When Atmospheric Beauty Attacks

November 7, 2013 by · Comments Off on When Atmospheric Beauty Attacks
Filed under: Summary 

Arcadia NE
26 May 13

High Plains Therapy, Day 3 of 5

SHORT: Intercepted another spectacularly structured supercell, this time a mostly LP storm near Arcadia NEb. Missed some of the best photo opportunities due to close lightning strikes but still loved the show.

On the day after a tremendous structure-fest in southwestern SD, we headed back toward the warm sector in central Nebraska in hopes of yet another. To summarize, the setup promised adequate low-level moisture, marginal to sufficient near-surface flow, favorable deep shear, and rather nebulous low-level foci for initiation. I was traveling in a caravan with the Dudes, Dudette and Dogs crew (David and Samara Fogel, Keith Brown, Ross Weitzberg, Porthos and Trego).

Following a long trek down from CDR, we consumed a meal and hung out in and near LBF, hoping for initiation that would occur close enough to the S or E side of the Sandhills to keep storm motions in more tenable observational country. The day was getting late, the sky disturbingly devoid of deep convection. That worrisome lack of focus kept us guessing and scanning the skies–good old fashioned “going visual” for clues to earliest initiation stages, whatever the data may show.

While sitting on a hilltop N of town, we finally saw that hope–a very young but rapidly deepening tower to the distant ENE. Given the obvious cap breach and favorable environment over there, we thought it would mushroom upscale, and as we cruisd back down through town and started cruising E on I-80, it did.

Even while still 50-60 miles out, as the magpie flies, the main cloud updraft’s high-based but striated character became readily apparent. Despite enjoying the visual treat of this storm’s development from a distance, including some classicaly splashing overshoots, I was wishing for the vehicle to sprout wings and a couple of Pratt and Whitney jet engines to get there sooner.

Roads dictated otherwise, however; we had to proceed in an Allen wrench-shaped path ESE to E on I-80 then N on US-183 to our long-awaited first rendezvous with the gorgeous storm near Ansley. As viewed from the S, the banded LP soda can spun its way off to our NE in the lowering sunshine, compelling us to get off to its E for a more contrast-friendly backlit perspective.

Performing that maneuver took us directly under the S rim of the updraft, which actually had a lowering base and some thin, faintly wrapping precip curtains with embedded hailstones of mostly subsevere size. Low-precip doesn’t mean no-precip! By the time we got E of the storm, between Westerville and Arcadia, we thought we were going to be in fat city, photographically, with the storm putting on an increasingly evident show of sweeping striations and bands. We had to get far enough E to get it all in wide-angle view, plus get out from under a CG bombardment that seemed to follow us away from the storm.

Unfortunately, opportunities to shoot safely were few and far between; so I didn’t get too many shots of the storm during any of 2 or 3 stops in this stage. The supercell’s anvil, augmented and thickened by that from more distant storms to the NW, would not stop flinging staccato, forked CGs all around us, many miles from the updraft, jagged arrows of Zeus fired disturbingly close and often across a wide area SE and E of the updraft. Usually in my experience, such blistering barrages are temporary, lasting just a few minutes until newer updraft cycles redistribute charge and favored areas shift. Not this time…the white-hot fusillade of electricity just kept coming and coming and coming…

Having gotten frustrated at being trapped in the car for many minutes, with some unwelcome visual obstructions to ideal shooting at the parking spot, I tried to time the last shot versus the bolt/recharge process. Often that works, but not this time. Having preset aperture and metering in the vehicle, I ran out to shoot this absolutely jaw-dropping structural exhibition right after the previous flash, then about-faced in less than 10 seconds. I barely started back when…CRACK-SLAM!!!!…a CG hit so close I couldn’t tell where. All I knew was that I was still alive, and a quick glance around at the other people revealed nobody lying on the ground. This warning shot sent all of us fools who were outside diving right back into vehicles for survival.

