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.

Tornadoes, Terrible Traffic and Thunderous Treasure

June 3, 2010 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Summary 

Loyal/Dover and Prague OK Tornadic Supercells
19 May 10

SHORT: After considerable waffling, targeted the eventual Loyal/Dover HP supercell and saw a couple of tornadoes. Got stuck in the epic traffic jam and left the storm in frustration. Intercepted a photogenic supercell in relative peace and quiet around sunset, near Prague.

The Two Chumps, followed by Jack Beven in his rental car, left our lodging in Pampa around 1100 CDT with the notion of intercepting a supercell either along the outflow boundary from the previous night’s convection over central-northern OK, or if it could move into the better moisture and surface winds soon enough, any storm that formed near the dryline/outflow intersection near the OK border with the TX Panhandle. We drove to “Severe” Weatherford, watching the outflow boundary pass overhead and to our N with a gradually deepening and sharpening field of Cu and towering Cu along it and to its S.

A storm fired earlier than expected and farther W, back in relatively dry air with veered warm-sector winds near the border. This wasn’t too appealing to us at this point, so we waited for a spell for closer development near the boundary. We eventually wandered N, catching back up to the boundary as the original storm moved alng the boundary toward us in a rather awkward road network bracketing the Canadian River. Meanwhile, we could see the first deep towers of what would become the Hennessey storm going up 20-30 miles to our NE.

Now what? Faced with this choice, we were mired in an uncharacteristically protracted episode of indecision. Parked NE of Thomas, we sat about equidistant between the older western storm and the newer eastern one, both somewhat in view. We observed the sky, evaluated convective trends and surface data on our Internet connection, and photographed a wonderful little abandoned pumphouse and windmill.

Weather-wise, we just couldn’t decide between one option and the other, hoping for something to erupt in the “best” environment right overhead, even as both storms steadily matured into robust supercells — the eastern one in what seemed to be a better short-term environment, the western likely to struggle some but eventually move into a favorable regime for longer. The vacillation continued in our heads and in our travels for a long time, until the atmosphere forced our hand. Meanwhile we decided to wander NW toward Oakwood, a little closer to the tornado-warned western supercell, but keeping the eastern one in reach. Somewhere in our zigzagging of rural roads in the area, we lost Jack, though he did end up intercepting the western storm independently not far from us.

Meanwhile, we hit a dense deck of stratus and even fog, the temperature outside dropping into the 60s. The air N of this boundary was too cold and stable! S of the boundary, large dew-point depressions prevailed, a recipe for cold outflow development. Furthermore, by the time we got back S of the cold air again, our first view of the storm to the W across the river valley revealed a big but “cold” looking base with towers erupting over the top of what appeared to be a partly modified cold pool. The storm also was accelerating. Bad news!

We decided to get through Watonga and make a dash for the storm approaching Hennessey. Alas, it too accelerated, but away from us, tornado warnings and even reports starting to stream in over the TV simulcast on our vehicle radio. Damn, we thought…would we miss the show today? Glances back at the western storm indicated less stratified and more unstable structure, and it was moving toward the area just to our N.

Our decision had been made for us, so we ended the waffling and headed N past Omega to get in the western storm’s path again. As we headed N toward the optimal easterly escape position on the familiar E-W road through Loyal (a venue for tornado success on 4 October 1998), the supercell churned east toward us at disturbing speed, revealing itself as an HP “Stormzilla”.

It was assuring that we had a dependable east road, at least until it stopped at a T-intersection WSW of Dover, when where knew we would have to dive S. With an uncomfortably zesty component of forward-propagation, we couldn’t stay in any one spot long to observe and photograph the beast. The only realistic chance to see any tornadoes it would produce would be from about our latitude, E to ENE of the HP mesocyclone and NE of the onrushing drum of heavy rain and hail.

Sure enough, as we stopped alongside Bobby Prentice and Gene Rhoden 1 mile E of Loyal, a small but unmistakable tornado formed in the rain to a few miles our W. In a Keystone Kops moment, fumbling around for a zoom lens in a new photographic vest that I unknowingly wore inside-out and backward, I missed capturing the best ground contact of condensation, shortly after this shot at 1734. Fortunately Rich had just one lens with which to fumble, and snapped a shot at the right time. The irony was that my 200 mm zoom lens (for the only time ever) couldn’t reconcile itself with the camera, and the viewfinder settings somehow didn’t match what actually was shooting — by 3 stops or more! I hadn’t experienced this before, nor with numerous shots using the same lens since. Go figure. The zooms were underexposed crap, and I quickly reattached the 24-70 mm L-series glass.

By that time (1736), the tornado was vanishing in a major mesocyclonic wrap-up of rapidly rotating clouds and precip, and we had to go back E to stay ahead of the surge. As we headed S, 4 SW of Dover, we peered into the gorgeously turquoise-capped murk of rotating HP mess a few miles to our WSW and spotted another tornado. As we ran up an embankment to shoot, the curtains parted to reveal a fat cone with multiple vortices whipping around its base (time 1751, estimated tornado location 4 SE of Oneida). This was an eerie and beautiful sight, but with the mesocyclone now right-moving toward the ESE and us needing to get out of its way, we knew we couldn’t sit there sipping mango Slurpees and listening to Jimmy Buffett songs. A few more shots, including this wide-angle (can you spot the tornado?), and it was time to bail S.

