Sunday, October 30, 2011

2011 Storm Chase 8 - May 22nd - Dinner Break East Desert Lightning Bust

Convection fired over the Western Slope during my weather shift on this particular Sunday evening, May 22nd.  There wasn't much going on in the upper levels, but the nearby storms were generating some lightning.  I figured I could go out and shoot some video for my 10PM weathercast, so I drove north to the nearest desert access. 

En route, there were a few decent cloud-to-grounds to the west, but by the time I got to my spot, activity began to die down.  The disorganized mess of convection kept showering me enough to require me to stay in the car, so I tried to do what I could from the back with the hatch open.  The activity was not strong and I did not get any video of any lightning.  I also had my personal camera with me and only managed to snap one shot of anything close... and that was just the back lit Book Cliffs from an unseen flash. 

Storm on the Book Cliffs.

With the 10PM newscast approaching, I had to head back to the station.  At this point in 2011, I still had yet to capture any lightning in frame.

Mileage: 9
2011YTD Mileage: 834
States: Colorado
SPC Risk: Categorical
Max Hail: None
Tornadoes: 0
Other Phenomena: None
Storm Reports for May 22nd

Detail Map:


Saturday, October 22, 2011

2011 Storm Chase 7 - May 18th - Supercells On The Front Range "Don't Stray Too Far"

There was a certain amount of relief in my head when I woke up on Wednesday, May 18th. Before the previous day, there was a real possibility that 2011 would be a year in which I would not witness a tornado. Observing a couple of weak tornadoes on May 17th meant that anything else that happened during the year would be a bonus.  When the opportunity presented itself to chase once again the next day, I was quite looking forward to it.

It was a cool day, with a dense overcast as I left my aunt & uncle's place in Thornton to meet my many of my weather friends at Chili's on the east side of Denver.  We all had to laugh at the sign on the door.

For those of you who are not weathersexuals, a "wedge" is a large, broad tornado. 

We had abandoned any plan to make the long-haul down to Oklahoma for the day and decided to stick around on the Front Range and adjacent plains.  The trough was still digging in the west and we were still in an area of favorable upper level support.  While the best activity would likely be to our southeast, I think we were fairly satisfied with our chances close to home for the day. 1630Z SPC Outlook

As we all piled out of Chili's, the skies continued to stay overcast and temperatures hovered in the upper 50s with upper 40s dews.  Any surface reflection of the shortwave that blew through the night before had vanished and the surface returned to pre-upper level trough conditions.  Most of eastern Colorado was experiencing upslope winds, which was leading to the overcast conditions.  Models were firing storms off of the Palmer Divide in the early afternoon, so we figured we would head out a bit east and keep an eye on things.

I joined Scott Hammel and Kendell LaRoche and we set out east, holding at Airpark Road.  I know I've explained this somewhere in my blog before, but it bears repeating.  Airpark Road is the first exit on I-70 east of Denver that is undeveloped.  It was always a place of sanctity for me as the moment you reach Airpark, you have escaped the city and can freely chase storms.  Even being out of Denver for a few months, it still provided that amazing feeling.

Anyway, we were sitting at Airpark and watching the weather closely.  A few showers began to fire on the footies with the deep upslope flow and sun was occasionally breaking through on the plains, so we continued to hang around.

Interestingly, storms over the Denver-metro area started to become a little more enthusiastic... and then we became a little more enthusiastic.  One storm had some decent reflectivity as it moved through the southern suburbs.  On a whim, I checked velocities and discovered a significant couplet!

We flew back west into the city on I-70 as a tornado warning was issued.  In an effort to not get too bogged down in traffic and stay ahead of the storm (which was moving just east of due-north), we exited at Tower Road and brought ourselves alongside the couplet where we found a decent wall cloud.  Luckily, we had the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge between us and development and that provided an excellent view of the storm.

Wall cloud over Commerce City.

We kept pace with the storm on Tower Road but decided to turn west and get a little closer.  We could see a little rotation from our perspective and it seemed on several occasions as if a cone-shaped funnel was trying to form.

Looking east on 88th Ave. 

