One Dark Dakota Night, Cast Alight

One of the most powerful atmospheric impressions from my 2005 Great Plains vacation happened in outflow. Yes, outflow…that phenomenon of convective demise most dreaded by pure tornado fanatics who don’t yet realize that outflow itself can do beautiful things.

It was the night of 6 June. Elke and I, along with a separate vehicle containing David Fogel and Keith Brown, had been involved in a long and sometimes frantic storm intercept most of the day in southwestern North Dakota. We were both attempting to reach our lodging for the night in Selby, SD, and trying in futility to stay ahead of a raging thunderstorm complex with a history of tornadoes, very damaging wind and hail.

The Dakota night was dark, very dark, on that lengthy, lonely two-lane known as US-12. Most of the time, as we raced eastward to beat the storms to Selby, the only visibility came from headlights and the incessant, throbbing flashes of lightning immediately on our tail. The gust front caught us at an angle, much like a football safety running down a speedy wideout along the sidelines. I’m so glad it did!

Fortunately the part of the storm complex overtaking us had begun to hurl its cold outflow pool well ahead of the main rain core. The shelf cloud raced overhead and to the east while we stayed out of the precipitation for half an hour or more.

Lightning continued strobing away behind us, buried in the heavy rain, its diffused but still vivid pulses casting silver glows across the deep, long, vertical inner chamber of that shelf cloud.

The effect mesmerized and captivated me. It was as if someone was running a disco strobe inside a giant band shell that stretched from horizon to horizon; and I was on the floor of that shell gazing around its enormous arc, lit brilliantly every few seconds in incessant pulsation. Some flashes were bright enough to cast the road and ground aglow too, creating a wondrous sense of immersion within the entire process.

Burned in my mind is one particular flash, brilliant and intense, just as we crossed the Missouri River bridge at Mobridge. The shelf cloud, road surface, bridge latticework overhead, river (Lake Oahe), and surrounding hills, all lit up at once in a stunning display of monochromatic depth and beauty.

We made it to Selby a few minutes too late, the core having caught us as we turned south from Mobridge. That’s fine. The hassle of running through the wind and rain to check in will be forgotten; but the lightning flash over the big river won’t. It lasted only a second in the eyes, but in my mind, the scene never will go dark.


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