Under the Cast: The Roan Mountain Range

The Solo Experience 

A few weeks ago I set out on my first solo overnight backpacking trip. Years ago a professor of mine suggested checking out the Roan Mountain range on the Tennessee/North Carolina border. He mentioned it contained the highest peak on the Appalachian Trail before reaching Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. Unfortunately I never made the journey during my time in Blacksburg, VA, but after seeing some photos of the range I was hooked.  Fast forward a few years and I finally had the chance to check out the range. I decided I wanted to journey out by myself for a few reasons. I’ve longed feared the idea of being alone in a tent in the middle of the woods. Fear of animals, fear of humans, fear of the unknown, I wanted to face it all and prove to myself that my fear is mostly anticipatory mind fantasy. Additionally, I wanted to practice mindfulness and connect with the trail in as present a way as possible.

Ridge Walking to Simplicity 

DSCN0635From Carver’s Gap parking lot, one can take the AT either north or south. I headed northbound in order to walk over the beautiful bald, grassy knobs that the range provides. My goal was to hit all of the peaks including Hump mountain which was about 9 miles away. Initially my plan was to summit Hump Mountain and then backtrack to Bradley Gap and camp in the woods off the trail. DSCN0654 I was weary about afternoon thunderstorms so I decided I would reach the AT shelters and decided whether or not to continue on for the day or camp there and push for Hump Mountain the next day.

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I ventured forward walking along the exposed ridge line, which at this point was almost entirely covered in clouds. The sun poked through every now and then providing me with some absolutely amazing views. I didn’t stop much as I knew I would be walking back through this region the next day with hopefully clearer skies.

I reached the AT shelter and assessed the sky. There was plenty of moisture up there and I could feel the daytime heating kicking in, but I used my weather instinct and concluded that the storms were going to hold off. I pushed on for Hump Mountain. DSCN0687Before reaching Hump Mountain, hikers are treated to Little Hump Mountain, a slightly smaller, yet just as spectacular grassy knob filled with 360 views and not a hint of humanity in sight. I was absolutely blown away by the shear beauty of this 5,000 foot grassy hill. The path up to it was like something out of the Lord of the Rings. So gentle, so lovely, just plain amazing.

At the top of Little Hump mountain I ran into a section hiker known as “The Gnome”, who really did look like a lawn gnome. The Gnome was a self-described naturalist with an incredibly kind spirit. We sat and talked for about a half hour discussing the weather, mushrooms, the cosmos, and many more natural wonders. The Gnome was just the beginning of a series of kind and genuine thru hikers and backpackers I met on this short journey. Even though I set out to experience this on my own, the trails intertwined my life with people who understood my yearning for adventure.  I met more genuine and interested strangers in those 48 hours than I have in the past year.

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The path up to Hump Mountain.

I parted ways with The Gnome and pushed for my final summit of the day up to Hump Mountain. Hump Mountain was the gem of the range. The push up to the top was very difficult, but the 360 views cured any physical suffering I was enduring. Let me tell you, Hump Mountain is the spot. Absolutely breathtaking views. I had the entire mountain to myself.

I ate some food, drank some water, and took a nap on a rock face. I was completely at ease, perfectly present, simplistic. Everything made sense.

Side view from the ascent up to Hump Mountain

Side view from the ascent up to Hump Mountain

I set up camp down in Bradley Gap at a pretty well-used site. I then decided to bushwhack my way up to an unnamed peak for the sunset. I was treated with one of the most scenic sunsets of my life. Again, just me and the mountains.

Sunset off of an unnamed peak.

Sunset off of an unnamed peak.

Fear of The Unknown 
I was so exhausted from 10 miles of hiking that I fell asleep immediately.  I had this sense of accomplishment that I had faced my fears. I’d soon be waking up, eating breakfast and headed back to my car. Nature had other plans…

About 3:30 am in the morning I was awoken to howling and barking from a nearby pack of coyotes. Initially, I rolled over and fell back asleep assuring myself that they were far away and probably wouldn’t bother me. 30 minutes later I was wide awake as the barking grew louder and closer. I couldn’t calm down my mind. Fear started infiltrating my body. With every howl anxiety flared up in my chest. I tossed and turned trying to tell myself that they were not going to bother me. I had properly bear bagged my food so why would they bother me?

All of a sudden the barking ceased. I heard some footsteps and my heart just sank. I could sense the presence of multiple animals circling my tent. I could hear them sniffing right by my head. At one moment the bottom of my rainfly was moving. I was terrified. I didn’t know if it was better to sit still or to make some noise. I sat there quietly as the sniffing and circling continued. I could tell they knew I was there. I reached down into my pocket and realized I had left a bag of trail mix and an empty snickers wrapper. This intensified my anxiety and fear as the bag of trail mix was giving off some potent peanut butter aromas. Interestingly, I started presently watching my mind state and I had an amazing moment of clarity. I thought about our primitive ancestors and how they had to fend off wild animals daily. I realized that humans have developed anxiety emotions for a reason. As someone who struggles with anxiety day in and day out I tend to label any amount of anxiety as something that is going to destroy me. That can’t be further from the truth. Anxiety is my friend, it is simply telling me to pay attention. All of this was flowing through my head as the coyotes continued to circle. I thought to myself, “Ya know what Nick, you always run from your anxiety. Here’s a perfect opportunity my friend”. I got up, clapped like hell, and listened as the coyotes scurried off no longer bound to bother me. Now granted I really wasn’t in too much danger, but being out by myself was enough to warrant an intense reaction. I’m glad the experience happened. I’m glad those coyotes came by. This may sound strange to some, but there was a part of me that found the experience to be somewhat fun. Really, it was my first memorable experience that I realized my impermanence, channeled my anxiety, and made a decisive move.  It was an incredible moment for me.

On Cloud 9 Again… 

Little Hump Mountain in the morning time.

Little Hump Mountain in the morning time.

Valley fog is a very common phenomenon for the southern Appalachians. If one arises early enough they can be treated to a river of clouds beneath their feet. I have been chasing an undercast view for some time. This was my lucky day. Because of my encounter with the coyote pack I was wide awake. I got up earlier than I had planned so I figured why lay around when I could possibly catch an undercast at Little Hump Mountain?

My gear was packed and the sun was rising. I headed southbound on the AT at a rejuvenated pace. As I ascended through the thick brush to the peak of Little Hump Mountain I started to see some low level clouds through the cracks in the trees. I picked up my pace a bit knowing that any valley fog would soon be gone. I didn’t want to miss my best chance at an undercast.

I finally summited Little Hump Mountain and began to weep from what laid below me. DSCN0766

I had finally caught my undercast and it was arguably one of the best sight my eyes have ever seen.

I looked to my left and saw the clouds basically engulfing the unnamed summit I had watched the sunset at the previous night. It was absolutely fascinating to observe.

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I backtracked the last 7 miles or so to my car at Carver’s Gap. The sky was completely clear the entire return trip. As I re-walked the Roan ridge line I was greeted with 360 views stretching as far as I could see. I ran into some incredible strangers on the way back, many of whom were thru-hikers. They all wanted to ask about my journey, my background, and my thoughts on what laid ahead. Trail magic.

Exhausted, I returned to my car and reflected upon the experience. Going out alone was one of the more exhilarating and scary experiences of my life. The fear of the unknown may be the most intense fear anyone can experience. Whether that is camping out all alone in the middle of the woods or simply stepping out of your comfort zone in everyday life. One thing is for certain however, there is nowhere to hide. Nowhere to run to. Exposing yourself to what you think will destroy you is when your true courage emerges. If I hadn’t went on this trip by myself I never would of seen some of the best views I’ve ever seen, I never would of caught my first undercast, and I would not have met all of the incredibly kind hikers I encountered. Hopefully I can continue to not succumb to fear as I continue this path through life.

