Three States of Strangeness

July 6, 2010 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Summary 

Slapout OK and vicinity
13 Jun 10

SHORT: Observed entire lifespan of supercell from SE of Dumas TX to near Coldwater KS including at least one tornado near Slapout OK. Also observed floods, beautiful clouds and bizarre cross-country cycling experience.

LONG: It was just another ordinary, ho-hum chase day with a rain-wrapped tornado to our south moving east, uncanny resemblances between the Texas Panhandle and the Everglades, a house propped up by a Frigidaire, and an Austrian bicyclist riding across the prairie to the beat of techno-dance music from a German-speaking mobile DJ. Nothing special or different here…

The strongest combination of moisture, instability, lift and shear was forecast along a segment of the former cold front (now gone quasistationary) from SW KS to the eastern TX Panhandle, dependent strongly on how far S storms could backbuild in a manner sufficiently discrete to permit cyclic mesocyclogenesis and greater potential for tornado development. The outflow-reinforced boundary lay from just S of Dumas to near Coldwater at 15Z, and wasn’t going to go far except where effectively shunted E by localized convective outflow pools. The 12Z AMA sounding had a very weak cap atop anomalously large dew points, with clearing skies, so early initiation (perhaps even before noon) was virtually certain.

After leaving our lodging, the question of the day became apparent:

Riddle: What do Chuck, Keith, Texas Beef, and Natural Gas have in common?

Answer: All are names of roads crossing TX-152 within 10 miles E of Dumas.

Heading E from Dumas toward the boundary, we saw towers already arising along it to our SSE by 1130 CDT (1630Z) — these would evolve into the eventual Perryton-Slapout area supercell. We got on the warm side of the boundary between Borger-Pampa, as the same towers deepened and glaciated to our NW. The chase was on, and it was only noon! The visit for fuel and burritos at a Pampa Allsups had to be succinct, so we could head N toward the projected storm target of Perryton.

Once back up out of the Canadian Breaks and atop the Caprock again, we found flooded fields everywhere from the wet spring, led by the previous day’s egregiously profuse rains. These cowboys S of Farnsworth had to herd their herd onto an island in what clearly wasn’t supposed to be a lake. Evapotranspiration was a given on this day! Every time I got out of the car — curiously, except near the tornado — mosquitoes descended in voracious plumes, bloodsucking varmints eager to draw sustenance from anything warm-blooded, and especially from storm observers. I wondered how many “skeeters” ended up advected into supercell updrafts and entombed in the cores of hailstones.

Our towers grew into a fuzzy supercell with a CAPE-starved appearance near Farnsworth, slightly behind the boundary. It probably was surace-based, but not in the best air mass at the time, but did exhibit occasional but not particularly strong cloud-base rotation from broad lowerings (looking NW).

Meanwhile, strong cells were firing back down between Dumas-Pampa again, which we easily could intercept if this supercell fizzled. Instead, updrafts continued to develop in a break between our activity and the southern convection, merging in with the rear flank of the nearby storm. It all remained rather disorganized for about an hour, backbuilding at a rate nearly equivalent to its translation up the boundary, but with a slight eastward net component toward Perryton. We headed S of Perryton and down a submerged US-83 before the storm reached the area. Trucks in front demonstrated the shallowest path through the dead-still water, and that the road remained intact beneath; this is where driving a high-clearance 4×4 pickup came in handy. Such positioning would get us into position to intercept the southern storms if this activity couldn’t get better organized, or if it did, to head E and N to stay with the original convection, without dealing with the town and nearby flooding again.

Our adjacent storm developed a large, sculpted shelf cloud, made even more scenic by the foreground of the huge flood S of town that I called Lake Perryton. The south side of the storm sported a classic shelf, while the N side still wanted to be a supercell, with a tail cloud and occasional, weakly- to non-rotating lowerings. None of this, land or sky, looked much like the High Plains that it was!

Most of all, this did not look like a storm that soon would produce tornadoes. I was getting impatient with it, but instead of bailing S forthwith, I moved a few miles away and examined an abandoned house S of town with an eye back to the N, while stiff, cold outflow winds pressed down adjacent wheat. Good thing we didn’t give up on the storm, too, as it started to look better-organized and more like a supercell again (wide-angle looking N over Perryton). Its own outflow had carved out a swath of convection-free air upshear, while SE winds to its SE maintained good storm-relative inflow. Looking N from SW of Booker, a very well-defined clear slot and wall cloud appeared, and we knew we had to keep this storm in our sights.

About 10 minutes after this shot, taken looking NW from just E of Booker, the mesocyclone region became rain-wrapped from our perspective, then immediately spawned the long-lived supercell’s first tornado, visible mostly to observers who buried themselves deep into the immediate mesocyclone area on muddy backroads. By then we were repositioning E, then N, to stay ahead of the storm.

