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Ballintra Thunderstorms & Lough Neagh Epic Lightning Display - June 6th 2016

The weather across N. Ireland throughout May and early June has been fantastic with strong high pressure and back to back days of sunshine, warm temps and an abundance of clear nights. This warmth and humidity was destined to break at some point for one could almost feel the atmosphere wanting to explode in some kind of energy release, gFS and other models were indicating a thundery breakdown from June 5th onward. It was a tricky set up though, high pressure can create a lot of issues and headaches for storm chasers, especially with storm initiation if there was going to be any at all. A strong capping inversion would be in place however warm temps and convergence would be the main trigger mechanism, so on day one June 5th it looked like Co. Fermanagh and border areas had the greatest potential so my Wife Roisin and I chased, it was very warm at 23C and very humid, storms fired below the border so we got into position on the S side of Lough Erne and watched them approach from the SE, they were flashing away on the charts with good cores however they were very pulsey in nature, they came into view then fell apart in front of us, the clouds were messy with no structure so I didn't even take the camera out of it's bag the entire time. That was frustrating however the weather was still gorgeous so we visited Monea and Tully castle then drove back home later that evening having done nine hours on the road and it looked like round two would be the following day in the very same area and this looked to be the biggest day of the season so far.

Day two June 6th had my full attention, a similar set up and for a while I wasn't going to chase at all after the previous day's visual outcome however I simply could not ignore the explosive juice ready to be unleashed by the atmosphere. GFS was showing 1700 CAPE or 'Convective Available Potential Energy' with a lifted index (LI) of -5. These values were extremely exciting and the best CAPE I have seen over the last two years. This was going to be a hot humid day with max temps between 24 and 25 degrees C with no cloud cover and intense sunshine. A strong capping inversion was once again in place however I was 100% certain this was going to break, the main trigger mechanisms would be solar heating (hot enough to lift air parcels through the cap) hills and mountain regions (orographic lift) and more importantly convergence zones caused by a sea breeze on the W coast moving inland to interact with the air propagating in on a SEly flow. I was certain that these three sources of lift would break the cap and because of the convergence in the W I felt certain that this is where storms would fire despite strong CAPE being present over much of the country. The models seemed to agree on this as well by showing convective precipitation in the same region so I suspected that border areas, Co. Fermanagh and Co. Donegal would see all the action. My target area was Co. Fermanagh with the option of taking the back roads N into Donegal if I needed to do so, I love this part of the country so I was delighted to get a chance to chase here once more with such fabulous unstable air, I am sure the high resolution models were showing not far off 2000 CAPE for these areas.

I awoke to yet another glorious sunny morning and by 10am I was sweating, it felt so close out in the back garden and the sun was already strong, the humidity was so palpable that I could feel the atmosphere on my skin like water, these were all good signs for warm sector thunderstorms, but would the cap break?, I was confident it would and I suspected storms to fire by late afternoon or early evening. I was getting prepared to leave for the chase, Roisin was meant to join me however she broke the news to me that she had to do some family stuff today at the last minute which put me in a slight pickle. This meant driving from Cookstown to Staffordstown road and returning back to Cookstown before I even began my chase in a completely different direction, that meant an hour of driving to do before I even began my own long day on the road, I wasn't relishing the extra miles in the hot sun behind the wheel but I had no choice so we hit the road N and E.

While driving along the back roads towards Toome I was astonished when I looked at the sky to my half right, in it was nothing but blue sky and Summer haze. Roisin and I chatted for a few min's as we drove along the road and when I glanced back into that same sector of sky I saw a stunning updraught towering high into the sky with solid edges and with a mushrooming top, it was boiling by the second, I was shocked at these developments, I mean nothing in a blue sky to major convective developments within minutes, I had never seen such rapid vertical cloud growth before as I saw during this moment, it was then that I realised that the cap had broke extremely early and that there were going to be big storms this day.

