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Eastern Thunderstorm Hits Sierra Nevada from Gulf of Mexico


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By Alex Wierbinski - Posted on 11 July 2013

Thunderstorms born far to the Southeast of the Sierra Crestline in the Gulf of Mexico are rare and beautiful weather phenomena. Well, they've been rare in our traditional weather patterns.
As the new pattern that is emerging is much more influenced by tropical heat, I expect Summertime tropical storms to become more common in the High Sierra. Nonetheless, I consider backpackers along the Sierra Crest trails between Tahoe and Whitney experiencing these rare storms as lucky.

On June 26 2013 the remnants of a small Pacific storm were clearing out of the Sierra, its final push of mild low pressure rotation scattering to the East. As these remnants dissipated, leaving clear skies behind, the scent of rain agan began blowing in, but this time from the Southeast.

I made a mental note about this, and sharpened my skywatch, but no visible clouds followed the scent of rain on the wind. I felt the humidity rise, but could not see it until late afternoon, when I finally reached the Sierra Crestline running across the top of the Emigrant Wilderness as I crossed Brown Bear Pass into the High Emigrant Basin.

Crossing Emigrant Meadow and passing Emigrant Meadow Lake I camped near the base of the great granite feature just Northwest of Grizzly Peak on the North side, more like the "Northern annex" of Grizzly Meadow. Literally.
Check out this topo map of the Emigrant Meadow, especially where it's labeled "Grizzly Meadow." The granite rock formation with a good campsite is located on the formation North of, and overlooking the little unnamed lake directly West of Grizzly Peak on the map, putting our campsite and its rock formation just to the West-Northwest of Grizzly Peak..

This is a great little ancient campsite, located away from and a bit above the beard of meadow trimming the lake (therefore a bit above the main body of mosquitoes), and at the base of a cool granite feature.
 We have a great view Southwest across the little un-named lake from our campsite. This place is just blooming with life during early Spring. A huge part of that life is mosquitoes. This requires protection.
 The rest of the life is baby birds, chipmunks, verdant plant growth, and quagmires of muck producing vast amounts of grubs, worms, beetles, ants and so on. It is an explosion of life... this requires perception.

The granite terrain all about us is also fantastic for scrambling about. I've started off for Pinecrest Lake from here, first following the drainage of this little lake down the Western flank. What a gas!

Map and Guide Information

Climbing to the top of the low granite feature we are camping at the base of, we can look South at the crestline peaks of the High Sierra dividing the Easten and Western Sierra Flanks.
To our South the Sierra Crestline marks out the triple divide distinguishing the Hoover Wilderness to our Southeast from the North Yosemite Backcountry to our Southwest. The closest of crestline peaks to us is Grizzley Peak to our immediate Southeast, which is pretty much towering over the terrain around our campsite.

To the West of Tower Peak is the North Yosemite Backcountry, to its East the Hoover Wilderness. Check out this image across this terrain of the High Emigrant Basin to Tower Peak.

 Grizzly Peak is the high peak in the second image below, as it was featured haloed by a tempest of tropical moisture during the Fall of 2013 on the trail guide cover.

Tower Peak domanites our view to the Southeast. Between us and Tower Peak we can distinguish a series of  intervening ridges running West, down-mountain to our Right, the Southwest actually, draining the West flank of the Sierra.
The link above brings us to an image that well defines that terrain, if you study it carefully.

Our view North terminates with a non-descript view of the hulking mass of  Big Sam. Though Big Sam is non-descript, the views from its summit are beyond words.
From positions climbing Big Sam and near its summit we can look down the narrow canyon holding the series of "Emigrant" Lakes (meadow, middle...) slashing down through majestic massive granite from Emigrant Basin's ampitheter of unique granite formations split by the interface of ancient volcanic flows.

You've got to see this frkn place to believe it. And, I'm just setting the stage with the unique terrains and life, as the sky was setting up to explode... yea...

Again, check the and map and guide pages to see images of the local views, their map representations, and my trail guide descriptions. Post up your T-Storm images here, and your trail comments from that guide page.

