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Portglenone-Ballymena Thunderstorm - August 29th 2015

On August 27th I was in my bedroom in Maghera doing an online check after spending the early afternoon on Glenshane Pass filming time lapse video of convective showers and cells however despite spending considerable time on the road and watching the sky I hadn't found anything that I would have called overly photogenic so I went back home to get online and check out the latest situation, this day was typical of the 2015 storm season in N. Ireland with mediocre CAPE values which seemed to be the main theme this year, during prime Summer we have been getting CAPE values more akin to what we would expect to see in late Autumn or early Winter and being so accustomed to this that I have found myself getting exciting when seeing values greater than 200 J/Kg, normally I would be getting excited by CAPE from 1000 upward. Today the models were predicting 200 CAPE and LIs of -1, really low end stuff for late Summer however on the positive side at least the flow was a classic SWly and there was speed shear aloft and areas of convergence which would help tilt the balance into a more favourable degree on the convective sea saw. By 18.00 UT the sun was shining with blue skies and when I checked the radar once again I saw a cell approach from the SW sporting red echoes on radar which was heading straight for Maghera, I looked out my bedroom window and saw it immediately over St. Patrick's college football pitch and moving towards my home with a neat back gust front and well defined curtains of precip, the cell passed overhead delivering strong rainfall then as the precip passed and the sun came out an absolutely stunning primary and secondary rainbow appeared, both bows complete and arching across my home area with vivid colours and a wonderful display of supernumerary arcs on the north side, it really was a stunning show however I was slightly annoyed that I had not anticipated this and lost the moment, I should have been in the countryside shooting this show with wonderful lush foreground, instead I had aerials and rooftops which made for ugly images.

I set up my Samsung Switch Grip video camera on the window sill via it's mini tripod and began filming what remained of the rainbow, I left it alone while I ran downstairs and into the back garden to get images. When I returned back to my room 10 min's later I saw the cell, now over the countryside and it looked great, in fact, it was very photogenic and still within range thanks to its slow forward speed so I went back downstairs, opened the gates, then drove out into the local countryside on the Crewe Road and pulled into a lay by and ran out to get some stills. I had found a good view across the countryside quite by chance and attached the Canon 24-70mm lens and pressed the shutter, all I saw was the viewfinder going dark with a heavy clink of the mirror moving inside and no images on the back of the LCD, dang it, this lens had been playing up before and now it was doing so again during the very moment I needed it to cover this focal range. There was an issue with the connection between the lens element and camera body, the body did no recognize the lens, in the past simply wiping the lens elements fixed the issue but this time it wasn't happening and my cell was getting further away, I wasted no time and like a solider who had ran out of ammo I removed the 24-70mm and replaced it with my 18-55mm kit lens and began shooting, it was this lens that saved the day. The cell looked beautiful above the green fields and the sunlit clouds shone brilliant white with clear blue sky at the cell's flanking area, this was the best photo friendly light I have seen this season since May. A fragmented primary rainbow complimented the scene upon the heavy curtains of rain and hailstones and all this was set upon a canvas of an inverted fan of anti-crepuscular rays like broad bicycle spokes spreading skyward from the horizon.

I was very pleased with the visual and photographic splendor of this cell and I enjoyed every second of the 15 min's I spent here watching and taking images as the cell sailed off towards the NE. Another cell was visible to the SW in the distance moving in so I waited in the van for 20 min's before it arrived, this cell was nothing in comparison visually however I did see a distant c-g bolt out W behind the Sperrins and a rumble of thunder. The show was over so I went back home and checked my video footage of the rainbow, when I did I was rather pleased I had left it there for the camera recorded the bow vanishing from the sky in a very interesting fashion, it was almost like a curtain had been drawn across the sky removing the bow from the footage complete with sunlit precip curtains and those peculiar anti-crepuscular rays, the effect was quite dramatic when the footage was sped up by 8x and 16x, you can view this video below.

