Twilight Delight

July 6, 2012 by · Comments Off on Twilight Delight
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Western OK
19 May 12

SHORT: Intercepted series of cells along broken storm line from Vici-Elk City OK, culminating with very picturesque tail-end supercell in sunset and twilight.

LONG: The forecast for severe-storm potential appeared all along a cold front from north-central KS to NW and W-central OK, with moisture I would characterize as sufficient but not ideal (in keeping with the general theme for the season so far). I figured that storms in KS would have somewhat more cross-boundary flow early, but still eventually line out, and that high-based storms could fire in the intense boundary-layer mixing regime of the dryline–S of the front in the GAG-CDS corridor, during 22-0Z. Some nicely sculpted structures would be possible for any convection that lasting into twilight when shear by most measures would improve. Flow should back into this area around 0Z, enlarging hodographs. So, the choice of targets was farther in KS early, or later in western OK. We chose the latter.

The Two Chumps headed NW through Seiling, observing a line of nearly equally deep towers gradually building against the stout cap. We were followed within a few miles by (and eventually in tandem with) the Two Dudes, Two Dogs and a Cousin chase team featuring David and Samara Fogel, Keith Brown and the equine-like canines Porthos and Trego. As we headed W from Seiling, a few of the deeper towers ballooned into full-fledged cumulonimbi, their anvils gradually amalgamating together amidst upper winds that had a strong component parallel to the front.

We pulled over just W of Vici (pronounced Vy Sigh, often heard as Vaaaah Saaaah), in the cooling shadow of the young line of storms. A large, lone, grumpy Charolais bull, just on the other side of a barbed-wire fence, seemed annoyed by our presence, but left after I threatened to kick its ass. [This is true. No bull. Ask Rich.] We basically were watching somewhat disorganized convection (view to our SW) and biding time (time lapse of the northern convective sky).

Once the line of cells began stairstepping back to the SW, while translating eastward, we charted a southward course to keep ahead of its anchor area. This resulted in several stops between Vici and I-40 along OK-34. One encouraging sign for the future was this high-based, short-lived cell exhibiting a small occlusion near Camargo. Another cell, looking NE from near Moorewood, was even larger, also bearing a short-lasting clear slot.

More storms were getting organized on the new tail-end area SW of Moorewood, but slowly. We sat on a dirt-road hilltop about a mile off the main highway, enjoying a marvelous 360-degree view of the rolling landscape and skyscape from just within some refreshingly cool outflow air, and listening to the birds and the breeze. I also shot a series of photos for a time lapse of a turbulent and deeply textured updraft, roiling atop some outflow from the increasingly electrified cells to the NE. The elevated base offered some eerie and fascinating lighting as it traveled to our N. I even managed to capture a shot of the mysterious, legendary and little-understood Humanoid of the High Plains!

Finally, a newer, anchoring cell to our SW (and NW of Elk City) started showing some tail-cloud features, striations and a broad base, indicating that perhaps the first sustainably supercellular storm was underway. We vectored S for intercept operations, stopping briefly in the forward flank’s path for a view at the BS Ranch (very appropriately named, given the company). The storm was passing over the Red Hills Wind Farm at the time, growing but acquiring more of an HP character by the minute.

The supercell moved E toward Foss Lake, so we dropped to its S and SE for some wonderful structure, lighting and lightning displays, starting with this view looking N from near Elk City. Before we turned E on I-40 to zip ahead of the storm again, the areas all around the rain-wrapping mesocyclone underwent a stage of furious sparking–much to our delight, since we weren’t in the target zone of the barrage.

The Interstate granted us a fortuitously well-positioned opportunity to get ahead of the supercell for a sunset show, which we did (barely) just N of Alfalfa. Through diaphanous veils of rain and hail, the glowing orb shone resplendently golden, while a tiered stack of vaporous wheels slowly turned high above. Meanwhile, pivoting one’s attention from west to north, it was an astounding scene: the translucently rain-wrapped mesocyclone region, swirling in sunset hue, also offered a bowl-shaped, slowly rotating lowering and partial clear slot–the closest this storm ever came to producing a spinup. The more distant wall cloud actually was part of a different storm, also organizing as a supercell, but only briefly. This also might be the only time I photograph two mesocyclones and a CG in such light!

