Saturday, May 24, 2014

Storm Chasing Class, Week 1

My colleagues, Professors Sam Ng and Scott Landolt, generously let me tag along on their storm chasing class trip this year!  Our first week we saw some pretty awesome supercell structures and had quite the adventure!  My log below includes highlights from the trip thus far. 

It is so important to note that we had three mesoscale meteorology experts in the van who are meteorologists with several degrees and who are extremely experienced storm chasers.  We also had GPS, iphones, wireless, and a laptop with GRlevel3 radar products that give us better resolution and the ability to see rotation, something that is extremely difficult using radar you find on a webpage or a run of the mill app.  We also had contact with other trusted forecasters if needed.  We also had me as a backup navigator and generally cautious backseat driver/forecaster.  I am not a mesoscale specialist, even though I have a BS, MS, and PhD in meteorology.  I would never go storm chasing without these experts in the car with me!!!  Do not try this at home, kids!  Finally, we had nine students with us, the majority of whom have attended spotter training and are somewhere along the way in their meteorology degree at MSU Denver.  Our degree fulfills the NWS and AMS requirements and is one of the only programs around that does so.  These guys have taken more computer science, physics, calculus, chemistry, and meteorology courses than you can imagine!  Our students and I are out storm chasing with these experts so we can learn from them, and, in doing so, train the next generation of meteorologists who will be issuing the warnings or telling you about them on TV.  Without seeing these things up close and personal it is so difficult to understand the unique structure of severe thunderstorms. 

All photos are mine (yay iphone) unless otherwise noted.  

Monday, May 19, 2014
We left early for Ogallala, Nebraska.  We got there and discovered blue skies and a huge lack of action.  We stopped at Lake McConaughy for a few hours to stretch our legs, wiggle our toes in the water, and hang out while we waited for convection to start. 
Off in the distance we kept seeing storms fire up and die quickly.  Finally, we saw some legitimate convection going on and hit the road to head towards a cell that popped up on radar, it was a ways west of us.  Upon arrival, we found this beauty:

We were on the more southern storm when the northern one got warned. 
We were going to go take a peek, but the southern storm really started to build and we started getting a few stray pieces of hail while on our first dirt road, so we headed back to the highway and had to really keep the speed on to get away from the hail core. As we were outrunning it, I looked back and caught a few pictures of what I described to others without a view as, "You know the space ship from Independence Day?  That's following us!"  When I asked, "What IS that thing behind us?" Professor Landolt reminded me, "THAT is a supercell."  Yikes! 
We were finally far enough ahead that we could pull over for a few last pictures, but the lightning was insane, so none of us got out of the car, just passed up our cameras.  Alex Trellinger caught this lightning picture just out the van window!  Turns out there's a lightning cam app that detects the light and snaps the picture in time.  (I downloaded it that night!) 
Photo by Alex Trellinger
We made our way back to Ogallala where we had hotel reservations waiting for us.  Everything was closed except for the Denny's.  We had the most horrific meal and the longest wait for our food in the history of dining.  The next night we would race back to get to the steak house before it closed!  No steak until we see a tornado, though!  Our first day out was fantastic!  This supercell really was gorgeous. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014
We woke up in Ogallala and guess what the Holiday Inn Express had for breakfast?  A gluten free bagel option!  I was in heaven!!!  Usually my travel food consists of french fries, bad salads, and hamburgers with no bun.  The bagel was a real treat.  We had a weather briefing before heading west to Wyoming to check out a few cells there. 
Turns out it's pretty up there!
This cow was really into us. 

We left the storm before getting precipitated on, and it was eventually tornado warned.  We kept in front of it through Scottsbluff, NE.

Close, but no cigar.

Time to call it a night and rush back for dinner in Ogallala so we don't have to eat at Denny's again! 

