Imperial Ride

August 20, 2013 by · Comments Off on Imperial Ride
Filed under: Summary 

Wray CO, Imperial NE
24 May 13

High Plains Therapy, Day 1 of 5

SHORT: Left Norman 8 a.m. Intercepted three funky small supercells between Wray and the IML area, shot what appeared to be elevated supercell at sunset N IML that got sfc-based and happy after dark NE of town while I was eating a fajita-stuffed pineapple at an IML restaurant. Paid tab, zipped out onto remote sand roads (glad to have high-clearance 4WD!) but couldn’t see anything of note beneath; shot DSLR sequence for time lapsing as it receded into distance.

LONG:
My usual storm-intercept partner for the month was back at work. My other usual chase partner (Elke) had work to do at home. I just had experienced three frustratingly futile jaunts amongst non-tornadic storms that were close to violent Kansas and Oklahoma tornadoes that I didn’t see. Extraordinary and violent tornado damage had ravaged areas not far from home; Elke and I had done some things to help. Five days remained in my May vacation leave, and other friends were out, with whom I could link to caravan. The near-term to extended forecasts showed some concerns about moisture the first few days, but that a favorable pattern for supercells would exist somewhere up and down the Great Plains for all five days I had left, through the 28th.

You know what that means: go time.

High Plains Therapy was working from the moment I left the OKC metro area and its grim tornado damage behind. The open sky above and open roads below beckoned–long blue highways rolling over the rises, down the slopes, and straight to the horizons. The journey, at least as important as the destination, unrolled bales of pent-up frustrations and angst from my soul, straw by embedded straw, as northwestern Oklahoma and southwestern Kansas glided under the wheels. By the time I reached the Bucklin and Jetmore areas, it was time to make stops to stretch and appreciate the grandeur of the Plains and the prairie wind. These were extraordinary blessings, as were opportunities to stop and shoot abandoned farmsteads (example images: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven).

Leaving early offers advantages in the form of time for exploration beyond the frantic rush to the target for storm initiation, which for today was the Wray CO/St. Francis, KS area. Low-level convergence along the northern fringe of a dryline segment, backed flow advecting moisture upslope into NErn CO, low-60s dew points into CO, strong afternoon insolation, and 40-45 kt deep-shear magnitudes supported a supercell potential with any convection that could fire in that area. After the abandoned-farm photography stops, it was time to zip up to and along I-70 to GLD, then fuel up in St. Francis–right in time for towers to form from SSW-NNW, just as envisioned.

Westward to Wray I went, bypassing an initially promising-looking storm to the immediate south whose base was shrinking and getting fuzzy. Two cells N of Wray, very close to each other, both grew and were looking promising. Here I was in northeast CO, watching two newly minted supercells at once, after leaving Norman early in the morning…how could I complain?

Loping northward along US-385 toward Holyoke, I monitored both updraft areas from several stops as they cruised toward the NE, then ENE. Mostly sub-severe hail fell in Holyoke from the vault region of the still-small western storm, with isolated, marginally severe stones (PINGed). It was easy to get out of that heading E on US-6, then slightly S, before hitting the NEb border.

For a long time, these two cells were engaged in a classical dance of mutual interference–the eastern one was pumping rear-flank outflow into the path of the western one, and the western storm was dumping anvil rain into the eastern storm and the latter’s inflow. These silly games needed to cease for either to robustly take over! Eventually the western storm did, as the eastern one became more elevated and shriveled away.

By “taking over”, I mean “survived” more than “thrived”. The western storm, though intermittently sporting a supercellular appearance, remained rather ragged and hardly looked like a world-beater, especially with a lot of convection firing to the N, NE, E, and SE. After stopping briefly to photograph a cute little abandoned shack near the border, I headed into NEb to intercept a much more intense and newer storm apparent both visually and on radar, SSW of IML. I wheeled through IML, then S of Enders Reservoir, while managing to keep an eye on the original western storm in my rear-view (or with occasional NW glances).

