Tag Archives: thunderstorms

A Day Observing Natural Phenomenon

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It was never the most ideal setup for a storm chase. The convective environment was not too strong and the storms were poorly organized. It ended up being a fairly major day for severe thunderstorms with strong winds in the Southern Plains, as well as Upstate New York and parts of New England.

However, traveling about 90 miles to observe what did happen in Northeast Colorado would only cost me half a day. It was also my first chance to hit the open road since COVID-19.

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It turns out, a panoramic view of several different storms is beautiful and inspiring even if it isn’t damaging property!

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Maybe it was the relaxed pace life had taken over the past two months. Or maybe it was the amount of time we have all started spending in front of screens during this strange period. This storm chase felt less like a mission to get to the best storm possible. It took on kind of an artistic feel.

It is easy to imagine the lone barn in front of an approaching storm, or the seemingly abandoned tiny town of Last Chance, CO with storm clouds gathered all around it as a painting or large photo hanging on someone’s wall for decoration.

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I would later catch up with the one storm that did produce large hail, which I would had to quickly escape to avoid car damage.

After returning home, another storm would pass right over my house right around sunset.

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As a child, weather was the first thing I became deeply fascinated with. The cycles of the seasons and the way the atmosphere moves around transporting warmer, colder, wetter and drier air impacts everyone. On a day to day scale it can often decide what people are doing with their day. On a longer time scale, it impacts business, food supply and health.

My pursuit of meteorology as a career ended up being kind of a disappointment. What began as a desire to investigate and understand the atmosphere scientifically got lost in a sea of equations, coding, and later egos and corporate buzzwords. Observing the weather through a screen caused it to eventually lose its luster. Seeing powerful lightning up close and hearing the raw power of the thunder put me back in touch with why I love the weather so much.

That evening, after the storms passed through, I took a walk through City Park.

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The orange-y lights shining onto a wet sidewalk adjacent the a lakeshore made me feel as if I were in a different place. I imagined the lake, which is not too big in real life, was the shore of one of our Oceans or Great Lakes. I imagined the high rise apartments nearby to be vacation rentals and I imagined crowds of people once again flocking to the beach.

I couldn’t stop staring at how the lights of different colors were sparkling on the water, gradually shifting with the slow movement of the lake.

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I wonder why I had gone years not noticing things like the way the water makes the light twinkle. Are our lives that out of balance? Maybe recent obsessions with things like yoga, meditation, low carb diets and workout “boot camps” are just our attempts to get our lives back into balance, ways to push back against all these forces in our culture that have lead to unhealthy lives. 

I think about all the beautiful experiences we have with the natural world and wonder if we are obsessed with technology. Technology has undoubtedly made our lives better. Technology has made the whole concept of storm chasing possible. However, I am not convinced all technological developments have been beneficial. To me, there is far more beauty in the air and in the clouds. There’s beauty in the smiles we give one another, the relationships we form and the feelings we get from experiences. There is beauty in love and passion. There is even beauty in things often held in less regard, like causal sex (when consensual of course), some drug related experiences (when not taken to a destructive extreme) and anger when it is born out of the passion associated with fulfillment (when it doesn’t lead to violence of course). At least those things feel more meaningful than staring at screens all day to me now.

Unlike many other people who are old enough to remember a world before people could pull a device out of their pockets and look up whatever they want, I am not “wowed” by technology for technology’s sake. I’ve seen plenty of people impressed by the latest technology, often doing things like moving data around and producing charts.

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Charts like this one, as is the case with scientific investigation in general, mean nothing unless something is learned and something is done based on them.

Technology has the potential to help us work more efficiently, improve our health and even form communities. But, let’s not forget who is in the driver’s seat. Technology and computers are here to enhance our experiences with the world around us, not the other way around. Thank God we occasionally have these moments, where thunder claps louder than any of our devices or when wildlife interrupts our travels, to remind us.

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Storms With Abnormal Structure

One of the things that makes this world so amazing is the fact that we never cease to encounter surprises.  No matter how well we get to know a subject, any subject, we will encounter, and observe, from time to time, that which does not fit closely into the patterns we have learned.  We will periodically be tested, in our knowledge, and forced to rethink, and once again reason out what we have seen based on our critical thinking skills and understanding of our favorite subjects.  Like the psychologist that talks to someone new and says “I have never seen this before”, these experiences rekindle the passion we have for that which we love, remind us how complicated the world really is and how little we really know, and remind us about how interesting of a place the world truly is.