Unfortunately, we took a little too long and got stuck behind a local lady whom we couldn’t safely pass, driving 40-50 mph in her pickup. She didn’t seem to grasp the urgency of the situation. We also inaccurately assessed the distance of the rain-wrapped tornado and the speed of translational motion, such that when we drove S through the E side of the precip, the tornado’s bottom unexpectedly appeared as a ferociously spinning cage of precip and condensation in the field about 300 yards to our W. Not cool. Rich was able to peer up at the funnel heading our way at a barely beatable pace. Fortunately, he gave a blow-by-blow update of its position as we scooted out of the way, letting the vortex cross the road just behind us. This was a definite misjudgment on our part, which certainly didn’t help our mood in what was about to take place.

Relieved to get out of that whirling cauldron, we headed E on a paved road 3 N of Kingfisher in order to get ahead of the storm while avoiding the traffic delays of the town, stopping quickly to look back at the deeply rain-wrapped supercell now off to our NW. Turning S to go to OK-33, we suddenly found ourselves one amongst many, many vehicles in a miles-long strand of brake lights and antennae, extending over the next hill, the one after, the one after, and the visible horizon.

I’m not talking about tens, or dozens, but hundreds, perhaps thousands of vehicles. Yes, we were part of the problem — if there were 2,000 cars, we were 1/2000 of the horde. I’ve got extensive experience on the streets and freeways of Dallas and Miami, and have seen the worst that their traffic snarls have to offer. After this, I rather would sit for four hours on a hot day in the parking lot of Central Expressway or Florida-836 than endure what happened on OK-33 again. Even with the great majority of these near-storm watchers behaving themselves, this was the most intensely stressful driving situation I’ve ever been involved with. Imagine mile after mile of vehicles in a long train on two-lane country roads, all moving at the speed of the slowest (around 40-45 mph on average) with a certifiably tornadic HP supercell bearing down hard. We already had been involved with one close call of our own doing, and wanted no part of another caused by a traffic jam.

At one point, while waiting behind a 30-40 vehicle line to turn left at a stop sign (onto OK-33, which also was jam-packed), a chase-yahoo behind us pulled into the left (oncoming) lane, raced past the line of cars up to the corner, ran the stop sign, drove in the oncoming (westbound) lane of OK-33, then jammed himself into a gap in that traffic about a quarter mile E of the intersection. This person thinks his life and car are more important than everybody else’s, and needs to be taught otherwise. [Only later did we find out about some wantonly dangerous behavior earlier in the afternoon by a separate “team” of chasers affiliated with a Discovery Channel production.] Yes, I was and remain angry about this. No TV footage or storm video is worth endangering innocent lives! Somewhere in hell I hope there’s a special slow-roasting pit set aside for selfish little cowards like that, and all who share such a mentality.

Even though all others we saw in the huge traffic jam were more civilized, we were absolutely and completely at the mercy of the everyone else out there, and it was time to bail out of this asphyxiating and dangerous crowd. At one point near Guthrie, we caught a glimpse of the circulation that produced the last visible funnel with that storm, but we had enough of the circus and headed S on OK-74 and away from the supercell. It’s the first time I’ve ever left a tornadic supercell, on purpose, because of the presence of too many other people.

Initially hoping to get ahead of the messy supercell headed for areas just S of Norman, we headed E on the Kilpatrick and Turner Turnpikes, gaining great time, then S on 177. Instead, we slowed down a little to let a small but tornado-warned storm pass across the road to our S, then drove down through Jacktown, right behind the back edge of this most interesting supercell located between Meeker and Aydelotte. Through thin veils of precip wrapping around the NW side of its hook, we easily could see its rotating wall cloud to the SE. This was an unusual vantage of the business end of a supercell, given both the direction of view, and the dense crosstimbers that characterize most of the area E of OKC. Conveniently, a crew with the local fire department and county emergency management pulled up, so I explained to them what was going on, they radioed the news up the chain, and we watched the mesocyclone pull NEward to our SE and E for a spell.

Meanwhile, the clouds to our W opened just for a minute, casting a dazzling portal of late-afternoon sunlight over the landscape and a brilliant rainbow across the supercell to our E, still sporting a visibly rotating wall cloud through translucent precip curtains. This wide-angle view, pretty as it is, doesn’t do the scene justice. In the distance, below and behind the wall cloud, behold the CB for another tornado-warned supercell, located over far eastern Oklahoma. In the face of this kinds of atmospheric grandeur and beauty, all my tension from earlier simply wafted off on the rain-cooled breezes. It was as if another chase day was born, and a fresh opportunity for immersion in amazement of natural wonder had been set on our table.

Newly energized for one final intercept run of the day, we headed S and I on I-40, stopping for a piss break and an occasional look at the sculpted storm to our N in the fading daylight. An obvious mesocyclone with several suspicious lowerings appeared, then cut a pronounced clear slot while apparently consolidating its area of storm-scale rotation. This may have been the tornado reported 6 W of Prague at 2015 ( enhanced crop-n-zoom), especially if the report time was 4 minutes late (shot at 2011). It was in the right part of the storm — a matured occlusion area — and its apparent position, relative to ours at the time, matches the location of the report well.

That mesocyclone weakened and a precip surge to its NE obscured the new mesocyclone with more HP character. We watched it pass to our N from the North Canadian River bridge area on US-377, then returned to Norman, tired and spent, and ready for rest after one of the strangest and most draining chase days ever.