Alas, cell mergers and precip had turned the newer storm to diffuse mush by the time I intercepted it S of IML. Nonetheless, it left a refreshing, cool, slightly breezy puddle of outflow air that I appreciated and relaxed in, for a few minutes, before heading back toward IML for potential sunset light. Arriving in town before sunset gave me time to reserve the last available room at the back of cheapest motel in town, then head out E again several miles to behold the magic hour.

Wrongly, I figured the outflow air would be ingested by what was left of the original western supercell, finally putting it out of its misery. Instead, the storm persisted and moved just N and NE of IML as an elongated, elevated saucer–not mind-blowing gorgeous but still very pretty and much-appreciated. I shot that and this image], among a few others, while that slowly modifying outflow pool blew across my back and beneath the storm that refused to quit.

Fading daylight, increasingly nebulous storm structure, the ultimately misguided notion that it didn’t have anything substantial left to offer, the banging pangs of hunger, and the supposition that any restaurant(s) in town were soon to close, all combined to send me back to my room to unload and find food. Mission accomplished: within half an hour I was sitting contentedly in Tequila’s Mexican Grill (the only place still open that wasn’t a gas station), very satisfied to be mining a delectable abundance of shrimp, steak strips, chorizo, and fajita vegetables from a hollowed-out half of a pineapple. I strongly recommend this place for those who find themselves hungry in Imperial at dinner time. The Mexican food was surprisingly good for Nebraska, the price was very reasonable, and service was splendid.

Quick checking of radar showed that what was left of the elevated supercell off to the ENE was…quite possibly not elevated anymore, had a sharply defined reflectivity hook, a modest velocity couplet, and was tornado-warned! I almost choked on the chorizo. This sucker had shed the outflow and latched onto a much more favorable airstream from the low-level jet. Fortunately, I was able to pay the tab fast, wolf down what was left, and trek off into the darkness toward the retreating storm.

Stern-chasing a nighttime supercell on sand roads normally isn’t recommended, but sky visibility was good, the roads ENE of IML were fairly wide for awhile and, thanks to the sand being wettened and packed down some, traction was manageable. Tactical driving with a high-clearance 4WD was much like on the tidal zone of beaches at Daytona or North Padre.

Unfortunately, the storm appeared to be accelerating ENE again and merging with other convection by the time I got close enough to make out its back side well, and road options were becoming more sparse and narrow. I stopped to set up the tripod and shoot
what was left of the supercell–demarcated by a pronounced max of in-cloud lightning within a broader complex of storms–receded in the direction of toward North Platte or Lower Michigan.

Lightning itself was rather unspectacular, but still much appreciated. There’s something enchanting about comfortably mild blend of return flow and remnant outflow air, a remote High Plains road at night with nobody else around, crickets and distant thunder as the only sounds, and a flickering nocturnal sky increasingly suffused with filtered moonlight. It felt like just me and God out there.
Here’s a time lapse of that scene that is worth watching but that still doesn’t do justice. Warning–if all the flashing in the old Wang Chung music video gave you problems, this might too!

Day-1 of High Plains Therapy was every bit the antidote it could be–a soothing cataplasm for lingering chase wounds, but one still demanding daily changing for full healing. And so it would be…

Unremarkable Colorado Storms

July 24, 2012 by · Comments Off on Unremarkable Colorado Storms
Filed under: Summary 

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…

Long Storm Day, Amazing Storm Night

August 30, 2011 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Summary 

NE Colorado and SW Nebraska
19 June 11

SHORT: Observed high-based, nondescript storms in eastern Colorado, pretty supercell that got undercut by outflow NW of Wray, and messy CL-HP storm between Benkelman-MCK-Cambridge NE. Spectacular nighttime lightning and storm-structure show at Alma NE with two supercells.

LONG: Starting the day in ITR, we had a pick of two nearly equidistant targets, both in very favorable shear for supercells:
1. The higher terrain of central Colorado to our W, more certain for initiation and more moist than yesterday.
2. An outflow boundary over SW Nebraska and NW Kansas, loaded with right moisture but also uncertain on position and timing of storm potential, if any.