I’d almost always rather share the journey with others, but sometimes we all need some introspective solitude. The Roan Mountain range provided some clarity I’ve been missing for some time. Thank you.

On a less preachy note, the Roan Mountain Range is sick. Highly recommended to everyone! It sort of reminded me of the southern Presidential Range in the White Mountains, except with grass.

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Caught exposed: The Chocorua Storm

Mt. Chocurua Sumit

A section of the long Mt. Chocorua summit scramble. Highly exposed for a decent length of trail.

One of the only atmospheric phenomenon that I truly fear is lightning. Once I learned about the lightning electrification process, and how I could become positively charged while under a thunderstorm, my entire perspective on lightning safety changed. If a storm contains lots of lightning, I no longer sit outside to observe. Or if I do, it’s never in an exposed location.

This summer I had my closest encounter with lightning while hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I was working for a children’s summer camp as a camp counselor and our day hike this day was up to Mount Chocorua. Mount Chocorua sits at 3,490 feet and features an incredibly exposed peak.

10603675_10154349685878125_500732027525308367_n As you reach the peak you are treated with a half mile or so of 360 degree views as you hand over hand rock scramble to the ultimate peak of the mountain. When hiking with a large group of young kids your pace is significantly slowed. Couple this with climbing physicality limitations and the kid’s general lack of perception of risk, and you’re setting yourself up for a potentially dangerous situation if storms roll through. The worst place you can be while hiking in a thunderstorm is on an exposed ridge.

Highly exposed rock scramble to the summit of Mt. Chocorua.

Highly exposed rock scramble to the summit of Mt. Chocorua.

That day was ripe for convection. It was extremely humid and you could see lots of mie scattering(milky appearance in the sky signifying lots of moisture available to storms). I checked the short range, high resolution models before setting out and saw some forecasted storm reflectivity signatures for the area by early to mid-afternoon. However, models tend to do a poor job predicting these “popcorn” storms since they are so small scale. Despite the small scale nature of these storms, they can still pose serious lightning threats. This was especially true on a day with high moisture content. For some reason our hike got a late start. I had initial concerns, but I thought we could still make it up and down before storms fired off. I did not voice my concern(something I regret a bit. Logistically, it’s difficult to cancel these hikes, and if I was wrong about storms I would of felt pretty bad if the hike didn’t happen). I vividly remember explaining to the hiking specialist Greg the three ingredients needed for storms on the drive to the trail head. 1. high moisture content: check, 2. instability: check, 3. source of lift: check. The day was primed for thunderstorms, but it was going to be a matter of timing if we were hit or not.

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When we made it to the exposed ridge I was finally able to get cell phone reception. It was still spotty, but I was able to pull up the radar. I saw three tiny cells to our NE and headed in our general direction. The track, however, seemed to be at least an hour out, and was trending away from us. I showed the radar to one of the hiking specialists and told them I think we can push on to the summit. Looking back on the situation, I should of advised against pushing on. For one, the radar scan was about 15 minutes old. Second, the tracks can be misleading. However, it’s very difficult to tell 40 kids who just hiked 3 miles to reach the ridge that we needed to stop. We decided to tell the kids that we would only be staying at the summit for a brief amount of time.

As we sat at the summit I continuously checked my phone for radar updates, but they were coming in rather un-reliable and at delayed speed. Eventually, the updated scan showed three small thunderstorm cells headed straight for us, but they looked to be at least 30 minutes out. I relayed this information to the hiking specialists and gave the kids a 5 minute warning to start putting on their packs.

On radar I saw an initial shower in front of the storms headed our way. We got sprayed briefly while the sun emerged behind the shower. This provided the most beautiful rainbow I have ever seen. What made it even more impressive was the fact that we were actually above the rainbow. I’ve never experienced an atmospheric phenomenon like that before. We also watched as it slowly dissipated from the right to the left. It was fascinating!  Unfortunately, however, this distracted all of us for 5 to 10 minutes, when we probably should have been climbing back down the mountain.

Most incredible rainbow I've ever seen. We were above it!

Most incredible rainbow I’ve ever seen. We were above it!

 

 

 

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Link to a video of the dissipating rainbow: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2S3qaQn2ldQ&feature=youtu.be

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Incoming storms!

I turned around and saw rain shafts and storm clouds barreling down on us. We began to hurry the kids to start back down the mountain. I looked to my left and I saw smoke streaming up nearby from what I presume was a lightning strike. Then all of a sudden I saw a bolt of lightning hit some trees off to the right. I realized at this point, not only did I need to get these kids off this exposed mountain top, but I needed to get myself off it as well!

Incoming storms!

Incoming storms!

 

 

 

 

The challenge here was we needed to be adamant about moving quickly, but we also had to stress safe methods for down hill rock scrambling. Also, we did not want to induce panic in any of the children. Quite honestly, I was blown away by our hiking specialist’s ability to command the proper retreat. Once the kids had retreated to a lower part of the rock scramble I took a few shots of the incoming storm with my phone. Looking back on this I was a little upset with myself. I consistently rant about how unsafe it is for people to place themselves in dangerous weather situations just to obtain the coolest video or photo. Here I was, taking a photo right before the storm nailed us, completely doing exactly what I’ve so many times discouraged.

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Despite my harsh internal critic, it was pretty fascinating to watch this storm fly in. It happened so quickly that it was almost like a time-lapse video. The anvil of the storm fluttered in like foamy waves rolling in along the coast.  Most of the kids were pretty far along the rock scramble when we started getting nailed with strong winds, horizontal rain drafts, and deafening thunder. However, one girl had hurt her ankle and was struggling. I watched in amazement as one of the specialists, Sam, displayed incredible courage and helped the girl down the scramble. His positivity, encouragement, and relaxed attitude was exactly what this little girl needed! Props to you Sam it was inspiring to watch!

We made it to below tree line as the storm let up. Nobody in the group suffered any type of injury. The only damage done was my camera was lost from the soaking rain. The entire experience was exhilarating, frightening, and fascinating. The specialists executed a perfect evacuation of 40 kids, off an extremely exposed mountain peak, and during a highly electrified lightning storm. My appreciation for what these specialists do went to an entire new level. I wish my radar analysis was a bit better, but I offered the best advice I could based on what I was seeing in the field. Next time, on a highly convective day like this, I would most definitely advise against such a late start.

Much respect and love for the crew who got us safely down the mountain! Here’s to you Sam, Eugene, Greg, and Kelsey. And a shout out to my fellow cabin counselors who also played a critical role in getting everyone off the mountain safely that day: Maggie, Griff, Rachel, Colleen, and Cody!

Although rare, a fatal lightning threat does exist in recreational hiking and backpacking. Please read and be knowledgeable about lightning safety if your headed out on a hot, humid, summer day!

-Nick

Coastal Hiking- Croatan National Forest

A cold front rolled through Greenville, NC last night causing a little December convection for the area. Ahead of the thunderstorms some beautiful Undulatus Asperatus clouds appeared! This type of cloud was recently discovered and it is characterized as wavy/spiraling shapes like pictured below:

Undulatus Asperatus in Greenville, NC.

Undulatus Asperatus in Greenville, NC.

