Altus Night Lightning

January 27, 2015 by · Comments Off on Altus Night Lightning
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Altus OK
26 Apr 14

SHORT: Weak diurnal storms NW TX, brief supercell with lightning burst near LTS.

Elke and I were off on this day, so we decided to go for a country drive to enjoy a fine Saturday afternoon and evening. That country drive involved heading SW from Norman, specifically to the warm sector ahead of the dryline near Vernon.

Because of a lack of richer moisture, prospects for anything tornadic didn’t look promising, unless a ribbon of higher mixing ratios could arrive just in time for that “magic window” of evening hours, when the boundary layer starts to decouple but the surface parcels still may be available to storm inflow. That scenario appears in wishes more than in reality in springtime regimes involving early-stage or incomplete moisture return, so we simply headed out in hopes of seeing some photogenic convection.

Wandering some backroads S of Vernon, we saw several nondescript cells bubble up and down in a SSW-NNE-oriented train. Most appeared rather mushy, befitting the lack of more intense CAPE, and didn’t exhibit any structure that compelled me to take more than a few test shots to make sure the camera was working. Still, we found a couple of remote spots away from highway traffic and enjoyed some time in the great Plains wind, as we enjoy every spring.

As the sun set, a newer round of storms was firing on the retreating dryline farther W–mainly SSW of CDS. We headed back into Vernon for some dinner at a greasy-spoon cafe, monitoring convective trends and plotting a course to observe the most intense cell after dark near LTS (an easy drive to the N) if it survived. By the time we got to LTS, the storm had been a marginal supercell but already was weakening, and another one mostly hidden to its NW was ramping up, moving mostly away from us, and starting to produce hail.

Regardless, we parked off a dark dirt road a couple miles SW of town and watched the slowly decaying original storm sail NNE to our SW, W and N, producing a few photogenic lightning flashes along the way. The second of them that I chose to keep (above in the header, and linked here), was the most fascinating. It appears to be a downward-directed attempt at a step leader that never contacted the ground, then got lit up as a secondary branch by a conduction connection (crawler style) somewhere deep in the cloud material above. The groundward-aimed scythe shape, as viewed laterally, makes me wonder how it would have appeared to a fortunate observer standing directly beneath–fortunate not to have been touched by the leader!

A few more flashes and the storm was done…and so were we. We headed home after a decidedly stress-free storm-observing trip having spent plenty of quality hours traveling together as a happily married couple.

Our PING trail for this day. [PING date is ending date in UTC.]

Spring 2011 Grand Finale: A Tornado-fest

September 9, 2011 by · Comments Off on Spring 2011 Grand Finale: A Tornado-fest
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NW KS to south-central NEb
20 June 11

SHORT: Food, fishing, baby-bird rescue and a bunch of tornadoes…on final chase day of the vacation and season for us, with three tornadic supercells in northern KS and southern NEb.

LONG: Awakening to a windy, moist, scuddy morning in Alma, NEb, beneath a rip-roaring ENEly low-level jet, Elke and I knew this could be a productive storm day, but had no idea that it would land in the top few of our entire storm-observing careers. Indeed, if you include the calendar day–having witnessed the second of two spectacular, lightning-illuminated supercells after the stroke of midnight (story here), there is no question that his goes down as an all-time top-5-class chase day for either of us.


After looking at morning charts, I targeted two plays:
1. Mid-day tornado potential in the “bent back” region of the occluding surface frontal zone, W of the dryline and near the surface low. Even by mid-morning, this regime was taking shape in west-central KS and moving directly N toward us, with only some diurnal heating and a storm needed to engage intercept mode.
2. Late-afternoon potential on the nose of the dry punch, near the dryline/warm-frontal triple point, over east-central or SE NEb. This is the regime I had in mind for a couple of days, but forecast backing of flow with height in the midlevels (a harbinger of linear storm modes) had me concerned.