Warning heeded! Keith later told me he was across the highway and happened to see that CG hit in the plowed field just S of the road. Instead of frying one of us, it simply zapped some dirt. Enduring skull-rattling explosions of countless more close strikes, we had to wait until the storm moved several miles farther N before even thinking of sneaking outside again. I was tempted to drive several miles E (where some other observers did get amazing CG + updraft shots), but 1) was unsure about vantages in choppier terrain near Arcadia and 2) noted a gentle E and NE shift in the CG activity centroid.

So, we waited out that vicious attack a bit longer, then gingerly started to dare to shoot some more as strike frequency waned somewhat. A final cycle of CGs and a brief repositioning led to deepening twilight, and finally some confidence in shooting outside the vehicle with a tripod. The storm, now to our NNW and N, still seethed with nearly continual lightning, offering shot after shot after shot that contained some sort of lightning or another.

Here is a JavaScript time lapse of larger, full-width versions of those shots, and others in between, over a span of 9 minutes, for your viewing pleasure. Please set the speed bar almost all the way to the right for best effect. I wouldn’t know first-hand…but just as a guess, staring at that high-speed animation constantly after imbibing in intoxicating substances might yield some wild mental experiences.

We headed back to Grand Island for the night, enjoying a lightning-illuminated mammatus show in the rear-view, but too tired to bother stopping. I was satisfied–quite so, actually–both to be alive and to conclude a challenging but fulfilling third day of five in the rejuvenating regimen of High Plains Therapy!

Spiraling South Dakota Sky

September 2, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Summary 

Box Elder SD
25 May 13

High Plains Therapy, Day 2 of 5

SHORT: After a long wait for storms to form further S, intercepted absolutely spectacular late-day and sunset supercell N through E of Rapid City.

No alarm went off, but somehow, despite a long travel and chase day before, I snapped awake at the unusual hour of 10 a.m. CDT (9 a.m. MDT), looked at some diagnostics and forecast information, chose a preliminary target between CDR and the Black Hills, and headed up to OGA for breakfast and more data perusal at the Denny’s free wi-fi. That’s about the only Denny’s I’ll patronize anymore; it’s one of the very few that’s clean, friendly and spacious, with good hot food and good wi-fi.

Upon leaving my lodging, I discovered that my dome lights wouldn’t turn off, regardless of all doors being solidly shut. Fortunately, they did go out via chipset-forced automatic shutdown about 12-15 minutes after turning the vehicle off in OGA, assuring me that:
1. My battery wouldn’t go dead, and
2. I wouldn’t have to go under the dash and pull a fuse (that also powered other things) every night or disconnect the battery to prevent that very outcome. Both the owner’s manual’s fuse guide and online fora for my vehicle were vaguely worded on [i]which specific fuse to pull, of course, making it potentially a trial-and-error ordeal.
Still, this was a bothersome problem, especially for night driving. The fix (bad switch buried inside the door) was too time- and tool-intensive for where I was and what I had, and would have to wait until getting back home. Fortunately I hardly noticed the continually running light by day. This will matter later.

Meanwhile, as the chase crew with whom I was to meet later headed N through KS, I browsed data and maps, determining three targets–one in central NEb, near the S rim of the Sandhills, along an old outflow-reinforced warm front. With a strong cap and convergence along the boundary likely to weaken through the day, huge CAPE but marginal shear, I ruled out that high bust-risk situation for more sure but more moisture-deprived initiation farther N. The dryline near the S side of the Black Hills looked interesting, on the N edge of a narrow moist plume, but could have cap problems. Backed upslope flow in the northern Black Hills region and western SD also looked promising, but more distant, considering the next day’s potential back in Nebraska.

North to CDR it was. While watching the dryline towers bubble up and down in CDR, I was met by the amazing chase crew of David Fogel, Samara Fogel, Keith Brown, Ross Weitzberg, and massive doofus leonbergers Porthos and Trego, who drove up from a chase the day before in NWTX. Yes, that’s four persons and two person-sized dogs, all in one SUV. Somehow they make it work well, occasionally intolerable bouts of canine flatulence notwithstanding.