The decision was tough. After looking at observational data of many kinds, I still was undecided but leaning W. High-resolution, convection-allowing models started showing meatballs of high reflectivity evolving from early convection rolling off the Front Range foothills, and fairly consistently from hour to hour. We went that way, careful not to get totally out of reach of the other area, should it go.

An early cell formed off the E end of the Cheyenne Ridge and moved E across the SW part of the Nebraska Panhandle, within reach but outside either forecast area. Even though we could see the anvil storm to our distant NNW, and it started acquiring supercellular characteristics in reflectivity and SRM displays, we stayed the course.

Even though the western area ultimately didn’t pan out, it’s a good thing we didn’t go after the first storm up north–it would have put us out of position for an amazing nighttime show we never saw coming.

Yes, the western storms never got organized. Mike Umscheid and Jay Antle joined us for a spell NW of Last Chance to shoot the breeze in the breeze, bemoaning the disorganized nature of initially promising storms that had erupted to our W. Many times I’ve seen high-based “junkus” storms in eastern Colorado, streaming mammatus and virga, their updraft regions looking like fuzzy rubbish, eventually develop into tremendous supercells. This time, they weren’t.

Deep convective towers formed in the differential-heating zone under their collective anvil edge to our S, SE and ESE, including some big ones developing where the anvil edge passed over the old outflow boundary to our distant E (near the KS/CO/NEb border confluence). They kept thickening and growing until we couldn’t stand it anymore. The models were well-past due for the Colorado meatball that wasn’t to be. The models failed. We threw in the towel on area #1 and headed E in effort to salvage area #2.

By the time we neared the familiar town of Yuma, a big, visually beautiful storm had formed from the towers still to our E, and a deep, supercellular radar echo showed up NE of Wray. As we approached the storm and Wray, we had to stop briefly for this shot looking NE, the robust updraft structure rocketing aloft through clean blue-sky surroundings.

On radar, another supercell had formed in Nebraska to this storm’s E, quickly developing a hook echo. The first one being closer, we headed through Wray to take a look. Unfortunately, the choppy terrain of the Republican River drainage (which always seemed higher than the road on its N side, where the storm was) seldom allowed us a view under the base. By the time we reached the Haigler, NEb area and could get glimpses beneath the storm, we saw a ragged wall cloud but experienced a cold N wind. Outflow! The eastern supercell had spewed a big rear-flank outflow pool that already was blasting past us, and definitely undercutting the near storm.

This mean we had to keep going even farther E, and attempt to intercept the second supercell before dark. On radar the hook looked phenomenal. Tornado warnings blanketed the storm, but in the late-afternoon light, all we saw was dark, slate-gray murk to our NE from down in the valley. While approaching Benkelman from the WSW, with occasional glances between the hills and tall cottonwoods to our NE, we finally saw the cloud base–a large, bowl-shaped lowering, and then, a smooth, tapered tube extending toward the ground! Alas, we had to keep driving to get closer, as contrast was terrible from that distance and viewing angle. This turned out to be a short-lived tornado, very photogenic from a few perspectives other than ours; but we got no pictures of it.

We didn’t see the next brief tornado NNW of MCK, probably due to buildings and other visual obstructions during our brief passage through the W side of town. Feet still on the pedal, we turned N out of MCK, finally in position to see the storm from its inflow region for a few minutes before it blasted past. N of MCK, we stopped to see that the storm clearly had cycled out of its tornadic phase, shooting outflow past us and past its once productive mesocyclone region. I was just relieved to get out of the vehicle and stand for a few minutes!

We headed back down through MCK and E of town, encountering the first really dense concentration of chasers I had seen the whole vacation. Most were well-behaved. Still, it only takes a few morons opening doors into traffic, parking halfway into the traffic lanes, and pulling out into the highway without signaling and at dangerously slow speeds, to heighten tension and create unsafe experiences for everyone. I did a lot of honking and, I must admit, played a little “finger music” in the direction of some of the thoughtless dipwads.

