Friday was one of the all-time weirdest days I’ve ever had chasing storms in the Plains. I’ve seen fire, and I’ve seen rain, but I’ve never seen fire produce rain. By some meteorological miracle, that’s exactly what happened in the eastern Texas Panhandle and northwestern Oklahoma.
I began my day in Moore, Okla. It looked like an unfavorable day for severe weather. There was a strong capping inversion in place — a layer of warm air in place about a mile above the ground. That traps surface moisture and instability and prevents it from rising, choking off wannabe storms and leaving storm chasers disappointed. There was barely a 10 percent chance that the cap could be broken.
Things quickly changed, though, when by sunset a powerful supercell thunderstorm was tracking east along Interstate 40 in the western Oklahoma Panhandle.
How did this wacky weather develop? A midafternoon wildfire near Clarendon, Tex., released enormous amounts of ash, smoke, and steam into the atmosphere. This sudden, abundant source of warmth and moisture fueled towering pyrocumulonimbus clouds. NASA calls them “the fire-breathing dragon of clouds.”
You know how there’s a puff of steam that rises when you uncap a pot of boiling water? Now imagine you have a really big pot, and crank that heat up to extreme levels. That’s what the wildfire did. Its billowing updraft shot steam and smoke over 10 miles into the atmosphere.
Lightning sparked by ash and particulates started new fires, and eventually this “dirty thunderstorm” transitioned into a precipitation-producing supercell storm as it tracked northeastward past McLean, Tex.
The National Weather Service in Amarillo even issued a severe thunderstorm warning for this spectacular cloud!
I intercepted the storm just west of Elk City, Okla., and was amazed at what I saw. Bubbly, pouchlike mammatus clouds hung ominously from the lowering ceiling, gorgeously backlit by sporadic intracloud lightning. I felt like I had been transported to another universe.
By the time it got to Shamrock, Tex., it was dropping hail the size of quarters. As the sun started to set, the sky came to life. The added hydrocarbons in the atmosphere from the smoky blaze filtered out the shorter wavelengths, allowing only red, amber, orange and a murky crimson to penetrate through.
Soon enough, the storm dried up — from below. But that didn’t stop earth-shattering lightning from splintering through the air where little or no rain was falling. The “dirty thunderstorm” became a “dry thunderstorm,” with a few lightning strikes sparking additional fires.
On the way home, I mounted a camera on my dashboard to take eight-second exposures in case lightning struck. I drove miles and miles from the storm, and stars began to emerge. A wimpy cloud paralleled me to the east with no rain, when suddenly: BAM! A brilliant flash of blue shot down just south of me. The lightning posed for my camera, and yet radar showed no precipitation. Every time I think I have a good idea of what’s going on, the atmosphere still manages to surprise and amaze me.