I dropped Roisin off at home then drove down the lane and spotted more convective eruptions so I stopped on the Staffordstown road for a better look, this was the view to the SE, in the distance, through the bright haze, where two big updraught towers exploding skyward, the right tower had already formed an anvil so it was already a huge Cb, you can see new towers going up on the far left, outside the heat was intense and the atmosphere was sticky, the air conditioner was on at number 3 at an attempt to cool down while in the van. I headed as fast I could back S and W because it was clear things were going to kick off soon. Judging by the quality of these towers and this sudden cell it was tempting to stay in this area based on the visual scenes, however it didn't make any strategic sense to do so for the flow would be pushing convection into the far E later and I needed that extra push from surface convergence in the W to get things in full gear so I stuck with my originally target area.

I stopped off in Cookstown at my Dad's house and got the lap top on for a last minute radar check, boy oh boy I'm glad I did, a major outbreak of thunderstorms had fired over the Irish midlands below the border and they were flashing away with a very high rate of lightning strikes and sporting red cores on radar, they were moving fairly swiftly towards the border and heading NW and some of them would be crossing Lower Lough Erne before moving N into Donegal, I needed to hit the road fast if I wanted to intercept them on time, this was going to be close, I felt the rush and excitement but also the tension and anxiety as I needed to do a good hour and a half or more of driving to get on target, I threw a sandwich quickly down me and filled my water canister and hit the road SW on my solo chase. I needed everything to be on my side, I needed green lights, clear roads and no slow moving traffic so I drove swiftly in high spirits feeling confident that I was going to intercept a good thunderstorm. I was making good progress along the Omagh road until I met tractors and slow drivers and my tension levels grew more intense, I just cannot understand why someone drives 40mph on a 60pmh road when they don't have L/R plates or are elderly, this frustrated me so much, and with many bends on the road near the Seven Sister lakes I couldn't pass and had to sit behind this guy until I found a straight stretch of road again which felt like forever.

Once in Omagh town itself I was greeted by a dense slow moving line of traffic, I was moving at a snail's pace and even sitting stationary while waiting to move a few inches forward, while above me convection boiled like crazy in the sky with multiple towers sprouting for glory, it was amazing to watch, it looked like a time lapse with the naked eye, I could sense all that energy building and waiting to explode, this was a classic loaded gun scenario, however it was my belief that the cap here would hold and it was the storms further to my SW that would be the prize catch of the day where they were already tapping into 1700 CAPE with a broken cap, the atmospheric door had opened in that area and storms where free to reign across the countryside, I was only 45 min's or more away, I knew I could do it but every second counted. Once I cleared the town and got on the main road S of Omagh I saw this stunning updraught tower straight in front of me which looked menacing and beautiful in equal measure, the top of the tower was so tall I had to tilt the Go Pro to film straight up above the van as I drove along the road, this is a still from the video footage. Updraught tower was exploding by the second with intense growth with cauliflower knuckles rolling and expanding live as I watched, the tower blocked the sun causing a formation of fanning crepuscular rays to radiate outward from the updraught before the sun appeared at the side of the tower's vertical wall, it was such a cool scene and I'm glad I got it on video.

I drove through Lack and Edenery then into Co. Fermanagh itself, in my mind's eye I could see that NW moving line of storms on radar and could visualize my advancing westward movement on the road and I wondered when our paths would intercept. I got my answer when I rounded a corner and saw a black sky in front of me and a band of precip blocking my view of the road ahead, I stopped and got outside and got treated to a wonderful view of Lower Lough Erne that any tourist would have been proud to witness then I heard distant rumbles of thunder, angry, regular, like an unseen large animal in the atmospheric woods, scary but enticing, I was the hunter and now I knew where my prey was hiding, I got back in the van and drove rapidly W towards the rumbles, I didn't need radar, this was old fashioned eye balling the sky and trusting my instincts, but this day was not rocket science either, I knew what I had to do. The sky was dark ahead but it was slowly moving away from me to my half right (NW) so I decided to follow the darkness. I took a random NW road option which showed up on the Sat Nav signed posted for Ballintra which is in Co. Donegal so I took it and raced through a selection of narrow but scenic country roads.

