Our 2006 Storm Observing Season

The 2006 tornado season in the Great Plains was really lame most of the time — the most supercell-starved and tornado-lacking season since 1988. Now make no mistake: I was here in ’88, and this year wasn’t worse than 1988 for visible tornadoes…not by a long shot, and not even in central OK. However, the day with photogenic tornadoes nearby (El Reno) I was on the next storm to the S (nontornadic), and had passed through El Reno twice already that afternoon. Ouch.

Aside from that, we scraped and clawed and pulled everything we could out of this season. I had to travel to SE KS, WY, SD and SW TX to see marginally tornadic storms, and good storm structure shots were even hard to come by. In this period of drought, we went long stretches characterized by no “chaseworthy” storms within hundreds of miles of Norman. Numerous chasers saw zero legitimate tornadoes this year.

Rich Gulf moisture simply never showed up, and supercells were either absent or moisture starved for most of the season. Still, there were lots of rainy, messy mesocyclones, thanks to problems with weak mid-upper level flow and cold outflow hosing things up on the storm scale.

I was very fortunate to have witnessed five short lived tornadoes — four of which were rain wrapped to some degree and hard to see, two of which were not absolutely certain to us at the time. Given that I’ve had ten entirely tornado free years of the 21 since I’ve begun observing storms, this was not bad after all for me. In fact, we ended up having a great time with photography on a few chases. Elke and I also had some wonderful non-weather photographic experiences in places such as Devils Tower National Monument and Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge.

My favorite events probably were the sculpted, tornadic supercell of 5 May, near Patricia TX; and the brutally electrified, “Pac Man” supercell (barely tornadic) from 9 Jun, near Four Corners WY. Besides those links, I also will reproduce the Four Corners chase account below just for fun.

All our storm observing sojourns this year are documented in the Storms Observed This Year BLOG (see table at right for links).



Northeastern WY, 9 Jun 6

SHORT: Abundant wildflower, Devils Tower and convective power photography. Intercepted tornado warned supercell between Sundance and Newcastle WY. Probable tornado observed, numerous daytime CGs photographed. Great dinner and sunset.

LONG: This was one of the finest Great Plains chase/photography days I’ve ever had, with or without a probable tornado in the western Black Hills of Wyoming.

The day began with a great breakfast cooked by the 81 year old female proprietor of Bob’s Cafe (or “Bob Afe,” depending on which side of the sign you view). We highly recommend this place in Belle Fourche — a 1940s/1950s era diner where the locals have gathered for generations. One of these locals we befriended was a SD native just returned home from many years in Maine, a keen and highly talented outdoor photographer named Bob Clements. We ended up spending an hour or so with Bob, talking photography and getting the grand tour of his future gallery, in a musty old downtown brownstone that he is renovating himself. If you ever make it to Belle Fourche, and Bob’s gallery is open, check it out.

Next came the drive to Devils Tower, which conveniently was on the way and very close to our forecast area of interest in SW SD and NE WY. We spent the midday hours photographing wildflowers and their surroundings, horses, sweeping landscape scenes across verdant valleys, and numerous scenes around the tower itself.

On the way to the tower, we noticed anvils streaming off convection unseen in the distant SW. Without live radar data, I still was (correctly) confident this was the result of high-based and rather moisture-starved storms around the Bighorns. An outflow-reinforced cold front had moved through, but not too cold to allow storms to form once the sun heated the air mass enough. The northeast and east winds behnd the front also would advect more moisture into the area with time. For the time being, though, I knew we had a little while to hang out near the tower and wait for better storms to form, closer by. So we did.

We found a great overlook a mile W of Devils Tower where only one other person came by in an hour, great for afternoon shots of the tower with not a single human artifact of any kind in view. Under the lazy drift of floating cumulus clouds, the tower’s appearance never was the same from any given minute to the next, and we relished its many moods of light and shadow. I also shot time lapse video of the tower in the right foreground and distant cumulonimbi building in the background, over SD.

