Friday, November 25, 2011

2011 Storm Chase 9 - June 8th - Chugwater, Supercell City

I had a dental appointment in Brighton, Colorado on June 7th.  It was a Tuesday, my day off.  I had originally hoped to be able to chase after the appointment but as the day approached, that chance looked less favorable.

To be honest, I was fine with that result.  The following day looked promising and I would have an opportunity to see friends and family in Denver.

I hit the road early on the 7th and as  you can see, winter hadn't quite given up its grip on the Colorado mountains...

Vail Pass

After getting a permanent crown put over one of my back molars, I got in touch with Tony Laubach to see if he wanted to get some lunch.  I had left my lights on and somehow depleted my battery during my two hour appointment, so I was very fortunate to have him give me a jump.  I returned the favor with a little Chipotle in Westminster.  After trading war stories with Tony, i.e. catching up on the *real* storm chasing season so far on the opposite side of the hill, I headed south to meet up with another good friend, Johnathan Skinner.  He was in the process of getting his oil changes, as we like to say, so I hung out with him and his mom for a while.  It was good to catch up.

Then it was north to Thornton to visit with my family for a while before meeting up with a bunch of friends at Buffalo Wild Wings in Northglenn.  It was great to sit back, have a couple beers and a bunch of wings with some awesome people. 

The next morning, I met up with Scott Hammel and we began our push north into Wyoming.  There wasn't much going on in the upper levels that was impressive but southwesterly flow.  It was strong enough to draw surface moisture up the slope, though, in the lee of the mountains.  On days like this, you just hope for a weak disturbance to move by in the flow to help light the fuse.  SPC had a slight risk up for my target our target of Chugwater, Wyoming.  Surface dew points in southeastern Wyoming were in the mid-40s with brisk southeasterly winds.  We were hoping for enough moisture convergence along the dryline (which had yet to set up) or the lee trough (which had also yet to set up) to push 50ºF (Td). 

As we reached Chugwater, the skies were quite clear.  SPC had trimmed down the "slight" risk out of southeastern Wyoming, but I did not agree with that forecast.  I still thought we were just as likely, if not more likely to see severe weather in southeastern Wyoming than in northeastern Colorado.  So, we stayed put.

 It was around lunch time and I had always wanted to try the infamous Chugwater Chili.  Living in Colorado with most of my family back in Montana had resulted in many drives through the small Wyoming town.  It's hard to miss the billboards.

With some time to kill, we stopped in to the Chugwater Soda Fountain for a bit of lunch.  I had to order the chili, of course, and paired it with an absolutely exceptional chocolate malt.  The chili did not disappoint.  I've had a lot of chili that is overdone with different ingredients. This chili is simple, but perfected... which I suppose is the best way to describe it.  It's the type you could eat for several meals in a row and not get tired of it.

Try the chili... and don't forget the chocolate malt.

With full bellies, we wandered just a bit east of town to perch on the high bluffs and watch the west.  Small cumulus were beginning to form on the Laramie Mountains but for a while, it was nothing impressive.  I was quite content to be outside, enjoying that unique feeling of being in moist, southerly flow.  It's something you don't feel in the desert.

Slowly but surely, the cumulus over the mountains began to grow.  SPC's updated outlook showed no real change to their forecast and I felt no different about mine.   At just a little after 2000Z, the cap started to break and towers went up.  We chose a storm coming off of the mountains southwest of Wheatland and headed north to intercept.  We left the interstate (25) on Wyoming 34 and headed west a bit to observe.  

First storm of the day.

Unfortunately, it didn't look all that impressive.  We paced the back roads, north to south to keep an eye on it, but it never really seemed to get its act together.

We're losing it!

Around this time, SPC issued Mesoscale Discussion #1138 which included our area and mentioned the possibility of a weather watch.

Interestingly, there was no dryline or lee trough... at least on the east side of the Laramie Mountains.  The surface moisture had penetrated the frontal range and was making it west to the basins beyond.  Convection was firing west of the mountains as well and some of it looked strong.

I suggested to Scott that we get aggressive and head into the mountains for an intercept.  He concurred.  I plotted a course for us on a dirt road that twists and turns through the foot hills and meets the Laramie River.

We were lucky to have a strong storm developing just to our west as we entered the mountains.  It was my favorite kind of chasing: all visual and paper maps.  Neither of us had any sort of mobile phone reception whatsoever.

Though the horizon was often blocked by hills, we finally emerged and were able to get a good luck at what was heading our way... and it looked good.  The area was reasonably photogenic, so we stopped for a few frames.

Strong base.


Feeling pretty confident that we had a good bead on the storm, we continued west to get closer.  Again, our path was wrought with visual obscuration but we caught occasional glimpses of the hard and flat base; enough for us to know that the storm was strong. 

Eventually, we found ourselves in a valley, alongside the flood-stage Laramie River.  The updraft of the storm was upon us and the sky was absolutely gorgeous.