I found an ideal spot on high ground in the middle of nowhere on a road I never drove on before in my life and parked at the side of the road. I was surrounded by hills and lakes, in a normal day it would have been gorgeous but as a storm spotting location it couldn't have been any more perfect. I spotted my storm, it was in front of me slowly moving into the distance, it was crawling over the landscape with a high base and charcoal coloured back building towers building along a narrow flanking line feeding into it, it was not photogenic with any structure but it was a lively beast. It rumbled and rumbled for a long time, I was shocked at how regular the thunder was, I spotted a few blue in-cloud bolts but the others must have been hidden high within the big towers and hence hidden from view, however their presence was betrayed by lively thunder, the fact that I couldn't see all the lightning made the storm even more exciting, it was like a stealth bomber, rumble, deep rumbles, I was loving this, I had just intercepted my storm and instant success the moment my wheels had stopped, my location and instincts were perfect this day, to be honest I was in top gear and never felt so sharp in all my life. I took some video of the storm rumbling away and in it's wake I could see a widespread anvil with grey mammatus clouds.

As I watched this storm flash and rumble I heard fresh rumbles break the quiet sky behind me, I turned around and there miles away was a second thunderstorm in the process of crossing the lough and heading straight for me, this one was pushing up convection ahead of it on it's N side and had a well defined very black base, it looked much more promising for structure, so here I was rite between two thunderstorms, however I now turned my attention towards the new storm and got my gear ready, it was closing in fast and it was one angry sun of a gun, it growled and rumbled with the kind of deep thunder that scares you, like a clear warning of danger, all your instincts screamed to take cover because this was an extremely electrically active cell which meant lightning danger, however my passion for storms overruled my caution, my new storm had already formed a shelf cloud and was flashing away, I had only minutes to get images and video, my view behind was blocked by gorse bushes so I climbed over a barbed wire fence and jumped into a nice freshly cut field which gave me a perfect view towards the storm.

I was now getting my structure images of the day. I set up the Go Pro on the tripod and began recording while I took 10mm wide angle stills with the DSLR. I was hearing deep angry rumbles, again, again, closer, closer, louder, rumbles, rumbles with echoes across the hills, loud, mean and I was loving it. The storm was very black with this photogenic shelf cloud visible along the entire front of the storm stretching across the southern skyline and moving straight towards me, remember this is wide angle so it's closer than it looks.

I couldn't have been happier, two close range thunderstorms and both with high lightning rates and now getting decent structure. Lightning was busy high up unseen inside the tall updraughts while thunder reverberated over this lovely isolated landscape, it was just me and the storm, no one else and not even a single passing car the entire time.

Then it began dropping cloud to ground bolts which raised the ante in a major way, this storm was strong and very healthy and had no intention of stopping for some time, I captured this nice c-g on the Go Pro footage and saw it with my own eyes, visually it was red and struck the fields just beyond the tree line, it was close and I began to sense danger. I switched to multi shot mode on the DSLR and began taking rapid fire stills in the hope of catching more.

Now the storm was menacing and starting to creep over the far side of the field in which I stood, I was getting nervous because those bolts were close, the air felt charged and the thunder sounded like it wanted to touch me, all my senses were peaking, my mind was telling me to get shelter but my heart wanted to see more so I stayed a little longer, this time I was kneeling down to make myself a smaller target, I continued taking more images.

Panning to the far right of the storm revealed a twin stacked elevated shelf cloud on this beauty with a nasty rain core with loud rumbles coming from somewhere inside, you can see one of the many lakes here to the right hand side.

The shelf cloud was rite on top of me at this point, I was in the danger zone, a strike could get me at any moment, it was time to get back in the shelter of the van asap, I grabbed the gear and ran across the field, climbed over the wire fence, my shoe lace got tangled on barbed wire and I was momentarily stuck on the fence and vulnerable to any further sparks, I got it sorted fast and got in the van. Thunder ripped the atmosphere as the storm engulfed me then I was hit by it's outflow, the sky turned dark and I got pounded by torrential rainfall, big warm water droplets soaked the inside of the door as I continued filming through the open driver's side window.

The storm produced copious in-cloud lightning bolts, great close range thunder, and rainfall which saturated the road and gave the van a much needed wash. I watched with delight for a very long time as this beautiful storm did me proud and validating my road trip.