Recognizing this as an evolving, tornadic HP situation where one needs to get tucked into the notch NE of the mesocirculation to have the best shot at seeing a tube, we set up shop on US-412, in the OK Panhandle, between Elmwood and Slapout. That road provided a ready east escape, an option not available last time I was in a similar situation (with Rich T on 19 May). While watching the accelerating supercell approach, we spotted and photographed another abandoned house, this one strongly dependent on an antique, rusty refrigerator for its survival! When that porch overhang goes, the rest of the structure won’t take long to follow it down into the weeds.

We moved uphill and N 1/2-mile, watching the storm approach. A partly rain-wrapped, rotating, bowl-shaped lowering appeared to our SW (wide-angle view at 1611 CDT/2111 Z, left side) that looked like it meant serious business. We needed to get back down to US-412 then uphill again to the E, in case that turned tornadic (it probably was already), and in case we had to make the great escape. On the way down, we spotted VOF Doswell roaming the grounds of the very same house, but didn’t have time to stop for idle chitchat.

Just after we climbed E and parked beside 412, a brief funnel and some diffuse multivortex filaments appeared under the lowering at 1616 CDT, just before I could shoot. Although the interceding, non-condensational stage lasted a few minutes afterward, I believe this was one continuous, tornadic circulation with the next stage, which manifest as a bulbous, tapering cone, then a well-defined and rain-wrapped cone with filamentous elements whirling beneath. By 1620 CDT the visible tornado became elongated, tapered, curved, narrower in appearance (normal and wide-angle views, by which time the tornado was to our S, moving E). We lost sight of the increasingly ill-defined tornado in wrapping rain to our SSE at 1622, by which time the onset of precip overhead (in the inner-notch region) compelled us to bail E on 412.

Now look at any of the wide-angle tornado shots and imagine the tornado away. What do you see? Otherwise, it looks like an outflow-dominant, rather junky storm organization with a big gust front and some pretty turquoise coloring on its N side. I’ve seen perhaps hundreds of similar-looking storms with no tornado wrapped in there behind the ragged shelf cloud; but in this case, there it was. And that’s all the supercell had left in a tornadic sense.

From then on, the storm’s successive mesocyclonic occlusions ingested excessive amounts of rain and outflow for tornadogenesis. We weren’t sure of this yet, of course; so we zigzagged N and E toward Laverne, meeting Howie along the way (action shot) and nearly getting struck by a staccato CG — the first among a sudden barrage that erupted immediately NE of the mesocyclone(s) in an area heretofore bereft of such a deadly menace. The bolt in question, which was so close I couldn’t tell the direction it hit, gave off an audible “snap” a split second before the simultaneous flash and slicing report of thunder. That momentarily disturbing sequence sent me leaping back into the vehicle glad to be alive and unharmed! I wonder if the snapping noise was the audible effect of a ground-up discharge from some close-by object that preceded the actual return stroke by a fraction of a second.

Shortly after Howie left and before encountering the CG, this shot revealed a dark, HP “stormzilla”. Notice the stubby, translucently rain-wrapped funnel at lower left, looking WSW from N of Slapout (heavily-enhanced crop-n-zoom). That highly suspicious protuberance emerged at 1640 CDT from some heavier precip. It also resided beneath a small, obviously rotating tail/collar feature rolling northward along the E face of the storm, toward a broader but weaker mesocirculation in the dark area to its right (N). We cannot be sure whether or not this was a brief tornado.

Those were the last shots we took from the storm’s inflow region. It started to gust out, merge with adjoining convection, and evolve a bowing feature as it headed for the area between Laverne and Coldwater KS, hot on our tail. With a central-northern plains target to reach in a couple of days, our minds turned to the potential photo ops on the backside of the complex, so we rushed up to Coldwater and let the northern part of the storm roll over us with likely-severe gusts and a barrage of subsevere hail. After the requisite inland-hurricane experience, we cruised WNW toward DDC for lodging and supper.

Along the way, we noticed a peculiar and wonderful combination of visual effects: underneath the MCS’ trailing anvil (not seen in the photo), laminarity along the top of the boundary layer, marked by a hazy delineation, and backdropped by pastel light from and through convective towers. Seldom have I witnessed such a combination, soothing in its beauty. Then things got [i]really strange.