Our views East and West from this killer campsite are of great  sunrise and sunset vistas. This is a great place to camp for the sunrises and sets. But when tropical moisture blows up the East side, things really light up.

T-Storm Blowing into the Eastern Flank
Looking East-Southeast from the top of the granite formation I was finally able to see why the sky smelled like rain all afternoon: I was picking up the forerunners of a great tropical storm blowing all the way up and across the Southwestern US deserts from the Gulf of Mexico.
It might have even slipped to the East of the Lower Sierra after rising out of the Sea of Cortez, who's storms generally fire off out of a hot spot to the Southwest in the South Pacific.

I don't know. I was on the trail. It was tropical, and headed out of the Southwest, which indicated a tropical flow out of the Gulf of Mexico. But it could have easily been a tropical low spinning North out of the Sea of Cortez.
 Nonetheless, this sucker was tropical, it was huge, it's color indicated extensive travel across desert terrain, and it was very powerfull while still far East of the Sierra, long before its power would be amplified by the increase in elevation it was going to experience as it pushed itself up the Eastern Sierra Flank.

It was cooking down there at 5000 feet, and I knew it would fire up as it rose to 9000 feet. Totally cool, and a pleasure to watch unfold. Watch and learn time.

Now it was approaching my position overlooking the East flank of the Sierra Nevada. It was pretty cool, a fairly rare bird, a powerful T-storm out of the Southern Seas crossing the deserts to run up the East flank of the Sierra Nevada.

I love it when that happens.

Below: Looking off the Eastern Crest of the Sierra from Grizzly Meadow. Downpours, Rainbows, Lightening, and Thunder like the Drumbeats of Crazy Sky Gods throwing down quite a show.

Tropical storm approaches East flank of Sierra from Gulf of Mexico.

Note the beautiful reddish and yellow Earthy hues above. This is typical of great tropical thunderstorms blowing out of the Southeast. They assume these unique red and yellow colors (unique for the High Sierra) as they suck up desert sands and dust on their long journey North.

I could plainly see that great downpours and massive lightening bolts were gushing out of these hot, moisture rich tropical clouds, pouring heavy rains into truly remote areas of desert mountains and into the ultra dry ridges and gulches East of the Sierra as it passed over them. Flash floods.
 Dude, I was readily imagining that these scattered downpours into the distant Eastern Deserts were sparking local webs of flash flooding, recarving dry ravines and washes that few folks have ever seen dry, let along surging with something like this.
I knew I was watching the Queen of Flash Floods cross the terrain that her previous visits had carved bit by bit over thousands of years.
I figure we were seeing a rare pattern of a once every-forty-year flash flood in very selected ares of the deserts East of the Sierra. 

Well, once every forty before the pattern changed. Who knows now. Tropical weather is on the increase.

I could only imagine the rare swaths of flowering that followed these downpours across the narrow swaths of their desert paths. 

The rain in the far distant East was falling in a pattern of randomly changing irregular downpours, wetting the desert below in what was at best a checkerboard-like pattern, if the checkerboad was missing half its squares. I was thinking one gully was rushing with water, while the gully on the other side of the ridge was just a bit moist, if not bone dry.

These are strange times, weather-wise. Death Valley had a very rare set of flash floods a few years back as well.

This tropical storm was throwing huge bolts of lightening, the flash of each starting my internal "automatic timer," meaning I began counting each time I observed a lightening bolt.
This "timer" begins automatically when I cross very cold rivers, fall into very cold lakes, or see lightening. I begin ticking.
My first counts revealed that the main body of the storm, at the position in the image above, was 15 miles East-Southeast of our position on the Sierra Crest near Grizzly Peak. I still had time to observe before retreating off my high spot.

Call the speed of sound about 1000 feet a second (1126) in the field. A mile is 5280 feet. The sound of an observed event takes five seconds to reach us for each mile of distance it crosses to reach our position. We see it five seconds before we hear it at a mile's distance.

Start counting when you see it. When you hear it you will know its distance. Just do this automatically. With everything. We are sitting in a lag, an informative time delay, in the relationship between sight and sound.

Observe the lightening strike, and begin counting. Stop counting when the sound of thunder reaches your ears. The number of seconds divided by five gives you the distance in miles of the observed lightening strike.

