Central SD to Chadron NE
21 Jun 13
SHORT: Bypassed morning/mid-day SD MCS on its NW-W-SW side. Second MCS developed all around us in afternoon near CDR offering eccentric skies & flood.
Recall, from the previous day’s summary, that I mentioned the unplanned adventures of storm-observing jaunts. Today was like that. We awoke in a Mobridge motel to a few itchy bites in places mosquitoes wouldn’t be able to access. We immediately suspected bedbugs, despite the lack thereof in the previous night’s customary inspections of beds and bedding. Another thorough inspection turned up none–so the mystery remains as to what got us. Whatever, it was time to get the hell out and not look back.
Laundry needed to be done anyway, given that we were in our last clean clothes. That process took longer than expected due to slow-working, money-sucking dryers; so we were stuck in MBG until that was done. This was important, as a complex of thunderstorms erupted early in the morning over the southern Black Hills (producing 4.25-inch hail!), expanding and rolling out across the Badlands area, sweeping ENE across much of central and southern SD, and treating storm observers near I-90 to a nice morning shelf-cloud display that we had to miss. All we saw, while laundry was going and while eating lunch, was the dark, amorphous gray mass of the MCS slowly shifting eastward across the southern sky.
Explosions of mid-late morning convection all over the target area seldom portend sweet supercellular tidings in the afternoon. The previous night’s thinking of a Badlands-area target would have to be revised southward, thanks to outflow from this big, unwelcome convective bomb. It was looking more and more probable that we needed to drive at least an hour or two farther SW then previously anticipated, into Nebraska. First, clean clothing and a hot meal took priority.
Lunch itself was very good–German food at a restaurant in town, just a couple of blocks from the washateria. The proprietor–a lady about my age but speaking with an odd Germanic accent, herded her own kids to and fro while serving meals and manning the register. Elke was perplexed by the accent too–not anything she was accustomed to hearing from a German or Austrian immigrant, yet decidedly of that origin. A later conversation with her revealed that she was a fourth-generation American and fully fluent in English, as had been all her ancestors in that area, but that conversational German had been passed down to her through each of four generations following 1800s immigration. That explained it–the pronunciations and cadences had been Americanized slowly over 100 years, but the words and sentences still were correct German. I wondered how she would sound to a Munich native if speaking that flavor of South Dakota German in Bavaria!
As we finished lunch, but before laundry was ready, supercells began to form ahead of the MCS, to our E and ESE and within an hour’s drive or so. This was mental torture. Yes, a quick eyeball modification of observed and forecast soundings indicated they were surface-based, as did the quick development of an intense, tornado-warned mesocyclone. These probably could have been intercepted, if not for our situation, and a tornado was reported with one of them before the cells all got absorbed into the northern fringes of what now was a raging bow echo. It wasn’t even after 1 p.m. yet! How could I get mad at missing weird midday tornado action ahead of an MCS? I didn’t.
By the time we got laundry done and packed, the supercell action was winding down, and the bowing complex had finished mowing across the PIR area and U-83 to our S. We headed down that road, through the back-side rain and lightning, admiring the oddly lit midday sky with darkness in the NE-E-SE and blue in the NW. At PIR we broke into milky skies of thin, training high clouds with slowly warming outflow and soft, stratified fuzz patches for low clouds.
Data checks showed the outflow boundary arching from about 80 miles S of us across Cherry County and into the Black Hills–still moving S but not very fast, and starting to cook in the heat of insolation on both sides. Vorticity source, vorticity source…hello! Despite the weaker-than-desired mid-up-er level winds farther S, perhaps a storm forming on or interacting with that boundary could spin up a needle-in-haystack surprise, if we caught it at the right place and time. Remember: I forecasted this.
Making the strategy work was another story altogether. It took us a few hours to zigzag our way across the reservations, through Martin SD, to Gordon NEb. By then, deep convective towers were apparent on both sides of the outflow boundary, which still was moving S about 10 mph but decelerating. The cap was weak and getting weaker, with very unusual 68-72-degree dew points along and S of the boundary. At that altitude, juice like that couldn’t be held down for long.
Moisture won–fast. In the relatively short time it took us to fuel up in Gordon, which was right on the boundary with nearly calm winds, the sky grew dark quickly, in several directions. Storms were blowing up to the NE, SE, S, and W–all at once, and acting like they wanted to merge. The most discrete, least messy area appeared to be to our W, toward CDR, which also was on the boundary. We headed that way, observing this storm rise with low, sopping-wet cloud features more suitable for Florida than northwestern Nebraska.