Where we stood for nearly too long, bedazzled in rapt admiration of the scene above, the core nearly caught us. Another several miles down the slab, then north, took us to the outskirts of Clinton, buying us a few more minutes of twilight time in the company of a truly marvelous storm (wide-angle view looking W, wide-angle view looking NW).

Darkness fell, and with it the end of both the supercell and our active intercept pursuits, as the storm was starting to gust out and merge with convection forming behind it. We headed over to Elk City for a celebratory dinner, encountering a remarkably dense barrage of small to marginally severe hail along the Interstate and in town. After dinner, we parted ways, the bigger chase team headed northward for Dakota days while Rich and I spent the night in Shamrock in advance of the next day’s annular solar eclipse chase.

Inadvertent Tornado Avoidance

May 28, 2012 by · Comments Off on Inadvertent Tornado Avoidance
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Central and Southern KS
14 Apr 12

[EDIT] The photo links work now! Thanks to Jim Caruso for noticing that.

SHORT: On a “HIGH RISK” outbreak day, intercepted 4 daytime supercells, somehow during mostly non-tornadic stages. Two brief spinups seen, lasting less than 20 seconds total. Great anvil-lightning show with Wichita supercell after dark.

LONG: On this day of a well-forecast “High Risk” tornado event, Elke and I headed N out of Norman in plenty of time to osition ourselves ahead of the dryline bulge in central Kansas — smack in the middle of the most probable track zone for one or more future supercells. Storms would be rather fast-moving, with limited time to view any single storm without driving at unsafe speeds on the township-range zigzags to keep up. Cells also were likely to develop later with southward extent. Given these conditions, therefore, our plan was to start somewhat north, tview a storm for awhile, then hopscotch down to the next one.

That normally well-reasoned idea somehow didn’t optimize our success. We would intercept five supercells in the High Risk area, but somehow only see several seconds worth of marginal tornado action the whole day.

Supercells One and Two

We arrived at HUT to refuel, heading W to get ahead of new but already supercellular convection just SE of DDC. As we approached St. John,. two originally discrete supercells to our WSW began to merge. The northern storm was more intense, and getting a strong velocity couplet on radar. The problem, at that point, was a classic case of mutual storm-scale interference: the southern storm was dumping big loads of precip into both the flanking area and part of the inflwo of the northern one, and the northern storm’s outflow was rendering the southern storm somewhat elevated. This unfortunate situation would persist for the entire time we observed the two slowly combining supercells.

West of St. John, and just two counties to the SW of its eventual violent-tornado exhibition near Kanopolis Lake, what would become the Langley-Salina supercell was a merged complex of two storms–a fuzzy, rain-wrapped HP mess. See for yourself (looking WSW at wide angle).

Storm-scale problems plagued our stage of this convection. During the 30-45 minutes we actively intercepted it (this was, as expected, a fast-moving storm!), the classical cell-merger conundrum was sickening the storm(s) like a wretched jungle disease, yielding a big pseudo-supercellular mess. The northern merger member (dead ahead to the W in the last shot) was getting rained on from the southern one’s ramming into its SW side; and the southern one’s updraft base (distant left rear) was non-rotating, scuddy, and apparently elevated above the outflow from the northern one. The main meso (left of grain elevator) was on the NE side of the whole mess, and rain-wrapped with a giant gob of precip to its S.

Until this day, I’ve never known an HP in that sorry condition to recover to the level it eventually did. Away from the heavy rain, there was just light anvil precip in its meso-gamma scale inflow; but it did feel cold; temps were in the 70-72 F range at my location the entire time. This was our last decent view of the storm as we headed E and it got further N. As we proceeded E and started targeting the next storm, its convective turret even looked rather mushy and sharply tilted, as if the storm was CAPE-starved.

