Squall Line Way Up North

September 11, 2012 by · Comments Off on Squall Line Way Up North
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St. John ND
10 Jun 12

SHORT: Blew off chasing in trees in MN or driving from ND-KS in one shot, intending to hang out in ND ’til the pattern returned favorable parameters to Dakotas. While en route to Int’l Peace Garden, intercepted photogenic, low-topped squall line and attendant arcus cloud over very green fields near St. John ND.


The cold front from the previous day’s action was slated to shift into more forested land of central and northern Minnesota, within which we didn’t wish to chase. Strong to severe storms also were possible farther south, along and ahead of the front, in mode viewing-friendly areas of Iowa, NW Missouri and Kansas, but under weaker deep-layer shear.

Laundry beckoned, and so did a few days of R&R in the heretofore superficially explored state of North Dakota before the next substantial atmospheric perturbation brought severe potential to the northern Great Plains. After finishing the wash and brunch in Grafton, we charted a net WNW course on the township-range zigzag of eastern and northern North Dakota, aiming to grab a couple bucketfuls of rich, black soil from the old Lake Agassiz bed for my vegetable garden back home (check), visit Icelandic State Park (uncheck), see the Pembina Gorge (check), visit the International Peace Garden (check), and spend a night or two in the so-called Turtle Mountains (check).

Somewhat retracing the route we took the evening before, we encountered a fantastic layer of asperatus (a.k.a. “warm-advection clouds”) between Grafton and Cavalier. That was followed immediately by a rather featureless, messy band of elevated thunderstorms that timed badly for visiting the state park. Instead, we headed up to Walhalla and toured the misty, scuddy and decidedly green Pembina River Gorge by car.

Ascending that small canyon, which drains an escarpment separating the Plains from the Red River of the North valley, leads the driver to the marvelously open, flat and attractive countryside characteristic of most of the state NE of the Missouri River. Folks here seem to inherit their ancestors’ fastidious tidiness ethic. In towns, this means well-kept houses, gardens and lawns. In rural areas, we saw a distinct absence of junk cars, rusty appliances, neglected fencing, or haphazard accumulations of dilapidated mechanical rubbish strewn across weedy lawns of occupied homes–in other words, a refreshign difference from thousands of points of blight that are prevalent in the southern Plains countryside. Landscapes here were familiar from the day before, but the setting was different–scuddy, light rain on the back side of the elevated storm band, with broken blue sky to the west, and the cool, moist freshness of wet earth behind a summertime cold front. This trip already was a splendid pleasure, and soon would become more so.

Proceeding westward across the borderlands, we finally broke into sunshine west of Langdon–but not for long! Onboard radar showed a thin, curving arc of cold-core thunderstorms developing to the W, over the turtle Mountains. A low-topped squall line was forming–something that experience told me could be quite photogenic in such otherwise clean air and sky. It was.

Approaching the squall line from the SE (as it moved quickly eastward), we marveled at how shallow and low-topped the convection was–typical for a cold-core low in a low-CAPE, relatively low-tropopause setting–but still rather uncommon in my southern-latitude experiences. In fact, just a few miles ahead of the arcus cloud, sunshine still illuminated the moist and richly verdant fields adjoining the east side of the Turtle Mountains. This clearly was not any of the 60,000-foot-deep walls of deep-convective severity I’m accustomed to observing in a North Texas April.

Our viewpoint was just SE of St. John, only four miles S of Canada, and in a fine position to view the oncoming shelf cloud. We were able to frame the sweeping arcus above the gentle curve of a rural dirt road that nicely split the greenery. After that, we cruised into St. John and let the storms move over us, enduring a decent barrage of small hail and subsevere gusts.

Heading into the hills, we quickly left behind the weakening squall line and visited the International Peace Garden (highly recommended, no passport needed!). The storms had run off the visitors, so we nearly had the place all to ourselves in rain-cooled air with sunny, late-afternoon light. Afterward, and with no one behind us in the customs line, I had a long, very friendly conversation with a customs officer and USAF vet at the re-entry station (the park is directly astride the border, its driveway halfway between U.S. and Canadian customs). He gave us a good recommendation for lodging options beside beautiful Lake Metigoshe–at which we reserved two nights for R&R before the next chase-worthy, northern-Plains shortwave.

Southwest Oklahoma Classic-HP Supercell

May 16, 2012 by · Comments Off on Southwest Oklahoma Classic-HP Supercell
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Hollis to Apache, OK
13 Apr 12

SHORT: Chase route GCK-LBL-HHF-LTS-OUN. Intercepted occasionally photogenic supercell from inception near Hollis to N of Duke, then as it got absorbed into what became an HP “Stormzilla” NE of LTS that crossed Wichita Mountains. Activity forming SW of that merged/absorbed it after dark N of Apache.