In the wake of the passing cold front, eastern North Carolina was primed for a beautiful, sunny, dry day with highs reaching the lower 60’s.  I figured it was about time I  check out some NC trails. With a 7 hour drive back home to PA looming for me on Friday, I couldn’t justify rolling out west to hit the mountains. Instead I decided to track down towards the coast and hike in the Croatan National Forest.  Specifically, I decided to hike a section of the 21 mile long Neusiok Trail, which many consider eastern North Carolina’s premier hiking trail. This trail is also a part of North Carolina’s 938 miles Mountains to Sea Trail which stretches from Clingman’s Dome in the Smokey Mountains to Jockey’s Ridge in the Outer Banks, NC. Once I read it was a part of the Mountains to Sea Trail I was instantly hooked. I’m planning on thru hiking the Mountains to Sea Trail in the near future.

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My graduate school peers were a bit too busy with end of semester work so I decided to solo hike this one.

The coolest part about this section of trail is how it meanders back and forth from the beaches of the Nuese River to the inland forest of the park. The diverse landscape is truly breathtaking. This hike was quite easy which was actually an interesting switch up for me. I’m used to busting my butt to crush mileage and make it up steep sections of trail. One issue I have with that type of hiking is that it is so strenuous that a lot of times you become so focused on making it to the destination that you don’t even pay attention to the beauty around you. This hike allowed me to take my time and really appreciate the landscape change from beach, to thick forest, to inland marshes.

Beaches of the Nuese River.

Beaches of the Nuese River.

My lunch spot for the day. Beaches of the Neuse River.

Probably the most difficult part of this hike was the sand. Hiking on sand stinks. It just inhibits your motion so much. If I were doing serious beach hiking I would definitely wait until the tides switched before trekking along the ocean.

Inland section of the trail.

Inland section of the trail.

The trail’s blazes were quite interesting as well. They were pieces of metal nailed to trees. I have never seen blazes like this before. Because of this, I actually ended up making a wrong turn that took me to a fire road. Since I had never been here before I decided to walk the fire road. As I walked down this fire road I realized that I hadn’t seen a metal blaze in over a mile. I backtracked and found the correct path. I wasn’t mad however, as the path I mistakenly took led me through some beautiful section of trail.

Dope tree.

Dope tree.

After a great day I realized that coastal hiking can be just as great an experience as mountain hiking, and in fact can potentially provide you with a more diverse journey. I would highly recommend the Neusiok trail to anybody in the area. I only did about 3 miles of it, but these three miles were incredible. I am hoping to return in the spring and thru hike the entire 21 mile long trail.

I’ve decided It is time to start exploring this area as much as I can. I only have 1.5 years left here and I want to get out and experience all that the landscape has to offer. As my good friend Richard Lee says, “Life’s too short to not do awesome shit”. I couldn’t agree more.

Neusiok Trail

Neusiok Trail

 

Neuse River

Neuse River

Inland marsh.

Inland marsh.

My favorite spot of the day. I left the trail and headed towards the river only to find this secluded, beautiful spot.

After the hike, I decided to hit Atlantic Beach for a little bit. It was a beautiful December beach day and the waves were churning! I had originally planned on looking for surf this day, and Atlantic Beach would have been my destination.  Man do I wish I brought my board along with me. Hiking and than surfing. Now that would of been a kickass day. One of my mottos is, “Always make the journey.” I need to add in, “Always bring your board.”

Atlantic Beach, NC.

Atlantic Beach, NC.

 

 

 

 

Pre-Thanksgiving Snow, Central PA Styley

If you ask any meteorologist what type of weather phenomenon influenced their decision to pursue a career in the field, they usually answer one of snow storms, hurricanes, or thunderstorms and tornadoes. For myself, it was definitely winter snow storms. As a kid living in central Pennsylvania, I always hoped for the massive 1ft + snowfalls we saw once every five years or so. There were many disappointing seasons, but nonetheless I would stay up all night watching the weather channel, just hoping for that epic storm. My dreams came true during the 1996 and 2002 storms where our area saw closer to 2 feet of snow. I can remember waking up the next morning to snow drifts up to my roof. I was absolutely amazed. In my high school years we had a few storms that produced 8 inches or so but it wasn’t until I moved on to college that central PA got hit with big storms again. I was pissed. I did however get lucky last year when a low dumped 22 inches on top of Blacksburg, VA.

Interestingly, I am now partial to tornadoes, tropical systems, mesoscale, and climate controllers, with little interest in pursuing research related to winter storms. However, I never forget my roots. I still get giddy about the potentials for snow fall.

And thus I am psyched about the first serious potential snowfall on Wednesday. Although still some uncertainties on how far west the low tracks, where the rain/snow line sets up, and where the heaviest bands set up, I am going to make my predictions.

A high amplitude upper level trough is situated over the central US, diving as far south as the Gulf of Mexico, providing strong dynamics for a surface low to blow up off the southeastern coast. A potent shortwave from the Mississippi Valley will aid in the development. The low will track up the coast Wednesday spreading precipitation into PA starting around sunrise.

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Forecasted pressure and fronts for 7 am Wednesday. Low has developed off the coast. It will migrate northward throughout the day.

If you want snow, you want to be NW of the low pressure. This is the “cold” sector of the system. As winds whip counter-clockwise around the low, colder air is advected in from the NW. Central PA is perfectly situated in this sector.

The models have been in a little bit of disagreement as far as the track of the low pressure. The EURO model has been most robust on a more westward track of the low, and consequently has the most intense projected snowfall accumulations.  The NAM has recently shifted very far west and seems to be predicting a quicker transition to snowfall than the GFS model runs.

Regardless of technical model jargon and disagreement, the models are in enough agreement that we are guaranteed to see at least 1 inch of snowfall in central PA.

Here is the NAM model total snowfall depth forecast through Wednesday evening. This model run is based on a 10:1 snowfall ratio(10 inches snow for 1 inch rainfall). Because things may start off as rain/mix with a lag in the cold air advection, the chances of a 10:1 ratio are slim. This will be a heavy, wet snow, and we’ll more likely see ratios of 7:1 to 9:1. Furthermore, the models are in disagreement with how much moisture will be available. The NAM has been slightly more robust on PWAT values than other models.

12Z NAM 36 hour snowfall accumulation based on a 10:1 ratio

12Z NAM 36 hour snowfall accumulation based on a 10:1 ratio

Contrast the NAM model with the GFS snowfall output, also a 10:1 ratio.

12z GFS snowfall depth forecast through Wednesday evening using a 10:1 ratio.

12z GFS snowfall depth forecast through Wednesday evening using a 10:1 ratio.

The GFS is not as robust as the NAM, but still has us in a 4-6 inch range through Wednesday evening.

Some things to consider:

1. If the low tracks slightly off the coast, counties to the SE of the central PA will have better chance for more snow.
2. If the low hugs the coast a bit more, heavier bands could set up over central PA and we could see the higher amounts associated with the NAM model. Although, keep in mind, 10:1 ratio will most likely not be the case.
3. Will colder air than what is being depicted on models advect into the area earlier? If so, we could see a quicker transition to snow, thus upping the total amounts.
4. How much evaporational cooling and dynamic cooling will occur?
5. Will dry air aloft effect snowfall totals?
6. Temperatures were 70 degrees on Monday. Ground temps will be relatively warm, which would lend to wet roads at first, decreasing total depth amounts.

My prediction:

I am leaning towards the GFS with Central PA(Mechanicsburg, Harrisburg, Carlisle, etc.) experiencing 3-5 inches. I think early morning temperature profiles will lack cold air depth to support early morning snowfall, thus I’d expect a period of early morning rain/snow mix before transitioning to all snow in the late morning/early afternoon period. Furthermore, I don’t see 10:1 ratios holding steady, and I am leaning towards the lower QPF/PWAT values. I do however believe that some heavier bands will set up over our area early afternoon, dumping several inches of snow in a quick few hour burst.

