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.

 

Shelf clouds, mammatus, gust fronts, oh my!

 

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Shelf cloud courtesy of Kevin Sheely (Warrenville, Illinois, 8/25/2014)

What an ominous sight heading your way! Kevin Sheely captured this incredible shot of a shelf cloud near Warrenville, Illinois. On this day, numerous storms moved into and formed within Illinois.

To understand what creates this shelf-like appearance, we first need to understand that the rain that is falling from the core of the storm cools the atmosphere. This cold air is denser than the surrounding air so it sinks to the ground and then spreads outward from where the rain is falling. This cold air spreading outward is referred to as “outflow” and the leading edge of this rapidly outward moving air is called an outflow boundary or gust front. This boundary (like other weather fronts) separates air of different temperatures/densities: in this case, the cold air from the storm and the warm air surrounding it.

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Same picture as above from Kevin Sheely with the cold outflow shown as blue arrow spreading outward and the warm moist air being lifted out ahead shown in red.

The warm, moist air ahead of it is less dense so it is lifted up and over the spreading cold air. This air is lifted and cooled, to the point where it condenses and forms the shelf cloud extending out ahead of the main storm along this outflow.

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Diagram showing shelf cloud formation along gust front

Notice in that diagram that the warm air out ahead is being lifted into relatively stable air above. This leads to the layered characteristics of the shelf cloud as it extends outward instead of continuing to grow upward like the parent storm.

This rapidly expanding air is often responsible for strong, potentially damaging winds at the surface. As these storms, with their shelf clouds, passed through Illinois on the 25th, downed trees were left in their path. These storm reports from the Storm Prediction Center show a cluster of blues in northern IL, indicating strong winds.

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So while the shelf clouds themselves aren’t dangerous, if you see them coming, you can expect strong, cool gusty winds shortly after, followed by heavy rain and possibly even hail.

Luckily these outflow boundaries can also be detected by radar to help warn of this impending gustiness. As the cold air lifts up the warm air ahead of it, it’s also lifting up dust, insects, birds, etc. These can be detected by radar, but the power return is much less than the heavy rain falling. So while the heavy rain in these storms appear orange and red on these radar images, you can see the “fine lines” of blue ahead of these storms indicating the location of the gust front. Notice in these series of radar images that storms produce these boundaries, which then go on to produce new storms that then produce their own gust fronts. And so the cycle continued on this day…

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Series of radar images from the Chicago National Weather Service radar (KLOT) showing numerous storms and their outflow boundaries.

 

We’ve learned that these shelf clouds are seen at the leading edge of the storm, indicating cold gusty winds to come, but what about behind the storm? Well, storms can only reach a certain height in the atmosphere, at which level they spread out horizontally. This is often seen as an anvil. The air below the anvil is typically drier and therefore sometimes mammatus clouds can form underneath. These bulbous beauties were seen on this day in other parts of Illinois by Bill Morris.

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Mammatus over Grundy County, IL courtesy of Bill Morris (8/25/2014)

And that’s not all! Moving ahead to the next day (8/26/2014), another round of storms moved through Illinois, allowing for another opportunity to photograph shelf clouds. This picture was submitted to us by Melissa Godbee. Even though this is looking at the storm from the side compared to the head-on view shown by Kevin, can you still see the resemblance?

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Shelf cloud (Melissa Godbee, Illinois, 8/26/2014)

Have you seen these ominous, yet beautiful, clouds where you live?