Obviously, given where we were, #1 was a no-brainer as first choice, despite my historically lame fortune with “cold core” supercell regimes. If that option either busted or died out early enough in the afternoon, the rather slow eastward component of the deep-layer cyclone’s motion meant we could blast east, preferably on a road suited to it like I-80, and intercept the dryline storms.

With that strategic concept in mind, and a lack of food options in Alma, we headed for HDE to eat late breakfast/early lunch, then to a nearby city park to bide some time reading (Elke) and fishing (me) before storms went up.

I didn’t get too many casts into the lake because of a sad sight I found underneath a tree: two dead baby robins, blown out of their nests by one of last night’s supercells, and one still alive and shivering with hypothermia. After some deliberation about what to do, we noticed other robins and nests up the tree. Elke, who has a longstanding soft spot for baby birds, warmed the featherless little critter while I shimmied up the tree in search of a suitable nest in which to place the orphan. We got it in a snug nest (albeit alongside a much larger and older baby), hoping its new sibling could keep it warm and the new mama would feed it. Chances are it didn’t survive; but we tried.

First tornadic phase: “Long Island/Stamford” supercell

During the avian-rescue experience, a storm had formed (early, as cold-core storms often do) and quickly had become supercellular near HLC. By the time I got a good radar read on it, the storm already was tornado-warned. Though it was moving our way, we still were in HDE, well to its NNE, so…back S through Alma we went, and across the KS line. Mike U already had seen his festival of tornadoes by the time we caught the storm S of Long Island KS, but it was far from done.

Terrain in the area was somewhat choppy and frustrating to navigate, so we settled for the first decent hilltop view we could get, 3 S of Long Island. The supercell was moving toward the N and NNE at various times, with dark murk inside, a tall precip cascade on its SE (rear-flank) edge, and clear, blue sky to its E (our SE). Surface winds blew from the ENE to NE, as they would throughout the duration of our engagement with this supercell. We and the storm were a little leftward of the track of the surface low!

In the murk–and curiously, in the forward-flank interface region ahead of the main mesocyclone, we saw a small, tightly rotating wall cloud emerge, with a pencil-shaped tornado dangling beneath (photo: as seen and super-enhanced versions).

The tornado lasted about three minutes and dissipated, before a different, seemingly shallow, front-flank mesocirculation started spinning like mad to our W. That planted a dusty multivortex, which also was low-contrast (photo: as seen and super-enhanced versions). Whoa! I had based our intercept positioning, relative to the supercell, on the likely track of the primary mesocyclone, which stuck out eastward from the SE side of the north-moving storm.

By now, I had figured out what was going on, but that didn’t make it any less surreal. Pearls of enhanced rotation were forming and spawning front-flank tornadoes, along a necklace of very rich vorticity characterizing the inflow-outflow interface. A conceptual model of the situation looks something like this 2-D cartoon. Why this supercell was going nuts with front-flank mesocirculations, whilst most others don’t, is a question I’ll leave to the numerical modelers for the time being. In the real world of a storm intercept, this presented a strategic quandary, in that getting closer to the front-flank tornadic necklace also meant getting in the path of a rain-wrapped HP mesocyclone of a fairly fast-moving supercell.

As the second tornado churned northward, in step with storm translation, another suspicious feature caught our attention (Elke actually saw it first). A wide view of the storm (photo: as seen) shows the precip-wrapped, main mesocyclone to the left, and at far right, the dusty multivortex. Right before taking that shot, we spotted a dark, smooth, persistent, and reasonably wide lowering in another area of front-flank rotation, buried somewhat back into a precip-filled notch. That made ground contact, with rapid rotation of cloud material above and around the tapered-barrel shaped tornado. We had two ongoing, plus one that likely was underway in the main mesocyclone but not yet visible. More on that beast later. As for the two we knew, the arrows point to the visible tornadoes in this super-enhanced/zoomed version of the last shot.

We had a peculiar situation at hand.

