Mesmerizing Mammatus Moments

July 5, 2011 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Summary 

Pritchett CO Supercell
Assorted Storms and Sunset from Boise City OK to Liberal KS
11 June 11

SHORT: From McPherson KS, drove almost directly to Pritchett Co, saw brief tornado with supercell due W but no photos due to untimely town transect. Supercell died, as did another SW of Boise City. Intercepted back side of Turpin storm, photogenic outflows from trailing squall line. Amazing mammatus sunset followed by fun dinner with CoD crews in LBL.

This was a splendid first day on the High Plains for us in 2011! The day after hanging out in the beautiful Flint Hills, Elke and I headed W out of McPherson KS on the most direct route bypassing DDC to our target area of SE CO. We stopped along the way just briefly for fuel and to photograph an abandoned shed.

As we got to Syracuse KS, storms already had formed N of the RTN Mesa and W of US-287 in CO, our decision being to intercept the northern storms in a better road network, or the southern, newer storms that promised more unimpeded inflow for longer. We quickly decided on the latter and went S and W through Springfield to Pritchett.

Despite the densely wrapping hook echo on reflectivity displays, we didn’t expect anything substantially tornadic from the southern storm W of Pritchett, which by now had evolved into a mature, intense but high-based supercell. Alas, right as we started to enter town from the N, Elke noticed a conical funnel under the base to our distant W, protruding about 1/3 groundward, with a dust whirl beneath and thin, translucent debris sheath extending between dust whirl and condensation funnel. Of course, it had to be while we were trying to get through the only town within many miles; and I only caught a couple of brief but unmistakable glimpses between buildings. So did a cop; for staring that direction, he tore out of a nearby alley, sirens and lights blaring, briefly blocking the road before drag-racing Duke Boys style around a gas station and vanishing in a dust plume of his own making.

By the time we exited the S side of town, the tornado was gone–no photos, only memories. All visible vortex traces vanished into Colorado-thin air before I could call it in; but I did so anyway. The PUB forecaster seemed relieved that the warning verified, even if by a brief cheezenado.

We cruised W to an observing spot E of Kim, admiring mammatus to our N more than the increasingly featureless and drab storm now devolving to our W. A broad mass of showers and thunderstorms was growing to the older storm’s SE and dumping cold outflow into its inflow–certain doom for a once-powerful and briefly tornadic storm. Where next? Plenty of daylight, and we were storm-orphans. Cells were firing in the north-central Panhandle of OK, far away but reachable; and we could see the anvil of a persistent, solitary but undoubtedly very high-based cell to our S in NM. We had to go to Boise City for a chance to peek at either; so back we headed to the far fringes of our current home state.

Fifteen to twenty minutes spent at the front of a stopped line of vehicles, waiting for a flagman and pilot car on US-287, either cost us an inflow view of an intense supercell later or saved our necks; I’m still not sure which! By the time we got out of that, the remnants of the NM storm passed by CAO and came into view–not surprisingly, a widespread virga bomb dumping downbursts…albeit a wonderfully textured and photogenic virga bomb.

After fueling in Boise City, we targeted the supercell approaching LBL along the KS/OK border, glimpses of which we could see to our distant E and ENE ever since being stuck in the conga line on 287. Along the way to GUY, I couldn’t resist quick stops for two Great Plains specials: a striking scene of an abandoned barn high in late-day sunlight, as if sailing through an ocean of golden wheat, and from N of GUY, a high-based but beautiful Cb to our distant SE near Booker (the next storm W of what became the Follett supercell).

We headed NE from the GUY bypass toward Optima, greeted by the development and maturation of a pretty front-lit and under-lit arcus from the tail end of a short squall line to our W, NW and N. The earth, desperately dessicated and thirsty as you see, was about to get a much-needed drenching and quenching.

