Second Dose of Beautiful Outflow Dominance

August 20, 2011 by · Comments Off on Second Dose of Beautiful Outflow Dominance
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Limon to Sheridan Lake and Lamar CO
17 June 11

SHORT: Intercepted two supercells that quickly became outflow-dominant in east-central CO. Picturesque structure. Nighttime lighting, mammatus and moonrise show near Lamar CO.

LONG: Starting at the laundromat in Yuma, we headed S at midday toward a forecast initiation area near the Palmer Divide, which by the time we hot the open plains S of town, already bubbled with tall convective towers. As in the previous day, I was concerned that storms would go too soon and create a big outflow surge; but instead they percolated for some time, struggling to organize as we approached LIC. There, we sat under the NE edge of a high-based, fuzzy, virga-spraying line of cells, none particularly impressive for about an hour.

Finally, as so often happens on these highest of the High Plains, a few distinct updraft bases materialized from the mush, one of more of which I guessed would evolve into a supercell, given both the favorable deep-layer shear and increasing low-level moisture content with time. When some of the virga started to reach ground as rain in LIC, we zipped several miles S of town then W a mile on a dead-end dirt road to watch the action unfold, while remaining in at least marginal phone-data coverage of LIC’s cellular towers. Turns out we didn’t need the data…as often is true out there, the eyes have it.

Two supercells developed essentially in sync — one to our somewhat distant W beyond Simla, the other to our NW between Matheson and LIC.

The closer storm evolved fast, and in fascinating ways. The initially broad, high updraft base in the last photo lowered somewhat, with a broad, ragged cigar of scud materializing beneath as the updraft began to process rain-cooled air from the neighboring parts of the forward-flank core. Notice, in the last photo, the lower-middle part of the scud bank seems to be rising off the ground. In fact, it not only was rising, but weakly rotating–before the broader scud stogie ever attached to the parent storm’s cloud base: a “scudnado” indeed! The scud mass kept growing and rising, becoming part of the storm’s updraft base and lowering it tremendously. This is a classic example of a storm modifying its own thermodynamic environment to ratchet down its own LCL!

Meanwhile, we saw intermittent chunks of ground-based scud, rising and slowly rotating. Nothing appeared too threatening from the standpoint of developing a real tornado, but it certainly kept my attention, in case the circulation ever started to tighten up to ominous levels. Some of them certainly had that look (zoom lens and enhanced digital zoom). I was pleasantly surprised and glad to see that nobody called these in as tornadoes, knowing that a lot of chasers were roaming about the area (based on Spotter Network icons). Another example a few moments later: (zoom lens and enhanced digital zoom).

The first supercell moved ENE over the LIC to our N, and gusted out. That turned our attention to the second (western or “Simla”) storm, which had sported intermittent, mostly non-rotating and ragged lowerings so far. A large, weakly rotating and precip-wrapping wall cloud developed as the storm drew closer, thanks to a a big mass of rain-cooled air entrained into the main updraft region. The supercell turned hard right, heading ESE and bearing the forward-flank core on course for the location where we comfortably had parked for about an hour. Time to head S again…

N of Punkin Center, we stopped to the updraft’s E again, this time for a short spell to photograph some beautiful clean-air storm structure. The supercell grew ever more outflow-dominant by the minute and accelerated its forward speed, so we couldn’t stay long. One more shot of the striking form of the storm, a marvelously textured swirl of gray shades and turquoise looming across the western sky, and it was time to bail over toward Aroya to open up some room between the storm and us. Along the way, its gust front briefly passed to the NE and to the N.

Approaching Aroya, we remembered a beautiful, old, abandoned schoolhouse we had seen on another chase nine years ago, having wished someday to photograph it before an approaching storm. This was our chance! The result is one of my favorite Great Plains scenery shots of the year so far.

Near Wild Horse, the supercell tried hard to enlarge a surface-based updraft, and appeared to succeed. The result was another spectacular display of texture and shading. Yes, that lowering at the inflow-outflow interface was rotating–slowly, but helically, giving me some concern for a brief tornadic spin-up. This one (zoom, and enhanced zoom of a zoom) compelled me to call, but thanks to being in one of the many tens of thousands of square miles of the Plains that constitutes AT&T’s 3% of America not served, I had no signal.

Fortunately, that feature quickly dissolved under relentless assault from cold outflow. Shortly after those shots, YF Umscheid motored up the dirt road toward us from a vantage closer to the feature, without reporting anything of consequence. We stayed ahead of the storm as it surfed outflow, driving E to Cheyenne Wells then S to Sheridan Lake. Between those burgs, we stopped to photograph the increasingly high, tiered, arcus-like eastern part of the base and a pretty array of sunset tones on the W side.

The storm now being a windbag and dust-bomb, we left it to get some lodging in LAA, setting us up for a long-desired revisit of Bent’s Fort and perhaps another chase opportunity the next afternoon off high terrain near and S of the Palmer. We found a nice, locally operated motel, then headed just SW of town to watch a short-lived, probably elevated supercell approach in the fading twilight. Elke was getting tired, so we went back to the motel, as the storm peppered town with abundant hail up to 1 inch in diameter (definitely smaller than the supposed “golfball hail” in the local storm reports).

