The Agony of the Unseen

July 9, 2010 by · Comments Off on The Agony of the Unseen
Filed under: Summary 

Faith SD, 16 Jun 10

SHORT: Observed lifespan of pretty Faith SD supercell, then attempted unsuccessfully to intercept Dupree storm, whose most dangerous (hook) part and its flooding blocked the only access for 50 miles. Missed most of its tornadoes as a result.

LONG: After the successful intercept of a tornadic supercell on the 13th, from the Texas Panhandle to Kansas, Elke and I wandered N for some much-anticipated landscape and storm action on the northern Plains. We hadn’t been in the Dakotas more than briefly in a few years, and missed the area hugely. We were eager to return both to a favorable pattern for storms up in those parts, and to the unrivaled Great Plains scenery.

On the way up, we had a pleasant two-day drive, stopping occasionally for abandoned-farm or flooded-field photography. That was followed by a splendid dinner on Hot Springs SD and a stay at some reasonably priced cabins overlooking town. We landed in the same cabins we stayed in with the kids 8 years prior, then headed out for late-afternoon photography of the muscular landscape (another shot) of nearby Wind Cave National Park and the muscular bulk of the buffaloes that inhabit it.

The next morning, we had a choice of two potential targets awaiting us on the other side of the Black Hills:

    1. a warm front somewhere NE of RAP, an area of very strong low-level moisture and shear but somewhat weaker winds aloft, where several models consistently broke the cap, or

    2. a triple-point play closer to the SD-MT border, in a more dependable initiation regime, stronger deep-layer winds, but weaker low-level hodographs.

In easy reach of both, I pondered the situation while we spent the morning wandering past the park’s buffaloes again, and up into the rain-soaked, beautifully verdant landscapes of the Black Hills. We had time to travel the tortuous highway traversing the wondrous Cathedral Spires and Needles area, including its one-lane tunnels that left about 4 inches to spare on either side of my vehicle.

As we fueled up in RAP, towers began to deepen and become surface-based along the warm front to our NNE, S of Faith. The route there is rather indirect; but along the way, we were treated to a fine view across the rolling grasslands as it grew explosively into a nascent supercell. Leaving the I-90 area, we also left cellular coverage, which we wouldn’t have for the rest of the chase. I’m not sure this would have made much of a difference in the end result, given the fairly good visuals on all the storm development; but road logistics would hurt us bad.

We got to a few good viewing positions W of Faith as the first storm grew a young, high-based wall cloud (looking N), then lowered its base somewhat and matured into more of a mothership appearance with tiled convection above. This prompted us to wander NNW of Faith for a closer look. Other towers were growing up and down the warm front on both sides of this supercell, and I feared a new storm would erupt to the SE and dump rain into the inflow. Meanwhile, while we were driving, our storm produced a couple of short-lived funnels from transient, but very tights, areas of cloud-base rotation. A wide-angle view, looking NW, shows the nice structure it had.

One bothersome thing: the supercell was moving more N than E, not rightward, and failing to take advantage of the rich low-level SRH in the warm-frontal zone. Then my fears became reality: rain, from a storm that had erupted to our SE, falling into this storm’s inflow, and rendering it more high-based and stable-looking. We didn’t waffle; the decision came quickly to get back SE into Faith and E, and go after the new storm. After a needed bathroom and fuel stop at Faith, we headed E, seeing that the new storm was S of the only east road for 50 miles, but hoping that (like the previous one) it would have enough of a northward component of translational motion to get N of the road, letting us go to the crossroads options available out of Dupree.

An hour and a half later, we still were waiting for the storm to get off the road, while parked a various spots ~7 E of Faith. The storm had gone stationary at just the wrong place, and I just knew it was spinning like mad, producing tornadoes unseen to us, as South Dakota supercells often do at this time of year when they latch onto high-SRH boundaries. The most dangerous part of the storm (rain- and hail-wrapped mesocyclones), with likely tornado-containing hooks, parked right on the road to our E, while sending surge after surge of very wet, rainy RFDs over and just E of us. We risked driving right into a rain-wrapped tornado, or into floods, if we played “XTREME INSANE” like some storm chasing version of Evel Knievel, and tried to punch the core. No thanks…I rather would live to see my kids again and chase another day.

At about 1815 MDT, early in this rather agonizing series of storm-scale processes, some locals stopped to ask if they should continue E. I told them that I wouldn’t advise it, since a tornado could be buried inside that heavy rain. They did anyway, which makes me wonder what kind of view they had of the spectacle that followed within 3 minutes. we spotted a suspicious lowering in the rain to our ESE, S of the road. It was a wall cloud in an obviously old occlusion several miles W of the main mesocyclone (regular and heavily enhanced zoomimages). A suspicious, conical condensation form appeared in the murk to the right of the trees, moving northward and perhaps even northwestward (regular and heavily enhanced zoomimages).

We were increasingly confident this was a tornado, and kept close eye on it as it appeared to turn toward us! [Pulses of heavy rain precluded camera-safe photography from outside the vehicle, so you’ll have to bear with the raindrops that accumulated between wipings.] Can you spot it now? [(regular and heavily enhanced zoomimages).] We sure could, and it was getting unnerving, with us being buried in the same area of heavy rain as this tornado that was approaching an an uncomfortably oblique angle. We were in the strange position of potentially having to back up fast from a west-northwestward-moving, westward-curving, rain-wrapped tornado on the back side of the storm! The tornado crossed the road (regular and heavily enhanced zoomimages)about 3/4 mile to our E (no damage apparent later…nothing much to damage!), then roped out to our NE and N, the last wisps of rotation being visible in the field around 1/2 mile to our N. I gave the information to a couple of sheriff’s department troopers who pulled up shortly afterward and asked them to relay it to NWS, which apparently didn’t happen, and they proceeded eastward. After that experience, core-punching the succession of hooks to our E was simply not an option.

Eventually, it started to get darker, the storm still parked on the road, floods crossing the low areas between hilltops. We gave up on ever getting ahead of this storm on US-212, and headed back to Faith, hoping to get a room at a friendly-looking motel we had seen there. Alas, power was out to the town (supplied from the east), and locals were talking about all the “big tornadoes” they had heard about “over by Dupree.” This was brutal news, confirmed later by accounts from those few chasers who did risk punching the hooks and didn’t get caught n the floods. Not wanting to risk a powerless motel for the night, we went S and E to Pierre, nearly a 2-hour drive, knowing by then that we missed an amazing show of multiple, photogenic tornadoes, because the storm wasn’t kind enough to park itself just 5 miles farther north.

Why did I write almost as much about the pre-chase as the chase? Simple: This was one of the must frustrating experiences in my entire 26 years of mobile storm observing, bar none. It’s a good thing we had good times on other days before and after, because if this were my only storm attempt of the year, I would have gotten physically ill and perhaps become unbearable for others to be around for awhile. It was that difficult to deal with. And yet, what happened to us wasn’t as frustrating as what some other experienced chasers endured (such as Tony Laubach, who got trapped between two of the floods for hours just ahead of us). Tony, all I can say is…misery loves company, dude…I definitely sympathize! Some days you’re the windshield, some days you’re the bug…