Those weren’t our target storms, though, so we stayed put and experimented with other ways to view and photograph this amazing volcanic landmark. Patiently we waited for more storms that had formed over the Bighorns region to move our way and into better moisture. When the anvils moved overhead and the western skies grew dark with the looming bulk of robust, newer storms, it was time to go.

While driving about 10 W Sundance, we heard a SVR from RAP for what was then a tail-end cell over NW Weston County, moving E. Within a minute or two we found a high overlook from which we barely could see the updraft base about 25-30 miles SW, a dense core to its N, an inflow tail to its SE, and ragged attempts at a wall cloud.

We raced toward Sundance to get in intercept position, deciding to go SE of Sundance on the road to Newcastle, in order to stay ahead of the cell. It was evident the storm was a supercell, now right-moving E toward the unchaseable morass of the Black Hills. The roads were few, and the gamble was this:

1. Go SW of Sundance on WY-116 toward Upton and get closer to it faster (but spend much less time watching it) or

2. Head SE of town into higher terrain, temporarily losing view of it around Sundance and Inyan Kara Mountains, but getting in position to watch it longer from more of a distance…if we could find a good vantage looking SW.

We deiced to go with option 2, about the time a TOR warning blared through NWR. We were entangled with the town of Sundance at the time, unable to view the base due to buildings, trees and hills. For the next 16-18 minutes we couldn’t see under the base S of Sundance either, thanks to rolling higher terrain W of the road.

I was wondering if my eastern decision would hose us out of a chance to see a tornado, while driving mile afer mile with the SW sky obstructed. This was very frustrating, but the annoyance proved to be blissfully ephemeral. Motoring S on the spaghetti road, through the rolling western foothills of the Black Hills, we finally found a good westward viewing spot 5 NW of “Four Corners.”

The supercell had something of a wet, outflow-dominant appearance when we first took position. Soon it sported a very low wall cloud 10-15 miles to our WSW (wide angle view), which intermittently wrapped in rain, then re-emerged. To its ESE (our SW-SSW) a heavy and elongated rear-flank core appeared, along with other, newer updraft bases. This gave the whole process the look of a supercell evolving into either a deep LEWP notch or an HP “Pac Man” type storm, with the mesocyclone in the inner corner of Pac Man’s mouth.

At times it looked like a “meso on the ground,” though it was hard to see true ground thanks to a gentle rise about 7-8 miles to our W. One thick pile of tail cloud material appeared to form near the ground and race southward into the wall cloud. Meanwhile, all sorts of wild looking bands and patches of cloud material overhead and into the storm, along with the green landscape of grassland and broken short pine, and an astounding barrage of strobe-style lightning bolts, made for wonderful wide-angle landscape photography.

A small core formed SSE of the meso and grew bigger, merging with the rear-flank (wrap-around hook) core until the meso itself became a deeply occluding notch. The strengthening inflow felt cold and was — 65-67 deg F, but it was from the E, and our elevation was 5700 feet. Normalize those temps at lower elevations, or put them in at our elevation on a sounding diagram, and the thermal characteristics actually look pretty nice for supercell inflow.

The lightning with this storm was impressive, even for this 21-year storm intercept veteran. Dozens of CGs popped over the valley and ridges between us and the meso, but at a safe distance. Between Elke and me, we captured 20 or more in our hand-held photos, thanks to the ridiculous repetitiveness of the flashes. Several times we each shot the same lightning strike using only a finger reaction to the first flash. But that’s not all. Get this: I was able to take two separate, all-manual photos of one CG (the first one linked above)! I’ve never done this before, nor heard of it being done. That’s how long the strobing lasted with some of them. At times, it was like a giant atmospheric discotheque over there.

What is it about the electrical layout and resistance characteristics of supercell storms that causes some to produce strobing lightning strokes one after another, each lasting 2-3 seconds, while others simply hurl super-quick staccato bolts hither and yon?