We drove as far west as US 85 and then continued north.  Unfortunately, the storm wasn't looking quite as good (both in person and on radar).  We decided to get out ahead of it and got on the E470, stopping at Colorado Boulevard.  Rain was being thrown out well ahead of the storm as it continued to move to the north.  We lost a little visibility and decided to head back to the southeast where a secondary cell had formed on the fist storm's southeast flank.  We had a good view of it as it continued to move north from Henderson.

We got into a nice hailstorm in Henderson which we all enjoyed thoroughly.  I think we were starting to feel a little claustrophobic in the city, so we decided to head east and get a better view of everything.  We used 120th for this purpose and met up with Jason Groenhof and tried to stand around outside in the ridiculously cold wind.  SPC's 2PM update (2000Z) actually mentioned the threat of tornadoes for our area, which was a nice touch.

East on 120th.

A third cell formed on the southwestern flank of the other two as DCVZ began to push to the east.  This cell had much more of an eastern component to it, so we dropped south to get in front of it.  For a while, it looked pretty good.  In fact, it seemed to have a nice meso, though it wasn't doing much in the lower levels.

Most impressive mesocyclone of the day, over the airport.

From our vantage, we had a good view of the RFD wrapping completely around and occluding an old meso, which can be seen in the next three images:

Unfortunately at that point, the show was pretty much over. Everything completely fell apart and we were left with light rain showers.  An isolated supercell did pop down in the Arkansas River Valley and produced a landspout, but that was it for the Colorado show that day.  As far as Oklahoma... where we had thought to chase originally, busted... so we were happy we didn't make the trip.  

For the rest of the late afternoon, I spent a little time getting some "b-roll" footage for the report I was going to produce.  I also did quick interviews of Kendell and Scott.  It was kind of fun (but cold) sitting in the back of Jason Burns' pickup truck while Scott followed us on a rainy road.  (Check out the link to my report on the bottom to get an idea of some of the footage we took).  

After that it was time to head back to Chili's and head our separate ways.  I met my old roomie and friend Katherine at Olive Garden for dinner, jetted back up to Thornton to talk with my family for a while and then started on the four hour drive back to Grand Junction.  I had elected to go home that night, instead of waking up early in the morning and do it.  

I probably should have stayed as I fell asleep at the wheel near New Castle and was startled to "wake up driving"... luckily, in the center of my lane.  It was a rewarding but exhausting couple of days, that's for sure.

If you'd like to watch the segment I produced for our newscast, you can watch it here:

Mileage: 142
2011YTD Mileage: 825
States: Colorado
SPC Risk: Categorical, upgraded to Probablistic
Max Hail: 0.5"
Tornadoes: 0
Other Phenomena: Lightning fire. 
Storm Reports for May 18th

Other chasers' reports for May 18th:
Scott Hammel

Chase Map


Monday, October 10, 2011

2011 Storm Chase 6 - May 17th - Thurman, Colorado Tornadoes

Being a severe weather enthusiast, to put it mildly, I spend a lot of time fantasizing about severe weather.  Unfortunately, living in the high desert of western Colorado is not exactly an ideal location for a severe weather enthusiast.  Given the fact that I was working a new job and wouldn't have much time off to play with, I wasn't sure if I would be able to chase any storms on the plains in 2011. 

As my friends on the Front Range were regularly hitting the roads eastward in search of tornadoes, I spent most of the spring trying to ignore the weather, at least on the other side of the Divide.  I found that spending a lot of time outdoors, exploring my surroundings was the best methadone for my chasing addiction.  Not only was I missing the chasing, however, but my friends and family as well.

In May, I decided that I needed to make a trip to the Front Range to get some dental work done.  My aunt owns a dental practice in the Brighton/Commerce City area, so I made an appointment for a Tuesday morning, the "Saturday" of my weekend.

I planned to drive to Denver after work on that Monday night, go to the dentist Tuesday morning and spend the rest of the day and part of Wednesday with my friends and family.  As the day approached, however, it looked like there might actually be an opportunity to chase.  In fact, it was starting to look like both Tuesday and Wednesday would be chaseable.

Tuesday's setup looked like a nice dryline-ahead-of-the-approaching-trough-if-we-get-enough-moisture setup in eastern Colorado.  For Wednesday, it looked like the best action would be on the dryline in southwest Kansas to north-central Oklahoma.  I decided to ask my news director if I could shoot a story while chasing and then come into work late on Thursday.  This would allow me to be able to chase and not have to be back by 9AM Thursday morning. 

