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.
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.
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.
At the same time, a pink hail core slipped delicately to my south.
In times like these, it’s sometimes important to remember that even during the fiercest storm you can still find moments of beauty.