Meanwhile, the meso tightened up dramatically and shed some precip from its E side, forming another very low wall cloud, scud rising fast up the N side. The horizontal and differential cloud tag motions got rapid as well, more so than several tornadic storms I’ve seen; and I was beginning to wonder if this one could spin something up before it got rain-wrapped. Thick precip already surrounded the meso in every direction except NE-E, but fortunately, we were tucked in the “notch” ENE of it.

Cloud base rotation under the wall cloud also became obvious, and at times, quite intense, as seen through zoom lenses due to the distance. At 5:07 pm MDT (6:07 pm CDT) one very suspicious lowering — tapered, fuzzy and rapidly evolving — developed under the wall cloud and appeared to reach ground, though the terrain precluded irrefutable confirmation.

I ran to the car to get binoculars, which revealed this feature as a furiously rotating funnel, at times extending below the level of the low ridge in the distance. I managed to snap a few photos in between careful eyeball coverage, the best being one which also captured one of those strobing CGs by chance (here’s a super-enhanced version).

Was it a tornado? I’m quite confident despite the limitations of terrain and distance. Probabilistically speaking, I’ll say at least 90%. It’s hard to conceive otherwise given the persistence of the funnel, as well as cloud motions both internal and ambient to the feature.

By 5:10 p.m. MDT, a thick bear’s cage wrapped around the wall cloud from the S, leaving it a mystery what was going on behind the orbiting rain curtains. Something suspicious might still be apparent in this shot at 5:11 p.m. (super-enhanced contrast version), but after that, the whole mesocyclonic circulation got too deeply buried in rain to infer much.

We reeled off a few more CG-over-landscape shots, and the electrical action and cores started getting close (wide angle). The last CG that I dared to shoot instantly ignited an orange fireball on the next hillside. I didn’t want to be next, so in the car we went.

Forward motion of the storms began to accelerate, and it appeared an MCS was spontaneously developing all around us. With the only east option extending into the depths of the Black Hills, and the sky erupting into MCS ALQDS, we decided to call off the chase and head SSW to Newcastle for dinner and lodging. [Also recommended — the Fountain Inn with free wi-fi, and collocated LaCosta Mexican Restaurant, with excellent steak-and-shrimp fajitas!]

After a great dinner we did some photography along WY 16, NW of town. This included a high-based, elevated storm in the golden light, near an old missile silo. As it moved toward its SE and to our S, a rainbow and some postcrepusculars became visible.

Clouds to the WNW blocked a lot of the best sunset light, but we enjoyed it immensely anyway. What couldn’t be photographed was the earthy-spicy smell of rain-washed sage, an aroma of life’s renewal rising from an arid land newly drenched, the joyful warble of hundreds of meadowlarks resonating across the Thunder Basin grasslands, the cool moist breezes carrying these scents and sounds to us and through us.

Back at the hotel I couldn’t resist taking couple of twilight and nighttime shots of their tornado shaped fountain, bathed in spotlights of alternating colors.

We had a long and amazing day, and slept very well that night… almost too well!

===== Roger =====


5 Responses to “Our 2006 Storm Observing Season”

  1. SK on July 24th, 2006 3:08 am

    Hey, things could be MUCH worse in both moisture and convective violence smorgasboard terms (I’ll leave all further interpretation and implications to the reader):

    Science 21 July 2006: Vol. 313. no. 5785, pp. 345 – 347; DOI: 10.1126/science.1128941

    Large Wind Shift on the Great Plains During the Medieval Warm Period
    Venkataramana Sridhar,1,2 David B. Loope,1* James B. Swinehart,1,2 Joseph A. Mason,3 Robert J. Oglesby,1,2 Clinton M. Rowe1

    Spring-summer winds from the south move moist air from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Plains. Rainfall in the growing season sustains prairie grasses that keep large dunes in the Nebraska Sand Hills immobile. Longitudinal dunes built during the Medieval Warm Period (800 to 1000 years before the present) record the last major period of sand mobility. These dunes are oriented NW-SE and are composed of cross-strata with bipolar dip directions. The trend and structure of the dunes record a drought that was initiated and sustained by a historically unprecedented shift of spring-summer atmospheric circulation over the Plains: Moist southerly flow was replaced by dry southwesterly flow.