You can live and die with the models. Hopefully the public will understand that winter forecasting is very difficult, especially when the models are not in agreement. This set up is relatively complex, and this leads to a difficult forecast. Hence why the NWS is going with 3-7 inches in our area.

The takeaway: If you have to travel tomorrow, do so as early as possible, or consider waiting until Thursday to travel. Any snow that falls tomorrow will quickly be gone on roadways as temperatures reach 40 on Thursday.

Be safe, and enjoy the first snowfall!

-Lou

Back to My Roots:Brewing Beer: The Double IPA

Don’t worry, relax, have a homebrew.

The Story:

A few years back I brewed a clone of Russian River Brewing Company’s infamous Pliny the Elder double IPA. This brew has a cult following, and many consider it one of the best beers in the world. It is very difficult to attain unless you happen to be north of Los Angeles, CA. After brewing a porter that turned out pretty bad and a lackluster brown ale, I decided I needed to stop messing around and go big. Since my last attempt at the Pliny the Elder clone turned out banging, I decided to try again. I actually find brewing mad hoppy beers to be the most fun brew days. Tossing in hops after hops after hops, lively’s up the room with beautiful aromas.

Hoppy brews are the best. The assortment of aromas wafting through the air just makes one giddy with excitement.

Hoppy brews are the best. The assortment of aromas wafting through the air just makes one giddy with excitement.

The Recipe

The original recipe was derived from an article in a brewing magazine that featured the brewmaster at Russian River. He devised this recipe for home brewers:

7 lb LDE
.60 lb dextrine
.60 lb Crystal 40 L
3.75 oz Columbus @ 90 min
.75 oz Columbus @ 45 minutes
1 oz Simcoe @ 30 min
1 oz Centennial @ 0 min
2.5 oz Simcoe @ 0 min

1 oz Columbus Dry-Hopped 14 days
1 oz Simcoe Dry Hopped 14 days
1 oz Centenial Dry hopped 14 days
.25 oz Columbus Dry hopped 5 days
.25 oz Simcoe Dry Hopped 5 days

American Ale Yeast

I found a new homebrew store hear in Greenville that has a decent selection of ingredients.  Although their hop selection was unique, they had only a few of the hops I needed for this recipe. I decided to completely revamp my recipe due to time constraints and hop availability. So, the Pliny the Elder clone will have to wait for another time. I was actually ok with this because it allowed me to use some hops I’ve never used before, and it became a more personal recipe.

The revamped recipe:

7 lb LDE
.60 lb dextrine
.60 lb Crystal 40 L

3.75 oz Galena @ 90 min
.25 oz Galena @ 45 minutes
.75 oz Centennial @45 minutes
1 oz Cascade @ 30 min
.25 oz Galena @30 min
1 oz Cascade @ 0 min
2.5 oz Centennial @ 0 min

3 oz Centennial Dry Hopped 14 days
1 oz whole leaf Citra Dry Hopped 14 days

Safale US-05 Yeast

The resulting brew would hopefully be 7-8 %, with nice citrus, fruity, and flowery notes. For double IPA’s you need to use enough malt to balance the bitterness imparted by the insane amount of hops. Thus, I’d recommend using at least 7 lbs of DME, or 12-14 pounds of 2-Row. The rest of the grain bill should be quite simple. You want a light bodied beer to allow the hops to come through. However, I like to use a little bit of crystal malt to diversify the bill a bit. Lastly I used dextrine to bump the gravity a bit.

I had never used Galena hops before, but they were listed as a good substitute for Columbus hops so I gave them a try. I figured the citrus characteristics from the Galena and Centennial hops would pair nicely with the grapefruit, fruity, characteristics of the Cascade hops. Additionally, I used Citra whole leaf hops for dry-hopping purposes in order to really intensify the Citrus and Tropical fruit aromas.

Dry-hopping: Racking the fermented brew on top of more hops in order to intensify hop aromas and flavors. Many consider a must if brewing an IPA.

Dry-hopping: Racking the fermented brew on top of more hops in order to intensify hop aromas and flavors. Many consider a must if brewing an IPA.

The Brew: 

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Old Man Double IPA

Old Man Double IPA

Old Man Double IPA


I named this beer the “Old Man Double IPA” . This stems from a theory I have that our father’s generation is obsessed with IPAs and only IPAs. Shout out to my Dad and Uncle! Love ya, but I’m still going to make fun of you for this. Here’s to you!

I’ve been incredibly impressed with the way this brew turned out thus far. The nose on this is exploding with fruity, orange, and citrus notes. The aroma is complimented with lovely flowery, flora, and subtle citrus flavors. My favorite part of the beer is how velvety smooth and fluffy the mouthfeel is.

My only complaint is I would like a thinner body. I most likely mashed at too high a temperature, aiding in the thicker body.

The moral of the story: When in doubt, make the brew your own. I could have ordered ingredients for the Pliny Clone and it probably would have turned out great, but it wouldn’t have felt completely my own. Instead, I was able to experiment with new hops and can now throw this recipe in the “must brew again” pile.

Scheming a chocolate mint stout for the early winter months.

Stay tuned and keep brewing!

I’m back baby!

It has been quite sometime since I’ve graced you all with my “wisdom”, but rest assured I am firing things back up baby!

Ive just begun graduate studies at East Carolina University in Greenville, NC. I absolutely love my program and have learned so much in the few months I’ve been here. The department is filled with smart, welcoming, and friendly professors and peers. I am currently working on a side project for a coastal storms course. We are looking at extra-tropical transitioning storms in the North Atlantic, trying to discern what constitutes a “good” mid-latitude trough(one that strengthens a transitioning tropical cyclone from baroclinic properties) from a “bad” mid-latitude trough(one that weakens a transitioning tropical cyclone from baroclinic properties).

Sunrise surfing in Frisco, OBX

Sunrise surfing in Frisco, OBX

Sunrise Surfing in Frisco, OBX

Sunrise Surfing in Frisco, OBX

I have yet to decide on a thesis idea, however I have been scheming, for quite some time, pursuing a topic related to forecasting sea breeze frontogensis by looking at differential heating along the coast. Is there a forecasting tool that could be used to signal how far inland a sea breeze front will push based on differential heating between the water and land? I am not sure, but I know that I wish to pursue a thesis idea that incorporates the beautiful land that is the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

Storm in the distance at Fort Macon in Atlantic Beach, NC

Storm in the distance at Fort Macon in Atlantic Beach, NC

Frisco National Park Campground, Buxton, NC

Frisco National Park Campground, Buxton, NC

Starting soon I will be bringing back my “Back to my roots:Brewing Beer series”. My beer production has dropped in recent months. Mostly due to spending the entire summer in the backcountry of New Hampshire and starting graduate school, but I am planning a special brew this weekend. I am going to take another stab at my Pliny the Elder clone. For  those of you who are unaware, Pliny the Elder is a double IPA brewed by Russian River Brewing Company in California. Over the years, many have dubbed this beer one of the best beers in the world. It has developed a cult following and it is a very difficult beer to obtain. I was visiting my aunt in San Diego a few years back and thought I would be able to score cases of this beer, however I would soon find out that you can’t find it south of LA. So not only is it nearly impossible to obtain this brew on the East Coast, but it is very difficult to obtain it in the state in which it is brewed. Crazy. Nonetheless, I have had the honor of trying this brew and it is by far one of, if not the best beer I’ve ever had. I lives up to the hype! Since I have no way of obtaining this beer, the next best thing is to brew a clone of it! I’ve brewed this recipe before and it turned out phenomenal. My only issue is that the hops seemed to fade rather quickly, something I wish to change for this attempt. I may try dry hopping in the keg as it poured.