Even after numerous scientific papers written, over a quarter-century of storm intercepts, and hundreds of supercells observed, events happen afield that both fascinate and befuddle me. I’m still flabbergasted at the spectacular and complete reorganization the St. John supercell underwent, after it parted with us. Some combination of storm-scale shedding of precip and entry into a ribbon of subtly higher theta-e air advecting from the ICT area may have done amazing things to what had been a moribund and junky-looking HP, and turned it into a photogenic and violent tornado machine farther NE. Could we have caught back up for at least a short reunion somewhere near Lyons, while driving safely? Probably–however, the eyewitness evidence we had seen was underwhelming. Now that you’ve viewed what it looked like back around St. John, I trust you understand.

Supercell Three
Another storm had moved across the KS/OK border and developed a nice-looking reflectivity hook near US-54, in the vicinity of Cunningham, to our SSE. This proved to be a fairly easy target near Arlington, with some storm-scale supercell structure but a rather elongated, unimposing base and a ragged overall appearance. The former hook had gone away by the time we got to the storm. By now, we were starting to wonder, “What’s the deal with this day? We’re already ruining storms.”

Under the north portion of that base, two conical scud filaments formed and began slowly rotating around each other, then aggregated into a scuddy lowering (probable funnel) that was rotating slowly. That was the best the storm could do. It turned more leftward and mysteriously perished with great haste W of HUT. Time to scoot SE and S out of the HUT area toward the next hook-bearing supercell, also crossign the KS/OK line.

Supercell Four

Finally, we got on a storm that acted like a tornadic supercell for at least a short while. We headed S out of Haven toward the E side of Cheney Lake, where the valley containing the reservoir conceptually would act as a good terrain chasm across which to view the next storm. As it turns out, we stopped short of there due to trees, from a point located 8 SSW Haven and about 2 miles E of the lake.

Allowing the storm to move toward the NE took it due W of us, whereupon we began seeing a broad, somewhat fuzzy base with a core and rain-wrapped wall cloud. The system moved to our NW, as I shot vertical wide-angle imagery of the storm and intervening cloud cover. As I was removing the lens for a swap, Elke saw briefly tornadic condensation to the ground, looking WNW into the more distant, older cloud base and occlusion (which was associated with the rain-wrapped wall cloud before). I saw a couple of seconds of it while fumbling around to get the other lens back on, and of course, it went away just in time for me to shoot. It turns out that a deeply contrast-enhanced crop of the last wide-angle shot shows the start of that condensation (which was a full tapered-cone during my lens-exchanging exercise). Time was 1907 CDT (0007Z).

Of course…that’s how this day was going to be! As I was looking at the area (but not shooting), a funnel appeared on the nearer cloud base, and a fast, quick little spinneret of condensation swirled just above ground level and leftward of an intervening tree. By the time I raised the camera to shoot, the funnel tip had gained height, and the spinning condensation near ground was gone. The circulation of the old occlusion continued too, in the background, but was not obviously tornadic anymore (contrast-enhanced version). Then the closer funnel vanished, and a brief one appeared in the old occlusion again (enhanced). This storm was playing cruel teasing games with us, it seemed.

After seeing no more definite funnel action, we zigzagged NE with the storm for the longest distance of any yet this day — all the way to W of Newton, before storm motion, imminent darkness, and a growing concetnration of chase vehicles made continued intercept unfavorable. It was nontornadic for that stretch, with a ragged to fuzzy and disorganized cyclonic shear zone passing for a “mesocyclonic” area the whole time. Nonetheless, it apparently produced a tornado or two after it got away from us (NE of I-135). Spot a trend here?

We grabbed a fast-food dinner in Newton, making haste in order to be assured of beating the former Cherokee/Manchester OK supercell across that stretch of the Kansas Turnpike just S of ICT. As we ate, phone radar showed a velocity couplet crossing the OK-KS border that I’ve seen only with violent tornadoes. That duly motivated us not to tarry!

