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Shooting from the Thumb

In my first post back its not so much about weather! But weather and space conditions were just right to capture a stunning sky from Caseville, MI (yes during the Cheeseburger Festival) this past weekend. With clear cool skies, a moonless night, and low light pollution I was lucky enough to capture not only the Milky Way, but also the dusty Andromeda Galaxy and a surprise visit by the Aurora!

We started out taking a few test shots from the yard as the evening sky dimmed. Stars were certainly eager to come out! With the leftover sunset light fading, my girlfriend and I went to the Saginaw Bay coastline to try shots along the beach. I had never shot over the water before. I was hopeful that if the water was calm enough, perhaps some shots could reflect the night stars and make something cool. Really didn’t know what to expect but was excited to experiment.

The Milky Way was very visible once eyes adjusted and I initially aimed my T2i with kit lens 18-55mm in that direction to see what we could find. I only brought the T2i on the beach run because it has Magic Lantern installed on the SD card, and thus has an automatic intervalometer on it. I set that up to take repetitive 15sec shots of the milky way as it paced the sky. Bumping the camera to 3200ISO, stars filled the shot, but a shot of the Milky Way at 18mm on a crop sensor camera isn’t too interesting, you need a subject! Cue the aurora borealis…

Aurora over Saginaw Bay

Canon T2i 18-55mm f/3.5 15″ ISO3200 (Click for larger)

Missed the stellar noise control of the 6D on the beach, but the T2i still holds its own with a little post cancellation. I initially didn’t recognize the aurora on the horizon. Dismissed it as fog rolling in off the water. Once I saw vertical pillars, I remembered what this meant. Mid shot of the Milky Way I pivoted the camera down to double check with the long exposure of the camera sensor, and sure enough that was the aurora! After awhile the aurora calmed down and I ached for the 6D back at our current residence. With no moon out and no clouds in sight, the stars were begging for an extended photo shoot. On the walk back I stopped on a back road and just did a sample shot. The scene reminded me of a shot in upstate New York two years ago. Bonus? The Milky Way darting through…

Above the Canopy

Canon 6D 24-105mm f/4 30″ ISO4000 (Click for larger)

As the night wore on, we got tired and pulled some blankets out to just lie in the back yard and keep shooting. Trees can really frame stars well! Looking northeast, the Milky Way pulled up and started to look vertical. Experimenting with some shots, I noticed a dusty ‘star’ which I would later look back in Stellarium and realize it is the Andromeda Galaxy! So many very interesting sights in the sky, and then the aurora cheering from the corner saying, “Look at me too!”

Galactic Gouge

Canon 6D 24-105mm f/4 30″ ISO4000 Andromeda Galaxy in the lower right. (Click for larger)

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Was a great opportunity to capture the night sky in central Michigan and spend the weekend with some great folks! Thanks go out to my girlfriend’s family and grandparents for hosting!

A Different Track

Times change, so do trends. With that comes change to the blog.

Obviously things aren’t as updated here anymore as I would like. I just went two solid months between posts, and its during the winter season which I love the most and would post about. Looking back, I would cram like 15 some odd posts in one month!

The new school semester in full swing(and three Meteorology courses on the platter), I’ve also become more dedicated to photography in shooting mainly sports for Central Michigan’s CMLife. I’ve also been focusing on my IT support job within CMU’s new College of Medicine. Additionally, I am currently the webmaster for the Student Chapter of the American Meteorological Society (S.C.A.M.S) at CMU. I hope in my learnings at this position (creating a new modern website) I can spruce this blog up and perhaps get a actual domain for more flexibility!

Basically things have cranked up, and I want to focus on those. I’ve found the Facebook page to be more rewarding for now as it lets me brief the weather quickly, and it gets sent directly to folk’s feeds for feedback! So consider following that. The primary use of the blog now is a archive of my events or adventures with the weather, much like the previous post about almost being in a EF-2 tornado, which I promise won’t happen again. Hopefully this is a short term change, and things can be like they once were.