  2. tornado on July 25th, 2006 12:35 am


    Thanks for relaying that abstract. I hadn’t yet seen the latest edition of Science. This I’ve got to read.

    Holy crap…I’m glad we’re not living in that era. The dunes of the Sandhills are where they are because they’ve been mobile at some point. I didn’t realize it was so recently!

    While traveling through them I’ve often imagined the Sandhills during that stage, but in a much colder desert mesoclimate such as in the last few glacial advances (think Gobi — cold desert at slightly more northerly latitude).

    Several geology articles and books attribute the Sandhills to that, in combination with the sand’s fluvial/eolian origins as sediments washed from the Rockies, then blown off the Platte Valley. It’s amazing to ponder such recent mobility for those dunes!

  3. Justin Elbert on February 24th, 2007 2:20 am

    I am so glad I found this site. I absolutely love trying to capture weather phenomenon on film.

    I will definitely be checking back here for some more great photos.

  4. SK on October 10th, 2007 9:24 am

    Hello again after more than a year,
    Going back over the dune/wind climate article I see it’s referenced by later, and again interesting, work:

    A 10,000 year record of dune activity, dust storms, and severe drought in the central Great Plains

    Dune fields and loess deposits of the Great Plains of North America contain stratigraphic records of eolian activity that can be used to extend the short observational record of drought. We present a 10,000 yr reconstruction of dune activity and dust production in the central Great Plains region, based on 95 optically stimulated luminescence ages. The integration of data from both eolian sand and loess is an important new aspect of this record. Clusters of ages define episodes of extensive eolian activity, which we interpret as a response to frequent severe drought, at 1.0–0.7 ka and 2.3–4.5 ka (with peaks centered on 2.5 and 3.8 ka); sustained eolian activity occurred from 9.6 to 6.5 ka. Parts of this record may be consistent with hypotheses linking Holocene drought to sea surface temperature anomalies in the Pacific or Atlantic oceans, or to the El Niño-Southern Oscillation phenomenon, but the record as a whole is difficult to reconcile with any of these hypotheses.


    I knew that wind erosion was important, e.g. the rich loess for farmland is often deeper downwind of major rivers and the exceptionally dry sand dunes of deserts change very rapidly, but what you said about the motility of the sand hills is indeed interesting.

  5. ScottK on April 27th, 2008 12:26 am

    Bad land practices and the dust are known as exacerbating the drought, but the role of dust is being refined and its place in the Earth system elucidated:

    GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH LETTERS, VOL. 35, L08710, doi:10.1029/2008GL033486, 2008

    Dust and sea surface temperature forcing of the 1930s “Dust Bowl” drought

    Droughts over the central United States (US) are modulated by sea surface temperature (SST) variations in the eastern tropical Pacific. Many models, however, are unable to reproduce the severity and spatial pattern of the “Dust Bowl” drought of the 1930s with SST forcing alone. We force an atmosphere general circulation model with 1930s SSTs and model-generated dust emission from the Great Plains region. The SSTs alone force a drought over the US similar to observations, but with a weaker precipitation anomaly that is centered too far south. Inclusion of dust radiative forcing, centered over the area of observed wind erosion, increases the intensity of the drought and shifts its center northward. While our conclusions are tempered by limited quantitative observations of the dust aerosol load and soil erosion during this period, our study suggests that unprecedented atmospheric dust loading over the continental US exacerbated the “Dust Bowl” drought.


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