Tag Archives: 2016

A gustnado near St. Louis

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Eileen Lenkman, 7 May 2016, eastern Missouri looking across Mississippi River toward Illinois

On May 7, 2016, a line of storms moved through the midwest. Eileen Lenkman shared a series of photos from eastern Missouri as the storms moved from the NW toward the SE.

In this first photo, the storm can be seen approaching the area.

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Eileen Lenkman, 7 May 2016, eastern Missouri looking toward Illinois

 

Composite radar imagery at this time shows the extent of this precipitating system as it moves toward the St. Louis area.

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In the next photo, the heavily raining portion of the storm appears in Eileen’s view.

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Eileen Lenkman, 7 May 2016, eastern Missouri looking toward Illinois

 

The rain locally cools the air, which spreads out near the ground away from the raining core of the storm. The leading edge of this rain-cooled air is referred to as a gust front and is typically accompanied by strong winds.

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Schematic showing the gust front at edge of rain-cooled air

Not only is there a marked temperature distance across the gust front between the rain-cooled air behind it and the warm, moist air ahead, difference in wind speed and direction behind and ahead of the gust front can create considerable horizontal wind shear across that boundary far out ahead of the raining core of the storm. The warm, moist air is lifted up and over the colder dense air behind the gust front. This upward motion can tilt and vertically stretch the small-scale vortices that can form along the edge of the gust front due to the horizontal wind shear, creating a spinning vortex that can extend upward from the ground; this is casually referred to as a “gustnado.

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This shallow, short-lived vortex may only extend upward 10s of feet above the ground with no apparent connection to the cloud above. Away from the raining core, a debris cloud or dust whirl is seen near the surface. Wind speeds can reach 60-80 mph in these gustnadoes, but they are not considered to be a tornado as they are not associated with any sort of parent rotation in the cloud above.

On 7 May 2016, when the storms were moving near St. Louis, Eileen Lenkman captured one of these gustnadoes on camera.

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Gustnado, Eileen Lenkman, 7 May 2016, eastern Missouri looking toward Illinois

In this photo, the raining core can be seen to the far left of the photo while out to the right the small debris whirl near the surface can be seen at presumably the leading edge of the gust front.

 

Views of the April 26 severe storms from above and below

“Well that looks ominous” said Meredith O’Neill Muminovic as she took this photo of an approaching storm on 26 April 2016 in St. Louis, Missouri. The shelf-like appearance of the storm’s leading edge indicates strong winds as rain-cooled air lifts warmer, moist air out ahead of it. At the time of this photo, a Severe Thunderstorm Warning was in effect as 60+ mph winds were reported in the area, as well as hail 1″ in diameter covering the ground in some locations.

Shelf Cloud, Meredith O'Neill Muminovic, St. Louis, Missouri 26 Apr 2016

Shelf Cloud, Meredith O’Neill Muminovic, St. Louis, Missouri 26 Apr 2016

 

The corresponding radar image from around this time shows that the storm Meredith photographed was part of a line of storms moving across Missouri, referred to as a squall line. The red and orange areas in radar reflectivity indicate the heaviest rain, with weaker but widespread rainfall following behind the leading edge. The yellow box around St. Louis indicates the area under the Severe Thunderstorm Warning, which is aligned where the squall line appears bowed.

Radar Reflectivity, St. Louis, Missouri, 26 Apr 2016 2:07 PM CDT

Radar Reflectivity, St. Louis, Missouri, 26 Apr 2016 2:07 PM CDT

 

The bow echo is commonly associated with strong, often damaging winds at the surface. Much research has gone into studying bow echoes, leading us to understand how they form and the resulting weather they cause. The bow structure is strongly related to the wind shear of the environment these storms form in, meaning how the winds change direction and speed with height.

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Underneath the storm, turbulent motions are also present, as nicely captured by this video by Billy Reed in St. Louis around the time of Meredith’s photo.

 

Above, the clouds are deep and, individually, take on the classic structure of a cumulonimbus. In this schematic from the National Weather Service’s online school, JetStream, you can see that where the radar reflectivity shows the heaviest rain with the reds and oranges, the cloud is deep. Warm, moist air flows into the storm from out ahead of the squall line, fueling the strong updraft which hits a stable layer aloft, usually the tropopause, and creating an overshooting top. Within those strong updrafts, large hail can grow as supercooled liquid water freezes upon ice. Smaller Ice crystals can be carried outward to form the anvil of the cumulonimbus or fall and melt behind the updraft, contributing to the heavy rainfall at the surface and lighter rain extending behind the main leading line.

Schematic showing a vertical cross section of the cloud, precipitation, and air motion associated with the radar image of a squall line (from NWS)

Schematic showing a vertical cross section of the cloud, precipitation, and air motion associated with the radar image of a squall line (from National Weather Service)

 

The rain cools the air near the surface relative to the surrounding environment. This rain-cooled air rapidly moves outward away from the rainy core. The leading edge of this dense, cool air is referred to as a gust front.

Labeled schematic of a squall line storm from University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Labeled schematic of a squall line storm from University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

 

Warm, moist air that’s flowing in towards the storm is lifted up and over this denser, colder air along the gust front, leading to new cloud formation, and sometimes the shelf cloud that extends outward from the main line of storms, as was shown in Meredith’s picture above.