After getting out of work late on Monday night, I opted to go to bed early and get up at 4AM to make the drive to Denver.  I always prefer sleeping in my own bed if presented with the option.  Anyway, I made the drive without much effort and spent a considerable amount of time in the dentist's chair, getting a temporary crown on one of my back molars.  The unfortunate truth of my life of dental experiences is that I either A) have a very low pain tolerance or B) am quite resistant to anesthetics.The plan was to meet Scott Hammel after my dental appointment and then we would head out to our tentative target of Eads, home of the Eagles.  The appointment took a lot longer than expected, however, so I was considerably late.  I am still quite thankful that Scott waited!

I was a little out of it as I arrived and met him and Greg Moore at the Peña Boulevard park-and-ride.  I had neglected to feed myself lunch due to time constraints and was thankful that someone donated a leftover chicken taco to my cause.

Finally we were on the road, under the high cirrus deck on the Colorado Plains.  Oh, did it feel good to be on the flat lands again!  I was being endlessly optimistic about the setup because it was probably one of the only setups during 2011 that I would be able to chase.  Many others were downplaying the event.  Still, SPC decided to delineate a 2% tornado risk area for northeast Colorado.  The joke was that the SPC finally came around to the "Dann model".  The clouds were concerning, however.  It certainly was not warm out and moisture was struggling to make it into the area.

It was just after noon and there was no convection of any sort anywhere nearby.  We eventually found some sunshine near Kit Carson, Colorado and decided to wait there for a while.  Dewpoints were only in the low 40s and there wasn't anything impressive upstream to make us believe they would do much to increase, even though the south-southeasterly winds were howling at 30 knots.  The only thing that would increase the dewpoints would be significant moisture convergence.  Models were showing a shortwave ejecting that evening, so we were hoping for something.  In the mean time, I just stood in the wind, enjoying the feeling of the strong southerly flow.  Most chasers would understand what I mean.

Even though this wasn't an ideal severe weather setup, I was not discouraged.  There was no place that I would rather be than out on the plains with a chance.  Tony Laubach was out and about and so was Michael Carlson among other and I was hoping to meet up with them at some point and time as well.  

Finally, convection associated with the shortwave was beginning to light up just east of Denver.  Though there was considerable cloudcover, the storms became strong rapidly.  Several chasers were up in the area and we decided to sit tight, to the south in the sunshine.

Around this time, the Storm Prediction Center issued Mesoscale Discussion #797.

Convection fired to our west but it remained weak, even though there was more heating in the area.  We opted to break north to where the shortwave was having a greater influence.  We made haste up to I-70 and then traveled a bit west.  At the time, there was nothing visibly significant about the clouds.  While a strong storm remained up near Fort Morgan, I noticed that something was building to our northwest by looking at the cloud tops parameter on our radar.  Nothing stood out on any of the reflectivity scans, but it looked like something was firing.  So, we opted to head north out of Flagler to stay in front of it.  This turned out to be a good decision.

By the time we reached the Kit Carson/Washington County line, the base of the storm was visible.  We stopped at an old farmstead for a few pictures.

Back on the road northward, we found ourselves in good position on the slow-moving storm.  We stopped once again in Arikaree, where the county road (LL) meets US 36.  We were just observing the relatively high-based storm when someone spotted a big disturbance on the ground.

I immediately dismissed it as a gustnado, but continued watching as it seemed to grow taller.

I figured it was a good time to get out the video camera so I could capture this for my story.  While I was doing this, we all realized that this was not a gustnado.  We spotted a stubby funnel cloud above the circulation making it an actual tornado.

Thurman Tornado #1

The base of the storm was slowly rotating but there was no wall cloud.  The funnel seemed to be a satellite  on the outside edge of the mesocyclone.  I am fairly certain, however, that this tornado formed by vortex stretching processes that would be more commonly described as a landspout or non-supercellular tornado.  So, call it a mesocyclonic satellite landspout... if it must be classified.  I wish I would have taken more pictures, but I was trying to divide my time between my still camera and my video camera.

Though my photos do not illustrate this well, we saw at least three ground circulations and at least two funnel clouds.  Given my experience with non-supercellular tornadoes (landspouts), I am fairly certain that we saw at least two weak tornadoes. Scott's video better illustrates this and can be found at the bottom of this report.

