Spectacular Rain Free Updraught Base On Co. Armagh Thunderstorm - July 12th 2021

When I woke up on the morning of July 12th I had no idea that I would be encountering my best updraught base structure since I began shooting storms in 2002 with my first digital camera. The synoptic situation was quite straight forward with GFS showing the highest instability of the year with models showing 800-1000 j/kg of CAPE across southern N. Ireland and border areas through the afternoon and into the evening. This was a high pressure set-up with no wind shear at all so any showers and storms would be of the pulse variety. From my morning check of the models I deduced that the best chase targets would be Fermanagh, Enniskillen, Armagh, Down and border regions with convection likely firing over Tyrone then moving south into these areas during prime solar heating. Convective maps showed convergence inland with a slack Nly flow so the chances of funnel clouds were also good, I figured strong solar heating combined with high ground and convergence would be the focal point for storm formation, but I fully expected to see high based cells and to be honest I wasn't expecting much given the lack of shear but given how quiet this Summer has been I wanted to get anything I could as this has been no year for convective snobbery. My instincts went with Co. Armagh so this became my target area.

I did a last minute online check for any further information, the Met Office had actually mentioned thunderstorms in their forecast which amazed me and they even said these where more likely over the hills of Armagh and Down. Convective Weather had issued a slight risk over the exact same areas I had mentioned. Then if that wasn't a good enough sign TORRO issued a Convective Discussion for the same areas for a risk of thunderstorms, funnel clouds and weak tornadoes. Overall the general forecast was for a warm sunny humid day which would be dry for most with just a slight chance of a few showers and an isolated storm. It was holiday time and Roisin was off work, we wanted to go out for the day so I suggested Armagh, we could explore the city and go for walks then hang about for any convection while we where there, it sounded like a good plan. We knew the roads could be busy with band parades but we would just have to wait these out or find alternate routes if we encountered any. Roisin prepared snacks and drinks and I got the camera gear loaded then at 11am we hit the road.

The police had already closed off the north side of Cookstown as a band was approaching, we took a back route and avoided the closed road and escaped from Cookstown onto the Dungannon road and made our way south, we also had out Dog Rhua along for the adventure. We made it to Armagh, stopped off before the way in for a Coffee and Hot Chocolate (I can't take caffeine) then drove into Armagh itself. We had a great walk through the park at Armagh Planetarium then made our way over to the Observatory. We lay down a blanket on the grass and enjoyed a relaxing picnic in front of the old observatory with telescope domes to our right side, it seemed a fitting place to have an astro themed lunch. At this stage the cloud cover had lifted and blue skies were taking over, it was getting very warm and stifling, we could feel the humidity big time, I could feel the moisture on my forearms almost like sun lotion, the atmosphere was that moist and thick, I said to Roisin we were going to get a storm somewhere today. Towering Cumulus began boiling up all around us and it looked very encouraging but after an hour or so they seemed to be struggling, it looked like a strong cap was in place.

In the meantime we visted the grave of Thomas Romney Robinson the earlier director of the observatory, then did another long walk into the city centre and explored the buildings and grounds then had another coffee/hot chocolate break outside a new cafe we had never seen before. It was now late afternoon and it was hot and humid, almost too humid to walk any further, we were all feeling it. Roisin commented that the sky didn't look up to much and I had to agree with her, the convection was dying and flat, perhaps the cap had killed the potential today. At the same time my instincts were saying that things could be happening beyond visual range so we needed to get on the move again, after all, the buildings here could be hiding something interesting. We drove out of Armagh and headed south in the direction of Keady, I stopped briefly to show Roisin the famous arched via duct then we kept driving, at this stage we where on roads we had never seen before, we were just driving around exploring. We ran into another band parade and amazingly managed to get through before the road closed, we turned tail and began heading north again, but this time on a different road. We pulled over for a radar check, amazingly there was a cell with red core to the south of Omagh and more developing either side, if they kept developing they would pass to our west so we need to re-position.