This multi-cell nature that allows these storms to persist can be seen in this photo from  western Oklahoma on this day, when Jack Christian also had his eyes to the sky. The anvil of this series of this multicellular storm over northern Texas extended far across the Plains, with newer cumulus congestus clouds forming in its vicinity. Notice the tilt in these cumulus congestus clouds, as the strong wind shear indicates increasing winds with height, but turning in direction from the tops of these clouds to the top of the cumulonimbus as the anvil spreads out in the other direction.

Cumulonimbus, Multicell, Jack Christian, Elk City, Oklahoma, 26 Apr 2016 5 PM CDT

Cumulonimbus, Multicell, Jack Christian, Elk City, Oklahoma, 26 Apr 2016 5 PM CDT

 

So we’ve taken a good look at these storms from below, but what about above? Matt Barto was flying over Oklahoma later that afternoon and was treated to this spectacular view of the storms from above. Look at the classic structure of this cumulonimbus, with the anvil spreading outward from the bubbling core.

Cumulonimbus, Matt Barto, over Oklahoma 26 Apr 2016

Cumulonimbus, Matt Barto, over Oklahoma 26 Apr 2016

 

We live in the era where 1-min visible satellite data is available and it’s incredibly valuable for looking at the evolution of these storms. Here’s a 30-min loop showing the storms over Oklahoma and Texas where you can see the bubbling nature of the individual clouds, with the overshooting tops clearly visible, the anvils spreading outward, and gravity waves resulting from the displacement of mass in the atmosphere by these massive storms.

GOES 14, 1-min Visible Sector 26 April 2016 2220- 2250 UTC

GOES 14, 1-min Visible Sector 26 April 2016 2220- 2250 UTC

 

At the end of the day, not only where there very strong wind reports (blue dots) from the squall lines, but over 30 reports of tornadoes (red) and hundreds of reports of hail (green) including some baseball-sized.

26 April 2016 Severe Reports

26 April 2016 Severe Reports

 

Did you experience severe weather this day? We’d like to hear your story and see your cloud photos.

Supernumerary bows over Oahu

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Primary rainbow with supernumerary bows and a faint secondary bow. Photo from Noboru Chikira, 21 Apr 2016, Oahu, Hawaii.

 

No, your vision isn’t blurred. There are actually additional colored bands bordering the bright primary rainbow in this picture from the Hawaiian Island of Oahu. These faint, pastel bands of light are referred to as supernumerary bows. “Supernumerary” means “more numerous” and is an adjective used not only for describing this optical phenomenon, but also for everything from teeth to military officers. To understand how these bands form, we first need to consider what creates a rainbow in the first place.

Rain showers over the tropical Hawaiian Islands, and elsewhere, can lead to vibrant rainbows. How does this occur? First, consider the energy emitted by the sun, which includes waves of energy in the UV, infrared, and visible portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. Most of the sun’s energy is emitted as visible light, which includes a range of colors (ROYGBIV).

spectrum

 

In 1665 Isaac Newton, through his infamous prism experiment, was able to prove that the white light of the sun was actually composed of a color spectrum. The sun’s visible light entered the prism and was refracted (bent) through the prism, with the red (longest wavelength) bending the least and the shorter wavelength violet bending the most.

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A raindrop falling from a cloud can act as a prism, bending and reflecting the light to produce the colors of the rainbow. When the sunlight encounters a raindrop, some of the light is bent as it enters the drop. This refracted light hits the back of the raindrop, is reflected internally within the drop, then is bent (refracted) once again as it exits the drop.

Raindrop blog

 

Because the different colors of the sunlight bends at different angles, the result of one internal reflection means the primary rainbow will have red on the outside and blue on the inside. This process happens to an assortment of raindrops falling from the sky leading to the existence of many rainbows at the same time; however, which one you see (and how much of one you see) depends on your viewpoint relative to the angle of the sun above the horizon behind you.

Sometimes, a second, fainter rainbow can be seen in the sky. This secondary rainbow results from two internal reflections (instead of one) inside the raindrop, leading to the colors appearing in the opposite order as the primary bow. In the following picture, you can see the faint secondary bow in the upper right.

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Primary rainbow with supernumerary bows and a faint secondary bow. Photo from Noboru Chikira, 21 Apr 2016, Oahu, Hawaii.

 

The key to the formation of rainbows, is therefore dependent on the sunlight, raindrops, and how much and how many times the sunlight bends and reflects within the drop. To understand supernumerary bows, the feature of this post, it’s important to remember that rays of light are waves of energy. Think of the ripples and waves that form on a water surface and what happens when they interact with each other. Some can counteract and destroy each other, while others can join to make a bigger wave. A similar description can be applied to waves of light.

The distance between the crests of these waves of energy is referred to as the wavelength (recall red light has a longer wavelength than blue).

