Gorgeous Skyscapes: Wind Cave National Park

August 8, 2011 by · Comments Off on Gorgeous Skyscapes: Wind Cave National Park
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Splendid Storm and Sunset near Hot Springs SD
14 June 11

SHORT: Began in Kimball. High-based storms and shallow convection along way N to Hot Springs SD. Beautiful storm before sunset over Wind Cave NP followed by equally amazing sunset scenes there.

This wasn’t intended to be a “chase day”, per se, but we nonetheless encountered some beautiful shallow-convective scenery enroute that make it well worth sharing here, capped off by a wonderful little storm and color-splashed sunset where the Black Hills meet the Great Plains. On this day, the convection came to us!

After a decent brunch in IBM, we took off N for a couple of nights in a familiar set of cabins at Hot Springs. Along the way, we photographed an abandoned performance hall against a backdrop of brilliant, post-frontal blue sky and deep cumuli. The old place, structurally sound but superficially rickety, had a stage, piano, ticket booth, and separate outdoor latrine. Imagine having to leave the performance because of a terrible need to take a big dump…everyone there would know!

Sufficient residual moisture and relatively cold air aloft supported convectively textured, yet very clean, post-frontal skies that made fine backdrops for photographing other abandoned structures, such as this one near Crawford and this one near the NEb/SD border. The sky also added richness to scenes of rock formations, patterns, flowers and landscapes in the Toadstool Geologic Park within Oglala National Grassland. Toadstool is a wondrous little favorite place for us on the Great Plains–an outpost of the Badlands without all the tourist crowds–where we spent a few hours hiking and exploring for the first time in several years.

We got dinner in Hot Springs, whereupon my son David called to inform me he was caught driving in a tremendous hailstorm in Norman and needed advice on what to do. I directed him to a parking area; but his vehicle later got damaged by a flying tree limb in the second downburst. Facebook soon sprang to life with frantic posts of the fury of the hail-filled downbursts upon Norman. Ultimately, we would need to replace a good deal of roofing and guttering on our house from this event; and I knew even then that I would have many limbs to saw up and drag to the curb upon return. The dread of that chore made me enjoy this vacation even more, far away from still another Norman maelstrom that struck in our absence.

After dinner, we secured our cabin overlooking town, then headed up the road toward the rolling grasslands of Wind Cave National Park in hopes of some buffalo, wildflowers and sunset. Elke and I long have wanted to photograph a beautiful storm in the uniquely beautiful setting of this place…lo and behold! There it was! As we approached, we saw a growing Cb, cruising ESE across the undulating green carpet. One of our favorite overlooks happened to offer an outstanding view of the brilliantly lit storm. There we stayed, intermittent rumbles of thunder competing with the western meadowlarks for our ear, warm inflow at our backs, and before our eyes, among the most astounding non-severe stormscapes I’ve witnessed. The storm receded to the NE then E, letting the deep blue post-frontal sky into our wide-angle view, offering a source of reflected eastern light. We had begun full-sensory bathing in yet another transcendent experience best described by what Gretel Ehrlich once declared “the solace of open spaces”.

Just when we thought things couldn’t get more beautiful, they did, in a three-act production set across the theater of the sky. First, our storm gained a dense little core festooned with a bright rainbow that, after swapping on a zoom lens, made a postcard-pretty landscape scene for the national park. Right as that storm receded across the distant Badlands and weakened, the southwestern sky lit up with golden fractus basking in the sunset glow. As soon as those clouds began to dissipate, a couple of small virga showers formed to the S, dropping their wispy mists into the deepening red-orange hues. As they moved east, the moonrise beneath made for one of my favorite sunset and twilight shots of the year: flaming red virga beneath a golden crowned convective cloud top and blue sky. Finally, even as those colors faded, the western sky briefly blazed with a red-gilded cloud edge.

So concluded an unexpectedly stunning and soul-soothing display of atmospheric artistry! Before leaving the hilly meadow, however, there was one more piece of business to attend. On this evening, even a turd could spawn beauty, in this case a buffalo cookie supporting a mushroom! We would return the next day for some wildlife and flower photography and a visit to Crazy Horse, before resuming what would become the most active storm-observing vacation of our lives to date…

A Real Stretch

June 1, 2011 by · Comments Off on A Real Stretch
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Okeene and Karns, OK
23 May 11

SHORT: Observed small tornado W of Okeene OK and nontornadic supercell E of Greenfield OK.