I made my way through the willow to stand beside the river and take in the view, more reminiscent of a stormy day in southwest Montana (back home for me) than any place I had ever chased.  I took a few longer exposures as we suddenly found ourselves in dry outflow winds. 

 I recall hearing a strange splash and filed it to the back of my brain.  As I started heading back to the car, something flew through the shrubbery nearby.  I thought that Scott had thrown something at me, but when I saw another object fly into view and hit the ground in front of me, I realized it was hail.  This, as you can imagine, hastened my return to the vehicle.  We both had a good laugh as the hail began to pour to the ground around us. 

The birds don't look too happy.

Back on the road, we turned around and headed back.  The storm was now on its way to the plains and we figured we ought to be too.  The back side of the storm was stunning.  I've seen dark, rain-free bases over the plains before, but to see it over the varied terrain of the mountains was spectacular. 

Bonus rear flank downdraft!

This has to be one of my favorite images of the day, if not year.  The sky was so dark and ominous and the way that the sun seemed to sneak under and illuminate the peak was incredibly pleasing.

Yes, she's a hail-maker.

As we reached the plains and hit the pavement, I struggled to submit a hail report (from our time in the mountains), but we had a hard time locking on to a signal.  On radar, the storm had a decent couplet, but visually, there wasn't much of a lowering.  Soon, we found ourselves back on I-25, headed north for Wheatland so we could have an east option on the storm.  And then we got back into the hail.

Huge slush balls! 

Unfortunately, the storm began to take a right-turn and we found ourselves out of position in Wheatland.  We took a moment to collect hail.  Most of the bigger stones were conglomerates of smaller ones and most seemed to attain a flat shape as they impacted the ground.  Pancake hail?

Somewhat behind the storm, we tried to catch up, but our road options ended abruptly with bad map data (both in paper and digital) at the rim of the Goshen Hole.  Out of position once again, we were forced to back track and head south.  By this time, we found ourselves in the storm's wake... which was a haily, slushy mess.

Hail fog!

As the storm continued off to the east, we kind of gave up on it.  Looking back to the mountains yielded nothing impressive in the way of convection either.  There were a couple of storms just east of Denver, but they looked marginal at best.  I did have to be at work the next morning at 9:30AM and we already felt rather pleased with what we had seen, so we started making our way back south.

This turned out to be a good move for two reasons.  1: Our first storm died a quick death near Torrington.  2: Convection began to fire near Cheyenne. 

Hey!  We were just west of Cheyenne.  Quickly, a supercell formed.  We just parked alongside the road and took some photos as it developed; timed perfectly with sunset, of course.

A big transport plane takes off from Cheyenne, under the storm's base.

It started to move off to the northeast and diminish in intensity, but it was putting down some good lightning.  We scooted north and tried to get out of the anvil spit to grab a couple of shots.  I found the wind difficult to reckon with, even with my tripod, so I only manged a few bolts in frame.

As activity began to die down in Wyoming, more storms popped in northeastern Colorado on the south side of the Cheyenne Ridge.  We dropped directly south on WY 214 and then into Colorado on county roads.  We passed through a couple of thundershowers before emerging with a fantastic view to our west near Briggsdale.  We opted to continue a bit farther south and stopped at Cornish, which isn't much more than an intersection.  But there we sat for the better part of an hour, taking pictures of a beautiful supercell to our west.  Below is a series of images showing the evolution of the storm, often lit by lightning flashes and the city lights of Greeley, Colorado.  Occasionally, the storm produced a stubby lowering, but never really looked more impressive than that. 

Almost looking a little wedding cakey.


And Scott capturing the moment.

Eventually, the structure faded and the storm began to die.  While another strong storm formed west of it, i would say that we were pretty satisfied at this point.  We headed into Greeley where we picked up some late-night Wendy's.  Though we were "done", storms to our northwest still occasionally captivated our attention while we continued south. 

Another storm near Fort Collins.

Eventually, we made it back to Thornton where I bid Scott farewell and hit the road over the mountains so I could get to work in the morning.  It was a long drive, but I was pretty pumped from another exceptional and fortunate plains chase. 

Mileage: 571
2011YTD Mileage: 1405
States: Wyoming, Colorado
SPC Risk: Initially Slight, Reduced To Probablistic
Max Hail: 3" (flats)
Tornadoes: 0
Other Phenomena: Structure, Hail Fog
Storm Reports for June 8th

Scott's "Teaser" Report from June 8th

Detail Map:



p said...

Wow man, what an excellent series! Those supercell to night shots all need to be in a gallery. Well done, thank you for sharing.

Dann Cianca said...

Thanks for taking a look, Paul! I'm blessed to have been able to get out "east" at all this year.

Pat Boomer said...

Heckuva trip Dann, than must have been a long haul back thru the mountains after a day like that!

Dann Cianca said...

Pat, that extra four hours over the mountains isn't easy, that's for sure!