As we stopped to watch and shoot that scene, a few miles SE of Ford KS, a distinctive male voice could be heard, slowly rising in volume. Elke asked me what I said; I hadn’t been talking. In a few more seconds, the source became apparent: a car slowly driving southeastbound toward us, on the shoulder of US-400, lights on, following a cyclist. The cyclist, dressed in skin-tight uniform covered with colorful sponsorship logos, rolled on past, followed closely by a car even more festooned in corporate logos. These, however, mostly were unrecognized ads, and the voice booming from the car’s loudspeakers was German! It was hard for Elke (a native German-speaker) to make out what he was saying, however, beneath the pounding beat of Euro-tech dance music also booming from the speakers. It was a rolling DJ, following a European cyclist across the Kansas prairie into the backside of an MCS!

We stopped in Ford, and right there at the convenience store was an RV parked, with many of the same logos as the weird cyclist/car tandem. Overcome by curiosity, Elke and I asked them (well, she did, since she spoke their language). The cyclist was from Austria — indeed, from the same general area as Salzburg, where Elke was born. He was riding across the USA from San Diego, and was only about 8 days into the trip. This means he had ridden well over 100 miles a day, including over the Mojave Desert and the mountains of southern Colorado. You have to respect that! They exchanged pleasantries, but seemed disappointed when she had to answer negatively to their question about where a good dinner could be found in town. For that, for them, it was either head back to Dodge or go all the way to Pratt…

After our own good dinner (a celebratory steak) in DDC, we parked on a hilltop W of town for a short-lived but gorgeous display of mammatus in the sunset light. The clouds glowed somewhere between champagne, iced tea and bronze on the spectrum of hues, and made for a marvelous conclusion to one of the more bizarre but enjoyable storm-intercept days in a long time.

Easter Sunday Supercell along US-82

April 13, 2009 by · Comments Off on Easter Sunday Supercell along US-82
Filed under: Summary 

Wichita Falls to Gainesville TX
12 Apr 9

SHORT: Supercell intercepted from near SPS to Gainesville, severe hail measured, large evolutionary variations in storm character along with great structure witnessed and photographed.

LONG: I had been watching the next “cold-core” chase potential rather casually for a few days in advance, aware that it could be close at hand, but distracted by assorted diversions of life. Nonetheless, I had mentioned to Elke and my two teen-age kids that there could be some chase potential Sunday, and to be ready to head out with me, if desired. The kids do love to chase, and don’t get to do it much thanks to school, so they were hoping.

After Easter services, we went home, and I liked the narrow slot of clearing and heating that was occurring in VIS imagery, with only upper 50s to low 60s F surface temps needed to uncap the boundary layer, given such cold air and steep lapse rates aloft. Something loosely resembling an occluded front laid out near the Red River, arching NW across SW OK and into the SE part of the TX panhandle. Near and NE of that boundary, winds were backed; and to its W, surface winds were veered with very little SRH for most reasonable storm motions. A storm that formed in the clear slot would have to interact with that boundary to get happy and spin for a good while. We just needed a storm, and a favorable boundary-relative storm motion. Dew point depressions where there was decent heating and instability seemed a tad high for my taste; but when you’re off, it’s spring, and there’s a shot at a supercell nearby, then…go!

The storms probably wouldn’t be tornadic, but one could get lucky. At worst, with no meaningful storms, this would be a country Sunday drive and some family time, probably with some time hanging out in the Wichita Mountains. Given the very conditional nature of the event, to allow more room in the car, and because she had some work to do, Elke stayed home. I think she mildly regretted doing so after we (David, Donna and I) got back with some great chase stories and photos. 😉

We didn’t get to the Wichitas.

Breaking out of the grunge, mist and slop just N of FSI, we exited for gas and I dialed up satellite and radar on my I-Phone. Meanwhile, David and Donna helped a handicapped old man who was parked near us look for his lost car keys. His keys were found, and so was a necklace of reflectivity pearls on the radar scope, from near CDS ESE across the SPS area. While the cells SW of FDR would be closer and more convenient to intercept, the tail-end storm developing WSW of SPS would
1. Remain in the most unstable boundary layer air mass the longest,
2. Have unimpeded inflow, at least for awhile,
3. Remain closest to the larger gradient flows and stronger deep-layer shear vectors aloft (farther from the center of the vortex aloft), and
4. Have a great chance to interact with the boundary after maturity.

Such meteorological reasoning made the decision easy. We zoomed down I-44 through SPS, getting a visual on Tail-end Charlie by the time we got clear of the FSI area. From then on, I never needed the I-Phone radar app, but it helped in the early strategic decision, and I used it occasionally out of curiosity during stops, as time permitted.

While still in OK, the storm was visible from a long distance (>40 miles), with a high but robust cloud base, intermittent wall cloud-like lowerings next to or behind the translucent precip core, and a sharp anvil (sorry, no photos…driving on an interstate). We got through the SPS area and set up along FM-1954, 2 SE of Lakeside City, as the high-based storm (initially to our W over US-82) became somewhat more elongated, with a verticaly tilted base. This was the first of a few occasions when I thought the storm was losing organization, and that dinner might be imminent!

