Beautiful Outflow, Day 3: Along a Familiar Trace

August 21, 2011 by · Comments Off on Beautiful Outflow, Day 3: Along a Familiar Trace
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Limon to Sheridan Lake CO (again!)
18 June 11

SHORT: Observed high-based, outflow-dominant supercell with “cheezenado” near Kit Carson CO and deeply textured spectacle of structure. Pretty sunset near ITR.

LONG: This was the third straight day of outstanding outflow in the American Outback. We started the day in LAA, with a stop at Bent’s Fort along the way to our target area, which remained the LIC-PUB corridor as supposed the previous night. While the Fort was fun to visit and photograph again, we slept in too long, got there later than hoped (midday), and stayed long enough to miss the initiation and early stages of a supercell near LIC.

Roaring N out of Rocky Ford, we caught up to the thrice tornado-warned storm just S of LIC (it was, fortunately, rather slow moving up to that point). Despite its fine appearance on radar reflectivity for over an hour prior, early visuals suggested nothing even close to tornadic: a high based storm with a rather small, tilted updraft and opaque to translucent core. The temperature in that RFD was 56 deg F, not exactly priming the pump for tornado action given the lofty LCL of the storm.

We took a little bit of mainly sub-severe hail, from the trailing (rear-flank) precip area while turning around to jog S and E toward Hugo. A major core-dump just N of Hugo (as seen looking NE from just W of town) sent the storm on a southeastward, outflow-surfing odyssey that seemed quite familiar. Already, the irony wasn’t lost: the storm of interest was in the same general area, also high-based and apparently outflow-dominant, and headed roughly the same direction, as the supercell the afternoon before. Indeed, we would retrace much of the previous day’s familiar path.

One difference this day was that the storm legitimately threatened to produce something tornadic on two occasions–both when my phone’s signal-bar area was stamped “No Service.” [Thanks again, AT&T with your disingenuous “97% of the population” advertising.]

We pulled off US-287 near Wild Horse and drove a few miles up a dirt road for a better view, only to see that the terrain constantly was higher between us and the storm. As we got closer, a lowering I had seen for a few minutes in the distance became visible as a persistent, smooth, bowl-shaped (and sometimes fat-cone shaped) protuberance embedded in translucent rain. It was rotating–not very fast, but noticeably. As I got out to take this wide-angle shot, the lowering’s bottom became more rounded and higher, and it went away within a minute. I was imagining what a supercell like this could do with less outflow, lower cloud base and more inflow-layer moisture.

Meanwhile the already-nice structure just kept getting more and more textured and beautiful (looking NW from near Kit Carson). The sharply defined, undular raggedness of the bottom of each cloud-base terrace gave me the impression of looking upward from beneath at a boiling liquid surface.

::::: Begin meteorological interpretation :::::
In a way, though the causative processes are much different, the convective principle is quite similar, when you consider the “liquid surface” analogy as a reverse counterpart of the CCL or LCL. In boiling water, the liqud turns to vapor. At the cloud’s LCL or CCL, the vapor condenses to droplets. Amidst a very broadly intense updraft, little bitty parcels neighboring each other are reaching their condensation pressure fast, but at slightly different elevations, giving the underside of the cloud mass such a rough, sandpaper-like appearance. The difference in condensation level from any one of the “mini-parcels” to another probably is related to a combination of slight variations of pressure, temperature and/or humidity in each one, before and during its ascent. This contrasts with the laminar (smooth) bases we often see in supercells, where the vertical pressure-gradient force compels a sheet of air to rise along a gently sloping path (along an isentrope) to a less locally-variable LCL, then ultimately to its higher LFC, where now unshackled from CINH, it really goes ballistic and rockets upward at speeds even faster than CAPE alone can support. In this specimen, LCL and LFC were either roughly the same level, or LFC was lower (free convection occurring before saturation).
::::: End meteorological interpretation :::::

Back to the chase… This stunning view (17 mm wide-angle), looking W from 6 W of Cheyenne Wells back toward Kit Carson, compelled us to stop for a spell, knowing that the forward-flank core would move overhead and force a southward turn of our own soon. Little did I know that this most unlikely-looking of high-based High Plains storms was about to produce a tornado.

See the precip-filled occlusion slot in the lower middle of the last photo? A few minutes later, as I was gawking and babbling with semi-coherent admiration at the sky-filling structure, I heard Elke yell, “I think there’s a tornado in there!”

Me: “In where? No way!”

Elke: “Right there!”

Me: “Right where?”

Elke: “In there!”

Me: “In WHERE???”

Elke: “In the rain! Behind the updraft!”

Me (fumbling with camera gear): “Come on, from that storm? There ain’t no…hmm, wait a minute. Holy $%#^, that is a funnel in there. Get on there, stupid zoom lens. Dust! I think it might be a tornado!”

As usual, she was right. At least this time, she didn’t have a road atlas with which to hit me. 🙂

It was short-lived (~3 minutes), a long, slim, very stretchy condensation tube that began to break up even as I finally got the zoom lens attached and snapped the photo. The enhanced crop shows some of the dust it had spun up from the dry fields beneath. Other observers who were closer to the cheezenado’s location (SE of Kit Carson) also pegged it on a couple of SpotterNetwork icons, as I saw later once regaining data coverage. It was a flimsy excuse for one, but still, WFO GLD’s first tornado of the season. [The reports on the day’s rough log actually were of that one event, seen/reported from different places.]

As we dropped S out of the Wells, the brief spin-up soon became almost a forgotten sidebar in the face of one of the most fantastic and bizarre visual appearances I’ve seen from any storm. At that point, other cells were merging into its back side, with an initially separate storm base visible in the more distant W.

The supercell quickly was evolving into a small forward-propagating MCS, ralphing even more outflow. The resultant, bigger storm cluster formed a pretty, tiered shelf on its E edge (looking NE). Back to the WNW of us, an outflow-undercut but visibly rotating convective column briefly formed and poked into the ambient cloud base, adding more morphological weirdness to the whole event. The earlier “rear” storm, visible in the last shot, also was growing bigger, getting closer and becoming outflow-driven.

Pulling into the same Sheridan Lake petrol station where we had been the day before, I fueled up and spoke with some familiar faces behind the counter. “We’re back, and we brought another storm with us!”

I also chatted with Chris Weiss of TTU, whose Sticknet teams I had seen deploying their wares along US-385 as part of some sort of outflow-measuring experiment. [They had arrived at the storm right after the cheezenado and didn’t know about it.] That bunch should have acquired a great dataset; for the gust front soon barged through town unabated and well ahead of the main core, which itself turned left and barely missed to our E.

A few minutes later, a very concentrated and suspicious-looking, but non-rotating, dust bomb rose to the SE. Plow wind! The dust plume fanned out, advected away and eventually dispersed, as we turned back N for the 63-mile drive to ITR and a favorite motel there.

Along the way, several elevated and very high-based storms formed atop the cold pool from the earlier complex, including this one just S of ITR. South of town, we enjoyed a splendid sunset sky while parked in between wet plowed fields, and while talking to Rich T on the phone. He had seen his first tornado of the year that day–400 miles to our SE, along the OK/KS line W of BVO. We were glad for that too, as his chase fortunes this year had been awful so far.

After three days of beautiful outflow, we were ready for some meaty supercell action as portended by richer moisture and stronger shear forecast for the next day.