This “day before the day” heralded the beginning of the long-advertised “undercutting Pacific jet”, and impingement of a strong, broadly cyclonically curved upper wind max over the southwestern CONUS as a 500-mb cyclone closed over the Pacific NW. I much prefer patterns like this for observable supercells than closed, stationary to retreating northern-Plains lows like we had just seen.

A strongly difluent upper height pattern spread over the southern High Plains late in the afternoon with subtle height falls occurring across much of the region. The presence of a dryline that was
1. Beneath those height falls and
2. Bounding the west rim of a rich moist sector (at least over the TX portion)
…was a high-confidence scenario, the specifics being maxima in low-level lift versus strength of capping into evening.

Accordingly, Jack Beven and I, in caravan with DF’s “Dude, Three Chicks and a Dog” chase team, headed W on I-40 to await storm initiation along the dryline in a strongly heated and increasingly moist air mass.

Along with Howie Bluestein, Dan Dawson, Jeff Snyder and other scientists and students accompanying OU mobile radars, we waited and shopped at the Cherokee tribal store on I-40 near Calumet, until echoes appeared to our SW, W and NW. We parted with the OU crews, briefly stopped to watch some high-based junk SW of Watonga, then targeted the much more healthy Fairview/Okeene storm.

In fact, the storms SW of Watonga were everything but photogenic; and we still were in transit northward Okeene when we caught a view of a suspicious lowering under the emerging base W of Okeene. In a rare event for me, my first photos on this day therefore were of a tornado!

By 1618 CDT, when we pulled over along a section road 3 S Okeene, the lowering had become a well-defined funnel cloud about 5 NW of us or ~4 W Okeene. It was tilted nearly horizontally (wide-angle with foreground storm structure), and already tornadic based in dust-whirl reports by closer observers. Time was 1618 CDT. The newer updraft base almost overhead seemed to be the next candidate for a mesocyclone formation/occlusion process; but it actually moved N and got absorbed into the forward flank, vanishing in the process.

Meanwhile, we witnessed, photographed and reported the 6-minute tornado from the same vantage as a debris cloud became more and more apparent (unenhanced and super-enhanced photo). Shortly before the tornado dissipated, the debris cloud got displaced astonishingly far S of where the condensation funnel met the cloud base. Clearly the stretching term of the vorticity equation was at play here.

We stayed with the storm for about 45 more minutes just E of Okeene as another small thunderstorm formed to its S, moved over us with frog-strangling rain and closely slamming CGs, then merged into the main updraft region. This pathetic state of affairs left the supercell demolished as a discrete entity. What was left merged into a massive multicellular morass extending some 70 miles E-W across the area. Now what?

Onboard radar feeds tempted us intensely with displays of a solitary supercell about 75 miles to our S near Gotebo, and there was plenty of daylight to head down there and spend some quality time with that storm before dark. Off we went, photographing a smaller cell to our SSW over Watonga. (which would become the supercell E of Greenfield) and later a distant presentation of the convective mass we had left.

That Watonga storm looked rather innocuous as we passed under its early updraft base in and S of town. However, by the time we reached Greenfield and around to the S side, the convection grew explosively into a full-blown young supercell with bright, hard-looking updraft towers boiling up the back side. The upward eruption of the convection easily was visible in real-time via our eyeballs, as was the onset of helical turning in the midlevels, white turrets and cauliflower tops rocketing skyward and veering rightward like daddy likes to see.

We didn’t intercept this storm; it intercepted us. The supercell blossomed right besides us on the way S, in an environment not seeming too different from more mature supercell to which we had been aimed; so we diverted from plan, maneuvering the backroads NE of Karns into the near-inflow region of the Greenfield storm instead. Its first mesocyclonic occlusion attempt happened just to our NNW with a well-defined, if elongated, wall cloud that rotated only slowly. Rotation tightened considerably after the mesocyclone became deeply occluded, slotted and nearly cut-off from the rest of the storm, having been kicked way back out the NW side of the storm. Alas, loss of buoyancy overcame stretching; and the circulation perished.

After that, several areas of weak-moderate rotation materialized along an increasingly elongated cyclonic-shear and convergence zone; but the supercell itself was getting weaker and more strung out. We left it and headed S on US-81 through El Reno, once again headed for the initially intended supercell still a little over an hour S of us; but that storm died before we got past Tuttle. Little did Jack and I realize we were crossing the path that a certifiably violent and deadly wedge tornado would take the following day.