Somewhere back in the darkness to our E, in the messy storm mergers, a strong mesocyclone spun up on radar velocity displays, followed soon thereafter by a tornado warning and report…near Gordon, where we just had been! Determined not to get frustrated and whipsaw back after something that obviously would be transient (and turned out to be), we stayed with the convection near CDR. How could I get mad at missing weird cluster-embedded tornado action in what was becoming an MCS? I didn’t.
The sultry character of the air mass, in a place like this, was a dichotomy of two worlds–a vorticity-rich, humidity-laded gob of air that felt and smelled like a tropical depression, storms seemingly blossoming everywhere, but in a setting that hardly ever sees such conditions. I soaked in the familiar sensation from much lower latitudes–my mind singing, “5:00 somewhere”–until the outflow hit. That was that for that.
Storms were backbuilding to our WSW, just S of CDR, with outflow now past the town. Driving right by it anyway, and for good measure, we briefly stopped to secure a room for the night at our favorite motel there, the Westerner. The staff recognized me from my prior two visits this year, and was glad to get a weather report from their “expert storm-chaser guest”. Before we headed back out to get S of the backbuilding line, I told them to be ready for flooding rains, maybe some hail, but tornadoes looked unlikely in town.
By the time we got back out of town and onto the high ridge just to its S, tornadoes looked unlikely everywhere in the area. We could get back into the warm sector, but the storms were outflow-dominant, kicking big, ragged scud piles well ahead of any updrafts. There was a manifestation of the lack of more intense ambient shear. But hey…scud and outflow can be scenic, wondrous, captivating…and for several moments, these certainly were!
Uniquely arranged and oddly lit assemblies of landscape, low cloud banks and the background storm pall gave us a fine and fun time on the southern fringes of the Pine Ridge. Muted translucence from the late-day northwestern angle of the hidden sun, with deep cloud mass to the north and northeast, permitted an odd southern light to wash across the front faces of the low clouds, beneath and behind variegated slate tones aloft. That southern light reflected from the scud onto a part of the deck above, subtly illuminating it from beneath. Toss a green field foreground into the mix, and this was the fascinating result.
Gusting out as it sat nearly stationary to our N, the complex emptied its load on parts of CDR and areas uphill. Resulting torrents of flash-flood waters rolled off the southern hills and through the streets as motorists and motorcyclists casually ignored the latter-day mantra, “Turn around, don’t drown.”
The steak-and-sides dinner we had at Feiks (a recommended eatery) was bland, overcooked, overrated (by online reviewers) and overpriced, though service was attentive. We’ve had worse meals, but we likely won’t be going back there. By the time we were done, we were ready to return to the room, PING the last bits of rain, wind down for the night, recollect a long but worthwhile adventure, and imagine what the next day’s Wyoming upslope-flow action could bring with unusually rich low-level moisture involved.
near Linton ND and Mound City SD
SHORT: Long drive Roundup-BIS-MBG, supercell becoming outflow-dominant near SD-ND border.
Decisions, decisions…what should we do? We almost threw in the towel on the chase day at MLS, figuring that
* Potential along the pertinent boundary might be E of the longitude of BIS–a 4-hour drive plus whatever time it took from BIS to any storm;
* Cutting a short diagonal down US 212 into Belle Fourche and perhaps the RAP area would put us a lot closer to the next day’s apparent target of south-central/southwestern SD;
* Busting along the boundary near BIS would put us an extra 3 hours out of the way for the following day and save more than a tank of fuel.
Yet, somehow we were feeling adventurous with the more conditional advantages, including greater moisture and potential boundary augmentation to low-level shear and SRH–not to mention that cutting SE toward RAP would guarantee we’d see no storms. These are the quandaries commonly faced by storm observers roaming the Great Plains every spring! Had we cut SE on a relaxing, between-chase-day drive to Belle Fourche or RAP, I would have had little regret, given that the storm ultimately was a big mess. Still, one doesn’t necessarily know storm-scale details 5 hours out. In the end, we had some good times and good photos around that storm, so no regrets over the decision to roll into the Peace Garden State.