Seeing the towers gradually get less impressive with time, while we baked in the sun and storms fired “way up” in west-central SD NNW of RAP, was discouraging. The anvil looked like it was a million miles away, barely above the horizon, and we didn’t relish the prospect of that being the only show. Then the storms consolidated into a remarkably well-“armed” supercell, with a hook echo shaped much like a flexed bicep, forearm and fist.

Enough of this…our southern target area was turning into a smelly atmospheric turd. This left no other option but to sit and sulk, or zip almost two hours northward to and around the eastern Black Hills, in hopes something would be left of the SD storm before sunset.

We did, and there was; but it didn’t seem so at first. Though moving ESE to SE over some great landscapes N of Ellsworth AFB, the storm looked rather high-based and featureless. At a stop, I shot the above photo and read a couple of online updates from fellow storm observers about how interesting the storm had looked and behaved earlier, and how it almost had gone tornadic, despite the high bases. I was thinking, “Great…we get here and turn the storm into mush!”

Presumptuousness of that sort was premature and unwarranted! We actually caught this storm in a down cycle, following a major core dump. Driving in a big loop north then east of the base and Box Elder, we caught up to and passed under the south rim of the storm (mostly dry RFD area). In doing so, it assumed much more classical, banded cloud forms. We got ahead of the supercell and let it come to us at three locations, as it put on a structural feast for the ages. Please enjoy.

1. [i]5 NE Box Elder SD: High-based wedding cake with a dense central core.

2. [i]5 NW Wasta SD: Helical convective spiral atop a flared bell whose base grew outward and more laminar. This was a dream come true–therapeutic to the max–the sort of experience that makes the trek from Norman to western South Dakota well worthwhile! We spent a long time at this stop and let the storm come to us, since some tighter cloud-base rotation became apparent from a flared, triangular wall cloud–the last such attempt before the boundary layer cooled enough to deny suitably unstable inflow.

3. [i]1 E Wasta SD: A sunset extraordinaire! The storm’s main updraft, which had been moving SE, turned back E again–a sure sign it was losing surface inflow and coming more under the influence of winds aloft. This most gorgeous of “chicken necked” updrafts gradually became more stretched and narrow amidst a sublime blend of warm and cool light tones.

Both the storm and daylight faded away, sending us on the road back to CDR for the night, since the next day’s potential looked to be in central Nebraska. Though the storm wasn’t tornadic, we celebrated our amazing fortune of the day with a good dinner among friends at Texas Roadhouse in RAP.

For an hour, the drive back from dinner was another mesmerizing Great Plains experience. A full moon rose over the foothills of the Black Hills, its gentle silver light reflecting off east-facing slopes to the right and silhouetting those to the left. Moonlight bright enough to reveal the green carpet of the rolling grasslands also outlined the edges of the nearby eastern hills in the shimmering fuzz of short-grass prairie, reminiscent of the silver lining of silhouetted clouds. Shadows from the hills to the left curved across the road and over muscular terrain on the west side, lending amazing texture and light form to the landscape–especially for nighttime. That I could see this past the dome light was a testament to how bright the moon was; and I did cup my right hand over the light on straightaways to absorb the experience more fully. These scenes wave through my mind with yesterday’s clarity three months later, sure to stay for a lifetime.

Red and blue lights appeared in the rear-view mirror, flashing brightly. The scene had been a little too mesmerizing, as it turns out. Even though I was following the other crew, and we all were driving somewhat above the speed limit, I was the one pulled over. The running dome light (and a roof light I didn’t know was out) arose suspicion based on a profile. Fortunately the trooper simply wrote a warning–the speed overage wasn’t excessive, he wasn’t out for ticket quotas, and he was satisfied with my honesty about both the lights and why I was there. He seemed relieved that I wasn’t some drug runner–specifically mentioning the presence of several lately, often with malfunctioning lights. We actually had a nice chat about storm spotting, severe weather in South Dakota, and our mutual experiences driving Crown Vics in hail.

