near Denton, Judith Gap and Roundup MT
19 Jun 13
SHORT: Fun chase day. Marginally supercellular to linear but scenic storms central MT, with day and night photography.
Prologue and Pre-storm Fun
Central Montana had been in our sights for several days as a potential chase target–an ejecting Pacific shortwave trough, negatively tilted and fomenting reasonably strong deep shear, with backed low-level winds into the area of surface isallobaric response–but with the common northern High Plains problem of marginal moisture. Capping didn’t look to be a substantial problem. The strongest deep-layer ascent would be north of the Canadian border in SE AB or SW SK. However, for one, we didn’t have our passports…for two, storms up there would be racing northward and potentially messy, and third, the potential in the corridor between BIL and GTF didn’t look too bad. Low-level forcing looked rather nebulous and uncertain away from the higher terrain, so we decided to cling closely to potential orographic foci–the various ranges NW through SW of LWT, and the Little Snowy Range, a small mountain range sticking up out of the plains S of LWT that is a rarity in the Rocky Mountain region by virtue of being oriented E-W.
Storm observing in Montana is a different experience altogether. While they call this Big Sky Country for a reason, you need the great visibility because paved roads often are very widely spaced and oriented in ways not amenable to staying close to a storm. Small mountain ranges and pockets of forested hills poke out of the vast Plains like islands in the sea of prairie grass, presenting obstacles to both visibility and direct routing from one point to another. Deep river valleys with choppy terrain break up the otherwise decent-quality network of unpaved roads, which otherwise are pretty passable for those of us with high-clearance 4WD. In many areas, you’re 60-90 miles from the nearest services of any kind, and cellular phone coverage is often nonexistent away from major highways. The fuel tank must be topped off at every reasonable opportunity, and the vehicle kept in good working order with knowledge of how to handle minor mechanical breakdowns yourself.
Why chase in Montana? Intercept strategy there must be flexible and humble–two concepts often quite unfamiliar to Okie-style “storm chasers” who love to sniff the vapors and get the “XTREME INSANE” footage. Instead, storms up here are best appreciated from a distance, with occasional sampling up-close as they cross safe roads. That’s fine with me. The landscapes are vast, often breathtaking in their grandeur and late-spring beauty. As foreground settings for skyscapes, or on its own merit, Big Sky Country is a photographer’s delight. Finally, though it is being discovered, chase crowds are far less of a problem here than in the southern and central Plains. It is possible to get off by oneself on a storm and not see another vehicle for a long time.
Roundup is a friendly but rather dormant little town with a few (but just a few) lodging options. Its few restaurants and one grocery store close early, so if you arrive after 9 pm from a chase, you’ll have to eat gas-station food. Bring extra soap, too–the water is wretched: unclear, extremely hard and laden with sediment. We finally found a place on the Plains with nastier water than Odessa! Still, we started the 19th there after the previous day’s leisurely trip up through the Bighorn Basin and BIL. Little did we know that we would end the day there too, making a full circuit through and around LWT.
With storm initiation several hours off, we headed for LWT–a surprisingly picturesque and pleasant town smack in the center of MT, with the Little Snowies lining the nearby southern horizon. The lunch buffet at the Yogo Inn was outstanding–one of the best I’ve had anywhere up and down the Plains–with fast Wi-Fi to check the latest data. The town’s water supply is cold, clear spring water–absolutely outstanding in taste and quality, the very opposite of Roundup’s, and some of the best I’ve ever consumed. It’s one of the few times I’ve had nothing but water to drink with a meal, and loved it. The worst and best water I’ve had on any chase trips are less than 90 miles apart!
Towers gradually developed and deepened to the W as we were finishing up lunch, so we picked up a camera supply piece for Elke, did a brief driving tour of town, then headed N on US-191 to the Carters Ponds public fishing area on the Plains for an unimpeded view to the W. While visually monitoring the slowly evolving convective buildups to the W, we enjoyed the bird watching and photographing opportunities there, along with views of the low range of mountains to the E, and even did some fishing–didn’t catch anything, but it was fun anyway. We had a great pre-storm experience–definitely beats hours spent sitting around some Interstate truck stop!
Judith Gap/Snowy Range Supercells
Anvils began streaming off very distant convection back in the Absaroka Mountains SW of BIL, shrouding the convection to our W and making it harder to see. Still, the darkening of the closer area meant storms were building–an assessment confirmed by a brief window of online radar accessibility. We headed NW on MT-81 across the broad Judith River gorge to the Denton area to get closer, stopping at the abandoned Great Northern Railway car number 902 near Coffee Creek to photograph that and watch the convection to our W.
This was the farthest W and NW we ever have been on a chase trip–due N of eastern UT and eastern AZ! Elke was uneasy to be so far from home–the most distant yet by vehicle alone, a 3-day drive if any emergencies came up. Still, we kept vigilance. The storms took on a more strung-out, linear configuration, running parallel to their NNE-SSW axis of orientation, remaining rather fuzzy and featureless visually, and hugging the E edge of the mountains. This convection didn’t appear to have much of a future except as a quasi-linear mess.