That’s what was happening behind the “Liberal-Turpin” supercell that, once we got to Hooker, was E of the road, sitting directly astride US-64 between Hooker and Turpin. Its meso wrapped across the highway to our E, blocking ready access. Police had US-54 blocked heading NE toward LBL, probably because of (by now) very old information about the supercell; so we turned E toward Turpin, creeping up to the back side of the raging HP monstrosity, able to see only scud and wrapping precip rolling southward in surges around the otherwise unseen mesocyclone. I knew what that meant, and considering past lessons, we weren’t about to core-punch it for any price or dare.

If we had arrived 15-20 minutes sooner, without the earlier traffic blockage N of Boise City, we might have made it; but then again, we also might have missed the amazing sunset show that followed. And that would have been a damn crying shame!

Instead of pondering could-have-beens, we admired still more outflow, this being the curiously lit E side of the arcus from the squall line to our N, looking past Hooker. We let that shelf roll over us for some eerie illumination, then plunged through the wet but harmless band of precip to get to our lodging in LBL.

As we entered LBL, it became glaringly obvious that a spectacular sunset show soon would ensue on the back side of the storm complex. The low, golden sun shone through the last curtains of trailing precip, and also through those, we already could see a field of mammatus aloft through chunks of ragged scud clouds evacuating eastward.

We secured our room keys from our favorite little motel there, then headed N of town for a gorgeous Great Plains sky of sunset mammatus that made the entire convoluted trip, every minute of it, worth its unforeseen destination in images such as this. Yet photos, beautiful as they may be, only can convey two dimensions of one sense: vision. This was not just a scene, it was an experience.

Land parched by drought sprang to life in a soothing blend of sound and aroma, cool and moist, as thoroughly refreshing to me as to the dozens of western meadowlarks celebrating in song across every compass point. I longed for the physical capacity to inhale ceaselessly, so as to miss not a millisecond of moist, earthen scent flowing across cool breezes, while sunset’s golden and reddening glow reflected first off the moving tapestry of mammatus clouds above, then off the land below and all around. For a fleeting few minutes, arms spread wide into the breeze, eyes gazing aloft, ears in stereophonic reception of the avian chorale’s cheerful spontaneity, smells of freshness and cleanliness and life, I ventured into a timeless place far outside the confines of self. It wasn’t the first time under such circumstances, either.

Let me assure you, when you are open to releasing your shackles of distraction and worry, and diving headlong into an experience of this nature, every sight, sound and breath swirls together as one multidimensional immersion in full appreciation reaching far beyond words and images. It’s a conscious decision, a gift to accept, an act of release and absorption, letting go and drawing in. These are the occasions when we let go unconditionally, in spiritual as well as sensory ways, bathing in a rejuvenation of sorts that cleanses all accumulated grime from even the farthest crevices of our being. If this is but an ephemeral and incomplete preview of heaven, count me in when the time comes.

Then came the slow descent back into reality, as the colors faded and a growling stomach begged for tangible nutritive sustenance. I noticed, via SpotterNetwork, that Paul Sirvatka and the CoD crew were headed into LBL from the S, so I called and invited them to join us for what turned out to be a fine dinner with enjoyable company.

Dinner, Drink and a Beautiful Storm, Please

July 1, 2009 by · Comments Off on Dinner, Drink and a Beautiful Storm, Please
Filed under: Summary 

10 Jun 9
Liberal KS

SHORT: Intercepted and photographed spectacular LBL area supercell/bow after dinner.

The previous day’s chase to Osage County had left us (Elke and me, with David and Samara Fogel) out of position for any play in northeast CO or the NEb Panhandle. Still, vertical shear looked to be favorable for supercells over a broad area of the central and southern plains, from NEb to southwest MO to southwest TX. Problem was, so much would depend on prior convective processes, and it looked simply like a damn mess.