I like to think I can teach people about the weather and the forces behind it, but learning in class is making me realize how hard it is to convey these dynamics and processes to others without the background. This happens in EVERY subject, and that’s something mind-blowing I’ve realized in college. I try my best to slip in the Goldilocks zone to keep things science-y, yet understandable.

Thanks for everyone’s support, stay tuned!

The Day Winds Down

This was a euphoric sight to see after a day near strong winds and driving rains. A somber evening winds down as we return home from Indiana and the November 17, 2013 severe weather outbreak. Wind farms will forever be a symbol of this day to me.

Nov 17, 2013 Severe Weather Outbreak, White County, Indiana EF-2 Tornado

November severe weather. How often does that happen? Not much for full outbreaks. This is an account of my adventure into a rare High risk severe weather outlook in mid-November.

We left from Mount Pleasant at 7am Sunday, dark and early. The air was cool, but a warmer wind blew as I crossed the parking lot with 4 items under my arms and on my back. Two cameras, a tripod, backpack with instruments, and a laptop. Our destination was unknown at the time. We had a goal to reach South Bend, IN as this was a reasonable distance to travel and still be within an area of elevated severe chances. We went through all sorts of data on the trip down. It all gets overwhelming and at some point you just need to let it happen.

We took a pit stop at a BK. Kevin and Bryan take notes on current conditions before heading further south.

We took a pit stop at a BK. Kevin and Bryan take notes on current conditions before heading further south.

We reached South Bend and carried on. At this time, storms were firing in central Illinois. We stopped at a fast food restaurant and used some stronger Wifi. About this time the Peoria, IL storm was really cranking up. The storm showed strong structure and looked to remain on a fixed path towards Chicago. Things could go sour fast. This was the EF-4 tornado that affected Washington, IL, carving a large scar through a populated area. From our current spot, we had no chance in intercepting this storm as some of these were moving to the northeast as fast as 60 mph! As we went south, wooded areas became fields with only pockets of trees.

From the NWS in Chicago, IL. Note the cell that has a hook-echo signature near Peoria, IL and continues NE where it impacted Washington, IL as an EF-4.

As we traveled south, the area of storms started to fill in from single cells, to a uniform line. This was bad news if seeking tornadoes. Usually large and strong tornadoes spawn from single power-hungry supercells so they have no neighbors to compete for energy, or be bothered by outflow winds. A line of storms meant winds would be straight and not possibly rotating, thus little chance at a tornado. The line directly to our west was filling in to just be severe thunderstorm level winds and heavy rains. We had a new goal of intercepting a cell coming from Champaign, IL. The cell had exhibited rotation from central Illinois, and had been tornado warned earlier.

We continued to race south on I-65. Towards central Indiana, 65 starts slightly curving to the east so that it goes trough Lafayette, IN. This bought us some time and we found ourselves immersed in a large wind farm. We exited I-65 at  the SR-18 interchange. There we sat for about a half hour to assess storm motion. Looking at the storm, we noted the good structure had diminished and it could just form into a line of high winds instead. Storms moving through Lafayette were looking enticing, but there was no way we would make it down there in time. So this was it. We made our way back towards the interchange and sat pointed west, awaiting our prize.

Turbines lined the road in front of us. These closest ones were the last to disappear in front of our eyes.

Turbines lined the road in front of us. These closest ones were the last to disappear in front of our eyes.

Being in a large wind farm, we could see turbines disappearing in the heavy rain as the line approached. We enjoyed that as entertainment, helping heal the wound of not finding a tornado after a long travel. It traveled quickly. One turbine gone, and then the next. Then the wall of rain and wind hit us.  It immediately reminded me of hurricane videos. My ears popped from pressure change, which was really weird when you are used to that happening changing altitude. Rain was being whipped around in sheets and you could see no further then 10 feet in front of our car. Grass was mimicking the behavior as it was whipped around. This was probably enhanced by the lack of any large objects to block the wind. The wind was traveling over clean and flat farmland for acres in our W and SW direction. It quickly became frightening. Although it didn’t seem much different from a squall line in Michigan. Some other things suddenly became realized.

light

I looked down to my phone with the current radar displayed. We had underestimated the storm’s strength and organization due to poor storm velocity data outside of radar range. This is called range folding. Range folding is purposefully put in place on weather radar to prevent having a false signal reported, so it helps accuracy within reliable ranges. We decided to set up shop in a spot of ambiguity between two nearby radar sites. This is a big no-no as we had virtually been blind.