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If the waves are in sync with each other, they can constructively interfere to amplify the wave. If they are out of sync (out of phase) with each other, they can destructively interfere to cancel each other out.

interference-explain

 

So with this in mind, given the different angles of refraction for the different colors of the sun’s rays when sunlight encounters and is bent through and around a raindrop, there is bright light where the crests of waves are aligned (and therefore constructively interfere); similarly, there is darkness where the waves of light destructively interfere. Each of the bright fringes is a supernumerary bow, created by interference between different portions (colors) of the same light wave.

Why can’t we always see supernumerary bows? Well, their presence depends on the size of the raindrops. Supernumerary bows can only be seen when the sunlight encounters small raindrops that are all nearly the same size. In a typical rain storm, there are drops falling of many different shapes and sizes, which would wash out the colors of the supernumerary bows. Basically each differently sized raindrop would produce differently spaced, overlapping fringes that would blur. There is a sweet spot, though, because as the drops become even smaller, the bow broadens, the colors become less saturated, and eventually there is no longer a vibrant rainbow but a faint cloudbow or fogbow. An excellent description of these bows and their dependence on drop size can be found here: http://www.atoptics.co.uk/rainbows/supdrsz.htm

The first explanation for supernumerary bows was provided by the English physician and scientist Thomas Young in 1804.

Fallstreak holes over Missouri

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Fallstreak Hole, Contrail, Altostratus (Karl Kischel, Williamsburg, Missouri, 18 Feb 2016)

Hole punch clouds have fascinated sky watchers, scientists, and pilots since the 1940s. Nearly circular in appearance, the hole punch cloud can have streams of ice falling from its center (as in Karl’s picture), thereby giving a subset of these clouds the name fallstreak holes. These beautiful, fascinating atmospheric phenomena are created by aircraft penetrating cloud layer. In Williamsburg, it’s not unlikely to see planes ascending and descending due to the nearby busy St. Louis airport.

Fallstreak holes require a specific cloud type: mid-level altostratus or altocumulus clouds that exist between 6,500 and 20,000 ft above ground. At these altitudes, temperatures are well below freezing, but water droplets exist in liquid form at these sub-freezing temperatures, called supercooled water. To freeze, liquid water droplets need either a nucleus to freeze upon (either ice itself or a particle in the air such as dust, bacteria, fungal spores, volcanic ask, etc.) or temperatures to be below -40 degrees C to freeze spontaneously without a nucleus.

So how does an aircraft flying through supercooled water lead to freezing of drops and ultimately a fallstreak hole?  We know that when aircraft fly high in the sky, at very cold temperatures (i.e., below -40 degree C), the water vapor in the jet engine exhaust rapidly freezes to form contrails across the sky, as can be seen in the photo above. But the key for fallstreak holes is the localized cooling that’s created around propellors and wings. Propellors push air outwards, causing the air to expand, which lowers the pressure and therefore cools the air. For jets, lower pressure exists above the wing compare to below, again leading to localized cooling of the air. This can cool the air to temperatures below -40 degree C, even when the aircraft is flying at lower temperatures, causing the supercooled water droplets in the cloud layer to spontaneously freeze where the aircraft passes through.

These ice crystals begin to grow at the expense of the nearby supercooled droplets, referred to as the Bergeron-Findeisen process. The vapor left behind by the evaporated supercooled droplet deposits onto the ice crystals thereby, along with the remaining supercooled droplets freezing on impact, allowing the ice crystals to grow.

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Drawing representing the Bergeron-Findeisen process: Ice crystals growing at the expense of water droplets

 

The freezing processes gives off heat, warming the surrounding environment.

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This warmer air rises, cools, and creates small circulations where downward (subsiding) air compensates for the locally rising air where the ice crystals are growing. The subsiding air warms, creating the hole.

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Computer simulations of a hole punch cloud showing heating (red), cooling (blue), and the corresponding circulations (black arrows). From Muraki et al. (2015).

 

These holes can spread for hours, lasting more than 4 hours at times, and the ice crystals can grow so large that they start to fall as snow, leading to the name fallstreak hole.

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Zoomed in view of the hole punch cloud showing the fall streaks (Karl Kischel, Missouri, 18 Feb 2016)

 

On 18 February 2016, Karl was lucky enough to photograph two of these hole punch clouds over Williamsburg, Missouri.

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Two fallstreak holes, Karl Kischel, Williamsburg, Missouri

 

These fallstreak holes could also be seen on visible satellite imagery! Those in the circle are the same ones Karl was photographing. Notice there’s a third one nearby. In fact, because these are visible from satellites, scientists have used high-resolution satellite data to look at the occurrence of fallstreak holes around major airports in the U.S. They found that they occur 3-5% of the time on average per year, and about 15% of the time during the winter (when we’re most likely to see these altocumulus/altostratus cloud layers).

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GOES Visible Satellite image from 15:15 UTC on 18 February 2016 showing the fallstreak holes.

Besides wanting to know your chances of seeing these beautiful hole punch clouds in the sky, why is it important to know how often they occur? There’s an argument that the increased snow that falls from the holes could mean more de-icing would be required at the airport before takeoff.

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Computer simulation after 60 minutes from when ice was introduced into the cloud layer. From Heymsfield et al. (2011)

 

Thanks for the great pictures, Karl! Enjoy additional photos he took from that day.