Tuesday, August 9, 2011

August 8 surprise mini-supercell

Today was as fun as they come. I spent the better part of the day texting back and forth with Colin Davis about how today seemed to be just another day in 2011 where local storms would dodge us and leave us hanging dry. I've spent the better part of the last month or so enjoying the beautiful summer nights shooting astro-photography, but I've been dying for something convective!

I saw a line of storms blowing up in northwest Illinois that seemed to be taking a dive to the southeast along an outflow boundary that was draped across the area. This would potentially bring the storms fairly close to my home base in Champaign. I glanced at visible satellite imagery and noticed a large area of clear skies as a result of subsidence behind the grunge that I was sitting under at the moment, which made me think that I may have a pretty good view of the storms as they passed to my north. I knew for a fact that almost all of my camera batteries were dead, so I got those charging in hopes for a time lapse opportunity once the storms drew nearer and the sun began to set. I'm a complete sucker for convection at dusk. A large billowing updraft tower being speckled by lightning just after sunset glowing in the twilight gets me just about as excited as a violent supercell in the plains.

I still wasn't confident in the storms even surviving long enough to make it into what I'd consider an acceptable range for a day such as this (not planning on any tornado warned mini-supercells, at this point!). I was invited to dinner at El Toro, which I can rarely resist and decided to take that offer up. I'd have plenty of time to gorge myself on delicious Mexican food and still be able to make it out for a time lapse / twilight photo op should the storms survive through my dinner.

After I'd finished up, I glanced at the latest radar imagery on my phone and saw the storms weren't looking all that impressive anymore, but figured I'd head out anyway. I grabbed a 32 oz. fountain Coke and was on my way! I initially headed east away from town and just planned to find a spot a few miles outside of town to just sit and kill the next hour photographing whatever came my way. Upon driving east down the country roads I noticed that beautiful sight - a nice crisp updraft tower surging above the muck. Perhaps not all was lost. I pulled off briefly to look around, admiring both the resurgent storm to my northwest, and other storms exploding from the disorganized mess that I sat under all day as it moved into Indiana. That's when I looked back northwest and had an odd realization, for this region anyway. I could already see the base of the thunderstorm to my northwest, near Bloomington, which would place the storm 45-50 miles away still. That is almost unheard of in this region, especially in August! You're lucky to see the base of a storm at 10 miles out given the above circumstances. It was almost like being on the high plains. It was at the same moment that I realized I could see the updraft base that I realized that a Tornado Warning had been placed on the storm. I almost didn't react and continued to sit there. I shot Colin a text that said something to the effect of "I can see the base of the tornado warned storm near BMI from here". That's when I finally had that 'duh' moment... uh, you are looking at the base of a tornado warned storm. Perhaps... perhaps, I should move closer? Has it really been that long since I did this dance?

I began flying north down one of the classic central Illinois back roads, grabbing my video camera to do a quick narration essentially stating "I'm hesitant to call this a chase, but look over this way and we've got an isolated tornado warned storm to my northwest". Local chases are the best for ease of navigation, especially when your home turf is central Illinois. Paved grid road networks! I just continued to blast north down my little country road until I found my spot. I still wasn't sure what to make of it. Out of the blue, I was starting at a tornado warned storm. I located the main updraft region, set up the video camera and began time lapsing the storm.

I could tell the main region which produced a tornado near Hudson, IL was being replaced by a new updraft to the south which actually worked to my favor as it would be much more visible. This new updraft quickly sprouted a blocky wall cloud which upon reviewing video did exhibit rotation. I was sitting back a distance still so that I could shoot uninterrupted time lapse video and structure shots. I wasn't under the impression that I would be seeing any tornadoes, so I hung back to have a more ideal vantage point for the time lapse / structure shots. This would be the safer bet image wise, but if the storm -did- produce any brief tornadoes they would be easy for me to miss.

During the peak appearance of the new wall cloud I did note what appeared to be one or two brief slender funnel clouds, but again, I was sitting back much further than I otherwise would on a traditional tornado oriented chase. The wall cloud soon fell apart and it became a structure / updraft tower / lightning session.

As I stated above, I can hardly contain myself sometimes when I see that glowing updraft surging upward into the twilight while being illuminated by frequent summertime lightning. I dropped south and east a couple of times in order to keep the low clouds out of my shot before I finally let the big sweeping gust front overtake me. There's no way to really convey to an 'outsider' the kind of 'high' that these experiences bring. I've whined before and don't need to go back into this being a very up and down summer for me, but I think the end of this intercept may have been about the highest I've peaked as far as overall emotional bliss. A camera full of convective photos, the rushing noise of the outflow blowing through the corn stalks in the distance as the gust front glides down the road toward me, the moon now in full swing illuminating the still flickering updraft. I stood in the middle of the road for a while honestly not even wanting to leave. I legitimately wanted to stand in that road for the rest of the night letting the scene suck me in.

Of course, this wasn't an option, and I was anxious to see what kind of imagery I'd come away with so I gradually made my way back to the car, picking up my tripod/camera and the Coke that I was still sipping on. Again hitting on the luxury of local chases, I didn't bother looking at any maps to plot a course back home, but simply started driving. I'm rarely in the northeast part of the county so it was fun to revisit some places that I remember passing from storm intercepts of the past. Immanuel Luthern Church in Flatville, Illinois stood out like a beacon on the horizon. I remember first seeing that church on a chase with my father, and mentor / the reason I am the weather nerd that I am today, Ed Kieser back in May of 2003. While I'm trying to quickly find a photo of this place, I see the website calls itself "The Cathedral in the Cornfield". I almost stopped to snap a photo for nostalgia sake, but didn't. The name really is fitting, however. Here's someone else's flickr set based solely on the church. http://www.flickr.com/photos/zaruka/sets/72157624233301697/detail/ I have video of us just sitting in the parking lot there plotting our next course of action, back when I was a silly 16 year old filming hours and hours of pointless video, that I now find not quite as pointless as it's filled with all sorts of memories that can now come back to me when I pass through these open roads that so many city-dwellers will never take in. Central Illinois may not be filled with the abundant natural beauty and dynamic landscape that regions out west my have, but I'm certain I will miss the simple beauty should I fulfill my dream of leaving this state behind in the near future.

I rolled back into Urbana right as the sweeping gust front, or "whale's mouth" engulfed the city lights.

I shot plenty of time lapse video, but I only have my laptop down in Urbana and it is about on my last nerve so I won't bother uploading any of that. The most likely outcome will be to have it thrown into a time lapse compilation that will likely be put out in place of a DVD this fall. There simply is not enough material to make a DVD a worthwhile effort this year.

Anyway, the photos.

My initial view of the storm after deciding to give chase.

At super wide 10 mm, it isn't very easy to make out details along the updraft base, but the photo below displays the developing wall cloud. No still photos of any of the hard to see, slender funnels.

And, it was show time. The following photos are probably out of order, but the general idea is clear.

If you still need more, the full high res flickr set is available here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/prairiestormmedia/sets/72157627266813957/


Anonymous said...


great narrative and superb photos. you left out the details of the unsurpassed dining experience, though! <3

Dude ! said...

Cool shots Bro.....