Entry 5 - Disappointment and then... jackpot!

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When the wind sweeps from the east in the plains and is loaded with moisture the high plains of Colorado begin to look an interesting prospect. The models on this day suggested a good chance for supercell thunderstorms and possible tornadoes in Colorado.

However, when the moisture doesn't quite live up to expectations you can end up with some interestingly structured storms but no chance of a tornado. With dewpoint temperatures pushing into the mid 40Fs and low 50Fs on model forecasts and a 5% tornado risk things looked worthwhile for the long drive from Aberdeen, South Dakota, where we spent the night. The target was along I70 west of Burlington, and sure enough storms got going with a low pressure system forming in southeast Colorado providing nice shear profiles.

The second storm to form looked nice on approach but never lived up to model forecasts, similar to the moisture. Picture: John Allen.

Unfortunately, the moisture didn't happen as anticipated and instead of booming thunderstorms, the atmosphere decided to put on some nicely structured elevated storms. At least the storms did give us some nice photographic opportunities, despite the disappointment with a day that looked to hold promise.

With the dewpoints marginal the storms structured as the shear profiles were highly favourable to supercells, but the poor moisture kept the storms ultimately elevated. Picture: John Allen.

Looking at the models it seemed there was the potential for yet another long drive for Day 5, and quite frankly after a couple of marginal days we weren’t going to fall for it again, especially when the potential was in Northern Wisconsin and Michigan! That’s the sort of opportunity you think about for around one microsecond and say: No thanks! Wisconsin is terrible to chase with hills, trees and barely any viewing for storms, so not only is it horrible for seeing storms, but with a risk of strong tornadoes its not a safe prospect for chasing either. It is also a damn long way from where we stayed the previous night in Hays, Kansas. So instead, with the weakening cold front trailing through Iowa into Missouri and eastern Kansas we decided to target east of Emporia, Kansas. In this area there looked to be the potential for a tail-end charlie type storm, a storm that has nothing to obstruct the energy, moisture and inflow from the gulf to the south and can produce great structure, and sometimes if your are lucky a tornado.

When you have low to no expectations of anything great from the day, sometimes you get a nice surprise and after hours of waiting in the taget area a storm finally popped only a few miles to the southwest. It took some time to get organised so in the meantime a core was in order to see if it contained any hail.  Coming back through the storm we got out of the car to see a wallcloud right in front of us, but this was just the start.

Running away from the initial wall cloud and potential hail core. Picture: John Allen

The storm continued to organise and began to produce structure as it began to rotate. It also produced a rather impressive rain foot under its core. The trick was to stay ahead and continue to move east with the storm, getting a little more distance using the interstate to get a view of the now impressive striated structure.

The storm begins to develop a more organised structure with an impressive rainfoot to the left. Picture: John Allen

With the sun beginning to set the east cat and mouse game continued, with the sunset colours being filtered through and illuminating the structure as the storm became very lightning active. 

The storm continues to look better and better as the low level jet begins to feed its exposed southern edge. Picture: John Allen

Running away to get position for the best structure on the final push of sunset. Picture: John Allen

Shooting at sunset, in my element.  Picture: Brad Hannon (Used with permission).

The cloud to ground lightning strikes began to get more and more frequent, with the barrage getting closer and closer. A few bolts struck inside 100 metres at the end of the road where we were shooting, including one captured in a photo that appears to strike Brad and make him become a little transparent.

Brad gets illuminated and appears to fade into nothing as this Cloud-to-Ground lightning strike lands 100m down the road. Picture: John Allen.

We continually repositioned to avoid the rain and stay with the impressive lightning as it moved east and later as while taking pictures, I felt the most peculiar static charging of my hair,  and quickly hit the ground moments before an enormous cloud-ground strike hit less than 30 metres away with an arc to powerlines five metres away. The bolt was so close that it even appeared in pictures with the camera pointing in the opposite direction, and lit up the night sky like daylight. 

Taken at the moment lightning struck 30 metres away. You know the cloud-ground strike is close when you get the arc leaders overhead and have your whole world lit up facing away from the bolt. Certainly got the adrenaline pumping. Picture: John Allen

So now a little more cautious (certainly gets the heart racing) we continued to shoot lightning, ending the day on a high, with the closest lightning strikes either of us have had the privelege to see. We stopped for the night in Ottawa, KS knowing that it wasn't a massive drive the next day to be in position for what looked to be a potentially potent tornado day in north central Kansas.


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