The Nebraska supercell of May 27 in all its glory. (Michael Charnick, @charnick_wx/Twitter)

The slew of storm systems has been relentless in recent weeks. They’ve caused mass flooding and record-breaking waves of tornadoes.

But despite the volley of tornadoes, the flying-saucer-shaped storm clouds that tower in the atmosphere and spin like a top, sometimes called “mother ships,” have been few.

Photographers are drawn to these rotating thunderstorms, known as supercells, but atmospheric conditions have instead favored setups that have interfered with views of these magnificent structures. Thunderstorms have more frequently clustered together and appeared grungy.

For exhausted storm chasers who caught the stunner of a plated supercell in Nebraska this past Monday, the wait was well worth it.

On a classic high-plains storm day, several isolated supercells developed in northeast Colorado during the afternoon. As chasers followed storms northeastward into the evening, things got crazy across the border around Imperial, Neb.

“[I]ncredible chase for us that lasted around 10 hours, with a weak tornado, and then increasingly great structure,” tweeted storm chaser Mike Olbinski. He concluded the sentiment with a short but effective follow-up: “A day to remember.”

Numerous chasers caught almost all angles of the beastly storm cell. It was tall and full of smooth stacks, it was wide and daunting, and it had a special feature not often visible in such a way.

Those doing more than searching for beautiful scenes had an important day, as well. The TORUS field study, scored a big win when it intercepted this storm.


Nebraska supercell with a Texas Tech radar truck scanning it as part of the TORUS research project. (Alex Schueth/@ASchueth/Twitter)

In a chat with Alex Schueth, a participating scientist on the project, I learned a bit more. The armlike appendage extending from one side of the base of the storm has been theorized to deliver a zone of spin (or vorticity) directly to the storm’s rotating core, known as the mesocyclone. Data gathered Monday may have offered observations of such a process.

“The most scientifically interesting feature of this storm was not the mother ship appearance, but rather the robust inflow tail to the north,” Schueth wrote to the Capital Weather Gang.

He explained that while scientists have believed air in the tail flows into the storm, previous tools to measure it were not scientifically conclusive. In this case, the National Severe Storms Laboratory was able to deliver sensors directly into the feature.

“Preliminary data show that the air does indeed feed straight into the low-level mesocyclone,” wrote Schueth.

Other observing platforms also collected data from the storm, including a P3 Hurricane Hunter aircraft flying above. Once analyzed, this storm may yield improved understanding of how these mother ships form.

Beauty and brains — that’s a storm for the books.

More imagery