After a moment of panic in the car with the suddenness of wind and blinding rain, it quickly got worse. New radar scans came in and the velocity image showed a spot of rotation making its way straight for our area. The signature was not a strong tight rotation typically associated with tornadoes, but given the environment we were in, there could be a rain-wrapped tornado on track to us.Fear continued to sink in.
This is NOT how you chase/spot/report severe weather.

whitecountyef2

Our location, marked by a yellow cross, with reflectivity, velocity, spectrum width, and rotation radar overlays. CLICK for ANIMATION and larger.

Winds seemed to calm a bit, I could see further out the side window, at least the field  to the north 20 yards away. We discussed the ears popping and how much the pressure needed to change for that to happen. We had Kestrel devices with us, so we could check that later. At this point we were furiously waiting for radar scans to come in and keep us updated. The winds began to increase again. They got stronger then when the storm began. Rain caused a complete whiteout and I could no longer see anything out of the window, front or sides.

heavy

Lighting was quick, bright, and frequent. The car began rocking like a boat. Sharp clatter prompted Bryan to call to duck our heads. Debris began a migration across the road in front and behind us, maybe even over us. Lots of twisted sheet metal tumbled by like pieces of paper. Then, it was done.

debris

A car drove through behind the wall of rain, like some sheep dog corralling a heard. Sheet metal continued to carry on a path across the road from south to north. Pieces lined a wire fence nearby. We waited for remaining lightning to stop while rear flank winds licked at our car. Once it was safe, we emerged and checked the car. No damage at all. The van that had been behind us checked on us and drove on, wiping his arm across his forehead with relief. Mammatus filled the sky as the system moved out. We could also make out a beaver tail of clouds flanking the storm.

We got very lucky. Once things calmed down, I called a report of a possible rain-wrapped tornado to the National Weather Service in Indianapolis (we were actually in Northern Indiana’s forecast area, but they forwarded the report). We found other evidence when investigating to the southwest. A few barns had been destroyed and a roof removed from a house. Photos can be found in this Flickr album.

20:09 13 NW LAFAYETTE POSSIBLE RAIN WRAPPED TORNADO. SHEET METAL CAUGHT IN A FENCE. NEAREST BUILDINGS ACROSS A FIELD A FEW ACRES AWAY.

With the Canon 6D, all of my photos were geotagged. This made it easy to document where we were relative to the damage we found, and to further report to the NWS.

Example of some photos geotagged to a map in Lightroom. Very handy to have for documentation!

Example of some photos geotagged to a map in Lightroom. Very handy to have for documentation!

The National Weather Service in Northern Indiana confirmed a EF-2 tornado with max wind speeds of 125mph near our location. You can read the full writeup including more maps and radar imagery on their event summary page, which included 15 tornadoes from EF-0 to EF-2 across their forecast area alone!

RATING: EF-2
MAXIMUM ESTIMATED WIND SPEED: 125 MPH
MAXIMUM ESTIMATED PATH WIDTH: APPROXIMATELY 1400 YARDS
PATH LENGTH: 9.52 MILES (LONGER IF YOU INCLUDE BENTON COUNTY
SECTION)
START TIME: ESTIMATED AROUND 246 PM EST
END TIME: ESTIMATED AROUND 255 PM EST
LOCATION: ENTERED WHITE COUNTY NEAR BENTON/WHITE/TIPPECANOE COUNTY
BORDER. LIFTED APPROXIMATELY 2 MILES WNW OF BROOKSTON.
DESCRIPTION: CONTINUED FROM BENTON COUNTY. VERY WIDE CIRCULATION
WITH EMBEDDED VORTICIES. 20 TO 25 BARNS DESTROYED WITH DEBRIS THROWN
UP TO 2 MILES AWAY. 10 TWO FOOT DIAMETER WOODEN ELECTRICITY POLES
SNAPPED AT THE BASE. SMALL HOME HAD ITS ROOF COMPLETELY REMOVED WITH
THE DEBRIS THROWN UP TO HALF A MILE NORTHEAST. SECTIONS OF THE ROOF
WERE STUCK IN THE GROUND LIKE PROJECTILES.