Anyways, here is the recipe:

7 lb LDE
.60 lb dextrine
.60 lb Crystal 40 L
3.75 oz Columbus @ 90 min
.75 oz Columbus @ 45 minutes
1 oz Simcoe @ 30 min
1 oz Centennial @ 0 min
2.5 oz Simcoe @ 0 min

1 oz Columbus Dry-Hopped 14 days
1 oz Simcoe Dry Hopped 14 days
1 oz Centenial Dry hopped 14 days
.25 oz Columbus Dry hopped 5 days
.25 oz Simcoe Dry Hopped 5 days

American Ale Yeast

Oh yea, thats a HOPPY beer!

Look for updates on this brew and many more to come!

Robust Porter, brewed in 2013

Robust Porter, brewed in 2013

Also, I will be expanding my meteorological section and will start to write more articles on weather phenomenon, particularly personal experiences with weather.

Until next time,

Stay Irie my friends.

Back to My Roots: Brewing Beer: The Bourbon aged Chocolate Stout

This is my third post of my new “Back To My Roots: Brewing Beer” series. In these posts I will explain the styles of beer I plan on brewing at the Cool Luckett Brewery as well as provide information on brewing techniques. Hope you enjoy! Don’t worry, relax, have a homebrew!

The Story:

After several attempts to brew a ridiculously chocolatey stout in the past I knew I needed to step up my cocoa game. I had brewed a straight chocolate stout using 8 oz of Hershey’s cocoa powder before with pretty decent results. I then mixed things up and brewed the same recipe but aged it on top of 4 lbs of strawberries, coining it a strawberry chocolate stout. Both of these beers came out pleasant, however the chocolate flavors and aromas faded so quickly that I knew I needed to find a way to maintain the cocoa.

Over the years of brewing chocolate stouts I have always called them “Forsythia’s Chocolate stout” or “Forsythia’s strawberry chocolate stout”. Forsythia was my grandmothers favorite flower and every time we would see them come spring her face would light up with joy. I wanted to dedicate one of my beers to the most loving, happy, and kind person I’ve known.

The Recipe:

I decided it was time to try the cacao nibs method. In my experience the most lusciously thick, chocolatey commercial beers have been from the breweries that age their beer on cacao nibs.Cacao nibs are basically raw chocolate, pieces of cacao beans that have been roasted, hulled and prepped. They can be used to bring out the darker flavors in chocolate. I used a total of 8 oz of cacao nibs.

Cacao nibs and vanilla beans

Cacao nibs and vanilla beans

I also decided to use 2 vanilla beans to help compliment the dark chocolate flavors. These bad boys look tiny, but man are they potent. Overall I aged my fermented stout on top of the cacao nibs and vanilla beans for a total of 3 weeks.

Ode to my brewing days in Central PA

Ode to my brewing days in Central PA

I roasted up the base recipe a bit, and kept the cocoa powder addition. The final ABV on this beer came out to 8.3% making it one of the biggest beers I’ve ever brewed.

Recipe: Chocolate Stout
Brewer: Nick
Asst Brewer:
Style: Sweet Stout
TYPE: Partial Mash
Taste: (35.0) Use 6oz cocoa powder, last 5 min
Age on 8 oz cocoa nibs
Age on 2 vanilla beans

Recipe Specifications
————————–
Batch Size: 5.00 gal
Boil Size: 5.72 gal
Estimated OG: 1.072 SG
Estimated Color: 57.8 SRM
Estimated IBU: 35.5 IBU
Brewhouse Efficiency: 75.00 %
Boil Time: 60 Minutes

Ingredients:
————
Amount Item Type % or IBU
6.00 lb Light Dry Extract (8.0 SRM) Dry Extract 57.14 %
1.50 lb Chocolate Malt (350.0 SRM) Grain 14.29 %
1.50 lb Roasted Barley (300.0 SRM) Grain 14.29 %
0.50 lb Caramel/Crystal Malt – 20L (20.0 SRM) Grain 4.76 %
0.50 lb Oats, Flaked (1.0 SRM) Grain 4.76 %
0.50 lb Pale Malt (2 Row) US (2.0 SRM) Grain 4.76 %
1.00 oz Centennial [10.00 %] (60 min) Hops 30.6 IBU
1.00 oz Fuggles [4.50 %] (10 min) Hops 5.0 IBU

I decided to also experiment with aging the beer on oak chips that were soaked in Wild Turkey Bourbon. I have never been a fan of straight up bourbon, but for some reason I absolutely love bourbon-barrel aged stouts. I absolutely love the way the subtle bourbon notes complement the thick, roasty flavors.

I aged a 375 ml bottle of Wild Turkey bourbon on 4 oz of French Oak chips for a few weeks. I then added the bourbon soaked oak chips to the aging beer for a total of 10 days.

Tasting Notes:

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Appearance: Dark, opaque. Nice solid head to begin, but fades rather quickly.

Aroma: Dark chocolate and roast notes evident. Pronounced vanilla/oaky notes, but not overpowering. Subtle-very light bourbon notes.

Mouthfeel: Thick and smooth.

Taste: Dark, roast, thick chocolate(very pronounced, lingers through the taste). Oak is very present and probably could use a little less to be honest(probably need to limit time beer sits on the oak). Very, very subtle bourbon overtones. Next time I will up the bourbon to at least a fifth.

Overall: I will definitely be using cacao nibs for every chocolate beer I make from now on. This has been on tap for over a month now and the chocolatey, thick flavors have barely faded. It will be interesting to see how this tastes several months from now. I hope the chocolate maintains and the oak mellows out a bit. I really enjoyed experimenting with oak chips and bourbon and will definitely do so in the future.

Look for a post about a Belgian Dubbel I brewed in collaboration with Trevor Peyton from Rugged Trail Brewing. Co shortly!

Back To My Roots: Brewing Beer: The Brown Ale

This is my second post of my new “Back To My Roots” Brewing Beer” series. In these posts I will explain the styles of beer I plan on brewing at the Cool Luckett Brewery as well as provide information on brewing techniques. Hope you enjoy! Don’t worry, relax, have a homebrew!

The Story:

Until recently, I had always found the brown ale style to be quite boring. I always had the mindset that why would I drink a brown ale when I could drink a more “flavorful” and “robust” porter? I tried many brown ale’s over the years and I just never found them complex enough for me to purchase.

I decided I wanted to open up my mind. That’s the beauty of craft beer. There are so many different versions of the brown ale out there that I knew there would be one that would turn my mind around about the style. The beer was the Brooklyn Brown Ale. I finally understood the style and why people love these nutty, toasty, caramel, fruity beers! What an incredibly sessionable beer!

I decided it was about time I brewed one of these brown ales.

Some commercial Brown Ale’s to seek out: Brooklyn Brown, Foothills Low Down Brown, Bell’s Best Brown.

The Recipe:

There are two distinct types of brown ales. Southern English Brown Ale are generally darker, sweater, and lower in gravity. Northern English Brown Ale’s are usually drier, hopier, and higher in gravity. They also tend to have more of a “nutty” characteristic.

I decided I wanted to make a Northern English Brown Ale for the added hoppiness, higher alcohol content, and that nutty characteristic.

Crushed grain bill. You want to just crush the husks of the barley, not shred to powder.

Crushed grain bill. You want to just crush the husks of the barley, not shred to powder.