We began driving NW to get into the range of that cell, now we were in chase mode and driving faster and with intent, all the windows were down, it was so hot inside the van, we were driving through gorgeous countryside we had never seen before, beautiful fields and farmland and trees, truly gorgeous landscapes for chasing through, it felt great to be out in the open under vast skies again. I made a visual on the southern Omagh cell, it was still a fair distance away and slow moving, I reckon it could die out before it got to us, but I noticed new convection developing ahead of that cell, likely helped by the outflow of the first cell. The sky was blue and clear all around except for this compact cluster of white convection, this I decided would be our target. Then began our adventure to get into position closer to the developing area.

I just took any random road which took us north and west, going by instinct than any road knowledge, as it turned out my sat nav map lay out in front of me was rather misleading, when it showed what looked like main roads they actually turned out to be narrow twisting country roads with barley enough room for one vehicle and surrounded on either side by hedges which blocked the sky. So we drove like mad through these twisting roads hoping for a break, we arrived at this junction and had our first view of the cell, I stepped out of the van and snapped this shot with the phone then got back in and drove straight ahead. We battled with bends, hills, dips, narrow roads, luckily there was very few traffic on the road today so we avoided any dodgy encounters on these back roads.

Eventually we came to a clearance on high ground and pulled over for a break. It was roasting outside, we were surrounded by farm land and a sign to my right said we where at a fort which I couldn't see. Rhua and I got out to stretch our legs, we where now under that convection, a long dark base passed overhead with rising scud, I was watching for funnels, Roisin said the sky didn't look inspiring and that it looked like it was not going to happen today, I said don't be so sure yet. I noticed that the base of the cell stretched away into the distance to the north and had that classic horse shoe shape that is often seen with storms in the USA, this meant the cell was either rotating or was being influenced by low lever convergence so I began to get a good feeling. Then suddenly it began to rain, it was actually an exhilarating feeling, I stood out and let the sporadic rain drops hit me, it felt refreshing in the hot sunshine. Suddenly it was as if an invisible tap had been turned and the rain turned heavy then torrential, I ran back into the van for cover. Rain hammered us, drummed loudly against the roof and began running down the road flooding the sides, it was shocking how fast this happened, Roisin was now back in chase mode, at least something was happening and fast, I suspected the cap had suddenly broke. We sat under the intense rainfall for 15 minutes then decided to drive on, I was curious about the back end of that horse shoe base.

We drove through the core, the roads were saturated for miles, flooded at the sides, at times waves of water sprayed up against the van windows as we drove through these, approaching cars had their full lights on. Then suddenly we cleared the core and ahead of us through the windscreen was a stunning storm base. I couldn't believe what I was seeing, I wasn't expecting anything of that caliber on a day of no shear, from a first glance it looked to me like an organized storm base and huge in size, it was not dissimilar in size and quality to the multicell thunderstorm updraught base I saw near Ballyronan in 2009. We began driving towards it, this was the main event of the day, I knew this was the photogenic moment I had been hoping for but I also knew it wouldn't stay that way for long, adrenaline and panic set in, I needed to be in a perfect position and I needed it now. I said to Roisin ''I need to get an image of this now!'' and ''we need a location away from trees looking over a field''. We drove frantically through more narrow twisting back roads with high hedges, at one stage I took the wrong turn and ended up at a dead end outside a farm house, I turned tail and took another route then suddenly saw a break in the tree line on a very narrow road, I managed to get the van stopped on a grass verge beside a gate overlooking a good flat field.

I grabbed the camera and tripod, climbed over the gate in a millisecond then got into this field, talk about luck and timing, this enormous base was sitting rite over the field. Out of frame to the left was a tall tree which I deliberately didn't include in the image as I don't like clutter, but just above that tree was the precip core and suddenly a wicked blue bolt of lightning flashed across the core over our heads followed by very loud angry thunder, we had a storm!!!, I yelled with delight, Roisin was loving it too but at the same time she was nervous after our last encounter with lightning at Myroe and understood the dangers. This storm just erupted as the cap broke, it was the tail end charlie in a line of cores, I could imagine the updraught tops exploding aloft unseen from our vantage point.

