Mesmerizing Mammatus Moments

July 5, 2011 by · 1 Comment
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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.

Ragged Roger’s Rage of Rago

August 1, 2009 by · Comments Off on Ragged Roger’s Rage of Rago
Filed under: Summary 

20 Jul 9
South-central KS and north-central Oklahoma supercell

SHORT: On the way back from vacation in Colorado with Elke and the kids, observed a photogenic supercell over southern KS and northern OK.

LONG: Faced with a long drive back to Norman and the prospect of a day shift for me the next day, I sleepily pulled out of my in-laws’ place near Broomfield, morning sun in my face, eagerly anticipating late lunch and early dinner in SLN, and knowing that we would be bypassing the central CO and western KS storm potential along the way. We would have to depend on mesoscale accidents and luck to observe anything in the afternoon, when in central and southern KS, near the W edge of a cloud shield left behind by elevated convection early in the day.

As we proceeded E, the elevated storms kept firing across northeast and east Kansas, setting up some differential heating in an environment of favorable low level moisture and at least acceptable deep-layer shear. By the time we commenced to late lunch/early dinner at SLN, a supercell pair already had formed over southwest NEb and began charging S toward GLD — through which we had driven a few hours ago. This would include the storm that bombarded Alnado’s place with 4+ inch diameter hail and severe winds, as well as presenting him with a small tornado visible from his property.

After we cleaned out the Coyote Canyon buffet, I checked a surface map and some automated mesoanalysis data on the I-Phone, and saw a nicely defined, NW-SE boundary from near HUT-WNF, conveniently parallel to the mean wind vector, and collocated with the surface moist axis. That’s a good sign. Cu and TCu bubbled along it, seeming to be a couple hours from any serious mature storm (if ever). We headed S on I-135 in no big hurry, a small cell forming then dying on the bondary S of ICT and well S of us. As we hit Newton, the SW sky erupted with towers, and the ICT radar exploded with echoes near Kingman. A large, rather disorganized looking cluster of very high reflectivity sent a short-lived left split off toward the W side of ICT, while we cruised through town.

Given the presence of that vorticity-laden boundary and all its positive attributes (and positive SRH), we decided to wait at the Belle Plaine service area to see if a supercell could consolidate from the big convective mess, while anvil material spread in a massive shadowy umbrella across the sky overhead. Finally, it did, and we zigzagged WNW from Belle Plaine to take a look. We had a distant view under the storm at the time of the law-enforcement “rope tornado” report near Rago, and didn’t see it. Here’s a wide-angle as we approached, looking WNW from E of Perth.

The storm was moving hard right, toward the SE then SSE — a good sign for storm-relative inflow, but away from the higher SRH and moist axis along the boundary. I suspected its tornadic phase (if it ever existed) was early, brief and finished, and it would be “just” a pretty storm from here on. The storm began hammering the countryside in all directions with staccato CG bolts from the anvil, many miles ahead of the cores and vault. The sizzling CGs igniting several fires, and forced us to stay in the car most of the time until S of the OK border. Knowing it would herd us back toward I-35 and homeward, we chose to stay SE to ESE of the storm and keep observing.

The supercell developed several banded structures on both flanks (as seen from Corbin KS). This included a curious juxtaposition of near-ground smoke pooled along the forward-flank gust front, beneath a convective beaver-tail with a base, sandwiching a chamber of filtered golden light of the sunset hour (here’s that shot).

Meanwhile, with the storm bearing even more firmly equatorward, we found a stopping point S of Corbin near the border, and noticed two plumes of smoke rising into the updraft base (wide angle and zoom shots). These reminded me of the “Wicker smokenado” from the early 1980s that made national TV on Nova. Several lightning-started fires had led to a patchwork of smoke palls in all directions, including this one to the SE that formed a nice angle with the postcrepuscular storm shadow.

We reached I-35, photographing the twilight storm from the rest stop near Blackwell, as it crossed the border. Figuring this storm might not be crawling with live OKC TV trucks at this time of year (for once!), I called the OUN office to provide a field report, letting them know the storm looked flat, nontornadic, forced, and somewhat lofted atop its own outflow — despite the prominent hook and SRM couplet I was seeing on Vance AFB radar.

For once, I was not anticipating the prospective nocturnal light show. See, I performed any photographer’s dreaded blunder by forgetting my tripod on the trip. Most of the time, I improvised successfully by bracketing steadiness — rapid-fire shooting of low-light and/or high f-stop scenes in confidence that at least one shot would turn out sharply during a fortuitously steady time interval. This strategy has worked for me over and over in many other situations, but simply can’t be done with something as ephemeral as lightning.

As I drove, Elke began to marvel at the structure, which assumed the shape of twisted taffy, brilliantly illuminated by foreground lightning. Photos or not, we had to get off I-35 for a look! By the time we got back off the interstate, the storm’s sparking was becoming less frequent anyway, its structures flatter again, which made the challenge even harder.

Bring it on: I stand ready to face any challenge. Somehow, using the top of the car and some hand and finger contortions, I did get off a couple of decent lightning shots, including this one. It’s not as spectacular as some stuff I saw elsewhere from the western supercell, but I’m satisfied to have done the best I could under the circumstances.

The western supercell N of END tempted us, but it was getting late (after 10 p.m.), and I had that day shift the next morning to deal with. Tired from the extensive drive and from the trip as a whole, we simply headed back home, content and thankful to have seen and intercepted a rotating storm in late July. This made the sixth straight month I witnessed a supercell in the state of Oklahoma. How strange is that?