Distant view of the base.

We tried to get a little closer by way of US 36, but the ground circulations dissipated.  The storm seemed to pulse to the north and for a time, looked like it was going to develop a nice wall cloud. 

Brief wall cloud.

... but the rear flank came down and soon the wall cloud vanished, leaving us a rather outflowy-looking storm. 

Under the outflow.

At that point, storms fired southward along the boundary and congealed into a line.  After staring into the turbulence overhead for a while, we broke east once again to get out ahead of it.  There was a storm that had fired ahead of the line to our southeast, so we took aim on that one.

We passed a lightning-ignited fire south of Kirk on our way southward, which I believe Michael Carlson reported and stopped at for a while.

The storm we had eyes on began to line-out as well, so we took a moment to take in the sunset north of Burlington. 

Burlington Sunset

We were satisfied with our chase and opted to head into Burlington to root out some steak.  A few years back, I had ordered steak in Burlington on a chase that did not result in a tornado and I believe this cursed me for a while.  This time, I wanted to break the curse and enjoy a well-earned tornado steak.

Much to our delight, we found The Route Steakhouse to be open and we settled in for big steaks and a big glasses of beer.  Though I couldn't really eat on the left side of my mouth, I was on cloud nine.  It is difficult on many high probability days to realize the goal of seeing a tornado, but on days that have a very low probability, victory is very sweet.

2011 could have been the year that I didn't see a tornado, but thanks to this day, it was not.  I'll concede that the tornadoes we saw weren't very powerful or even photogenic, but you won't hear me complaining at all.

We chatted a bit with several other chasers including John and Shawna Davies.  Even Mark Farnik rolled in after a while.  During our delicious dinner, the storm raged outside.  Hail began to pelt the metal roof, which of course had us all out in the lobby staring, slack-jawed into the night.  The hail was quite soft but some stones were at least an inch in diameter (a nearby spotter report showed 1.75" hail).  I brought a handful of the hail that I scooped from the gutter inside to show everybody.  Mark apparently used it for a drink.  Silly fella'.  Unfortunately, we didn't get to meet up with Tony and Michael as they were off doing other things, but it was still enjoyable, none the less.

It was great to be out on the plains once again, filling an enormous void in my life.  Also, it was awesome to get to hang out Scott.  We chase very well together.  Also, it was great to meet Greg for the first time.

We were all quite happy on the way home... especially since it looked like we would get to chase again the next day...

Mileage: 514
2011YTD Mileage: 683
States: Colorado
SPC Risk: Probabilistic
Max Hail: 1"
Tornadoes: 2 (Thurman 1, 2)
Other Phenomena: Lightning fire. 
Storm Reports for May 17th

Other chasers' reports for May 17th:
Scott Hammel << Includes video from our vehicle of the tornadoes. 
Tony Laubach

Chase Map


Sunday, October 09, 2011

2011 Storm Chase 5 - May 9th - "Should Have Played Basketball"

Short story:  Storms came with lighting.  I skipped basketball to go take lightning pictures.  Camera came out and lightning stopped.  Tried two different locations in the valley.  Skunked!

Mileage: 27
2011YTD Mileage: 169
States: Colorado
SPC Risk: Categorical (the 1Z outlook from the 10th)
Max Hail: None
Tornadoes: None
Other Phenomena: None.
Storm Reports For May 9th


Sunday, October 02, 2011

2011 - May 11th - Ladder Canyon/Mica Mine & Middle Rough Canyon, Bangs Canyon Special Recreation Management Area

I had spent most of the spring so far waterfall-hunting in area canyons.  I had visited every nearby waterfall that appeared on maps (dry or not) and my research took me to off-map falls.  One of those mentioned was a fall in Rough Canyon, which isn't too far out of Grand Junction.  

Also nearby is the fabled "Mica Mine" in Ladder Canyon.  I had heard several people speak of it being a fun hike and upon doing a little research, discovered that there was at least a seasonal waterfall nearby as well.

The weekend prior to my venture into the area, warm temperatures had accelerated area snow-melt.  A system moving through on Monday dumped anywhere from a quarter to a half of an inch of rain over the area as well.  That is a lot of rain in the desert.

I figured that this would be a good time to go waterfall hunting.  I don't want to give anything away, but I was right.

