Chase 2010 Journal

2011 Storm Chase Summary and Photographs

David Blanchard
Flagstaff Arizona

--Overview of the large scale weather pattern--

A series of troughs moved across the western states and then the High Plains producing broad areas of deep shear. On the other hand, moisture return from the Gulf of Mexico was weak and as a result only meager boundary layer moisture was available on most days. The end result was generally high-based supercells. Some of these were quite photogenic but most were otherwise.

06 June 2011

High-based convection developing across northeast Wyoming.

High-based convection developing across northeast Wyoming.

Cumulonimbus Mammatus over the Black Hills.

Cumulonimbus Mammatus over the Black Hills.

Cumulonimbus Mammatus over the Black Hills.

Cumulonimbus Mammatus over the Black Hills.

Partial rainbow from a weakening thunderstorm over the Black Hills.

Partial rainbow from a weakening thunderstorm over the Black Hills.

For many days I had been examining the model forecasts trying to determine the best place to be for the start of my storm photography vacation. Each time the answer was the same: eastern Montana. That's a long way to drive from Arizona!

So, after driving for more than 12 hours on Sunday and another 8 hours on Monday to southeast Montana, I was ready to see and photograph some thunderstorms and supercells.

It was not to be.

The moist and unstable air mass across southeastern Montana was simply too cool to convect. The models had been right when they showed no precipitation breaking out before mid to late evening -- well after dark.

To the south across northeast Wyoming some high-based storms managed to develop in the drier air.

Much farther west, some thunderstorms became severe and at least one tornado was reported near Billings, Montana. I had considered heading in that direction at one point during the day but stuck with the original plan of southeast Montana. It would be better to set up farther east and let the storms move towards me.

Again, it was not to be.

So I reluctantly intercepted the storms moving out of northeast Wyoming as they approached the Black Hills and the far northwestern corner of South Dakota. I did manage to photograph a rainbow as well as some Cumulonimbus Mammatus with the lush and green rolling terrain of the Black Hills as a foreground.

Consolation prize -- I know.

I spent the night in Sundance, Wyoming. Shortly after getting settled in a thunderstorm knocked out the power in the town. It was a good excuse to go outside and watch the storm to the south -- and stars to the north -- in a very dark sky.





07 June 2011

Devil's Tower

Devil's Tower National Monument.

Devil's Tower

Devil's Tower National Monument (HDR image.)

Black Hills of eastern Wyoming.

Black Hills of eastern Wyoming.

Today was a travel day since no interesting convection was expected across the High Plains and adjacent areas. I took advantage of my free time to visit Devil's Tower National Monument. I've been here once before but it was a long time ago and I've always wanted to return.

First, I walked the loop trail around the tower shooting photos but the good early morning light was quickly disappearing as the sun rose higher in the sky.

Next, I took a trail run around the larger loop. It's often difficult to find time to exercise while chasing around the Plains photographing storms so I didn't want to pass on this opportunity.

After departing the Monument I travelled southward through the west side of the Black Hills and was impressed with how green it was because of the winter snow and spring rains. It's a beautiful place to live if you can make a living in this open land.

I stopped in Lusk, Wyoming, for food and gas. There is a pizza place called "A Pizza Place" on Main Street that is quite good.

And then I drove on to Cheyenne, Wyoming, to spend the night with the expectation that there would be good storms in southeast Wyoming or northeast Colorado the next day.





08 June 2011

Supercell over the foothills west of Wheatland, Wyoming.

Supercell over the foothills west of Wheatland, Wyoming.

Supercell over the foothills west of Wheatland, Wyoming.

Supercell over the foothills west of Wheatland, Wyoming.

Supercell moving into stable air in eastern Wyoming.

Supercell moving into stable air in eastern Wyoming.

A moderately strong southwesterly flow aloft and easterly flow at the surface provided more than enough deep layer shear for rotating storms today. Moisture, on the other hand, was fairly scant and the best instability that the environment would provide would be on the order of 500 to 1000 J/kg of CAPE. Far less than ideal.