The bolts were wicked, this is one of three which lashed the precip with electric blue within the same second or two. I let it pass to the N and relaxed feeling more than content with the outcome of this chase, it was already a success, anything else would simply be icing on the cake. I drove back to the main road through miles of crazy back roads and emerged in Donegal then went back S into Bundoran, I watched cells pass over the sea for an hour so however it was raining on me the entire time so I went back inland into Belleek and pulled into the car park at Belleek Pottery. The place was closed but the car park was still open so I made use of it and got the lap top on and managed to get a wifi signal so I could check the latest situation, the update confirmed I had been on the storms of the day, those same cells and others passed over Donegal knocking out the power in hundreds of homes, my Cousin who was there at the time said she had never heard thunder like it before in her life, the two cells I intercepted had strong red and white cores on radar with prolific sferics so it looked like I had scored 100% on this chase which completely made up for the previous day's bust. Radar indicated a few more cells far below the border heading up but they were slow so I decided to wait around in case of evening storms.

I had time to kill, then I met the car park gatekeeper, he informed me the gates closed at 20.00 so I had another hour before I had a to get out, we had a good chat and I showed him the radar and we got a good chat going about storms, I was hungry and asked him if he knew anywhere good to eat in Belleek, he suggested a place at the top of the town so I drove up and tried it out. I sat in and enjoyed a good chicken fillet burger, chip and a can of coke, I don't normally take coke anymore but I was craving it this day due to the warm weather, even at this time of the evening it was still extremely humid. After that I grabbed a latte to go and drove back to Belleek Pottery for another radar look, the cell was slow, now it seemed more in the direction of east Fermanagh or Kesh so I hit the road once more and waited in the filling station car park in Kesh. I spent half an hour and got another wifi spot and confirmed the cell was decaying, it looked like the storms were over, it was time to head back. I drove N quickly because I was getting tired now, the adrenaline had worn off and I just wanted to get sitting down in comfort and relax the rest of the evening. I made it to Cookstown at my Dad's house for 22.10 UT after ten hours on location. I sat down, charged the DSLR batteries, got my images and footage uploaded then got online to check out what the day had produced.

It was 22.30 and I had barely sat down when I got a PM on facebook from Conor McDonald about possible night storms, soon John Fagan was in on the chat and very quickly the wheels began to turn. While I was driving home I had know idea of the developments unfolding however Conor had been following them closely. A big elevated thunderstorm complex had formed over Wales earlier in the day, now it had crossed the Irish Sea and had made landfall over Ireland and was slowly moving NW, it if it continued to do so it would pass over SE N. Ireland and would eventually cross Co. Antrim and Lough Neagh. This was not something which was forecast or expected at all, these were imports from the UK, in fact, two storm complexes, one heading for Fermanagh then our bigger system heading for us, amazingly as the system made landfall it actually intensified on radar and soon reports were coming in on social media of amazing lightning in Co. Down, we couldn't believe it, this was actually happening, a rare night time lightning display was on the cards, we all got extremely excited and made plans, we figured Lough Neagh would be a good spot and that Ballyronan Marina would offer us a good vantage point to the SE and E for possible night flashes. We all left the house at the same time, me from Cookstown, Conor from Maghera and John from Dungannon.

I took the back roads and drove through the darkness, the night was mild and humid and I had the cold air on to keep cool, how often does that happen at night in N. Ireland?, I confess to driving fast on the back roads (but within the speed limit) and arrived at Ballyronan Marina, I saw another car waiting in the darkness, they flashed their lights at me and I knew it was Conor so we both pulled up beside the Lough and soon after John arrived and all three of us where standing on the sand in t-shirts at night watching this storm move in. We could see many flashes to the S, SE and E over Co. Down, Armagh then into Antrim, the storm was closing in, we could see big flashes and c-gs striking down on the other side of the lough and distant booming thunder which sounded all the more threatening at night.

John was set up with the DSLR shooting and I wanted to try out the Go Pro and drone so I asked Conor to take images for me with the DSLR while I experimented with my other gear. Conor did me proud, he captured a selection of stunning lightning images however these two were the elite catches of the series. He was using the Canon 600D with 50mm F/1.8 lens, classic c-g strike over Co. Down not far from the lough with second order branching, look at that beautiful lightning glitter path on the water.

Deep crop of the above, what a stunning scene, Conor had been shooting electrical storms in Australia for years so he is no stranger to night lightning as you can see. At this moment in time we were getting treated to an epic lightning show and the first significant night storm since 2005, we couldn't believe our luck, it was happening rite now, the kind of thing we always wanted to experience again.