After a few minutes, we lost sight of the southern front-flank tornado as it buried itself in precip, while the leading one narrowed and proceeded toward the N. We headed N too, crossing the KS/NEb state line about the same time as the leading tornado to our W (photo: as seen and super-enhanced versions).

Once that dissipated, we still had an original, dominant mesocyclone to our SSW, in which we couldn’t see anything thanks to persistent, rotating moat of heavy precip that cloaked the mysterious tempests of danger lurking within. This situation was getting weirder all the time, and was about to become truly bizarre.

I drove through Orleans and a few miles NW on US-136, which angled us closer to the front flank and somewhat in the path of the big meso. Lo and behold, just ahead of the rain-wrapped main meso, a tall, skinny, dusty tornado came into view to our WSW (photo: as seen and super-enhanced versions). This definitely was separate from the previous tornado, and probably just S of the KS/NEb state line. Meanwhile, a new and relatively robust shear-zone updraft to our NW (separate from the dissipated dusty tornado #2) started spinning frantically, and beneath a shallow, bowl-shaped and rapidly rotating lowering, spun up another short-lived, dusty tornado (photo: as seen and super-enhanced versions)! After the latter tornado dissipated, the prior, dusty tube seemed to spin down gradually instead of roping out, as if it simply lost its will to rotate.

Whither the main meso? At long last, we started seeing the answer as a rapidly rotating, nearly ground-to-anvil column of rain and hail churned toward us. Something very menacing, dangerous and unsavory began to appear from within the whirling dungeon of heavy precip–a big fat tornado (photo: as seen and super-enhanced versions). Look behind and above the tree row. I think what we’re seeing here is not just the rain-wrapped low levels of the tornado (dark wedge below cloud base, with helical scud coiling about).

Also, note the convective column containing the tornadic circulation (and not much larger in width than the visible tornado down low!) bending above and to the right. This is NWward with height on a N-moving storm, looking SW. [Conceptually, turn your usual NE-tilt on an E-moving storm leftward 90 deg as in the 2-D cartoon ]. In essence, you’re seeing the tornado-cyclone from ground into the mid-upper levels of the storm, visually. Yes, it was convective-looking, but corkscrewing pretty fast visually. Alas, even the mid-upper part didn’t shed its cloak of rotating rain curtains for very long; mostly it had been a bear’s cage from ground almost to anvil, for much of this storm’s lifespan in my view. I’m glad the curtains parted just long enough to reveal this fascinating deep-layer structure–and of course the hefty hose beneath.

My question: Was this the continuation of the Mr. Umscheid’s wedge from way down by HLC, or a separate tornado? Some shots by Walker Ashley seem to indicate a smaller barrel====>cone tornado earlier in this meso’s lifespan, and farther SW in KS. If so, either
1. Walker;s tornado expanded again to a rain-wrapped wedge shown here, or
2. This was a new one.

Whatever the case, the main-meso tornado likely had been ongoing for a long time, given that we had observed tremendously rotating rain curtains around the area for many minutes. This clearly was a very large, well-formed and mature tornadic vortex by the time we finally could see it. The entire tilted cloud column was rotating rapidly.

Wrapping precip again obscured the tornado within two minutes, or about the time it crossed into Nebraska. Orbiting rain curtains continued around the mesocyclone for several miles N toward Stamford an perhaps beyond, until the entire supercell evaporated from below and died W of HDE.

I read reports of “skipping” tornado paths with this storm in this area, which is bogus on two fronts:

    1. By definition, a tornado cannot “skip”. If it’s not on the ground, it’s not a tornado.

    2. Semantics aside, there simply was no “skipping”. The various different tornadoes in this area near the border, lined up similarly, probably gave the illusion of “skipping” of damage.