We enjoyed seeing Jim Leonard in the field as well as the aforementioned OU folks, and had a fine dinner in Norman with Matt Crowther, Betsy Abrams, Greg Stumpf, and my beautiful bride Elke, who couldn’t chase on this day. It was a fine and fitting end of the “day before the day” setup. What a wild, frightening, intense, and historic day the “day after the day before the day” would turn out to be…

Atmospheric Underproductivity

May 20, 2011 by · Comments Off on Atmospheric Underproductivity
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NW OK and SW to Central KS

SHORT: Assorted convective towers over NW OK and central KS, mushy storms in SW KS, twilight macroburst in northern OK.


One year to the day after a chase that was most memorable for all the right and wrong reasons, Ryan Jewell and I left Norman for the PTT area at about noon. We hoped to follow a dryline supercell across a narrow warm sector and then be there for its mature interaction with a pronounced warm front, and the mesocyclonic bliss such processes often entail. Alas, the atmosphere had other plans.

On the way up, early initiation (before 18Z!) yielded a mess of multicellular and occasionally supercellular storms in SW OK, the anvils of which we could see. We chose not to be distracted by those “sucker storms”, and instead forge NWward with steadfast resolve for our target area, where both low-level hodographs and deep-layer shear would be stronger.

Along the way, near Seiling, several deep towers erupted in the free warm sector, seemingly along nothing more robust than faint differential-heating patches. These would glaciate for 10-30 minutes, then dissipate, leaving behind residual anvil shadows and a few souvenir raindrops. The appearance of such midday convection, well-removed from either the dryline and the warm front, dichotomously encouraged us (no problem getting storms today!) and troubled us (too many storms today?).

As we headed N through P28, convection began erupting in a band up and down the dryline from NW-SSW, boosting hope for a targetable storm, since we still were well out of reach for the activity up near I-70. One storm crossing the KS-OK border quickly acquired flying-eagle structure in reflectivity and standout VIL, while darkening the skies to our SW. Although the low-level SRH wasn’t too favorable in the immediate area, thanks to some earlier veering of surface winds ahead of the dryline, the flow was starting to back a little again. We were excited that this could be our target storm, moving NNE then NE into a progressively better environment with time. Too bad several other storms formed in its immediate vicinity, messing up the structure before it got to us.

The most spectacular event of the whole trip then happened in a flash. As we waited just off the NE edge of PTT, a CG from one of the leading cells struck a sheet-metal building across the road from us, instant FLASH-BANG, its white-hot column dispersing into a vertical necklace of brilliantly glowing, golden-orange plasma beads that blew northward in the wind for a second or two before dissipating. What a pyrotechnic display!

Our target storm became entangled in the mess of surrounding convection and lost its structure before reaching PTT; so we targeted a tail-end cell and headed W several miles out of PTT. By the time we met the “anchor” storm, it was but a small, smooth updraft base with a short tail cloud. By the time we found a stopping place for me to take a photo, the updraft cloud column shriveled to a pathetically flimsy chimney, soon to vanish altogether.

Surely this couldn’t be our fate for a day of such promise?

We scrambled NE toward Lyons to intercept a small but intense storm that materialized from the southern portion of the same precip area N of PTT, but it too turned to mush by the time we got there. All that was left: a strand of towers that had no chance to mature before crossing the warm front. Game over.

Here we were just S of Lyons, on the warm front, breathing in some of the most deliciously refreshing, richly moist air a human or storm could ingest, all for naught.

On the return drive from HUT-ICT-OUN, we smacked into an intense gust front just S of the OK/KS border, then stayed in near-severe winds for at least 25 miles across a swath of Kay and Noble Counties. This was an impressive macroburst, one of the most sustained I’ve encountered, blasting northwestward from a SSW-NNE band of high-based showers. Overhead and to the S we could see a patchwork of virga and loose mammatus in the twilight, and also encountered intermittent light rain reaching the ground. The headwinds buffeted us hard, shaking the vehicle some and compelling a little white-knuckle gripping of the steering wheel on Ryan’s part. Dust and grit reduced visibility to less than a mile, making noise like sleet as it bounced off the windshield at times.

We also saw a sporadically splendid display of anvil crawlers and a few CGs from the northern cloud shield of the MCS that was moving across the OKC and Blanchard areas at the time. After retrieving my vehicle at Ryan’s, I went to eastern Norman and attempted some lightning shots ahead of the leading gust front, but nothing too spectacular…I kept missing the brighter and closer CGs before the electrical area got too close to shoot safely.

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