The areas I wanted to explore can be accessed from the Bangs Canyon trail head of Little Park Road.  As per usual, I got a late start and it was already late afternoon when I arrived.  I took a while to look over the BLM map before hitting the trail.  I figured I could visit the Mica Mine area and then go down Rough Canyon to the waterfall if I made haste.

The trail heads west from the parking lot, downhill into a small canyon.  Steps are hewn into the stone, making it relatively easy to travel.  The dry canyon intersects Rough Canyon at a right angle and the trail splits.  A sign points upstream for the Mica Mine, so I turned right, very pleased with the fact that I could hear a good deal of water moving through the stream bed.

The sound was verified shortly thereafter as the trail actually crosses the stream, which I had to jump.  It was not just trickling, but certainly flowing.  And the water, unlike other area washes I had come across, was relatively clear.

The trail keeps close to the creek, crossing it several times as it meanders through the bottom of the tight canyon.  In many locations, the creek cuts under the sandstone cliffs, with some impressive overhangs.  The cloudcover at the time discouraged me from getting my camera out.

I had prepared for rain, so most of my equipment was sealed up in my backpack and I had my cheap, WalStarMart rain coat handy. 

After a mile or so, Ladder and Rough Canyons diverge.  Interestingly, there was only a trickle of water coming out of what I would call "upper" Rough Canyon, while the stream coming out of Ladder Canyon was still flowing quite well.

After another quarter mile, I found several patches of crushed quartz beside the trail.  I knew I had to be getting close to the mine.  There were also several pieces of rusted metal and cable nearby.  

Finally, the canyon tightens and when the trail rounds a bend, the Mica Mine is evident.  There are several veins of mineral excised from the rock wall and what remains is almost a pink quartz with a few outcrops of mica.

The Mica Mine

Mica detail

I spent a few minutes taking pictures and exploring shallow caves.  Much to my delight, there was a small waterfall nearby.  Plus, the trees in this alcove were blossoming, which made it especially nice. 

The clouds began to threaten this point, but I decided to continue upstream to see if I could locate a waterfall I had read about.  The picture that I  had found was low-resolution and portrayed a frozen waterfall, so I wasn't exactly sure what I was looking for. 

But, after a short hike, around a couple of bends, I saw it.  I would estimate its height at thirty feet, perhaps approaching forty if you count the smaller, higher drop right above the main drop.

(If you're curious about finding it yourself, it is approximately 1.4 miles from the parking lot if you follow the trail.) 

Falls in Ladder Canyon*

I spent some time climbing the slippery rocks on the north side of the waterfall, trying to get a good angle to take a picture.  This endeavor was impeded by thick brush and rain which was starting to fall.  I put my rain coat on and tried to keep my camera dry as I shot a few pictures. 

With small, lower cascade.

Eventually, I found myself cowering under a rock ledge as the rain mixed with some sort of ice pellet.  It was almost like sleet, but the temperature was above freezing.  It wasn't grauple and I don't think it was hail.  They were small, clear ice pellets.  Perhaps there was a significant sub-freezing layer just above.  I wish I would have had a weather balloon to launch at the time!

Though the precipitation began to wind down, I decided I better make haste back down-canyon if I wanted to make it to the falls in Rough Canyon.  On my way out, I spotted a small arch on the fin of rock between Rough and Ladder Canyons (I would like to revisit this at some point).  The light was harsh, so I wasn't able to get a great picture.

The rain seemed to clear relatively quickly and it almost seemed like the sun wanted to come out.  Though, it was still obscured to some extent by high clouds.

I made pretty good time back to junction where with the trail back to the trail head.  I kept going straight, though, downstream into Rough Canyon.  The trail didn't change much.  It continued to follow and occasionally cross the stream which followed the meanders of the canyon.  Soon, though, the bottom of the canyon began to lose elevation.  The creek left its sandy bottom and fanned out over slick rock, dropping into small pools.  At one point, I was afforded a fantastic view down-canyon.  It was an optical illusion of sorts, making it appear as if the canyon continually dropped precipitously toward the end of the world.  I believe that I was able to capture that feeling in the following image:

Just below where to took that photo, there is a nice ten foot waterfall.  I took an unnecessarily difficult route down to it (I'd find out later), but it was worth it.