After the initial storm died, we got fuel in HDE and then couldn’t flank the downshear Elm Creek storm. We knew it was tornadic based on spotter reports and the SRM signature, but it was planted squarely on the highway to our N, near I-80. The first storm had put us out of position to see the business end of the Elm Creek supercell, so we jumped on the Interstate with its 75 mph speed limit and pressed the pedal hard in an eastward run for the second target area.

Second tornadic phase: “Hampton and Bradshaw/Stromsburg” supercells

Visually, a series of deep, glaciating towers to our ENE-E-SE looked reachable and was growing. By the time we passed the HSI/GRI exit, an unbroken wall of dense cores loomed to the E on radar, their convective towers lit by a blend of direct and filtered sunlight. My hope was that, despite the linear mode, a “tail-end Charlie” would roll up toward I-80 after I could penetrate the line and get into the inflow air. Linear storms don’t tend to hurl gorilla hail; so I was at ease with cruising up to the back and shooting through a relative gap.

That’s exactly what we did, except that the southern part of the line was breaking up into more discrete (and disturbingly, rotating) cells right as we started the penetration. We took a pounding from marginally severe hail, gazing southward through precip to see if anything could show up in the nearest area of rotation S of the Interstate. As we cleared precip and a ragged base came into view adjacent to the core, Elke saw a brief needle funnel 4/5 of the way to the ground. That might have been a tornado; though flooded fields precluded appreciable dust generation. No debris was visible beneath.

As we neared the Hampton exit, another core loomed to the SSE, moving N. We continued to press E, getting pounded by still more hail. Clearly the line had broken up into closely-packed supercells and we needed to get out of their way! A few minutes after we cleared the N side of the intensifying precip area, I glanced behind us to see a barrel-shaped, rain-wrapped tornado in the S part of the same core, about to cross the Interstate (photo: as seen and super-enhanced versions). That was a little too close for comfort, though we really had about 5 minutes’ cushion. I pulled off the road, jumped out, and gestured wildly at some westbound traffic not to go that way. Fortunately, they slowed down and pulled aside.

What appeared to be a big, low-visibility and significant tornado (as it turned out to be!) was almost upon the Interstate (photo: as seen and super-enhanced versions), and I was hoping nobody would drive into it. Enough precip wrapped around the tornado that we couldn’t see it with our eyeballs as it crossed I-80 (photo: as seen and super-enhanced versions), though it narrowed somewhat to a stilted stovepipe and became more visible again between I-80 and US-34 (photo: as seen and super-enhanced versions).

The Hampton tornado appeared to hook NNW and move away from us. Our last view of it (photo: as seen and super-enhanced versions) came with a troubling realization: we still were getting peppered with precip, including increasingly large hail! The real tail-end Charlie still hadn’t reached I-80 yet; and indeed, another core was moving overhead with a low base diffusely visible to our SSE. Time to high-tail it east again! As we pondered getting off the Interstate at the Bradshaw exit, Elke looked out and up to see rapid cloud-base rotation nearly overhead, atop that very exit. We kept going!

Behind and slightly leftward of us, the tornado first appeared in the rear-view mirror while driving out from under the meso. A small dust plume spun up just N of I-80. Above that loomed a rotating cone funnel that extended about 1/3 down from cloud base. We zipped a mile or so E, then pulled safely off the road to watch. This tornado was highly visible and quite photogenic, a marvelously sheathed column into which the condensation funnel seemed to poke, spike-like. “Finally,” I thought, “all these tornadoes today and we have a high-contrast specimen!” I said something more coarse, but fortunately, cannot recall precisely what.

Without an immediately available north road, we watched for a few minutes as the tube widened and retreated northward away from us, a wide-angle view revealing more of the tail-end supercell’s swirly updraft structure. Although rather distant, we had the tornado in view all the way through JYR and up US-81 to a point 4 ESE of Polk, where we pulled over briefly to watch it rope out to the WNW. This was our longest continuous view of any of the day’s tornadoes: 18 minutes.