Amount Item Type % or IBU
4.00 lb Light Dry Extract (8.0 SRM) Dry Extract 45.71 %
1.00 lb Caramel/Crystal Malt – 20L (20.0 SRM) Grain 11.43 %
1.00 lb Pale Malt (2 Row) UK (3.0 SRM) Grain 11.43 %
0.50 lb Biscuit Malt (23.0 SRM) Grain 5.71 %
0.50 lb Caramel/Crystal Malt – 40L (40.0 SRM) Grain 5.71 %
0.50 lb Caramel/Crystal Malt – 80L (80.0 SRM) Grain 5.71 %
0.50 lb Oats, Flaked (1.0 SRM) Grain 5.71 %
0.50 lb Victory Malt (25.0 SRM) Grain 5.71 %
0.25 lb Chocolate Malt (350.0 SRM) Grain 2.86 %

1.50 oz Goldings, East Kent [5.00 %] (60 min) Hops 25.3 IBU
1.00 oz Fuggles [4.50 %] (15 min) Hops 7.5 IBU
0.50 oz Goldings, East Kent [5.00 %] (15 min) Hops 4.2 IBU

1 Pkgs British Ale (White Labs #WLP005) Yeast-Ale

As you can see this a malt dominated beer. I had a bunch of Crystal Malt left over from years ago so I decided to use 3 different levels of C-malt(really just deals with how dark a color is imparted), to enhance any caramel flavors. Then added some biscuit and Victory malt to impart some biscuity/toasty notes. Followed by some flaked oats to give it a creamy mouthfeel. Last I used some chocolate malt to impart that nutty flavor.

Est Original Gravity: 1.060 SG

Est Final Gravity: 1.017 SG

Estimated Alcohol by Vol: 5.58 %

Bitterness: 37.1 IBU Calories: 43 cal/pint

Est Color: 20.4 SRM

The Brew Day

The brew day went pretty well except for a few difficulties. Again I struggled to figure out how to control the temperature of the burner. I ended up mashing around 165 plus for the whole mash. I wanted to mash pretty high to have a heavy body, but was aiming for 158.

The Equipment

The Equipment

The Mash: Submerging the crushed barley into heated water to convert the starch in the grains to fermentable sugar.

The Mash: Submerging the crushed barley into heated water to convert the starch in the grains to fermentable sugar.

The Boil: Boiling Wort(Brewer's term for sugar water). Brewer's make wort, yeast makes beer.

The Boil: Boiling Wort(Brewer’s term for sugar water). Brewer’s make wort, yeast makes beer.

Other than struggling to hit the mash temp this was a fairly straight forward brew. Very excited to see how the grain bill turns out!

I will let this beer and my Rye Saison ferment for a month before kegging them the first week of school. I have high hopes for both of these beers!

Next Brew:

Things I have planned for the Fall:

Return of our Mellow Moods Pale Ale

Forsythia’s Chocolate Bourbon Stout: Aged on cocoa nibbs and bourbon soaked wood chips.

Kolsh

Oatmeal Porter

Back To My Roots: Brewing Beer: The Rye Saison

This is my first post of my new “Back To My Roots: Brewing Beer” series. In these posts I will explain the styles of beer I plan on brewing at the Cool Luckett Brewery as well as provide information on brewing techniques. Hope you enjoy! Don’t worry, relax, have a homebrew!

The Story..

It has been several months since I last brewed a beer. I sometimes get to the point where I am brewing so much that it starts to almost become a burden to me. When this happens I take a step back and take a few months off knowing that the itch will return rather quickly.

The past few weeks I had been craving a brew day. I was missing that beautiful smell of crushed barley, the pungent aromas of hops, and the sounds of boiling wort.

The question was, what should I brew? I thought about it for a while and decided I wanted to try brewing a beer using rye malt. Rye malt imparts an interesting grainy, slightly spicy characteristic to the beer. One style of beer that many microbreweries create is called a Saison(fruity, spicy, semi-dry, belgian style beer), and naturally they have produced saison recipes including the use of rye malt. I had made a saison before, but wasn’t too pleased with it so I decided to give it another shot since it has recently become a very sought-after beer of mine.

Some commercial Saisons to seek out: Ommegang Hennepin, Brooklyn Brewery Sorachi Ace, Saison Rue by the Bruery

The Recipe:

Amount Item Type % or IBU
4.00 lb Extra Light Dry Extract (3.0 SRM) Dry Extract 44.44 %
2.50 lb Rye Malt (4.7 SRM) Grain 27.78 %
2.00 lb Pilsner (2 Row) Bel (2.0 SRM) Grain 22.22 %
0.50 lb Oats, Flaked (1.0 SRM) Grain 5.56 %
1.50 oz Pearle [8.00 %] (60 min) Hops 40.6 IBU
1.00 oz Pearle [8.00 %] (15 min) Hops 13.4 IBU
1 Pkgs Belgian Ale (White Labs #WLP550) Yeast-Ale

So as you can see it really is a quite simple recipe. I decided to keep the grain bill pretty simple mainly to let the rye malt shine through as well as to keep the color as light as possible. I am still brewing partial mash beers, hence the continuation of extract use. Decided to use Pearle hops to hopefully increases that spiciness characteristic of a saison. I chose to just use WLP550 yeast mainly because it was the only Belgian Ale yeast my local homebrew store carried, but also because I really don’t think I need a specific saison yeast to get the same characteristics I’m hoping for.

The estimated gravities, alcohol by volume, IBU(International Bitterness Units), color, are all listed below. Note:These are just estimated calculations by the program BeerSmith, they are not the actual statistics. I need to stop being lazy and start measuring gravity….

Est Original Gravity: 1.059 SG

Est Final Gravity: 1.014 SG

Estimated Alcohol by Vol: 5.90 %

Bitterness: 54.0 IBU Calories: 43 cal/pint

Est Color: 4.9 SRM

The Brew Day:

The brew day went relatively well. I was using a burner for the first time in a while and ended up mashing a little too high(I wanted to mash around 150 degrees for a lighter body, ended up mashing around 160-165…). The only other flaw to the brew day was my roomates gas tank ran out with 10 minutes left in the boil. I just decided to cool it down. Only thing that may happen is the bitterness may be less, but that is fine.

I have really high hopes for this beer and I hope it turns out great. Letting it ferment for 4 weeks and then kegging it as soon as I return to school at the end of August! Come on by the brewery and try some!

Next Brew:

I am brewing my first nut brown ale on Tuesday. Very, very excited to make this beer! I will post pictures of the brew in my next post!

Until then,

Enjoy some beautiful music from reggae legend Don Carlos!

The Watchers of the Sky

The Watchers of the Sky:
Realities of Tornado Chasing

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A back-sheared anvil of a developing supercell thunderstorm just outside of Wichita, KS. Photo credit: Trevor White.

During this past May (2013), I was blessed with the incredible opportunity to fulfill a dream of chasing tornadic storms in the Great Plains. As a meteorology student at Virginia Tech, I had been waiting several years to embark on this journey. The meteorology program at Virginia Tech offers a 3 credit Great Plains field course geared towards enhancing the student’s real time forecasting and navigation skills in unfamiliar environments. Over 5 days of chasing, we attempted to, and successfully intercepted several supercell thunderstorms. These storms included rotating updrafts and wall clouds, aqua green colorations, incredible shelf clouds and associated gust fronts, intense lightning strikes, and hail cores dropping hail the size of grapefruits. Storms such as these are un-explainable. You truly have to experience them with your own eyes to grasp their shear intensity and the fear they create. I firmly guarantee that if you do ever witness one of these green monsters, you’ll be humbled by the complexity of the atmosphere and its power.

I think the perception of chasing tornadoes has been over-skewed by reality TV shows. Most people don’t understand how difficult it truly is to witness a tornado. We perfectly positioned ourselves on several rotating supercells and did not once see a tornado stretch to the ground. The genesis of a Tornado is the last frontier of meteorology. Tornadoes simply occur too infrequently for needed research to be conducted. But, I can tell you this, while the forecast technology we have in place right now is nothing short of incredible, bright minds will need to continue to evolve the gear that is used with a goal of understanding everything about these destructive forces of nature. In the end, the main objective is to increase warning time. Through this article, I hope to give the reader an insider’s look at the realities of chasing storms.