I call it "Edge-Of-The-Earth Falls"*

I stopped and took a few pictures before continuing down.  Not too far from this waterfall, the creek drops quite a bit into a tight canyon, but the trail turns right along the side of the cliff, along a relatively exposed path.  It continues east from there, slowly losing elevation along the natural contour.  Eventually, the trail meets back up with the creek, bypassing the big drop.

Continuing along, started to lose the trail in places.  I figured out that the trail was actually the stream bed itself in many cases.  By necessity, it was time to get my shoes wet.  The nice thing about that is that once your shoes are wet, they don't get more wet.

Regardless, it was slow going as I continued to follow the creek (mostly in the creek) through the tight canyon.  Occasionally, the trail would leave the stream, but I spent most of the time hopping over rocks.  The most difficult parts came when the creek dropped five to fifteen feet.  On several occasions, I was forced to make a treacherous traverse of boulders or lose piles of rubble.  On the bright side, the canyon was filled with lush vegetation, a stark contrast to many areas of the desert that I have explored.

Some ways down canyon, a recent rockfall made going a little more difficult as well, especially since it had piled up some vegetation which dammed the creek to some extent.  This canyon required a lot more effort than I had originally anticipated.

Though the weather was holding, it was starting to get late.  I sat at a large bend in the canyon and had some trail mix.  After pulling out my map, I realized that I was still at least a mile from the waterfall I wanted to see and though a mile normally wouldn't take me a considerable amount of time, given the difficulty I had already encountered, I resolved to turn around and head back upstream.

I figured I could stop and take some more exposed photos on the way back up as the light was beginning to fade fast.  So, I took my time on the way back, stopping occasionally at the small drops on the way.  The light reaching the bottom of the canyon was soft and made for great photos.  The first is a good example of the normal terrain at the bottom of the canyon.  As you can see, I spent a lot of time climbing back "up the creek." 

Rough Canyon scenery.

I call this one "Taffeta Falls"*
Closer zoom.
Closest zoom.

Eventually, I reached the point in the canyon where the trail leaves the bottom and switches back up the contour of the wall.  I decided to follow the stream forward but unfortunately came to a relatively impassible point.

So, I got back on the trail and climbed up a bit, deciding to descend into the unknown portion of the creek.  I knew that there had to be a decent drop in there as I could hear it.  Though I did slide down the moist rock face to some extent, I finally found myself where I wanted to be:  at a nice, little waterfall.  I call it "Black Pool Falls". 

"Black Pool Falls"

I even figured I'd get a picture of myself.  It was actually getting quite dark at this point.  The photo below is a 3second exposure at F2.8 and I had my head lamp on to illuminate the waterfall.

Getting back out was a little more difficult than getting in, but I managed it.  Back on the trail, along the exposed cliffside, I thought I heard something and it got my hackles up.  Moments later, I was sure of it.  Something was vocalizing around the bend.  My hand fondled the knife in my pocket as I caught movement ahead of me on the trail.  Rounding the bend was a group of four younger kids, probably high school age.  I made some noise so they noticed me before getting too close as it was getting quite dark.

While passing, they mentioned they were heading to visit the "lemon squeezer".  I recognized it from an article I had read about the area.  Apparently, it's a crack in the cliff face where you can use your hands and feet to prop yourself up and travel across.  For whatever reason, they wanted to do it in the dark.  I just continued on.

I stopped at Edge-Of-The-World Falls again for a portrait and a few more pictures.  This one is a 15 second exposure.  I tried to stand still.

The rest of the hike back to the car was in darkness and I felt lucky to have my headlamp on.  There's something uncomfortable about hiking in a dark canyon thick with brush and loud, rushing water nearby.  Call it instinct, but I was a bit uncomfortable.

Though I didn't reach the known falls of Rough Canyon, I felt that this was an accomplishing adventure.  Looking back, I think I was lucky to get to experience this canyon during high runoff.  (I've been back since and found the stream bed to be quite dry.)

Detail Map:

It's about 2.6 miles round trip from the trail head to the falls in Ladder Canyon and back to the junction with 250ft of elevation gain.

It's 2.6 miles from the junction to my turnaround in Rough Canyon and back up to the trail head with 400ft of elevation gain on the way back.

* If you know a more official or recognized name for any of the waterfalls in these canyons, please let me know.  I know that none of them have a USGS place name.