A new lowered base even farther N told me this storm wasn’t through with cyclic tornado production yet. As it was moving N rather quickly, slightly ahead of abeam to port side, the town of Stromsburg and its inevitable slowdown dead ahead, we had to get moving for any hope of seeing the next hose. A few miles S of Stromsburg, we saw the newest and last tornado of our day emerge from the haze, to our NW.

Of course, traffic slowed to a crawl in town, a chain of cars inching N at about half the posted 25 mph speed limit, some slowing down or turning indecisively as if thoroughly bewildered. Townsfolk stood in at least half the yards gazing in various skyward directions, not sheltered, despite the ominous wail of storm sirens. I thought, “They’re safe and don’t realize it yet; but if the tornado were headed into town, we would have multiple casualties amongst all these unprepared and confused citizens”. What I actually said might have been a tad less civilized, so it’s good that I can’t recall that.

By the time we got extricated from Stromsburg and headed N for a few miles, contrast improved enough to pull W half a mile and get a few decent shots, including this one looking NW across a corn field at the stout, grinding vortex. Motion of the ragged cloud base around the top of the visible tornado was impressively speedy. Driving a few more miles N on US-81, we finally got roughly abeam of the tornado again, only to see it rapidly narrow and then rope out.

Just in case the storm would cycle once more, we headed up an unmarked road off the east bend of US-81, in the general direction of Duncan. Alas, the supercell quickly displayed a rain-wrapped, outflow-dominant structure, and would produce no more tornadoes. We turned around to head back to JYR, photograph a couple of elevated cells (looking E and looking N from the S side of JYR), grab a room, and get some celebratory steak dinner before restaurants began to close.


A hearty meal was in order too. During a long storm-intercept day, we successfully had observed at least 8 and perhaps up to 10 tornadoes, from three different supercells, in two separate forecast targets and meteorological regimes. All I can say is, wow…only 3 May 1999 clearly exceeds this for my one-day tornado total. We don’t chase just to see tornadoes–far from it, actually–but you bet we’re appreciative of them for their rarity, uniqueness and power–the dichotomously ironic “Beauty of Atmospheric Violence” that is the title for my storm-photography shows. Best of all, nobody was injured through all the whirling mayhem of the day.

It was an amazing grand finale to an unprecedentedly bountiful 2011 Great Plains severe-storm vacation (and season)!

I had called in several of the tornadoes as soon as safety and cell signals would allow, a few while they still were underway. Within a couple weeks after we returned, I processed the day’s images (before all others from this vacation) and sent an itemized table of tornado times and estimated locations to the affected WFOs, with embedded links to many of the same photos as above. That table includes times, locations and links to the above photos. The tornado log file is in the public domain, and linked here in MS Excel format, freely accessible for anyone interested.

High Plains Lightning Festival

July 7, 2011 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Summary 

Colorado-Nebraska Border Region
13 June 11

SHORT: Began in BFF. Waited in SNY. Avoided outflow-surfing CO/NEb border storms to intercept supercell near AKO, saw probably non-tornadic dust whirls with storm merger there. Fantastic twilight lightning display from elevated storms along border S of IBM.

Elke and I started the day in BFF, targeting the general area of the CO/NEb border SE of there. I wasn’t particularly jazzed by the weak lower-tropospheric winds in the forecast, figuring outflow and/or storm splits would be a problem. Still, it’s the high plains in early June with adequate moisture, upslope flow and at least marginal shear. The answer? Be there.

We waited a good, long time at a hilltop outside SNY, just NW of a dryline that eventually would fire up a tornadic HP supercell in the horrible road network and terrain of the Sandhills. We saw those towers to the distant NE, but chose not to pursue given the great difficulties involved with storm intercepts in those parts.