Getting there…

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Sun setting over the Mississippi River. We drove from Blacksburg, VA to slightly west of Arkansas City, Arkansas to set up a Day 2 intercept in Texas. The next day, we drove 7 hours through Oklahoma down to Texas and intercepted a supercell near Decatur, Texas. Photo credit: Trevor White.

To be completely honest, if you are not passionate about storms, this trip is not for you. It is the definition of a “road trip”. Ninety-five percent of chasing is driving, with a goal to either position yourself for intercepts either that day or for the following day. Over a 9 day period, our team traveled over 5,000 miles, traveling through 11 states while spending over 90 hours inside of a van. If you don’t like storms, don’t belong on this trip. Granted, we did travel from Blacksburg, Virginia to get there, but even local Great Plains chasers have to sometimes travel through several states just to position themselves for potential storms on the following day. Even on a chase day you may be traveling 4 plus hours to try and catch storms firing off in another state. While chasing a particular storm, you could be following it for over 6 hours until the sun goes down. One also has to take in account the amount of travel time required to dodge incoming hail cores.

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We traveled through western Kansas towards North Platts, Nebraska. The group anticipated storm initiation in South Dakota and Kansas the following day. Kansas ended up winning out, but we had to hedge our bets. This shows how sometimes you have to travel a very long distance to position yourself for future days. It also illustrates the uncertainty of where you will end up, which may not be clear until the day of the chase. Photo credit: Trevor White.

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Maneuvering around hail cores in Lawton, Oklahoma. Photo credit: Trevor White.

The Chase Day
For those adrenalin rush junkies out there, a moderate risk chase day is where it is at. Those 4 plus hour drives to position yourself for storm intercept go by in an instant. In order to decipher the best position for storm intercept, forecasters are looking at updated model output, reading local weather office’s Hazardous Weather Outlooks (HWO) and Area Forecast Discussions (AFD), while choosing navigation routes. When you are in chase mode, it feels like a time warp. You start losing any recollection of the time of day, the day it is, the county you are in, and the name of the last town through which you passed. You start thinking about days of the week in terms of severe weather outlooks (Day 1 outlook, Day 2 outlook, Day 3 outlook, etc.) It truly is a wild feeling.

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Virginia Tech instructor Dave Carroll teaches students about base reflectivity radar scans as they wait for storm initiation. Photo credit: Trevor White.

The storm chase team uses a plethora of forecasting tools when discerning target areas. As a storm chaser, observation of three key atmospheric ingredients is needed for severe thunderstorms: instability or Convective Available Potential Energy (CAPE), moisture (high dew points), and a source of lift (fronts, dry lines, vorticity waves). After pinpointing an area with these three ingredients, an even smaller scale for tornadic ingredients is then studied. For long-lived supercells capable of producing a tornado, one of the key ingredients needed is wind shear. We look for areas with strong upper and lower level wind shear and observe the curvature with height in the wind field, which is crucial for rotating storms. We also look for areas of high, low level moisture and low level cloud bases using tools such as Theta E and Liquid Condensation Levels. The lower the cloud base and the more moisture abundant near the surface, the more likely a funnel cloud will stretch to the surface.

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Example of model output used while discerning greatest areas at risk for tornadic storms. This is a spatial plot of Convective Available Potential Energy (CAPE) in the atmosphere. Areas of high CAPE values have more fuel in place for explosive storm initiation. Photo credit: Nick Luchetti.

Once an area with the highest tornado potential is targeted, the drive begins. When picking a final destination, another strong consideration is the terrain. Some areas are not suited well for chasing tornadoes. For instance, we try to stay away from areas that lack convenient road networks allowing ease of entrance and exit. We also avoid areas with over-abundant tree cover. Additionally, metropolitan cities are avoided for several reasons. First, it can be extremely dangerous trying to outrun storms in highly congested areas. Second, our chase team adds three more vehicles getting in the way of people trying to flee the storm. This non-city rule for chasing is not followed by a lot of chase teams, but is strict rule observed by the Hokie Storm Chasers.

Once positioned to where it is believed storm initiation will occur, we patiently wait. Visible Satellite Imagery is then used to detect cumulus clouds bubbling up. Normally these clouds can be seen with the naked eye in the field; Visible Satellite provides further verification. Once cumulus clouds start to initiate, the chase team waits for cells to show up on base reflectivity radar. As a cell appears on radar, all output from forecast models is dismissed. The only thing in focus at this point is positioning ourselves around the most discrete cell.
The chase is on….

Visible

Example of Visible Satellite imagery. In this image, a massive plume in Oklahoma appears. This represents the May 31, 2013 Oklahoma City supercell which produced an EF-4 tornado. To the south of the main plume, a smaller cell is developing. To the southwest of the main plume, a cumulus cloud field is developing. Photo credit: National Weather Service/Storm Prediction Center.

The Intercept

Positioning within the correct spot to view a tornado is way more difficult than one may think. The part of a supercell in which a storm chase team attempts to position is called the “inflow notch.” This is the area of a rotating storm where the mesocyclone is located. It is called the inflow notch because air gets sucked directly into this area of the storm as it cycles. On radar, this area can be clearly seen when a “hook” begins to develop. The mesocyclone whirls precipitation around the back side of the rotation, which can be clearly seen on radar. To see a tornado, the team needs to be in perfect position with the inflow notch in view. The precipitation gradient is steep here, hence visibility is very high. Most storms move northeast, thus we try to position ourselves to the east and north of the storm. Based on storm motion and speed, we then decide if our current position is sufficient to get a glimpse of the inflow notch. If there is a need to move further east, west, north, or south, the team finds those routes and re-positions. Visibility of the inflow notch is key to seeing a tornado.

But as we found out, positioning yourself at the inflow notch does not mean you’ll witness a tornado.

Hays

This was a tornado warned cell that the Hokie Storm Chase Team was chasing near Hays, Kansas. Our GPS positioning is shown with the white circle and dot near the middle top of the screen. We were monitoring storm motion and speed to position ourselves on the inflow notch. As you can see, the precipitation begins to “hook” at the bottom of the cell, indicating the location of the mesocyclone or rotating part of the cell. Photo credit: Nick Luchetti.

The Mesocylone

Once our team intercepted the rotating part of the storm, we waited to see if it would drop down as a tornado or not. As mentioned earlier, these storms cycle several times. They essentially inhale and exhale. You can feel the wind whipping at your back as it is sucked directly into the miniature area of low pressure. As it cycles, eventually what is known as the rear flank downdraft whips around the backside of the mesocyclone. You can clearly feel the rear flank downdraft as the winds change direction. The feeling comes from either being hit with noticeably warmer air or noticeably cooler air. Warm rear flank downdrafts are believed to be more conducive to tornado genesis. The supercell will make this inflow/rear flank downdraft cycle several times throughout its life. Through this cycle, the cell may stretch into a tornado all the way to the surface possibly once or twice. This unpredictable nature of downdraft cycles is what makes researching tornadoes so difficult. Simultaneously, storm chases have to keep up with the storm which can become difficult if travelling on limited access road networks. Thus, in order to conduct field research on tornadoes, luck comes into play in viewing a downdraft cycle that drops into a tornado. Beyond the need for luck, not all mesocyclones are visible as some supercells can be completely rain wrapped (high precipitation supercells), contributing to research difficulties and creating incredibly dangerous situations.