The storm itself, a ragged mess charging toward us and right behind us as we rolled ENE on US-34, almost became an afterthought, as we dodged needless human-caused traffic hazards. [Others had it worse. A tour driver later told me that some sadistic yokel in front of them deliberately drove 20-25 mph in a 55-mph zone for several miles, visibly laughing at and mocking them the whole time.]

I was on edge, and ready to blow this whole ordeal off. Fortunately, darkness started to set in, further motivating us to bail S, out of the way, and search for lodging and fuel. One final observational stop S of Cambridge to view the HP mess to our WNW, and we called it a night (or so we thought). Enough was enough.

Heading E through the southern Nebraska night, we hit town after town that had rolled up its sidewalks for the night, all services closed, no petrol or lodging to be found. Finally we reached Alma, tired, irritable and frustrated after a long day, needle nearly on “E”, having had nothing for dinner but snack food, the last few hours spent mostly stern-chasing or being chased by a difficult, messy, tornado-warned storm, without seeing much except for occasional dumb drivers. Regrettably, I was neither the most clued-in nor the friendliest person to be around at that time. The good news is that fortunes would change for the better very soon.

We noticed a locally run motel, of the sort we prefer against the national chains for their personal service, charm and generally lower cost, this one with only one vehicle there. Fortunately the proprietor’s wife still was awake; in fact, from elsewhere in town she saw us arrive and drove over to check us into a big room with a king bed.

As we unloaded the vehicle, lightning flashes from our old storm increased in intensity to the WNW. Radar examination confirmed that it still was a supercell, headed on an easterly path toward our near-north. A quick check of profiler and VAD winds told me the storm had latched onto the low-level jet and would persist for awhile. Even as tired as we were, the lightning-viewing and photography opportunity was irresistible.

We parked next to a plowed field off the NW edge of town as the formerly messy and ugly supercell spun into view as a dazzling, spinning wonder of electric light and swirled cloud sculpture. All our tension and exhaustion vanished effortlessly, replaced by enraptured wonderment. For a brief time, someone (we later found out it was our friend Brian Morganti) cast headlights across the field, which didn’t bother me since it illuminated the foreground in an interesting way as well.

After spending an hour or so in the presence of that gorgeous sky spectacle, we watched it fling two arcus clouds overhead, blocking view of the best structures, then turn somewhat leftward and weaken. We headed back to the motel and got ready for bed, finally satisfied with this chase day.

As I was looking over some final data for determining the next day’s target (which looked to be very near where we were!), a last-minute radar check showed another supercell had formed on the southern end of a short line of storms to our WNW. It was headed on almost an identical path as the first! Quickly glancing outside, we saw distant but frequent flashes. Could it be? Could we get another amazing light and structure show?

The clock already had turned to the date of June 20. It was after midnight, and we needed to get to sleep and get some breakfast in the morning. It was so tempting to fall face first into the pillow and ignore the call of the strobing sky. Another glance outside: the light show was closer and brighter and strobing even more frequently than the first storm had from the same indirect view. We knew what to do.

One o’clock a.m. found us next to another field on the NW side of town, camera on tripod, nighttime supercell number two whirling its way across the sky, bathed in almost continuous, flickering illumination from its own relentless lightning engine. Wow. To be gifted in this way was a blessing beyond measure. Nobody else was out there this time; we had this one all to ourselves. As the brilliant display scooted by to the NW and N, a carpet of thousands of blinking fireflies rose from a grassy part of the field.

This experience, in total, was unbelievable. I shot dozens and dozens of photos of both storms, every last one interlaced with filamentous tendrils of in-cloud, cloud-to-cloud and cloud-to-air lightning. Of these, seven have been selected at somewhat larger resolution for a special web page devoted just to this night.

We slept very well after returning to the room, finally at ease and completely contented. One more incredible chase day awaited on what already was among the most spectacular and rewarding Great Pains vacations I’ve had.

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