Meteorologist

Earlier in the month, my Thursday began in Sioux Falls, S.D. The day started sunny, but conditions were ripe to fire up a couple of rotating supercell thunderstorms. Air near the surface was too dry to support tornadoes, but I knew it would be a day for big hail.

I drove west after work, spotting a distant thunderhead blossoming on the horizon. A stair-step structure took shape as updraft plumes towered miles into the sky. Strong winds 8,000 to 10,000 feet up sculpted Kelvin-Helmholtz waves as air rushed in to fuel the storm.

That rotating thunderstorm dropped baseball-size hail in the city of Faith, its cool-air downdraft surging out and bringing a chilly wind. But I noticed the storm was lagging behind its cold air exhaust, or outflow boundary. That’s why I abandoned it and decided to venture west, where a new storm was brewing.


A rotating supercell thunderstorm looms over the Black Hills of South Dakota on June 4. (Matthew Cappucci)

As I approached Rapid City, a second supercell was dropping tennis ball-size chunks of ice on the northwest side of town. I ventured to the southeast, where I was rocked by 60 mph winds whipping thousands of quarter-size hailstones across the road. Visibility dropped to near zero in the hail-induced whiteout.

Before long, the sun emerged — but the hail had already cooled ground temperatures into the 50s. That shallow layer of cold, dense air settled across the landscape, condensing the warmer, moisture-rich air above it to generate an incredible blanket of hail fog. Sunshine bathed the mystical scene in a gentle wash of amber light, with orphaned trees seemingly floating as they stood guard over dew-studded fields. It was like standing on a cloud.


A dazzling display of hail fog southeast of Rapid City, S.D., on June 4. (Matthew Cappucci)

Eventually, that thin layer of cold air began to mix with the atmosphere above, dissipating much of the fog as the shallow mist spread higher and thinner. Meanwhile, a third hail-producing storm lurked to the west, generating pouch-like mammatus clouds and tossing stunning lightning bolts into clear air.

I scurried to the Rapid City airport, where a breathtaking scene awaited me. Tiers of storm clouds stacked atop one another overhead, forming odd wavelets that leaped in advance of the storm. Meanwhile, the setting sun cast a fiery orange glow onto the rain curtains cascading beneath the storm.


An approaching hailstorm bathes in delicate hues as it approaches the Rapid City airport June 4. (Matthew Cappucci)

At the same time, a pink hail core slipped delicately to my south.


A cotton-candy-colored hail core slips just southeast of Rapid City, S.D., shortly after sunset June 4. (Matthew Cappucci)

In times like these, it’s sometimes important to remember that even during the fiercest storm you can still find moments of beauty.

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