A good lightning show beneath and on the back edge of the storm sent me back S of town again onto a different side road, this time to photograph the mammatus-festooned electrical show from the rear. As crickets and frogs sung loudly from every point of the compass, that amazing moist-earth smell refreshing my spirits amidst cool outflow air, the lace-lightning display continued with the storm’s eastward retreat. As a bonus wonderment, to cap a fine storm day, an orange moon rose beneath and then behind the distant updraft base. In the last shot, above the flanking line, you can see the anvil edge illuminated by the moonlight, in addition to the lighting by lightning within the storm.

After a long and satisfying chase day, we slept very soundly that night!

For your enjoyment, and as a reward for patiently reading this far, I’ve thrown together a couple of coarse animations from tripodded still-camera images shot that night: the first of the retreating storm with lace lightning, and the second of the wide-angle moonrise scene.

Gorgeous Skyscapes: Wind Cave National Park

August 8, 2011 by · Comments Off on Gorgeous Skyscapes: Wind Cave National Park
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Splendid Storm and Sunset near Hot Springs SD
14 June 11

SHORT: Began in Kimball. High-based storms and shallow convection along way N to Hot Springs SD. Beautiful storm before sunset over Wind Cave NP followed by equally amazing sunset scenes there.

LONG:
This wasn’t intended to be a “chase day”, per se, but we nonetheless encountered some beautiful shallow-convective scenery enroute that make it well worth sharing here, capped off by a wonderful little storm and color-splashed sunset where the Black Hills meet the Great Plains. On this day, the convection came to us!

After a decent brunch in IBM, we took off N for a couple of nights in a familiar set of cabins at Hot Springs. Along the way, we photographed an abandoned performance hall against a backdrop of brilliant, post-frontal blue sky and deep cumuli. The old place, structurally sound but superficially rickety, had a stage, piano, ticket booth, and separate outdoor latrine. Imagine having to leave the performance because of a terrible need to take a big dump…everyone there would know!

Sufficient residual moisture and relatively cold air aloft supported convectively textured, yet very clean, post-frontal skies that made fine backdrops for photographing other abandoned structures, such as this one near Crawford and this one near the NEb/SD border. The sky also added richness to scenes of rock formations, patterns, flowers and landscapes in the Toadstool Geologic Park within Oglala National Grassland. Toadstool is a wondrous little favorite place for us on the Great Plains–an outpost of the Badlands without all the tourist crowds–where we spent a few hours hiking and exploring for the first time in several years.

We got dinner in Hot Springs, whereupon my son David called to inform me he was caught driving in a tremendous hailstorm in Norman and needed advice on what to do. I directed him to a parking area; but his vehicle later got damaged by a flying tree limb in the second downburst. Facebook soon sprang to life with frantic posts of the fury of the hail-filled downbursts upon Norman. Ultimately, we would need to replace a good deal of roofing and guttering on our house from this event; and I knew even then that I would have many limbs to saw up and drag to the curb upon return. The dread of that chore made me enjoy this vacation even more, far away from still another Norman maelstrom that struck in our absence.

After dinner, we secured our cabin overlooking town, then headed up the road toward the rolling grasslands of Wind Cave National Park in hopes of some buffalo, wildflowers and sunset. Elke and I long have wanted to photograph a beautiful storm in the uniquely beautiful setting of this place…lo and behold! There it was! As we approached, we saw a growing Cb, cruising ESE across the undulating green carpet. One of our favorite overlooks happened to offer an outstanding view of the brilliantly lit storm. There we stayed, intermittent rumbles of thunder competing with the western meadowlarks for our ear, warm inflow at our backs, and before our eyes, among the most astounding non-severe stormscapes I’ve witnessed. The storm receded to the NE then E, letting the deep blue post-frontal sky into our wide-angle view, offering a source of reflected eastern light. We had begun full-sensory bathing in yet another transcendent experience best described by what Gretel Ehrlich once declared “the solace of open spaces”.

Just when we thought things couldn’t get more beautiful, they did, in a three-act production set across the theater of the sky. First, our storm gained a dense little core festooned with a bright rainbow that, after swapping on a zoom lens, made a postcard-pretty landscape scene for the national park. Right as that storm receded across the distant Badlands and weakened, the southwestern sky lit up with golden fractus basking in the sunset glow. As soon as those clouds began to dissipate, a couple of small virga showers formed to the S, dropping their wispy mists into the deepening red-orange hues. As they moved east, the moonrise beneath made for one of my favorite sunset and twilight shots of the year: flaming red virga beneath a golden crowned convective cloud top and blue sky. Finally, even as those colors faded, the western sky briefly blazed with a red-gilded cloud edge.

So concluded an unexpectedly stunning and soul-soothing display of atmospheric artistry! Before leaving the hilly meadow, however, there was one more piece of business to attend. On this evening, even a turd could spawn beauty, in this case a buffalo cookie supporting a mushroom! We would return the next day for some wildlife and flower photography and a visit to Crazy Horse, before resuming what would become the most active storm-observing vacation of our lives to date…

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.

LONG:
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.

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