The 9th of May 2017 was a confusing chase day for me.  It is one that I am still trying to figure out, much in the same way the scientific community is still trying to determine why some storms produce tornadoes and others don’t.

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The day began with a slight risk across Eastern Colorado and New Mexico, and reason to believe, based on model output and expert opinion, that it could be a decent setup for a storm chase in East Central/ Southeastern Colorado.

The day ended up being one where I followed over half a dozen storms, over the course of the afternoon and early evening, northeastward, from near La Junta, Colorado, to just north of Goodland, Kansas.

Regardless of where a storm was positioned, both relative to other storms, and relative to atmospheric boundaries such as dry-lines (the boundary between moist and dry air), which are credited with creating the lift in the atmosphere that often creates storms, all the storms would behave in much the same sort-of standard but sort-of not manner.


They would cluster together and come apart.  They had the standard boundary one would observe between the inflow and outflow portions of the storm.


Some would even show something that look like a “lowering”, which is often an indication of the mesoscale rotation that causes tornadoes.

But, these “lowerings” would show up in some strange sections of the storm, including in the front part of the storm.  This is absolutely nothing like how anyone is taught that a “supercell” thunderstorm operates.

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In the end, storms did occur, but largely outside the region SPC highlighted that morning.

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And, in the areas of Colorado and Kansas I had chased, nothing more than a couple of hail reports.  Although, I am quite certain that there was far more hail than what is shown on this map, as I recall driving through some areas where hail covered the ground, including multiple areas near Burlington, Colorado.


I watched these storms tease us all day.  Everything just seemed, well, weak.  In a typical tornado situation, these random-ish clouds that form around a storm, often referred to by chasers as “scud” (I don’t know why), rise and rotate, indicating that there is indeed, the vertical motion and rotation that produces tornadoes.  But, today, the rising and rotating motion in these storms all seemed, well, just weak.  It reminded me of a relationship, or a friendship, that just fizzles away as soon as any small change occurs.  It was not that there was any kind of real force or circumstance pulling these people apart.  It was just that whatever connection they had was not strong at all.

That is the way it was with these storms.  Something about the entire setup made them behave differently, but I throughout the evening, as I watched the final storms roll away into the sunset.  I could not formulate the full reason as to why these storms behaved so differently from a standard severe thunderstorm situation.


I am still wondering.  Often times severe thunderstorms don’t materialize because one key “ingredient” was missing.  Shear, instability, a good boundary, etc.  And those often lead to what is refereed to as a “bust day”.  It’s just sunny.  Or drizzly.

May 9th was not a complete “bust”, as there were storms to look at all day.  They likely never became severe because everything about the storm setup was just kind of weak:  Weak to moderate instability.  Border line helicity.  A sort of weak boundary.

And, just like the storms themselves, with multiple areas of quazi-rotating clouds, the atmosphere as a whole had no real focus.  Often times, severe thunderstorms draw upon air from hundreds of miles away for energy.  This produces scattered, but strong storms.  With hundreds of active storm cells, there was less energy for each individual storm.


Of course there are other theories.  After all, it could have all been the lack of low-level shear.  But, in the end, it felt as if the entire day was telling me something.  It was like a crash course in how to create, well, mediocrity.  Have only part of what you need before you proceed.  Focus on nothing- just spread yourself real thin.  And, choose to follow some of the rules, but completely disregard others.

Back on the Reservation

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit an Indian Reservation for the first time in my life.  I learned quite a bit from that visit.  I learned that these reservations do not look like many of us imagine them to.  I also concluded that our history is complicated.  I do not have a good understanding regarding why relations between us and the Native Americans progressed the way they did, and it would be disingenuous for me to take a position on these issues.  However, I did see people in need due to their circumstances.

There are some things universal about helping out those in need.  Contrary to some people’s belief, helping out those in need is not dependent on ideology, wealth, or status.  It is only loosely dependent on what someone believes about the person (or people) they are helping.  Caring parents will often bail out their children with financial or housing support even if they believe their child had been lazy, stupid, or malicious in the behavior that led them into trouble.

In my belief, in order to be genuine in helping someone out, there are two necessary conditions.