The day before turned into a storm-free “bustola” on the western Kansas dryline, with only distant convection to the north near sunset. Elke and I salvaged something from the 12th by heading to Monument Rocks for the late-afternoon light, then bunked down in GCK.

Today’s most straightforward storm intercept target was over the NW TX, SW OK and SE Panhandle region near CDS. We left GCK for a long but simple jaunt SSE down US-81, with lunch in Perryton. While there, storms already started firing over central and SW OK. Early initiation stinks, especially when the observer still is over 150 miles away!

A distant line of building convection hovered just above the SE horizon as we headed out of Perryton. Now we targeted the area of its prospective backbuilding into the slowly retreating late-afternoon dryline. The pre-dryline baroclinic zone upon which the storms were forming was supposed to retreat N also, after 21Z. My thinking was that the future western storms would represent the latest, highest-CAPE development, farthest removed from the threat of interference by upshear convection.

Given our distance and target area, we obviously missed the Norman tornado, not that we would have targeted specifically that needle-in-haystack HP supercell event anyway. As we reached Wellington, big towers began to backbuild on the pre-dryline boundary toward the Hollis-CDS area; so we turned E on US-63 into SW OK to get into position. We fueled up at Hollis as a young storm began rotating ESE of town, and newer convection with cores formed to our S-SW near Vernon and CDS.

Using phone radar, I noticed a nasty-looking hook had developed on the W side of Norman, with an HP supercell attached to a larger cluster of storms extending westward. It was a mess, but a mess with a meso. I called my daughter, who told me she just had experienced a tornado at the high school and had been safe in a windowless room, under a desk. The first concern, and relief, was that she was fine. My son was elsewhere, well SE of the path. Both were OK, so I could shake my head and marvel at the truth that, once again, a tornado had occurred in Norman with me observing other storms far away.

We cruised E out of Hollis, preliminarily targeting the storm to our ESE, but with a contingency to stop and let the newer development to our SW (then the tail-end conceptual target) come toward us if it started looking good. That’s exactly what happened. CGs from the newly organizing, tail-end convection slammed all around us between Hollis and Duke. We turned N out of Duke, found a good vantage 3 N of Duke, let the disorganizing eastern storm move away to our NE, and watched the newer storm approach and strengthen.

Alas, still more convection formed upshear, but the storm began looking distinctively supercellular as it crossed the section road to our W. This would become the Altus-Apache supercell, but not before producing a nice wall cloud, one with strong rising motion but only modest cyclonic turning. Another lowered area, likely from an older occlusion visible in the last windmill shot, loomed in the background.

Neither got any better organized; indeed, the entire storm started looking somewhat strung-out. We considered breaking off and heading toward the newer activity W of Hollis and W of CDS, as some others already were. However, we needed a pit stop in nearby LTS, while the supercell began turning into a dark, menacing, precip-filled mass to our N. We decided to stay with it for awhile, watching what by now was an HP “Stormzilla” over the western nubs of the Wichita Mountains.

Our supercell developed a nasty-looking HP hook on radar with a deep, intense mesocyclone; but we couldn’t see anything in the dark murk from LTS regarding the tornado report near Blair. Even without the bathroom break, I’m not sure we would have been able to get in position to see much.

By the time we reached Snyder, it was to late to do much with the western convection before dark. We also knew that the storm would head into an awkwardly configured road void in the Wichitas, cutting us off. [I had circumnavigated the void successfully last November 7, but from a different angle. That day, I beat the storm. This day, the storm would beat me.]

Driving several miles N out of Snyder, we hoped to see whatever the storm had to offer before it got into that road void. Here was its S side, along the rear-flank gust front looking W. Here was the E side, looking NNW toward a small but slowly rotating cloud protrusion with a clear slot. That looked interesting for a few minutes, until being undercut by a massive surge of the heavy precip-loaded RFD.

The photogenic HP storm moved off into the road void to our NE, and we knew it would be dark by the time we could get through Lawton and go N toward Apache to see the storm again. The storm produced a rainy twilight tornado during that interval when we were repositioning, fittingly enough.

By the time we reached Apache to see what was left, we found a storm still supercellular but again messy. Our viewing timing with respect to the best-organized stages simply wasn’t working out. At least, for a short time, the downshear anvil region sparked mightily and beautifully overhead. Our last decent wide-angle view of the storm, from a hill just E of town, featured the lights of the wind farm and Apache to our W, what was left of the wall cloud and main updraft region near center (NW), the vault area to the right (NNW), and of course, cows.

Before the storm could cut off itinerary options again, we headed NE toward Chickasha and home. The storm merged with convection to its W, evolving into a small bow, then moving over Chickasha and toward the Purcell/Pauls Valley area a weakening blob of rain and occasional hail. By then, we were home, tired from the two-day, thousand-mile trek, but eagerly anticipating the big severe-weather day of the 14th.

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.

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