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Supercell intercept near Hays, Kansas. The rain-free base and rotating updraft of the storm can be clearly seen. The wall cloud is seen lowering extremely close to the ground. Dirt and debris are being whipped up at the surface. At the time of intercept, our team theorized that this may caused by the rear flank downdraft winds. However, another theory is that dirt and debris could have been flying up from a tornado on the ground. We aren’t entirely sure. Photo credit: Trevor White

The rotating mesocylone is visible in the part of the storm known as the rain-free base. Here, a lowering/rotating cloud base, known as a wall cloud, can form. If a tornado is going to drop it will be from this lowered cloud base.

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Wall cloud nears the road. The rear flank downdraft is wrapping around the backside of the cell (white notch on the left side of the photo). Photo credit: Trevor White.

Destructive, yet beautiful….

As I alluded to in the opening, pictures do not do justice to these supercells. If I had to explain experiencing these supercells, it would sound a little like this:

Supercell intercept near Hays, Kansas (photo above)….
A massive, aqua green, destructive monster covers the entire sky. It legitimately looks like either the world is ending or an alien invasion is occurring. I look towards the rain free base. The glowing Kansas horizon shines through as the beautiful wall cloud lowers over a road leading to nowhere. A gentle rain shaft forms to the left of the storm. Chills begin to run down my spine as I stand their watching in awe. To my right a scary, destructive machine wreaks havoc over those underneath it, but directly head of me I see the most beautiful, clear sight these eyes have ever seen. It is hard to explain, but it was the most “clean” scene I’ve ever witnessed. An image I’ll never forget.
The feelings associated with the storm are incredible as well. I feel the rush of air at my back, while thunder shakes down my soul. The craziest lightning flashes one can image enter my peripherals. All of a sudden the wind ceases as the storm waits to exhale. All I hear is silence, followed by the quiet chirping of birds. I was immersed in the most beautiful experience of my life. I am quickly sobered by the tornado sirens screaming in the distance, as the storm progresses over their town.

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An aqua green coloration supercell. Photo credit: Trevor White.

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Mean looking wall cloud outside of Wichita, Kansas. Photo credit: Trevor White.

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Chasing a wall cloud near Decatur, Texas. Photo credit: Trevor White

Chasing Safely and Mixed Emotions….

The ethics of storm chasing has been a popular topic in the news with the recent deaths of scientists Tim Samaras, Paul Samaras, and Carl Young. Unfortunately, the anti-chasing commentary has come out. I want to make clear that there is such a thing as safe chasing. It’s the people who attempt to shoot the best videos and photos that give chasing a bad name. These are the same people who “hail core punch” (i.e., intentionally driving through hail cores in order to position yourself in the inflow notch quicker), who drive double the speed limit in residential areas to outrun a storm, and who chase in crowded cities. Unfortunately, these types of chasers exist, however not every chaser in the field chases so chaotically. In fact, Tim Samaras was one of the safest chasers out there. He was a pioneer in tornado and lightning research, and an incredible loss to the meteorology field. His death shows that even the safest chasers can’t necessarily discern how the atmosphere will unfold. Placing yourself in this extreme environment is always a risk. As our instructor Dave Carroll says at the beginning of each storm chase, “It’s a two-way trip”. We chase in the safest way possible. We always have an escape route, we never hail core punch, and we use HAM radios to communicate between vans. It is a team effort and every member has to be on their A-game. We do everything possible to chase in the safest way, but no matter, there it is always risk.

As a chaser, I sometimes feel torn. In one way, I feel there is nothing wrong with attempting to chase and admire these beautiful structures. On the other hand, it’s hard to take joy in watching these incredible structures when you know people are suffering a short distance away. This was the case when our team was chasing a supercell south of Moore, Oklahoma. Ultimately, the cell to our north and resulting tornado destroyed the town. Two hours earlier, we had traveled through Moore and even talked to a local on HAM radio who shared his survival story of the EF-5 tornado that struck the town in 1999. Shortly after beginning our chase south of Moore, we started hearing the reports of the town being struck. It was at this point, that I completely sobered up. Up to this point, I was amped up over these supercell storms. My feelings changed on that day.

I started feeling that our presence was scaring people. We rolled up to a gas station and people came flying up to us asking for help. I have never seen that much fear in someone’s eyes. One woman was on the phone with her husband in a town which was about to be hit by a mesocyclone. I could only show her the radar on my phone and tell her husband to take cover. Then people were coming up to me asking me, “What about this town? And this road? My house is on this street.” I felt guilty, I have this incredible wealth of weather knowledge and related technology, but I just didn’t know the geography of these areas well enough to help. I did my best to show them the motion of the storm, and that’s really all I could do.
As we dodged hail cores, we would drive by people just hanging out in their front yards. I wanted to scream to them about what is coming their way, but it is impossible to warn everybody. Again, I feel guilty. I have technology and knowledge that 99% of the population just doesn’t have. It makes me wonder if maybe we should make sure every resident has radar capability. But, is it really that simple? If they have radar, are they really going to monitor it like we do? The biggest problem is the human response. How can we get people to react quicker to warnings? How can we get people to pay attention to the weather more? The problem is more than just a lack of warning time.

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Instructor Dave Carroll and students look at model output to discern their next move. Photo credit: Trevor White

Watchers of the sky…

While we are out in the field, we try to remember that when destruction occurs that, it would of happened whether we were there or not. The Hokie Storm Chasers aren’t out chasing storms for personal gain. Yes, we want to see these incredible storms, but let’s be honest, we are ridiculous weather geeks. But we are out there to become educated on these forces of nature and to discover more about tornado genesis. We hope to spark the minds of young meteorologists to continue studying weather phenomenon and hopefully help develop better forecasting tools to give more advanced warning for these destructive beasts.
Every single one of our students is Skywarn Spotter certified. We have all taken classes on spotting storms and have the knowledge to properly describe what we are seeing to the National Weather Service. We do this while out in the Great Plains and while at home in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Whenever I was experiencing these torn feelings, I just reminded myself that I am a trained spotter. Authorities respect you, the public respects you, and the National Weather Service needs you.
Technological advancements will always try and take away the need for chasers in the field. But, the need for skywarn spotters will never cease because of the unpredictable nature of the storms. We are trained storm structure spotters needed to verify tornado genesis and aide in warning the public.
We are the eyes on the storm, the watchers of the sky.

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A mammatus field covers the sky as the sun sets near Hays, Kansas. Photo credit: Trevor White.

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Observing the anvil of a supercell in Kansas. Credit: Trevor White

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The whale’s mouth. The underside of a shelf cloud which rolled over top of us. You can see the hail core beyond the farm. Credit: Trevor White

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Lowering wall cloud in Oklohoma. You can see “scud” being sucked into the intensifying rotation. Credit: Trevor White

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Myself measuring wind gusts on a farm in Kansas. Credit: Trevor White

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Incredible mammatas field in Kansas. Credit: Trevor White

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Instructor Dave Carroll teaches students about the structures they are witnessing in Hays, Kansas. Credit: Trevor White

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Another image of the rear flank downdraft on this supercell. Credit: Trevor White

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Close up shot of the ridiculously low hanging wall cloud on the supercell near Hays, Kansas. Our instructor Dave Carroll who has intercepted 100 plus tornadoes in his life said that if a tornado had dropped at this location it would have been “the intercept of a lifetime”. Credit: Trevor White

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Another shot of the mammatas field and accompanying rainbow. Credit: Trevor White

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Outrunning a shelf cloud in southeast Texas. This chase day started south of the Red River, and ended up 40 miles north of Houston, Texas. Credit: Trevor White

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Same storm as above, with an even more defined shelf cloud shot. Credit: Trevor White

Nick Luchetti