Kerry Jones and I ventured out for a view of some monsoon storms this past Saturday. I was hoping to shoot some time lapse photography sequences of towering cumulus updrafts and convective initiation as it was expected to be an active day. A “cold” front had backed into central and western New Mexico Friday night, adding some boundary layer moisture while the mid levels of the atmosphere were turning more conducive to a traditional monsoonal flow from the south, allowing modified subtropical air to infiltrate the state. After a day of storm gazing, I was hoping to top it off with an evening of lightning photography.
We jetted west on I-40 before noon and saw some early and healthy updrafts going south of Grants. Before 2PM we had turned south on NM117 which borders the El Malpais National Monument (home to some long inactive volcanic fields and petrified lava flows). We witnessed 2 separate updrafts to our west over the El Malpais with both cells close enough together that it was difficult to distinguish them on radar. We watched the impressive bases of these updrafts cycle with great structure, color, and contrast (visually the storm had that beautiful bluish-green tint that you often see with high plains supercells).
Lightning from a severe thunderstorm over the El Malpais in western New Mexico with beautiful structure and a bluish-green tint.
An impressive hail core began to take shape with the southern most updraft as it became more dominant. We trekked southward a couple miles to get out of danger of the hail and witnessed a brief, but distinct wall cloud.
A wall cloud develops with a severe thunderstorm over western New Mexico.
It looked visually as though we were safe from hail at that point; the wall cloud and updraft was still seemingly due west of our location on NM117. However, a few more glances at radar data and we could see the hail core was building southward, but just hadn’t yet descended.
Reflectivity from ABX (Albuquerque) radar at 212PM MDT August 10, 2013
The storm was hardly moving despite a steering flow that would have suggested it move to the northeast at ~10mph; it is likely the updraft was somewhat temporarily anchored over some of the higher topography or perhaps it was rebuilding on the remnants of the front that had worked in the previous night. We shifted our position farther south to avoid hail, and I was very glad we did. Once the hail core began descending and the storm finally drifted northeastward it dropped quarter to golf ball sized hailstones which we gathered later after the storm had departed. So, we were thankful to have avoided the hail in my truck, but happy to verify the severe thunderstorm warning that the Albuquerque National Weather Service office had issued. Many of the surrounding mesas and bluffs were white with hail coverage, mimicking a winter storm scene.
A flash flood warning had also been issued, and as we pulled into the El Malpais Ranger Station, we quickly learned of flooding just a couple miles north on NM117. A low spot on the highway (that apparently floods from time to time) was under 3 to 4 feet of fast moving water. The fast flowing runoff was creating a standing wave of water right over the road that was built without a culvert, and consequently traffic was backed up due to the impassable roadway. So, we were also able to provide verification for the flash flood warning.
Having lost our northbound road option we turned southbound on NM117, met up with the Pietown Road, and cruised along U.S. Highway 60 past the Very Large Array (National Radio Astronomy Observatory) and then cut northward at Magdalena. We made it to Alamo fine, but the road quickly turns unpaved north of the Alamo Navajo Reservation. Recent heavy rainfall turned the road into a sloppy mess, and after ingesting a mouthful or two of mud, my Tacoma decided to “take 5″ in a muddy rut on the side of the road. As we were slowly rocking the truck back and forth, a friendly stranger offered the use of his towing strap and gave us an extra “pull” onto a more stable surface. We thought it best to turn back and call it a day, especially since storms had quickly begun dissipating into a light to moderate stratiform rainfall.
All in all, it was a blast, and an impressive storm that started the day. This year’s monsoon has not disappointed over much of New Mexico, and the landscape is turning green day by day.