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…