Roisin snapped this one with my other DSLR which I didn't know she took at the time, this is me in my element, actually this is my happy place, being in a field on a hot humid day up close and personal with a thunderstorm, I really do live for moments like these. Thunder rumbled loudly above us, we began counting, first 5 rumbles, then 7, then 9 rumbles, more frequent and very angry. Roisin grabbed Rhua and got back inside the van, I encouraged her to do so as we were 100% in danger rite now. Bolts flashed in the sky and thunder boomed across the landscape, we had a front row seat.

There was no question that this was the finest thunderstorm rain free updraught base I've ever encountered in N. Ireland in my life. It actually looked like a base one would see in the states, I couldn't get over how huge it was!, and taking up this entire northern area of sky, this is 15mm on a full frame camera so taking in a massive area of sky, to put it in perspective the clouds at the top of this image were almost overhead while the lower half of the base sat over the field on front of us and now had developed a lowering. The sculptured textures under the base were amazing and exhibited a lot of dynamic motion. The underside was alive with rising motion combined with churning, we really had a sense that this storm was a living breathing entity conjured up by nature. The region above us to the left was rotating as well, and all the while it twisted and turned thunder rumbled away almost continuous now. We were honestly expecting a funnel or tornado at any moment, however I noticed a new precip core forming to the right out of frame moving in, I suspect it would only be a matter of time before that outflow rain began to choke this beast so I made the most of every second with this amazing sight.

It was a very high dynamic range scene to shoot with the storm back lit and from a high angle then the bright sunlit sky on the other side, moving slowly from right to left. I had to admit that at this point I was forcing myself to stay and shoot, I bent down as low as possible as it was so dangerous with the close range lightning. I was the tallest thing in this field and the only thing taller than me was that tall tree to my left, the last place I wanted to be was beside the only tall tree under a thunderstorm, it's a good way of getting killed.

I actually could feel a strange charge in the atmosphere, it really did feel dangerous, I stayed out for a few more minutes to get images and to keep my time lapse running as long as I could, but at this point I was really thinking I was being stupid. Rhua had somehow escaped and was in the field with me, so I called her over to grab her and on the way the rascal bumped into my tripod shaking the camera and the latter section of the time lapse sequence, I took this as a sign to go. Storm core with the lightning to the upper left and new core on the right, I had chanced my luck enough, it was time to get to safety.

The short distance I had to go seemed far away, the air was charged over me and now raining, I was rite in the danger zone, Roisin told me to get in quick, I grabbed the camera and ascended the rain soaked gate, Roisin snapped this memory image of that moment. Back inside the van we were finally safe, the atmosphere under that base had been as wet as soup, the storm must have been feeding from all that humid air.

Radar grab from Netweather.tv rainfall radar showing the main core to the west of Armagh, the updraught base would have been behind the intense core and before the new red core behind that. Check out that core, white with purple, it was causing flash flooding and still rumbling. Roisin and I kept chasing, we punched out from the core and got ahead of the storm and watched again, the structure on the front wasn't anything worth looking at but the big core was very active, in total we counted over 30 rumbles of thunder. The thunder had that special sound when the bolts are taking place high up within the updraught base. Eventually the storm weakened and we headed home, we stopped outside Dungannon to observe another cell however it didn't become electrified as the CAPE was rapidly shifting away to the south. We drove home through blue skies and hot sun and made it back for 20.00 BST. It had been a great day out. Several thunderstorms had erupted over N. Ireland that evening however the Armagh storm did look like the main event based on it's radar reflectivity. One of those rare times when choosing a target area and the correct road options all converge to a storm at the perfect moment, I'm glad we chose Armagh as our chase area, it paid off big time and goes to show once again to never under estimate the photo potential on days with no wind shear.

That night was clear, I got a phone call tip off from Jonathan Bingham about major NLCs forming in the twilight. I drove out to Beaghmore and spent much of the night time lapsing the best NLC display of the season, here's one image from the collection, I will save this night for the next image report.

Footage as we approach the storm then DSLR time lapse of the Armagh rain free updraught base shot at 15mm wide angle with full frame Canon 5D Mark IV, it really shows the size and motion exceedingly well, you can also see the moment when Rhua walked into the tripod. Thanks very much for reading.


Martin McKenna

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