Monday, September 10, 2012

Storm Chasing: Don't Try This At Home

Hopefully everyone enjoyed the introduction to Justin Pletsch over the weekend. If you missed it, here's the link:

Now for his storm chase story, in his words. The pictures are well worth it. And I do love the areas where he has traveled in order to get these photos in the plains states of Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, Colorado etc.

Today's setup was mediocre at best. Models were indicating storm development in Wyoming (WY) and moving into South Dakota (SD), as well as some weaker storm along the Colorado (CO)/Nebraska (NE) border. With that in mind, we drove west out of Valentine, NE toward Chadron, NE in order to get further west and see what would happen. After a very brief pit stop in Alliance, NE, we made our way south to Bridgeport, NE to figure out where to go. After some more analysis, we chose to head north in the even that storm should fire in WY and move east. In addition, we were in the Nebraska Panhandle, so the road network is really quite abhorrent. There is only 1 good North-South option (US Route 385) and 1 good East-West option (US Route 20).We found an old, abandoned house to take pictures of while waiting for storm development to initiate in-between Alliance and Sidney, NE.

After waiting for a while, nothing was happening to the north in the Ardmore*, SD region, which was one of our targets. Meanwhile, a storm blew up near the CO/NE border, which was our second possible target. We chose to start working our way south toward this cell, which was a good 90 minutes away, while monitoring the area near WY/SD. Fortunately, that storm was moving to the ENE at a slow pace of 15 mph. We intercepted this storm near Sidney, where we encountered 1 inch hail stones. This was quite an interesting storm, as there were 2 cells popping up very close to it, and we could see 3 storm bases quite clearly. One of the bases seemed to be getting bigger, and it started to look more and more "interesting." We followed this to Lodgepole, NE, where it became an LP (low-precipitation) supercell. The structure was absolutely phenomenal!!! It had very nice "barber pole" structure, which eventually turned into a more laminar (stacked) supercell. We stopped near a wheat field to take pictures of this amazing storm, where the sunlight, golden wheat, and a small farmstead provided the perfect background.

Later, this supercell transitioned from LP to "Classic" mode, and that is when we started to notice "nubs" dangling from the storm base. 2 of these nubs had areas of rotating dirt underneath, which meant 2 tornadoes had formed. Keep in mind these were not textbook by any means, but they were still neat to see, considering LP supercells rarely produce tornadoes. We stuck with this storm for quite some time, and it kept getting better. Eventually, a very nice "clear slot" formed, which was a sign the storm was starting to re-generate. As we were jockeying for position yet again, rain started falling in this clear slot, which usually results in tornado development. One of the tour guests noticed a very ominous lowering in this rain shaft, which turned out to be a funnel. We were unable to stay long because of how much lightning was being produced from this storm. The radar return showed a very distinct hook echo, but it did not last long. As we pulled off the road one last time to take our final pictures, we were treated to an amazing light show to end the evening. This made our drive to Imperial, NE, where our hotel was for the night, much more enjoyable. Our total mileage for the day was 510 miles.

*There was a very photogenic tornado that formed near Ardmore later that evening after we bailed on the SD target. This goes to show that storm chasing does have its ups and downs, but we were still fortunate to chase the storm we did :-)

I want to thank Justin for taking the time out of his day to send me his story, photos and his interview.


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