26 May 13
High Plains Therapy, Day 3 of 5
SHORT: Intercepted another spectacularly structured supercell, this time a mostly LP storm near Arcadia NEb. Missed some of the best photo opportunities due to close lightning strikes but still loved the show.
On the day after a tremendous structure-fest in southwestern SD, we headed back toward the warm sector in central Nebraska in hopes of yet another. To summarize, the setup promised adequate low-level moisture, marginal to sufficient near-surface flow, favorable deep shear, and rather nebulous low-level foci for initiation. I was traveling in a caravan with the Dudes, Dudette and Dogs crew (David and Samara Fogel, Keith Brown, Ross Weitzberg, Porthos and Trego).
Following a long trek down from CDR, we consumed a meal and hung out in and near LBF, hoping for initiation that would occur close enough to the S or E side of the Sandhills to keep storm motions in more tenable observational country. The day was getting late, the sky disturbingly devoid of deep convection. That worrisome lack of focus kept us guessing and scanning the skies–good old fashioned “going visual” for clues to earliest initiation stages, whatever the data may show.
While sitting on a hilltop N of town, we finally saw that hope–a very young but rapidly deepening tower to the distant ENE. Given the obvious cap breach and favorable environment over there, we thought it would mushroom upscale, and as we cruisd back down through town and started cruising E on I-80, it did.
Even while still 50-60 miles out, as the magpie flies, the main cloud updraft’s high-based but striated character became readily apparent. Despite enjoying the visual treat of this storm’s development from a distance, including some classicaly splashing overshoots, I was wishing for the vehicle to sprout wings and a couple of Pratt and Whitney jet engines to get there sooner.
Roads dictated otherwise, however; we had to proceed in an Allen wrench-shaped path ESE to E on I-80 then N on US-183 to our long-awaited first rendezvous with the gorgeous storm near Ansley. As viewed from the S, the banded LP soda can spun its way off to our NE in the lowering sunshine, compelling us to get off to its E for a more contrast-friendly backlit perspective.
Performing that maneuver took us directly under the S rim of the updraft, which actually had a lowering base and some thin, faintly wrapping precip curtains with embedded hailstones of mostly subsevere size. Low-precip doesn’t mean no-precip! By the time we got E of the storm, between Westerville and Arcadia, we thought we were going to be in fat city, photographically, with the storm putting on an increasingly evident show of sweeping striations and bands. We had to get far enough E to get it all in wide-angle view, plus get out from under a CG bombardment that seemed to follow us away from the storm.
Unfortunately, opportunities to shoot safely were few and far between; so I didn’t get too many shots of the storm during any of 2 or 3 stops in this stage. The supercell’s anvil, augmented and thickened by that from more distant storms to the NW, would not stop flinging staccato, forked CGs all around us, many miles from the updraft, jagged arrows of Zeus fired disturbingly close and often across a wide area SE and E of the updraft. Usually in my experience, such blistering barrages are temporary, lasting just a few minutes until newer updraft cycles redistribute charge and favored areas shift. Not this time…the white-hot fusillade of electricity just kept coming and coming and coming…
Having gotten frustrated at being trapped in the car for many minutes, with some unwelcome visual obstructions to ideal shooting at the parking spot, I tried to time the last shot versus the bolt/recharge process. Often that works, but not this time. Having preset aperture and metering in the vehicle, I ran out to shoot this absolutely jaw-dropping structural exhibition right after the previous flash, then about-faced in less than 10 seconds. I barely started back when…CRACK-SLAM!!!!…a CG hit so close I couldn’t tell where. All I knew was that I was still alive, and a quick glance around at the other people revealed nobody lying on the ground. This warning shot sent all of us fools who were outside diving right back into vehicles for survival.
Warning heeded! Keith later told me he was across the highway and happened to see that CG hit in the plowed field just S of the road. Instead of frying one of us, it simply zapped some dirt. Enduring skull-rattling explosions of countless more close strikes, we had to wait until the storm moved several miles farther N before even thinking of sneaking outside again. I was tempted to drive several miles E (where some other observers did get amazing CG + updraft shots), but 1) was unsure about vantages in choppier terrain near Arcadia and 2) noted a gentle E and NE shift in the CG activity centroid.
So, we waited out that vicious attack a bit longer, then gingerly started to dare to shoot some more as strike frequency waned somewhat. A final cycle of CGs and a brief repositioning led to deepening twilight, and finally some confidence in shooting outside the vehicle with a tripod. The storm, now to our NNW and N, still seethed with nearly continual lightning, offering shot after shot after shot that contained some sort of lightning or another.
We headed back to Grand Island for the night, enjoying a lightning-illuminated mammatus show in the rear-view, but too tired to bother stopping. I was satisfied–quite so, actually–both to be alive and to conclude a challenging but fulfilling third day of five in the rejuvenating regimen of High Plains Therapy!
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.
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…
8 May 13
SHORT: Casual intercept of some multicellular to marginally supercellular storms on the E edge of a favorable air mass.
On this day, I didn’t expect to be out there storm observing. I had a shift beginning at 9 p.m., and the best supercell potential along the dryline was too far SW and W for any meaningful intercept activities. However, after a late-afternoon wake-up, some convection had fired W of the OKC metro area in the warm sector and along outflow/differential-heating zones from early-day activity.
I knew this wouldn’t be an important tornado setup, because of the potential for messy storm modes and the lack of more robust deep-layer winds, but perhaps one of these initially high-based storms could rotate and exhibit photogenic structures before entering drier air closer to home. Elke and I made the ad-hoc decision to go for a casual country drive out to the Tuttle-Yukon area for 2-3 hours–one that also involved some elements of a convective sky.
Storms that had looked strong W of OKC moved into the dry air and weakened– a fate sure to befall those developing on the W side of the same cluster. Still, the boundary was weakening and moving slowly E and NE, expanding the moist sector in that direction through late afternoon and evening. Perhaps storms could follow us back home and, as a bonus, offer some always-needed rain.
Terrain between Tuttle and Minco can get rather choppy, thanks to easy erosion of the Permian red-clay shales and siltstone layers into the nearby Canadian River valley. Still, we found a vantage a few miles WNW of Mustang to watch a marginal supercell that was becoming elevated over the boundary put on one last structure show.
Except for the singing birds, mooing cows, and an occasional local resident puttering along the back road, we had the farm and sky scene all to ourselves for about an hour as this storm merged into the cluster to its N, and other convection formed on its trailing flank. Despite dealing with flimsier convection than observers were enjoying at greater distances, it was a nice relief to enjoy such a relaxing storm experience without any pressure or enticement to be elsewhere, and to do so as an appreciative couple.
Many more storms soon developed and filled in rapidly, between the initial cluster to our W-NW and dryline storms over SW OK. These started flinging CGs ever closer to us, so we eased back into Mustang for a fast-food dinner. The band of storms grew in length and intensity, forming a jagged squall line with occasional, embedded bowing segments.
This system followed us closely back down OK-4 and OK-9 to home in Norman, whereupon I had to turn right around and head to work. I got there in plenty of time, but actually had to stay outside in the vehicle and wait for the lightning-infused core to pass, pinging NSSL Ping with reports of heavy rain, small hail and minor flooding before heading inside.