  1. There must not be coercion.  This one is obvious, being forced to help someone out, or forcing somebody else to help someone out is not genuine charity.
  2. There must be no expectation of a reward.  This includes not only a monetary reward, but also the guy who does charity work and then starts telling girls at the bar about it to help him get lucky.  Or, likewise, anyone that hopes for any praise or increase in status from their charity work.  To be fair, rewards can come.  But they have to not be the reason for it.

For this reason, I was hesitant about writing about this in my blog.  It could come across that I am trying to show off that I did charity work.  I am really just trying to explain the reason I went back to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, as it is one of the poorest places in the country.  But, you have no real way of knowing that for sure.  Maybe I could have left this whole part out.

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The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is in Southwestern South Dakota, with it’s southern border being the Nebraska/South Dakota border.  So, as soon as we entered South Dakota, we were on the reservation.  Last week, this area got an unexpected early season blizzard.   In the Black Hills, to the north, some places got over 40″ of snow.  This is something that rarely ever occurs in mid-winter in this part of the country, let alone in early October.  Pine Ridge, more on the southern flank of this storm, got about 12″, still a lot, and the evidence of this snowstorm could still be seen.

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The task yesterday was tiling, and we put up tiling like the one pictured above at a couple of houses in this neighborhood in Pine Ridge.  So, just like the day before,  I learned a new activity.  In fact, I continued on the theme of expanding my comfort zone, as over the course of the day I became comfortable using machinery that initially intimidated me.

Spending an entire day on the reservation, I made a couple of observations I hadn’t last time (when I was only there for the morning).  Last time I felt that the reservation may have just as poor as some of the dispirited urban neighborhoods I had previously observed, but not as dangerous.  However, I was only there for the morning, which tends to be the least dangerous time of day.  I noticed this hole in the window of one of the homes I helped work on.

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This hole in the window may just be more evidence that the area is poor and do not have the resources to repair such a thing.  Still, I wonder who it got there.  Stray bullets from gang related activity tends to be one of the biggest fears one has about visiting poor neighborhoods in the United States.  Either way, I am not about to go ask the homeowner how this happened- that would be rude.

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I was also quite astonished by the number of stray dogs in the neighborhood.  All day long, I encountered stray dogs just wandering up and down the street.  I recall one of my former co-workers in Chicago telling me that stray dogs were common on the south side, but I have no idea what that meant.  Occasionally I would see a stray dog in my neighborhood, but usually there was someone there to call animal control, or try to find them a shelter.  Here they were everywhere, wandering in and out of people’s yards, sometimes getting into people’s trash, and even pooping in the yard (which I was lucky to avoid).  I guess I just wonder why there is a different attitude towards dogs here than what I am used to.

The return trip also gave me an unexpected surprise; the quintessential Nebraska experience.  For me, this means thunderstorms and steak.  On the return trip southbound across the Nebraska Panhandle, we encountered a series of really fun storms, with lots of lightning.

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Thunderstorms are my favorite type of weather, at least from an observers point of view.  There really is nothing like the raw, natural power of these storms.  I also love the differentiation within the storms, and how abruptly things change inside a thunderstorm.  With the heavy rain, frequent lightning, hail, and abrupt wind changes, there is so much to see.  There is so much going on I feel like I can make a diagram like those Xs and Os the football commentators make.  It is the weather phenomenon for people who love to see all things energetic.

It is also the weather phenomenon for people who love efficiency.  Seattle and Kansas City average about the same amount of annual precipitation (37-38″).  However, in Seattle, precipitation occurs 155 days per year, while in Kansas City, precipitation only occurs 104 days per year.  Kansas City achieves the same result with 41 more rain-free days.  In addition, many days with thunderstorms are mostly sunny for large sections of the day, with the exception of the hour or two when the storms are rolling through.  Overall, many more productive hours.  For me, it is the long, humid day, followed by the abrupt thunderstorm that makes the Great Plains what it is.

We stopped at a steakhouse called Cantu’s in the town of Bridgeport, NE right after we finished rolling through the storms.  The place is right on highway 385, the main street through the center of town.  I have many times stopped at random places I encounter on the main streets of towns while driving through.  I really like doing this because it gives me a sense of what makes that town unique to every other town I have ever been to, something I won’t get by eating at a chain restaurant.

Of course, I have had a variety of experiences, ranging from great to horrible at restaurants like this.  However, when on the Great Plains, particularly in areas near a lot of ranches, I’ve have mostly good experiences with steakhouses.  The trend definitely continued today.  I really enjoyed my sirloin steak at Cantu’s.