As the storm impinged upon our position, I headed E to the spillway area of Lake Arrowhead to watch it approach once more. The scene was beautiful, but the storm was very high based, with a skinny, shelf cloud-like appearance to the updraft region. We collected some dead mesquite (for my grill at home) and admired a long-abandoned trailer and boat (decal dated 1966!) while letting the storm go by to our N, across the SPS area and eastward toward Henrietta. As it was passing to our NNE, the E part of that elongated base broadened and thickened some, followed soon thereafter by a more HP supercell appearance. The storm did a small but intense core dump, complete with classical downburst rain foot, to our NE near Henrietta.

I followed the storm toward Henrietta, and after seeing the core get more translucent (looking ENE from 6 WSW of town), decided to penetrate it and maybe get some interesting late-day lighting under the other side of the base and shelf cloud. I asked the kids if they wanted to get into some hail (they have before, several times) and told them we might find some going through the “thin” core, since it was so cold aloft. Did we ever…

As we drove E into the precip (on US-82) it seemed to thicken considerably, as if another core dump was taking place. I expected lots of small hail, and maybe some technical-severe cheese, but this hail was nearly significant. A large amount of hailstones around an inch diameter pounded us as I pulled over right alongside the Montague County line sign, at its border with Clay County. David reached out and brought in several of the biggest stones, lumpy oblate spheroids that uniformly measured 1-3/8 inch on their long axes. I called this report in to WFO OUN, but it didn’t show up in the rough logs. [Estimates of larger sized hail came from nearby.]

The hail continued for a few miles past Ringgold and thinned near Belcherville…and man, did it ever get dark in that core for something that looked so benign when we were west of it. After we popped out the other side and pulled over, 3 W of Nocona, we saw why. Once again, it had reorganized, this time into a MUN (mean, ugly, nasty) monster, looking much like the prototypical north Texas HP Stormzilla, with a wall of scud roaring up the leading edge of the the outflow surge. And we had just gotten out before it became really intense. Whew!

Cows, placidly oblivious to the impending experience of hail bouncing off their skulls, grazed in the field as the supercell clawed onward toward us. We cruised E through Nocona, finally seeing a couple of chase vehicles (one belonging to a chaser that the kids and I know, Scott Peake, with whom we briefly spoke). I was mildly but pleasantly surprised at how few chasers were out there, especially considering I was on a major U.S. highway just ahead of what had become the only supercell in the region.

The road took a right turn more to the SE, and so did the storm — right into a hilly and more forested area of the Western Crosstimbers habitat, where good views would be hard to find. Fortunately, I stumbled upon a great westerly vantage about 3 NW of Saint Jo, at a roadside picnic area set atop a hill. We watched the storm from there for awhile (wide angle view). It actually shed some of its densely HP visual characteristics, acquiring more sculpted structure aloft and maintaining a convergent, slowly rotating wall cloud under the main updraft area. At no point did I see any cloud base accelerations that suggested imminent tornadogenesis, despite having a good view through zoom lenses; nonetheless, we observed it with keen vigilance for any rapid uptick in angular motion.

The storm then became somewhat less organized (wide angle view while lying in bluebonnets), but we stayed just ahead of it, aiming now for dinner in Gainesville and a ride home up I-35. With the ongoing loss of diurnal heating, I figured this would be the storm’s last hurrah. Still, it treated us to some spectacular twisting and banding (horizontal and vertical shots at 17 mm full-frame) between Saint Jo and Muenster. The last shot was deja-vu, in that it reminded me a lot of a wondrous scene that Elke and I witnessed a few years back outside of Hyannis NE — similar vertical banding, but without the residual supercell updraft at its southern root.

We ate dinner in Gainesville while the dying storm moved overhead, spitting a little lightning and rain, but not much else.

This was a fun, interesting and at times quite scenic intercept of a long-lived, non-tornadic “cold core” supercell in north TX. [Yes, I know there’s a tornado report by a local fire department in the rough log. I have seen no confirming evidence as yet. We had excellent views of the storm throughout that phase, and there were lots of hangy-downy scud foolers under the wall cloud at times. So I await unambiguous photos or video before believing the report.]

It was the best storm observing trip of the year yet, with hopes for many more! It also was a great dad-kids time. Last but not least, I ought to mention that Al Moller came to mind while I was belly-down in the bluebonnets, and those who know Al know why: It’s exactly the sort of scene he has specialized in shooting with amazing skill for a long time; but he’s got far better shots than that one in his slide collection.

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