Driving from Roundup to Forsyth (along I-94) is a sobering experience–beautiful northern High Plains countryside, but also a “Big Empty” with little along the way save a few ranches and the mostly abandoned townsite of Vananda (old homestead and schoolhouse, now on private property). There are few cars or people, almost no reliable cellular telephone service, and little reassurance of any assistance should an emergency come to pass. One must be self-reliant, confident, and most of all, prepared. Fortunately, we were, and no dire situations arose. We hit Forsyth and cruised up to MLS for a final decision on whether or not to attempt a storm intercept that day.
Lunch in MLS put food in tummies and insight in brains regarding the strong outflow boundary from the previous nights’ MCS that was retreating NE across MT and parts of western and southern ND. The mild cold front that gave us such a splendid and dry commute to MLS intersected the outflow boundary in the MT/ND border region, but stronger low-level lift and moisture each were forecast farther ESE and SE along the boundary in ND. How far? It was hard to tell, but a visually evident string of towers to the distant ENE-ESE helped us to decide to take a chance on a storm.
The trip toward BIS on I-94 seemed to take hours…and it did! That was a whopper of a drive. Passing DIK, we learned of a storm rapidly forming SE of BIS. Stopping at a rest area between DIK-BIS, we re-evaluated the scenario. Thinking the storm might be too far away, with no evidence of closer development along the boundary and the sun angle getting low, we considered bailing S into SD W of BIS.
Ultimately, we figured that
* The storm SE of BIS, which was becoming supercellular fast, was likely to remain nearly stationary as long as it stayed well-organized, and
* There would be enough daylight to reach it with about an hour to spare.
And so we went, fueling in BIS with gasoline for car and chocolate-mint milkshake for driver, then heading E and S down US-83 toward Linton ND. The storm backbuilt, discretely propagating down a flanking line across the highway ahead of us, but we encountered only rain, a few close CGs, and strong gusts while squeezing ourselves between two cores.
Popping out the south side of the activity near the ND/SD border, it was apparent that the formerly robust supercell was now something else: a quasi-linear slab of updrafts that would get undercut fairly quickly by outflow from the larger cluster of storms that had grown upscale from the original convection (looking W across a glacial lake). We barely stayed ahead of the outflow while navigating a one-lane, pilot-car regulated construction zone just over the SD border. After passing Mound City, we found an old barn to use as foreground for the shelf cloud.
Of several shots taken there, this was my favorite. Meanwhile the owner, a local farmer, regaled us with tales of the history of the place, including the original barn’s late-1800s construction by homesteaders, and the additions in the mid-1900s. The creaky edifice was riddled with holes and leaks, and he was going to take a bulldozer to it the next day–if the storm didn’t push it down first. Ironically, he also had just returned from LWT recently, but for the purpose of buying and hauling back a choice bull for his herd.
As long as nothing meteorologically urgent is compelling departure (and it wasn’t), conversations with rural folks on the Plains have been some of the most interesting parts of these travels for me. Though a big-city native, I’ve always had a deep, strong, alternatively conscious and subconscious tug toward the country, probably due to the farm upbringing of my dad and long-ago stories thereabouts. Those helped to imbue in me a deep respect and appreciation for the honest, authentic, hard-working, self-reliant, diligent, steadfast, frugal, faithful and neighborly values of the Middle American farmer and rancher. Such interactions always reinforce that sense of honor.
Outflow hit, and we parted ways with the South Dakota farmer to get back ahead of the weakening density current and watch the sunset across another glacial lake. While I was almost too fixated to the WNW, Elke brought my attention to a subtle but splendid scene of beauty unfolding in the opposite sky.
MBG was the nearest town with a motel, so we headed there for the night–only to find:
1) very slow service in the Burger King drive-through, over 30 minutes behind just 3 cars, and
2) that some combination of lake gatherings, family reunions and a fishing tournament had filled all rooms but an upstairs one at one motel we didn’t particularly like–the Mobridge Kountry Inn (obviously a recycled 1980s-vintage Super-8). When I told her the reason for our later-than-forecast arrival, the east-Indian proprietor at the motel was quite eager to badmouth the “horrible, lazy American kids” and their service at the Burger King. She acted like she hated living there. Granted, while the inexcusable untimeliness of the “horrible American kids” at that Burger King certainly didn’t exemplify the work ethic of the nearby farmers, her attitude also was bothersome.
Storm-observing vacations always are an adventure. In the morning, we both had bites in places a mosquito couldn’t have attacked. Though we took the beds and sheets completely apart and found no bedbugs, we suspected them. More on the next day in the upcoming story for…the next day!
Our PING trail for this day. [PING date is ending date in UTC.]
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.