Again, we were super fortunate to drive away from this. There is so much to pour over and be thankful for. Witnessing the damage done by these storms is shocking, and I can’t imagine what places like Washington, Illinois looks like first hand. My thoughts go to those who have lost all.

Other sites with storm review:

EDIT:

Some track maps were released earlier Friday and the picture is a bit clearer where the exact path went, just across a field south of our position at the I-65 and 18 interchange.

October Lights

Some great looking Aurora for Michigan Tuesday night following a Coronal Mass Ejection from the Sun on Sunday. It finally made its way to Earth’s magnetic field! And boy was it a strong impact.

Full Tilt

Arrived to a spot just in time to catch the opening act!

I first learned about the ejection from Tamitha Skov on twitter. She posts plenty of great space weather updates, and also the science behind the sun and its Earth effects. Upon hearing that Lights in North America were possible via the NWS Space Weather Prediction Center’s Facebook Page, I thought I would at least probe the skies of Michigan later.

Around midnight things started to ramp up on the Kp Index, a rough indicator of aurora visibility. Its dark, and parking along side a rural road is a little dangerous due to unsuspecting travelers, so I decided to start small and bike across the street to an apartment complex that opened to a large field. I’m still south of some intense light pollution, so was not expecting much, but just wanted a hint.

Kp ranges. The higher the Kp number, the further south aurora may be visible. On this October night, we reached about 6.5/7 on the Kp scale.

My tripod was missing in action, so this complicated things greatly. Taking photos of the aurora requires the camera to be very steady while the picture, sometimes 8-20 seconds in length, is being taken. So I just relied on setting the camera on the ground and placing some items under the lens to prop it a bit. Turns out on my first shot I got what I was looking for. The hint. Circled is just a slight green band of aurora popping up between two patches of loud light pollution. So lets trouble shoot; northern lights = check, tripod work around = check, no light pollution = no check.

Just a taste of aurora!

Just a taste of aurora!

Having to get up at 7am the next morning was also a negative factor, if these lights took off, I could be up for awhile.

Dew was forming on my car windows, a quick roll down of the windows and a wiper swipe and things were clear. I traveled to McDonald Park along Pickard Rd. which is west of town, and north of any obstructive light pollution.

When I got out of the car, I saw the tell-tale signs of an ongoing Northern Lights performance. What you see with your eyes is different than what the camera picks up. Aurora could look different in high latitudes then what I saw last night, but if I could describe it, it looked like an elevated fog. You could tell it was there because the sky above looked similar to sky right along the horizon, but in between… was the Lights. I modified a photo from early on to represent what I could see myself.

Estimation of what was visible to eyes early on.

Estimation of what was visible to eyes early on.

The camera tells a more colorful and stunning story. By having the shutter open and the camera taking a picture for 20 or so seconds, any lights in the dark sky are more pronounced. So stars are plainly visible, as well as the aurora colors. This was a few minutes after the above photo:

Lights by Man and Nature

Getting a little creative with the show still on. Timed a car going by to add a different type of light.

The sky lit up with activity right as I settled down. I mean I could actually see some vertical elements moving across the horizon to my naked eye. I teared up a bit. This was amazing. You see countless photos of the Northern Lights online(guilty here), but seeing it in the flesh, is just spine tingling. Red is apparently more rare as it is Oxygen reacting with the disturbance, and this take a little longer to process, may explain the abundance of green, but little sprites of red.

Dugout Lights

Nearby baseball field provided some foreground interest. This dugout seemed to be nicely enveloped in some lights.

If you’re interested in Aurora spotting, there are a few resources to keep an eye on. Things may get confusing along the way, but stick to sources that blend public viewing and educational. You’ll learn a lot fast!

Be patient, and be ready to be disappointed. Computer models and predictions can point to an event, but the light strength just may not cooperate. At the same time, the opposite can happen, and you may get a treat! Happy hunting!

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