Fortunately, additional storms were firing on the northern tip of the Bighorn Mountains near BIL and well SW of LWT, back near I-90. Plenty of daylight remained at this high latitude, so we reversed course and headed right back through LWT then WSW toward the Judith Gap, stopping along the way to photograph an abandoned farmstead. A supercell became apparent on radar S of Harlowtown, right on US-191 and moving N up the highway toward the W edge of the Little Snowies. We mapped out an intercept strategy to head down 191 and see the supercell before it hit the mountains, and in case the storm right-moved, jump onto what appeared to be a good unpaved road network S of the Little Snowies to watch the whole process.
Popping through the Judith Gap revealed an expanse of plains S of the Little Snowies that bristled with wind turbines–a fitting setting for the approach of a northward-moving supercell (looking SSE). Alas, the storm was being undercut by its own outflow and that of more convection upshear to its S, while moving N. We would have to either: 1) jump E into those unpaved roads to get out of the way of approaching cores with their probable hail and flash flooding, or 2) retreat back through the gap then E into LWT, awaiting whatever was left of the storm as it came over the mountains. We chose the former–but before doing so, managed to shoot a few daytime lightning photos from a high spot just S of the town of Judith Gap.
One captured a CG in the rear-flank core region behind a small wall cloud and RFD slot that soon became overwhelmed with outflow (looking WSW–again these storms were moving mainly N, so turn your conceptual perspective 90 degrees to the left). A few others were shot looking SW as that core passed, and another approached.
What was left of the inflow-notch region coiled back into the mountains to our W, while the base of another marginally organized supercell revealed itself behind still more core to our S. What fun! All this convection was training up a quasi-linear series, just as the earlier useless mush SE of Great Falls; however, this was offering more interesting processes and features.
Zigzagging E and S from Judith Gap to get out of the way, we stopped several times to observe what was left of the second supercell gust out spectacularly. As it did so, the storm veered NE into the Little Snowy Range in scenic fashion, the mountains forcing lift of cold, moist outflow air, the arcus and scud scraping the slopes as it rose. The hard-rightward deviance wasn’t because of convective propagation on the rear flank, but instead, the storm’s surfing its own outflow.
It’s a good thing we didn’t take the LWT option and wait on the other side of the mountains. The storm’s outflow barreled down the north slopes of the Little Snowies and smashed through LWT with significantly severe ferocity: measured 81-mph wind gusts that downed numerous trees in the town where we drank such delicious water several hours earlier.
Southern MT Storm Complex
The supercell having exterminated itself, we turned our attention and our path southward toward Shawmut and the paved US-12. In the distance, bases and cores were forming in several places to the S, SE and E, seemingly all at once, including what was left of the earlier Bighorns convection. Meanwhile, storms pulling off the mountains to our SW, behind the supercell, were growing in size and looking like linear outflow-makers. We were in an island of relative uneventfulness, but far from any paved roads for the inevitable closure of the storm gap SE of Judith Gap.
Before figuring out how to navigate that predicament, we stopped briefly to photograph an abandoned farmstead (main farmhouse and accessory outhouse), then jog SW a bit and view a picturesque, onrushing arcus roll from the trailing storms. While the scene back at the farmstead was a treat, we knew that a lot of storms were going to come together not far from us, and tangling with the resulting complex wasn’t going to be easy. Going E would just keep is on unpaved backroads a lot longer and delay the inevitable. If we headed S, we’d stay in a relative gap for awhile, with maybe some moderate precip, before being engulfed somewhere near the paved road where at least driving would be on firm footing. So it was…
For 20-something miles, we wound generally southward on pretty firm dirt and gravel back roads before reaching the crossroads of Shawmut, and paved US-12. Meanwhile the big wall of outflow that produced the roll cloud had surged out NE, E and SE, raising even more convection into storms–and those began unloading on us right as we reached the highway. The storms to our E also filled in.
With only this option back E, and the text day’s target area somewhere in western-central ND, we were resigned to plowing through (and with) a big blob of convection moving the same direction, all the way to wherever we felt like stopping for the night. We found large branches across the highway in the Ryegate/Lavina area, and PINGed that, while hearing reports of hail and damaging wind in locales ahead of us along the highway. I slowed down in order not to penetrate the worst of the wall of wind and woe.
Right about at Roundup, twilight started deepening, so we decided to stop there for the night. Hailstones littered the ground — some over an inch in diameter, along with broken small limbs; and golf-ball-sized hail had been reported there earlier. Exactly one room was available in town, about 70% below ground level, so we grabbed it and hoped against flooding. The room was actually decent quality–better than we had the night before.
Upon seeing a great, post-sunset mammatus display outside our room window (which was up the wall, at ground level), I wanted to head outside of town to shoot the sky. Elke was very tired, and stayed back. By the time I found a good vantage on a dirt road a few miles NE of town, the mammatus display had smoothed some and moved off quickly in step with what now was a raging, quasi-linear MCS blasting away toward Jordan and Glasgow. Still, in the fast-fading twilight, a blend of in-cloud and distant cloud-ground lightning peppered the eastern and northern sky, as the trailing mid-upper clouds streamed off to the NE. Here is a short animation looking NE that includes the latter shot, and another short time lapse looking E.
This was a long and nontornadic chase day–but nonetheless, very interesting, rewarding and memorable 12-hour circuit around central MT! We slept very well that night, and needed the rest to prepare us for an unexpectedly big drive into southern ND and northern SD the following day.
Our PING trail for this day.
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…