During a dramatic summer storm chase, I captured this scene as a formidable supercell loomed over Las Vegas, New Mexico, a small town nestled at the base of the Sangre De Christo Mountains.
Contrary to popular belief, New Mexico’s weather does flirt with the fringes of what’s known as Tornado Alley, averaging 7 to 12 tornadoes annually. This is comparable to the frequency observed in Wyoming. While the numbers fluctuate year by year, certain conditions can lead to the creation of severe weather events in the area.
Let’s delve into the science of this scene a bit. The image showcases the storm’s impressive updraft base, a region where warm air rises and condenses into clouds. Along with this, a shelf cloud is beginning to form, marking the front line of an intense rear-flank downdraft (RFD). This RFD is a powerful current of air rushing downward and outward from the back side of the storm. This region is capable of causing significant wind damage and could pack large hail.
The shelf cloud’s presence indicates a strong downdraft, which usually makes for dramatic weather, but in this case, it lessened the likelihood of a tornado. The RFD’s strength stabilized the lower atmosphere and cut off the surface inflow into the updraft, disrupting the precise balance of air movement needed to spawn a twister. It’s these subtle balances within a storm that determine whether a supercell will produce a tornado or not.
Capturing such moments is more than just being at the right place at the right time; it’s about observing and understanding the dance of atmospheric elements. Each storm tells its own story—a mesmerizing interplay of temperature, moisture, and wind, all set against the backdrop of our awe-inspiring landscapes.