Spring in the northern hemisphere means severe weather for much of the U.S. While this year was off to a slow start in terms of tornado reports, there were several days of severe weather reported last week. During this time of year, the necessary ingredients for severe storms come together in the central and southern part of the U.S. These ingredients include warm moist air from the Gulf of Mexico, which are commonly separated from the warm dry air from the southwest U.S. by what we call a dry line. This boundary can be seen on radar as a thin line and can be identified on surface observations by looking at where the warm moist air from the south/southeast is separated from the warm dry air coming from the southwest. Here is an example of the dry line from March 24, 2015; the first day of active weather last week. You can see the faint blue line in the radar image as well as a computer-generated yellow line on the surface map that indicates the dry line. Notice that temperatures are similar (in the 70s and 80s) on either side of the line, while to the west of the line, dewpoint temperatures (a measure of the amount of moisture in the air) are in the 20s and 30s, while 60+ degree Fahrenheit dewpoints to the east of the line indicate moist air. Surface air ahead of the dry line may be warm and moist, but cooler, drier air above that usually comes from the west, forming what is called a “cap.” This means that the warm air is limited in how far it can lift so something needs to push the air upward above that cap so it can reach its level of condensation. At that point, it can tap into the energy available and grow into an impressive thunderstorm. Balloons are launched twice a day, sometimes more if severe weather is expected. These balloons measure temperature, moisture, wind, and pressure. Here is an example of the data from one of these “soundings” from southwest Missouri during a time before the dry line passed through. The lift that’s needed to break through this cap can come from the dry line. That’s why you typically see storms developing along this boundary. Storms that develop along the boundary can displace the air above it, creating what are called gravity waves. This is similar to the way that ripples disperse from the spot on the water surface where you throw a rock. In the sky, the air wants to go up, but if the air is stable (as it is out ahead of the dry line in certain layers of the atmosphere), gravity will pull the air back toward the ground, creating ripples in the sky. Where the air is rising, assuming it’s moist enough, clouds will form. On this day that we’re discussing (March 24, 2015), Karl Kischel noticed some of these gravity wave clouds over Cuba, Missouri at around 3:30 PM CDT.
Because Karl gave us the exact time and location, we were able to go back and look at the corresponding satellite imagery, where you can clearly see the extent of these clouds. The infrared satellite image gives us a sense of the temperature of the cloud tops, where the warmer colors mean warm temperatures and therefore at lower levels. Notice how these wave clouds are lower in the atmosphere than the deep thunderstorms that create the waves downstream. Storms continue to fire off this dry line as it moved eastward. Radar imagery shows this line of storms along the boundary, extending from Missouri down into Oklahoma and Arkansas. Matt Wing was with friends in Huntsville, Arkansas and captured an incredible view of one of these storms. This picture showcases the characteristic anvil of the beautiful cumulonimbus cloud.
The bubbly characteristic of the middle of the storm indicates turrets of upward motion. The upward motion in these storms can be strong enough to support increasingly larger ice that can fall as hail. Indeed, storm reports on this day showed hail with diameters reaching 1-2″. As the sun was setting, David Holland was in Oklahoma City, looking at distant storms to the east.
He captured the beautiful cumulonimbus in the distance, with a curious section of cloud above the anvil. We suspect this is an overshooting top that has eroded with time. An overshooting top is a cloud directly above the updraft that penetrates through the stable layer where the anvil is seen. When the sun is shining at a low angle (like at sunset), the visible satellite can pick up on these overshooting tops, as is pointed out in this image.