Last minute storms

19 May 2014

Today’s weather forecast was another marginal one, but fortunately it looked like it was going to be rooted around the Nebraska panhandle and South East Wyoming which puts us firmly in our favourite chase territory. Among the many reasons this is our favourite area is that even marginal setups seem to have an excellent record of coming good when you’re really not sure they will. This is in no small part to do with the terrain. Most of the high plains are deceptively high, particularly if you’re used to English topography. As you drive around vast flat areas it’s hard to believe that you are, essentially all the time, higher than the top of Ben Nevis (the lowest point in Colorado is actually just lower than Ben Nevis, but it’s only one small area!). In any situation where the winds blow from the lower central plains up into this area this is often enough to provide the trigger for storms.

The last forecast before we’d hit the hay (or car seat – fortunately not made of hay) was a slight risk of storms in the Cheyenne ridge area. We’d driven all the way to Cheyenne the night before, only finishing driving at 2:45 in the morning so we could get to Denver to get a car without hail damage, before heading back up to Cheyenne to look for some storms.

Clearing Car

It was a tough forecast because there seemed to be very little moisture around, owing to some large scale weather patterns affecting most of the US. However the models appeared confident that some storms would erupt, even if professional and amateur forecasters alike couldn’t quite see it. When we awoke in the morning the forecast had been downgraded by the SPC to a “see text”. This was its third time as a see text after being a slight a couple of times too. Clearly no-one was too sure what the weather would hold.

After replacing the car at Denver airport we made haste back north and made our way to Alliance in Nebraska. As we arrived in the area some storms were firing up to the west of Scottsbluff but they seemed to be unable to get over the hills and were not looking strong enough to survive. We parked up in a random picnic layby that somehow we always seem to end up at on each trip, and stopped for a drink while we watched the storms repetitively petering out before they could get any further east. We decided to make our way to Scottsbluff, where they were petering out, and caught sight of a few bolts of lightning and some nice rain shafts, but not the kind of dramatic sights we were searching for.

Early Storm Bums

We watched the storms peter out a few times and, as we became a little disheartened, we started to see the familiar flow of traffic of some storm chasing tour vans and cars adorned with far too many aerials heading away from the area. It certainly was giving out all the signs that this was going to be a bust. We were thinking along these lines too and, with tomorrow’s forecasts being for a similar area, we started looking for a motel in Scottsbluff. As we pulled up outside the motel, however, Cambo saw something to give us some renewed hope. The latest radar update was showing the storms that had passed over the hills re-energising…it might just have something more to give. It was close, but we hadn’t even quite stopped the car, and we headed back south to take a closer look.

By the time we got to the area the first storm to re-energise was moving away from us but the second to re-energise was displaying some great structure ahead. The storm was high based, this wasn’t likely to produce tornadoes, but the structure was looking awesome even from the car.

Storm From Car

Structure Car

We couldn’t quite get down the road ahead of the storm, primarily because there was a risk of hail and we weren’t sure how hertz would take two sets of hail damage in 24 hours. Fortunately the structure was so nice and clear that we could see exactly where the hail and rain were, so once they passed we headed on down and found a road we could track along with the storm. The structure continued to be a treat.

Timbo in the Storm

The first of the two storms was now tornado warned and appeared to be the best one in the area. Our storm looked to be struggling to keep going as it encountered warmer air aloft (which you can see by the layers of "pileus" cloud layering above the top of the updraft).

Pileus clouds

After a little while the roles reversed and our storm gained strength as the other lost it. It had now become a prolific lightning producer too. We followed it along the road, keeping below the speed limit in an effort to stay behind its hail core, and found a few places to stop and enjoy the show. The structure was fantastic, with some beautiful updrafts embedded in the wider storm, and all the better for being lightning lit.


Big lightning strike

Finally, as the storm started to weaken, we pitched ourselves in Julesburg to do some photo editing and dream of there being more of the same tomorrow…

SPC Day 1 Weather Outlook as at 06:00UTC (01:00 Central Time the night before)

SPC 01:00UTC day 1 forecast for Mon May 2014

SPC Day 1 Weather Reports for the day.

SPC storm reports for Mon May 2014

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