Meanwhile, we listened to meadowlarks and, on radar displays, watched chaser icons on SpotterNetwork zigzag back and forth across the area in impatience as the lack of focused action. Fuzzy storms began to fire between the Laramie Range and Cheyenne Ridge, which was no surprise; their distant bases were so high we could see them from SNY. I wasn’t impressed. Red dots converged on I-80 and headed W. We sat, waiting and hoping instead for dryline development to access richer moisture to our SE and E.

Finally, off to the distant SW, two storms erupted near and N of the Palmer Divide in Colorado. This was near the very southern fringes of our forecast area; but as nothing much was happening with the dryline nearby, and the storms were reachable, we decided to go have a look. Along the way SW, through the convoluted maze of roads that is Sterling CO, the southeast storm attracted quite a few chaser icons. The NW storm didn’t, was closer, and was in a similar environment; so we headed toward AKO to intercept it.

Alas, along the way, the SE storm calved off a big left-mover and died! Moreover, the left mover shot toward the inflow region of our target storm like a torpedo hell-bent on mutually assured destruction of both storms. Briefly, we got a view of the NW supercell’s mesocyclone area to our WSW before the left-mover’s core arrived; and it looked like a somewhat higher-based version of a North Texas HP “Stormzilla”. This meant big hail; so it was imperative to get S fast.

Yet there loomed the left-mover over the road to our S, likely bearing ice bombs also. It got there as we did, just S of AKO. The two storms started to merge overhead, and in the tiny gap between their cores, two strongly rotating dust whirls appeared less than a mile to our W, about 3 minutes apart. [I was driving and driving hard, so…no photos!]

Though a narrow, ribbon-shaped updraft had formed overhead at the merger location, we could see no obvious rotation in it. I attributed the whirls to gustnado-like vortices being stretched where the two gust fronts met. We maintained an equatorward bearing, encountering only marginal severe hail at best (to our relief).

Arriving just S of the combined storms, which indeed were killing each other, we photographed the dying supercell across rain-drenched corn stubble S of AKO. It was good to see Steve Hodanish and to swap Hodo stories with a co-worker of his, and also, to talk with a few other friendly storm observers whom I hadn’t met before. Yet we were essentially stormless, parting ways and headed back toward our various bases for the night. All that was left, for now, was outflow spinning a windmill under a dark and stormy high plains skyscape.

We headed toward lodging in the Nebraska Panhandle, soaking in the sights of Pawnee National Grasslands in anticipation of spending a couple of upcoming non-chase days of roaming around some of our favorite haunts around the Black Hills, not counting on any more atmospheric excitement. As good fortune sometimes plays on previously under-performing storm days, the night brought about an unexpected–and most welcome–show of splendor that made our night!

A short line of elevated and high-based thunderstorms erupted over the WY-NEb border region atop the outflow pool from all the late-afternoon activity, and moved SE across the southwestern Panhandle and across the Cheyenne Ridge. Evening storms like this in the High Plains can spark profusely, and these absolutely did! We found a vantage just over the CO/NEb border S of IBM (Kimball, not the company) and began shooting away at the approaching spectacle. Assorted forked and in-cloud displays slashed across the fading twilight, their reports blasting resonantly across the wide-open landscape. Soon, some cloud-to-air discharges flickered forth, followed by yet more (and closer) sky-splitting CG action. Wow…what a show!

The lightning was getting too close, though; so we drove through the translucent core of the thunderstorm line a short distance into IBM, crossing a few miles of small hail (with almost no rain!) along the way. I’ll never forget the sight of countless thousands of little white hail balls in the high beams–cascading dots of brightness, the only form of light shining back at me along that dark High Plains highway.

After securing a motel room near the edge of town (like we like to do), we noticed the sparkling display still underway to our SE, and headed back out past the E edge of town for a little crawler-lightning show in the trailing precip region. And with a few more flashes to light up the midnight hour across the western Nebraska prairie, bedtime drew nigh, our storm-hungry palates duly satiated. I had very few lightning photos to show for 2011 until this night, when the heavens unloaded electrical gifts one after another in a most dazzling and appreciated fashion.

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