically. The haunting vista seemed as if we were peering out from within a cave of darkness at an extraterrestrial world light-years removed.

Epilogue: Dinnertime Hailstorm
After getting a motel, we found a Perkins near downtown CYS that still was open, and headed in for a supper that was late, but most welcomed, after a day of wildly fluctuating fortunes out on the road. As we did so, I saw lightning flashes outside, then flipped on the phone radar to see that a high-VIL core was almost upon is from yet another elevated left-mover. The resulting heavy pounding of small hail reverberated through the building, as a small flash flood washed down the low spots. Drifts of the stuff washed through the parking lot and against the wheels of my vehicle–all for our entertainment.

Our third encounter with a hail core was the most fitting way to end the storm day! Everything we had seen since leaving the destructive supercell supported the ideal that long after the main supercellular action concludes, the storm-observing day can proceed with wondrous and spectacular results. For all the lackluster results of the previous day’s storms, this one made up in multiples. Moreover, as of July 28th (this post date), we saw more rain in half an hour in Cheyenne than in Norman during the nearly two months since.

Unremarkable Colorado Storms

July 24, 2012 by · Comments Off on Unremarkable Colorado Storms
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Northern CO
6 Jun 12

SHORT: Intercepted initially interesting but mostly nondescript convective junk in NE CO.

LONG: The decent storm potential in central and northern Montana had been too far away to reach on previous days without insane, all-night driving marathons. Furthermore, on the 4th, Elke and I had to replace a nearly-blown tire on our vehicle in Ogallala anyway, removing all temptation to bolt 600 miles NW and back again in three days. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise, for we found a cabin by the shores of Lake McConaughy in western Nebraska, and spontaneously reserved two nights there–relaxing, exploring the scenic, the powerful and the peculiar, and spending much-appreciated time together with moments like this–all while awaiting the chase potential forecast to be nearby on the 6th and 7th. We had been wanting to make more than passing time at the major High Plains reservoir for years, and finally did! It was well worthwhile. I’ll vouch for the good food at the Hill Top Inn, above the Dam. I also will vouch that if you swim in “Big Mac” in early June, as I did, the water’s still rather cold.

The 6th came, dawning brightly in the southern Sandhills, and we aimed our grille SW toward NE Colorado. A well-defined low was set up in the DEN area, with a convergence line arching N and NE toward the Pawnee National Grasslands. My forecast was for weak deep-layer shear during midday, improving through the afternoon, and marginal moisture. [Questionable moisture would be a meteorological problem that we would wrestle through virtually the entire vacation.] It looked like a decent setup for nonsupercell “landspout” action early in the convective cycle, then maybe a supercell by evening.

We timed it great for any early spout action–except there was none. We targeted the boundary between Wiggins and New Raymer, and got right under and next to the very first deep tower, following it NNE as it evolved into a Cb. The base seemed rather high and small even for a “Colorado landspout” day. It just couldn’t produce a tube before merging into a growing, semi-contiguous line of cells that evolved along the boundary. Only one of them showed any promising hints of possible supercell evolution before it, too, got gummed up with precip and outflow. The whole convective plume got very mushy and nondescript from every vantage we had. This was one of the very few chase days when I only shot a couple of photos, total, and that may have been two too many.

Seldom has a Colorado chase day with any storms at all yielded so little. Why do you think I offered you several photos from the lake? 🙂

Though a supercell later would form down there (shortly before dusk), nothing of note had evolved yet to our distant SSW, near the Palmer Ridge, by the time we decided to head N toward the next day’s play in the SE WY/SW NEb Panhandle area. Eating dinner at the Pine Bluffs Subway, we saw the Palmer Ridge supercell get cranking on radar, by now too distant to catch. One storm in the northern part of the line did move past our location with some marginal hail and nondescript structure, prompting a vanload of British-sounding tourists in the parking lot to snap photos in every direction.

We finished our sandwich dinner, then headed to an old motel on the edge of Kimball, at which we stayed before. Less than an hour after we checked in, the power went out to the whole town, and stayed out until sometime well past midnight. For a short while, in-cloud lightning flickered from two storm clusters to the N and W–including one MCS that dumped heavy rain on CYS. Hoping for some lightning shots to save the day, those didn’t even materialize–lots of low scud and precip precluded any photogenic lightning action. So we just went to bed, fairly early for us. At least we didn’t travel terribly far and did get a good night’s sleep!

The next day would prove to be far more adventuresome, in both frustrating and elating ways…

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