Twin c-g strikes from an elevated base, this storm was massive covering the whole eastern half of the country and flashing all the time, all three of us were laughing and cheering from the shore, we had in-cloud and cloud to ground bolts striking in three different areas from a number of cells which remained hidden in the darkness like stealth bombers.

Third order branching on that big bolt on the left, this is killer lightning, elevated storms tend to have more powerful lightning strikes because the bolt originates from a base much higher in the atmosphere than a typical surface based storm, it has more charge and packs a deadly punch, such storms are typically frequent lightning producers. While Conor and John where shooting with the DSLRs I made two flights with the Phantom 3 Advanced, hovering 30m or so over the lough and facing SE, I watched several lightning flashes live on screen including a couple of nice c-gs, it was scary flying in such conditions, even though the lightning was on the other side of the lough there still was a risk of the drone being struck from new unseen towers building near us or even above us at any moment, it would be the first thing to get zapped. I didn't keep any of the footage as the haze stopped the flashes from showing up very well but I wasn't annoyed, I did get some and besides it was an excellent unexpected training session.

Some time later the atmosphere turned extremely odd. While lightning flashed away we were aware of the growing silence that engulfed our area, it was like a blanket had cover us, even the birds could no longer be heard and all that could be perceived was the gentle stirring of the lough and that sound even seemed to fade away to insignificance. The night was eerily silent, still, muggy, oppressive and distinctly odd. Suddenly we all heard a bizarre sound, at first there was nothing then suddenly the silence was interrupted by a noise which we all heard, to me it sounded like a MASSIVE WATERFALL, getting louder, we could see nothing over the lough except pitch darkness yet this sound of fast rushing water was getting louder and louder, closer and closer, we felt an impending desire to run and take cover, something big was coming in, like a monster cloaked in blackness, then it struck. It was the sound of the precipitation core of the thunderstorm crossing the lough with its torrential rain penetrating through the stillness, I swear I have never heard anything like it before in my life, nor did Conor and John, it was quite a surreal experience, a combination of intimidating yet exciting, this sound is something I shall never forget, I only wish I had an audio recording of this phenomena.

We all ran for cover, John got in his van and Conor and I got in mine then we got pounded by monsoon-style rainfall, massive heavy and warm drops of rain assaulting us, saturating the ground and soon causing surface flooding. Then the once distant lightning storm was now on top of us, we got treated to a visual spectacle of dangerous close range bolts. I was filming with the Go Pro Hero 4 Silver mounted on the windscreen as we all watched and enjoyed this epic night. We got a multitude of close range bolts, some with instant gun shot thunder and others with thunder so loud we felt it's vibration through the van. The Go Pro captured a few clinkers, check out this giant c-g filling the frame and striking the lough shore.

A massive in-cloud bolt whipping across a huge area of sky and lashing the torrential rain with electrified light. There was so much lightning that it was just too dangerous to go outside so we all stayed inside and filmed through the windows.

C-g and I-c bolt both at the same time, the c-g hitting down a couple of hundred metres away and the I-c spearing through the rain straight at the windscreen. It was approaching 03.00 UT and the storm was still producing however now it moved N affecting other towns, we realised we had been watching lightning from when we first arrived for approximately three hours non stop!. The drive home was fun through flooded roads in the dark and hitting unseen water logged sections which almost pulled the steering wheel out of my hand, at times I almost aquaplaned off the road forcing me to slow down and drive on the middle of the roads, the trees were also stripped of leaves by the incredible rainfall, the roads were covered in them like green confetti, I was back in Cookstown for 03.30 UT.

Full storm chase video documenting the thunderstorm intercepts at Ballintra earlier in the day with advancing shelf cloud and plenty of thunder, also check out the nice updraught outside Omagh with fanning crepuscular rays.

A selection of videos from the epic night time lightning display over Lough Neagh later that same night captured with the Go Pro with slow motion scenes, caution, there is some excited cursing in this video. I didn't sleep well that night due to the buzz from the full day and night chases and from the heat in the room so I was up at 08.00 the next morning checking the models for day three of chasing which would also be a success. Thanks very much for reading.


Martin McKenna

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