Wednesday, May 21, 2014
We woke up in Ogallala and got word that we needed to head southwest quickly.  We were out the door by 9:30 after another gluten free bagel.  Score!  We headed towards Denver, stopping for a while along the way for Burger King and waiting for things to kick off.  Suddenly we were in the perfect position to intercept a tornado warned storm in east Denver.  We saw the storm in the distance, but couldn't make out any obvious tornado the entire time, despite what you might think you see in the photos below.  This storm had several tornado reports come off of it, but I'm not sure any of them are confirmed, although several mention it being rain wrapped or "on the ground for at least five minutes."  It is so important that storm reports be accurate.  I hope they were. 

Flying eagle radar signature!
I bought these shoes the weekend before at the REI sale.  We had a little, um, run in with some quick-sand-type-mud.  Yes, that's my technical term for it!  While we were in Nebraska, this area got a bunch of rain, so we didn't realize how squishy the ground was!  It was a big oops and I was happy I had another pair of shoes along!  

DOWs and a traffic jam
After a lovely chase day so far, with only pleasant interactions with other chasers, we approached the paved road, hwy 36, and the DOWs were parked taking scans of the storm.  I love the DOWs, I have a good friend and two students that work with them, but what I didn't like was the line of cars along the highway gawking at the vehicles or parking (practically parallel parking on a highway) around them to check things out while the storm was bearing down on us.  We didn't need a traffic jam.  We were trying to stay out in front of the thing!  We made the executive decision to get off the highway ASAP.  We took a north dirt road that had no east option for 8 miles. 

We made it to our east option and sped away from the storm and made our way eventually back to hwy 36 without too much rain/hail.  Upon turning on 36 heading west back home, we got nailed by a really intense rain shaft.  It was so loud we couldn't say anything to each other, we couldn't see, we just drove ever so slowly until we came out of it.  It was fun because it wasn't hail!  After this we headed back home, the storm had lost its tornado potential and, unlike many of the other chasers apparently, we didn't feel like getting cored. 

On our way back, we hopped on twitter and noticed a few hail photos.  Then we looked northwest, and sure enough, it looked like it had snowed, but it was hail!   (Not that snow hadn't happened in the recent past, as we had a mother's day storm this year.)

See the big white hail swath in the distance?  In the foreground is flooding in a field next to our squishy dirt road covered in hail. 
I had already ruined one pair of shoes that day, so I was thankful that Dr. Ng agreed we should turn around instead of getting stuck as the hail got deeper and the road squishier. 
 I finally got home around 8:30 after Ryan and I found a BV bus.

Thursday, May 22, 2014
We met at the Walmart east of town the next morning and got in the van to do a local day chase.  We hopped on a storm that did not look ideal.  We didn't have a ton of hope for the day anyway, but thought we would give it a shot. 

Having some fun in Watkins (Bennet?)
While we were sitting here the NWS communications went down nationwide and my friend Eric Holthaus used one of my tweets about it in his article on the topic.   We didn't have radar data for a while, but the cell nearest Denver was tornado warned so we hopped on the highway and headed towards it.  This photo looked slightly promising, but it didn't surprise us too much when it fell apart. 

 We sat at Front Range Airport for a bit (see the FTG radar in the distance?) and snapped some mammatus photos before heading home just in time for me to get stuck in traffic at 0.1miles/minute on 270.  This is why I don't drive.  At least on the bus I can use my time in traffic to relax. 

Friday, May 23, 2014
We didn't storm chase on Friday, but boy did the storm come to me!  Just as I was leaving work around 6:00 we got pea sized hail and extremely heavy rain.  The streets and sidewalks were rivers!  I waited a bit, then finally rolled up my pants, broke out my umbrella (not a lot of lightning), and ran for Union Station.

Cherry Creek Friday at 6pm.
Loveland flooded Friday night from these big rains.  Some places reported 5"!  

Saturday Denver got yet another tornado warning, this time west of town.  The storm packed a punch with rainfall and hail that made its way towards Boulder as it died down.  The whole front range is in a flood watch while the mountains get more snow.  It was one heck of a week, but still no visible tornadoes for me!  Next week will bring more opportunities, we hope.