The storm drew closer as the sun dropped towards the Western horizon behind me. It was 15 miles out, then 7 miles (this is when I retreated off the high point of my granite formation), and then 3 miles off, and finally the storm was upon me, after the Sun had already set. That's very amazing.

I was momentairly perplexed by this continuation of lightening and thunder after local sunset as I was watching the storm climb onto the Eastern Sierra flank with scattered downpours and lightening strikes, its resounding thunder seeming to shake the air, the ground, and my bones. Tower Peak , to our Southeast, was really getting it!

The question on my mind was, "how the heck is this storm still active, during and a bit after its energy source, the Sun, had set?" That threw me for a few seconds, until my careful observation provided the answer. 

Look and you will see.

The Sun had set and passed over the horizon from my grounded perspective, but not the high altitude perspective of this towering storm. I quickly understood that the towering height of the storm was still picking up energy from the Sun, from over the horizon, and feeding it throughout the storm. This was what was driving the lightening and thunder  forward thru twilight, when most storms break apart and go quiet.

This was a rare bird indeed. And beautiful.

Tropical storm shredding as it climbs onto the Eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
   Lower clouds redden as local sunset approaches. The wonderous beauty of Nature.

Awesome! This was a frkn storm that refused to die! I was jumping around in approval. Like the frk'n monkies on 2001, A Space Odyessy.
Note in the image below that the base of the clouds,  the lower clouds, had already reddened from their lower relationship with the setting Sol, while the towering white clouds rising above the lower end of the storm clouds were still absorbing energy directly from the Sun.
This seemed to keep things cracking even through the lower, darker clouds were at or below the planetary shadow of sunset. The upper clouds appeared to be driving electrical activity through the lower clouds.

The brilliant white-yellow bit of cloud in the middle of the image and its cloud level in the image below appeared to be powering the lower clouds and keeping them very active as local sunset came and went.

Lower levels of storm redden with sunset as tower of clouds above continues to thrive.

Below: high and low sunsets finally bring a close to the day's activities in the sky as well as my activities on the ground.

Final glow of retreating sun on tropical mositure over Emigrant Wilderness.

These events, this elongation of storm activity transpired quickly, shorter than the time between sunset and the first stages of twilight. I figure that the total length of the unusual extended period of lightening activity was between 12 and 15 minutes.

I attribute the electrical activity of the shaded clouds to the fact that the skies are one big electrical grid, and places with power (upper part of storm in Sun) can power locations (lower clouds) that lack direct sources of energy.

I also figure that the reason this period of extended lightening happened at all was that this tropical moisture was moving through the atmosphere as a "unit" of energy powerful enough to avoid being dispelled by local changes, such as the couple of sunsets it took to get here.
 It already had traveled days and hundreds of miles from its birth place over tropical waters. It was a self-contained unit that had survived many nights crossing the Southwestern US deserts. But it had not encountered anything like the Sierra.

On the other side of the T-storm specturm, the local thunderstorms more typical of the High Sierra, dispell as soon as their source, the Sun, sets. But these "typical" Summertime High Sierra Thunderstorms are local phenomenon, generated by high Summertime temperatures in the San Joaquin Valley powering massive evaporation driven up the Western Sierra flank by favorable winds.

This typically results in massive downpours, powerfull electrical storms, and resounding thunder. Though powerful and a significant danger to backpackers, these storms receed at sunset as rapidly as they arose during early afternoon.

This particular tropical thunderstorm was a consolidated tropical low which persisted through many sunsets as it crossed the desert. But it was not strong enough to survive its collision with the East Sierra flank. It continued a short bit further on its Northwestern path after sunset before it dispelled itself into a clear and cold evening. 

This delightful show was a fine way to end a very long day. What a treat.

This Summer trip started with two nights of moderate rain, the third evening of broken clouds, and the fourth saw a beautiful and powerful tropical storm break itself upon the Eastern flank of the Sierra.

What a cool trip.

Also See

Emirant Wilderness Backpacking Map

Trail Guide: Grizzly Peak

High Sierra Weather

Local Weather: Sonora Pass Region

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