Morning found us in between several conditional target areas, somewhat closer to MO. We didn’t wish to jack around with trees and hills anymore, after two chase days of doing so. The next nearest target appeared to be the “bent back” frontal segment extending W near the KS/OK border toward SE CO. The eastern part of this swath (if not all) seemed utterly doomed when we left PNC after lunch. A huge shield of clouds and light to moderate rain covered most of west OK and northwest TX, the north part of which would cover and stabilize out earlier morning’s preferred zone from LBL-P28.

Ironically, just NW of PNC, we passed a few chase vehicles headed E, toward the 5% TOR outlook area. We plowed on through the grunge, not optimistic about seeing any storms at all this day, and simply aiming to get a room in LBL to position for the next day. If we would see a storm…bonus.

After emerging from the enormous precipitatus crappus area, we cruised up the Okie Panhandle toward our intended bunks, basking in bright sunshine of the post-MCS subsidence zone, and watching distant multicell towers form and grow across extreme SE CO and west KS. The boundary was obvious to our N through distant WNW, as a more cloudy area with low scud indicating richer lifted moisture, compared to the dry air in which we drove. Still, the uninspired mood, set by the atmospheric sludge through which we had driven, discolored our prognosis to the point of complacency.

From that framework, and because they simply looked like crap, we were unimpressed by the speckled, disorganized, multicellular appearance of the distant storms — both visually and via radar. We got rooms in LBL, relaxed a bit and prepared to go to dinner at the Applebee’s on the N side of town. Shortly before going inside to eat, I took note of a relatively intense short line of reflectivity about 50 miles to our WNW, but didn’t quite reckon that it would latch onto the boundary I knew existed in front of it. I knew the shear was good along the boundary, but our cool surface temps (low 70s) didn’t impress me much.

In short, I did put 2 and 2 together. Problem was, the solution was 6.

As we sat to sup, a supercell spun up. The short line segment to our NW had latched onto the aforementioned boundary and got very happy for a brief interval.

Meanwhile, obliviously imbibing on various cold beverages and chewing the fat in two different ways, the four of us basically had checked out of atmospheric reality for awhile. We were finishing our dinner and drinks (not near a NW facing window) when Keith Brown called DF to report that one of the storms in that previously junky area had coiled itself into a supercell, and best of all, was just a few miles NW of LBL. A quick run outside indeed confirmed the truth — a banded, striated mother-ship with a wall cloud beneath, and we were standing into its immediate proximity inflow. Holy rotation, Batman! We paid the tabs and scrambled into our vehicles so fast I didn’t shoot stills at this stage. We just had to get outta town…

Fortunately we were near the N edge of LBL and could drive into the open country fast. It was a good thing that I don’t drink, because it was time to chase, and for me to be a designated driver! By the time we got to where buildings, poles, lines and so forth weren’t directly crisscrossing the view, the wall cloud was gone, the nearest (southern) storm more outflow-dominant. Yet the storm graced the southwest Kansas sky with wonderful structure, compelling us to mark a route to stay ahead of it.

Meanwhile, the northern storm — here seen at 122Z from our first good vantage just N of LBL — would produce a brief, rain-wrapped tornado 22 miles N of LBL and 6 minutes after that photo (according to the national storm report logs).

Instead, we observed and photographed a beautifully structured and at times wildly banded southern storm’s evolution, classic to HP to bow in rapid succession, from several vantages N through E of LBL. In the last shot and in this later one when the storm was more linear, diffuse flashes of in-cloud lightning added an internal light and surreal character to the scene, while the longer twilight exposure accentuating some of the rich coloration available.

What a delicious dessert! By the time we got to Meade Wildlife Area, SW of Meade, darkness had set in, and we turned S to get out of the way and head back toward our lodging in LBL via Forgan OK. This wasn’t the first time Elke and I had grabbed a room and dinner before intercepting a daylight storm; we also did so for the amazing Carhenge Supercell last year. It’s not common to execute a chase this way! Elke summed up her perspective well, in that it was the first time she had been on a storm intercept “a little warmed” by wine.