Our lodging for the night was the Westerner in CDR–locally owned and staffed, highly recommended for both low price and welcoming service! They accommodated the enormous Fogel dogs and even David himself, which was quite remarkable. 🙂 Impressed by their friendliness and rates, Elke and I would return to the Westerner twice on our trip in June. Meanwhile, I got some duct tape from Ross and covered up that blasted light.

Another day, another adventure, a wonderful second step in a five-step program of High Plains therapy…

Imperial Ride

August 20, 2013 by · Comments Off on Imperial Ride
Filed under: Summary 

Wray CO, Imperial NE
24 May 13

High Plains Therapy, Day 1 of 5

SHORT: Left Norman 8 a.m. Intercepted three funky small supercells between Wray and the IML area, shot what appeared to be elevated supercell at sunset N IML that got sfc-based and happy after dark NE of town while I was eating a fajita-stuffed pineapple at an IML restaurant. Paid tab, zipped out onto remote sand roads (glad to have high-clearance 4WD!) but couldn’t see anything of note beneath; shot DSLR sequence for time lapsing as it receded into distance.

My usual storm-intercept partner for the month was back at work. My other usual chase partner (Elke) had work to do at home. I just had experienced three frustratingly futile jaunts amongst non-tornadic storms that were close to violent Kansas and Oklahoma tornadoes that I didn’t see. Extraordinary and violent tornado damage had ravaged areas not far from home; Elke and I had done some things to help. Five days remained in my May vacation leave, and other friends were out, with whom I could link to caravan. The near-term to extended forecasts showed some concerns about moisture the first few days, but that a favorable pattern for supercells would exist somewhere up and down the Great Plains for all five days I had left, through the 28th.

You know what that means: go time.

High Plains Therapy was working from the moment I left the OKC metro area and its grim tornado damage behind. The open sky above and open roads below beckoned–long blue highways rolling over the rises, down the slopes, and straight to the horizons. The journey, at least as important as the destination, unrolled bales of pent-up frustrations and angst from my soul, straw by embedded straw, as northwestern Oklahoma and southwestern Kansas glided under the wheels. By the time I reached the Bucklin and Jetmore areas, it was time to make stops to stretch and appreciate the grandeur of the Plains and the prairie wind. These were extraordinary blessings, as were opportunities to stop and shoot abandoned farmsteads (example images: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven).

Leaving early offers advantages in the form of time for exploration beyond the frantic rush to the target for storm initiation, which for today was the Wray CO/St. Francis, KS area. Low-level convergence along the northern fringe of a dryline segment, backed flow advecting moisture upslope into NErn CO, low-60s dew points into CO, strong afternoon insolation, and 40-45 kt deep-shear magnitudes supported a supercell potential with any convection that could fire in that area. After the abandoned-farm photography stops, it was time to zip up to and along I-70 to GLD, then fuel up in St. Francis–right in time for towers to form from SSW-NNW, just as envisioned.

Westward to Wray I went, bypassing an initially promising-looking storm to the immediate south whose base was shrinking and getting fuzzy. Two cells N of Wray, very close to each other, both grew and were looking promising. Here I was in northeast CO, watching two newly minted supercells at once, after leaving Norman early in the morning…how could I complain?

Loping northward along US-385 toward Holyoke, I monitored both updraft areas from several stops as they cruised toward the NE, then ENE. Mostly sub-severe hail fell in Holyoke from the vault region of the still-small western storm, with isolated, marginally severe stones (PINGed). It was easy to get out of that heading E on US-6, then slightly S, before hitting the NEb border.

For a long time, these two cells were engaged in a classical dance of mutual interference–the eastern one was pumping rear-flank outflow into the path of the western one, and the western storm was dumping anvil rain into the eastern storm and the latter’s inflow. These silly games needed to cease for either to robustly take over! Eventually the western storm did, as the eastern one became more elevated and shriveled away.