Still, it was enough to generate some high-based supercells in northeastern Colorado and southeastern Wyoming. Steve H. and I chose to chase in Wyoming believing that the better jet dynamics would play out here since this region was located in the left front quadrant (LFQ) or exit region of the jet.

The first supercell we encountered was far back in the foothills and mountains west of Wheatland, Wyoming. After a bit, the storm pushed to the northeast and radar indicated strong rotation aloft and a classic hook echo. Briefly, there was even strong low-level rotation. At this point, we left our position since we were parked on an old ranch road. Heading east of Wheatland we had to navigate away from the hail core that was producing up to 1.75" inch hail just north and northeast of Wheatland. As this storm moved to the northeast it quickly weakened.

We drove south from Wheatland and intercepted another rotating storm. This supercell moved along just north of Highway 313 from Chugwater to Hawk Springs. As it moved eastward it encountered increasingly more stable air and as it did it transitioned from strong convective towers to a more laminar wave-like feature. We followed this storm east to the Wyoming/Nebraska line and then turned back to the west again.

The third and final supercell moved across Cheyenne near sunset and provided us with some interesting lightning to view -- but hard to photograph.

Time-lapse video of the Wheatland, Wyoming supercell (29 MB).





09 June 2011

Patience

Patience...

Late afternoon at the Bartlett Ranch.

Late afternoon at the Bartlett Ranch.

Rainbow over eastern Wyoming

Rainbow over eastern Wyoming.

Silhouette

Silhouette.

Sunset in eastern Wyoming.

Sunset in eastern Wyoming.

Matt C., Vince M., and I met at the Sierra Trading Post on the east side of Cheyenne, Wyoming. This is a great place for discount prices on outdoor gear. They also have a coffee and snack bar as well as free Wi-Fi.

By early afternoon we were heading north from Cheyenne on I-25. A first round of weak convection fired and moved rapidly northeast and in its wake the sky began to look like synoptic-scale subsidence was overtaking the area. A quick view of the water vapor satellite imagery confirmed that the first short wave trough had passed but another was still to come.

Patience.

And when the second short wave trough moved across the area new convection formed over the peaks of the Laramie Range and then moved eastward onto the High Plains. Some high-based supercells developed and began to exhibit extremely photogenic character with laminar structures. We followed these east from Chugwater to Hawk Springs on Highway 313 stopping numerous times along the way to photograph these storms.

We managed to find some amazing rock bluffs as foreground for the storms as they moved farther to the east. Then we turned around to face the sunset and took advantage of the rocks and windmills to frame the sunset photographs.

A great day for photographing beautiful structures in the clouds. No tornadoes, but so what...





10 June 2011

The Dome.

The Dome.

Climbers on the Elephant Buttresses.

Climbers on the Elephant Buttresses.

It was a down day today and we took our time running errands and visiting people and places. Matt and I ended up walking a section of the Boulder Creek Path westward into Boulder Canyon and to the rock climbing area known as the Elephant Buttresses and The Dome. I've climbed many of these rocks but that was a long time ago.





11 June 2011

Daytime lightning over southeastern Colorado.

Daytime lightning over southeastern Colorado.

The Future and the Past...

The Future and the Past...

Lightning over eastern Colorado.

Lightning over eastern Colorado.

Lightning over eastern Colorado.

Lightning over eastern Colorado.

Lightning over eastern Colorado.

Lightning over eastern Colorado.

All parameters indicated that southeast Colorado was the place to be today. That's a long drive from Denver and even though we got on the road by late morning it wasn't soon enough. The convection developed early and we arrived late. We did manage to see a brief and dusty spinup under the supercell but it hardly merited even a photograph.

We drove east to Springfield and tried our luck at daytime lightning photographs. At least some of the camera images captured lightning so it wasn't a total loss.

About this time a pickup truck pulled off the road and the driver got out and began to slowly walk towards us. I thought that the rancher looked a lot like Tim Marshall -- only to realize it WAS Tim Marshall!