Supercell Five–Nocturnal

Skirting the downshear fringes of the forward-flank core just S of ICT, we beat the storm to I-35 with ease. I remember remarking to Elke, somewhere not far S of the I-135 toll booth, “If we break down in this very spot, we would be in deep, deep trouble.” On a different night, I might have tried exit around Mulvane and maneuver closer in toward the meso area for a look. Elke has a manifest dread of night-chasing tornadic storms, however; and we both were getting very weary. We instead zipped down the turnpike to the next (Wellington) exit, safely south of the storm’s projected track, and “settled” for lightning from a distance. Though we were too far away to make out the tornado(es) SW of ICT, this still was a treat, the best visual show of the day, by far.

Filamentous lightning zapped across the upper reaches of the storm almost continually. These types of discharges are some of my favorite observational aspects of nocturnal supercells. I shot dozens of photos like this, this, this, this, this, and this and could have shot hundreds. By a small measure, we salvaged the storm day with this grand electrical spectacle.

After low clouds got in the way, we got fuel in Wellington. It was a treat to speak with Terra Thompson there, from whom I learned more abut the amazing Cherokee storm, and to whom I extended congratulations for her successful intercept thereof. Rich Thompson (unrelated) resoundingly demolished his tornado drought with a bountiful harvest of vortices from the same storm, waking up after a mid shift and leaving “late” from Norman.

Epilogue
Lest you interpret that I document these events from some simmering dungeon of resentment and woe, that is false. I compete with nobody in the field. Instead, I just want to do the best I can, see amazing processes, experience beauty and majesty in the sky, capture some of that in photographic form, and learn something. I accomplished quite little of each. Admittedly, it stung; I wasn’t giddy to be out there on a big outbreak day and pick only the tiniest possible crumbs off the tornadic smorgasbord. I’m not masochistic. It’s disappointing to discover later what could have been with one turn here or there. But that’s mere hindsight, isn’t it?

The bad-luck part is out of my control, but not the decisions. Part of me really would like to be able to offer you a tale of glaring error I made, in order that you and I can learn from it. I’ve done so before in this forum. But I can’t find any major mistakes or smoking guns that clearly say, “Roger, you dumb-ass ignoramus, you failed right at this particular decision point, you should have known better at the time, and here’s why…” Maybe that’s the hardest part–not knowing.

The irony is that I thought (at the time, without knowing of the northern or southern storms’ amazing production) that we had great strategy–intercepting four supercells on a fast-motion, “high risk” day from good vantages for any tornado that would form. They just wouldn’t produce. Three of them looked surprisingly like fuzzy garbage (including the eventual SLN storm, which looked the worst of the four, on radar and in person, while we were on it).

I’m not sure what I could/should have done much differently, given the information available when I left and while I was traveling. I actually wish I could find something to second-guess about my decisions and strategy that day; it would be easier to learn from true mistakes (as opposed to doing the best with what was known, and just coming up essentially empty). Maybe that’s the best way to describe the impression this day left with me…empty. Not angry, not resentful, not jealous, just…blah. Empty.

Still, after the preceding 10 months of amazing fortune, I am in no position whatsoever to whine or moan. I know that:
1) The tornadic aspect of storm observing is a streaky and fickle thing. Those of us who chased in the late ’80s in Oklahoma understand this truth quite well.
2) There are those who had to work this event or couldn’t chase for other reasons. I’m very familiar with that situation.
3) However beneficial are skill and understanding, both meteorologically and with in-field maneuvering, there still is so much we don’t grasp yet about storm-scale behavior and meso-gamma scale influences. As such, a non-trivial share of both success and failure on any given chase can be assigned to the presence or absence of good fortune.

I had my amazing tornado stretch from 21 May 2012 through 18 March 2011; and that came to a resounding halt over the weekend. The ebb and flow of storm observing works that way. I don’t chase just for tornadoes, or even primarily for them. This was far from my first rodeo. I drew the easiest bronc, rode ’em clean out of the gate, and just slowly slipped off for no apparent reason before the horn sounded. I intend to saddle up again…and again…and again, pardner. I am confident that the tornadic fortunes will return through persistence. Until then, all of these fascinating processes are observed from a framework of appreciation, wonder, and learning. Tornadoes or not, I’ll be out there at every justifiable opportunity.

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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