By “taking over”, I mean “survived” more than “thrived”. The western storm, though intermittently sporting a supercellular appearance, remained rather ragged and hardly looked like a world-beater, especially with a lot of convection firing to the N, NE, E, and SE. After stopping briefly to photograph a cute little abandoned shack near the border, I headed into NEb to intercept a much more intense and newer storm apparent both visually and on radar, SSW of IML. I wheeled through IML, then S of Enders Reservoir, while managing to keep an eye on the original western storm in my rear-view (or with occasional NW glances).

Alas, cell mergers and precip had turned the newer storm to diffuse mush by the time I intercepted it S of IML. Nonetheless, it left a refreshing, cool, slightly breezy puddle of outflow air that I appreciated and relaxed in, for a few minutes, before heading back toward IML for potential sunset light. Arriving in town before sunset gave me time to reserve the last available room at the back of cheapest motel in town, then head out E again several miles to behold the magic hour.

Wrongly, I figured the outflow air would be ingested by what was left of the original western supercell, finally putting it out of its misery. Instead, the storm persisted and moved just N and NE of IML as an elongated, elevated saucer–not mind-blowing gorgeous but still very pretty and much-appreciated. I shot that and this image], among a few others, while that slowly modifying outflow pool blew across my back and beneath the storm that refused to quit.

Fading daylight, increasingly nebulous storm structure, the ultimately misguided notion that it didn’t have anything substantial left to offer, the banging pangs of hunger, and the supposition that any restaurant(s) in town were soon to close, all combined to send me back to my room to unload and find food. Mission accomplished: within half an hour I was sitting contentedly in Tequila’s Mexican Grill (the only place still open that wasn’t a gas station), very satisfied to be mining a delectable abundance of shrimp, steak strips, chorizo, and fajita vegetables from a hollowed-out half of a pineapple. I strongly recommend this place for those who find themselves hungry in Imperial at dinner time. The Mexican food was surprisingly good for Nebraska, the price was very reasonable, and service was splendid.

Quick checking of radar showed that what was left of the elevated supercell off to the ENE was…quite possibly not elevated anymore, had a sharply defined reflectivity hook, a modest velocity couplet, and was tornado-warned! I almost choked on the chorizo. This sucker had shed the outflow and latched onto a much more favorable airstream from the low-level jet. Fortunately, I was able to pay the tab fast, wolf down what was left, and trek off into the darkness toward the retreating storm.

Stern-chasing a nighttime supercell on sand roads normally isn’t recommended, but sky visibility was good, the roads ENE of IML were fairly wide for awhile and, thanks to the sand being wettened and packed down some, traction was manageable. Tactical driving with a high-clearance 4WD was much like on the tidal zone of beaches at Daytona or North Padre.

Unfortunately, the storm appeared to be accelerating ENE again and merging with other convection by the time I got close enough to make out its back side well, and road options were becoming more sparse and narrow. I stopped to set up the tripod and shoot
what was left of the supercell–demarcated by a pronounced max of in-cloud lightning within a broader complex of storms–receded in the direction of toward North Platte or Lower Michigan.

Lightning itself was rather unspectacular, but still much appreciated. There’s something enchanting about comfortably mild blend of return flow and remnant outflow air, a remote High Plains road at night with nobody else around, crickets and distant thunder as the only sounds, and a flickering nocturnal sky increasingly suffused with filtered moonlight. It felt like just me and God out there.
Here’s a time lapse of that scene that is worth watching but that still doesn’t do justice. Warning–if all the flashing in the old Wang Chung music video gave you problems, this might too!

Day-1 of High Plains Therapy was every bit the antidote it could be–a soothing cataplasm for lingering chase wounds, but one still demanding daily changing for full healing. And so it would be…

« Previous PageNext Page »