We decided to call it a day early and let the convection roll eastward into Kansas and Oklahoma as we headed north to Burlington for the night. We stopped for dinner at the Thai Spicy Basil in Lamar, Colorado. Very good food and reasonable prices.

New convection was developing north of Burlington as we arrived so I decided to try shooting some nighttime lightning -- successfully.





12 June 2011

Colorado Junior Rodeo participant at Kit Carson County Fairgrounds.

Colorado Junior Rodeo participant at Kit Carson County Fairgrounds.

Carousel at Kit Carson County Fairgrounds.

Carousel at Kit Carson County Fairgrounds.

Weakening convection at sunset.

Weakening convection at sunset.

I started the day in Burlington, Colorado with the recognition that convection in the northeast part of the state could get interesting in the afternoon. Overnight, a mesoscale convective system (MCS) had developed from Nebraska southward to Oklahoma. The main result of this MCS was to generate moist easterly flow that pushed into Colorado overnight.

Deep-layer shear was already in place and the addition of the low-level moisture was a necessary ingredient. All that was still needed was initiation and that would take place over the higher terrain farther west -- including the Palmer Divide. All I had to do was drive slowly westward until I intercepted the developing storms and then follow them eastward until they encountered the better moisture.

But I had plenty of time so I spent the morning at the Kit Carson County Fairgrounds. There is an old carousel there that still runs and for 25 cents you can get a ride on it. The Colorado Junior Rodeo was also going on at the fairgrounds. This gave me plenty of subjects for photography that morning.

Heading west I was able to see the convection developing over the higher terrain. Unfortunately, the distance between the area of initiation and the good moisture was too great for these storms to successfully travel. Each attempt at convection would briefly look good. As it moved eastward onto the lower terrain -- but still fairly dry environment -- it would result in the gradual dissipation of the storm until there was only an anvil. This process repeated itself many times.

One last storm made an attempt but suffered the same results. Only this storm occurred at sunset and the colors were quite impressive. There was even a rainbow present in the precipitation falling from the anvil. And then it, too, dissipated.





13 June 2011

Tracks from the Denver, South Park, and Pacific rail.

Tracks from the Denver, South Park, and Pacific rail.

Convection? Or wave cloud?

Convection? Or wave cloud?

Building mural in Gunnison, Colorado. Perhaps the best convection of the day.

Building mural in Gunnison, Colorado. Perhaps the best convection of the day.

Art in downtown Gunnison, Colorado.

Art in downtown Gunnison, Colorado.

Time to head home to Flagstaff.

The first stop was at Kenosha Pass where the Colorado Trail crosses the highway. This was an opportunity to get in a couple of miles of trail running. Also, the old Denver, South Park, and Pacific rail line once ran through here and there remain some of the old narrow gauge tracks.

A couple of interesting things occurred on the drive. The first was the dust devil that rolled over the gas station where I was stopped. I had to take cover to avoid getting sandblasted from the blowing dust. Sorry -- no pictures!

Next was an unusual cloud: it was a wave cloud that had a cumuliform anvil. Or maybe it was a small thunderstorm that had a wave cloud in its middle. Either way, it was quite interesting.

Finally, a full-sized wall mural of thunderstorms in Gunnison, Colorado, was probably the best convection I had seen that day.





14 June 2011

Snow melt in the San Juan Mountains.

Snow melt in the San Juan Mountains.

Painted faces near Flagstaff, Arizona.

Painted faces near Flagstaff, Arizona.

Day 2 of the drive home...

While driving along the "Million Dollar Highway" between Ouray and Silverton, Colorado, I photographed this mountain stream. I had been looking for an opportunity to use my extreme neutral density filter (ND3.0; 0.098% transmittance) so that I could get very long exposures of moving water. (ISO 100, f/5.6, 30s, 28mm). This turned out to be a very good subject.

North of Flagstaff, Arizona, on Highway 89 are some painted faces on stumps on the east side of the road. I've wanted to photograph these for a long time but needed a good composition. A nearly full moon had risen in the east and the combination of the faces and moon would make an interesting photograph.