Thankfully I didn't have long to wait for another chance of storms for two days later on Saturday August 29th another unstable SWly flow would be present across the country with up to 500 CAPE and LIs of -2 across central and eastern areas of N. Ireland, there was no speed shear however pockets of convergence were present and with good solar heating it looked like a day of good pulse storm activity. After studying the charts it was obvious that E and SE was best and I anticipated that the best chance of a storm would be in the Ballymena-Antrim area then Armagh-Down during the late afternoon and early evening. As fortune would have it I had reason to be in Ballymena this very same day to visit my good friend and Chiropractor Dr. Niall McGurk who would be treating a few back issues I had been having lately, my appointment was at 14.00 UT and after the treatment I was highly confident of intercepting a storm in this area on the way home. We arrived early so we spent some time in a local cafe and I got wifi access to check the latest radar. Storms had broke out across Dublin however no sparks in the N yet however it was still early in the day and radar showed scattered showers to the SW over Tyrone and Fermanagh, I was sure that once they moved further NE into more unstable air in the afternoon heat we could very well get a storm. Niall did an amazing job on my back and I left walking straighter and in less pain compared to when I had come in, this put me in good form and for once I was able to ignore my aching muscles and concentrate on the sky, if you are in the area check out Ballymena Chiropractic Clinic, I promise you will never look 'back' - excuse the pun.

We left the clinic under bright sunshine and blue skies with bubbling convection however due to being closed in by buildings I had no idea what was going on in the nearby area, some instinct told me there was a storm in the vicinity, I just had that 'vibe' and was trying to figure out where to go, I needed a country location so we decided to simply get out of the town using the same road we came in, we cleared the buildings into open skies and almost immediately I spotted a cell to the SW far away in the distance between gaps in the trees, we decided to chase after it and took a left turn to the E and drove across narrow back roads deep into the country where I had never been before, through dips, tight bends, we then crested a steep hill which offered a fantastic view across the entire countryside to the SW so we parked in a lay by and I ran across to the other side of the road to a gate, on the other side was this terrific view. If only I had views of storms like this every time I was on the road, this was extremely lucky indeed. Miles away was a very obvious cell perched over the countryside, the cell had that heavy charcoal-black colour with well defined black precip core, you can see the Sperrin mountains - my home chase territory - in the distance behind the cell, I could hear no thunder at this range yet however I knew this cell was going to produce. I later learned that my Dad's friend was playing golf at Moyola Park Golf Club and had to take shelter from a thunderstorm which formed there, I believe this was that very same cell. The northern most point of Lough Neagh can be seen on the far left hand side, at first the cell seemed to be moving from R to L so I was considering packing up and moving N however it soon became apparent it was heading straight for us with only a little left motion, once again I was lucky with the location, this now meant I didn't have to move anywhere and could enjoy this cell approach.

The 24-70mm lens was back in business, I had cleaned the elements and it was in fine form, here's the precip core in its infant stages, I loved the view across the countryside with the isolated farm house below, the River Bann is visible at middle R. I reached through the gate and set the Samsung video camera in the field among the grass on it's mini tripod and let it film a time lapse of the storm approaching, I left it to it while I concentrated on getting stills.

Later the cell was closing in and had grown considerably in size with continuous evolution to the precip core which was now red on radar, the rain-cooled air from the precip was surging forward and scooping up warm air ahead forming a gust front on the left leading edge visible as a row of chunky cloud, this was 10mm wide angle.

The cell had crossed the River Bann and was now sporting a very impressive large core on radar with multiple red and white echoes indicating rainfall amounts were at the top of the scale.

10mm wide angle of the mean gust front, the cell looked very dramatic at this stage and the video camera had been filming away in the field the entire time, I would end up getting a very nice time lapse clip of the cell approaching which would reveal rotation under the gust front. The storm was very black with the naked eye and I felt the first drops of rain on my skin, the air felt charged and I sensed that lightning was imminent at any moment so I grabbed my gear and ran back to the car and just as I opened the door a big bolt lit up the sky followed by a deep angry rumble of thunder. I took shelter inside, got the engine on, wipers going and set up the video camera on the dash filming out the windscreen towards the gust front while I hand held the Go Pro out the side window hoping to catch more bolts. We got slammed by 20 min's of heavy rainfall and overhead lightning accompanied by very loud thunder which was very impressive, it was quite a thrill to be rite under the action, the cell then moved over Portglenone and headed NE in the general direction of Ballymena, once the sun appeared again from behind the precip and I could see the back of the storm ruling out any funnels we gave chase after it once more.

We raced through the back roads once more and arrived onto the main road on high ground between Randalstown and Ballymena, pulled over and watched the storm retreat into the distance over Slemish mountain. The flanking area of the storm had nice sunlit cloud structure with segments of low rainbows appearing and disappearing along with curtains of rain and what looked like hail shafts, I set the camera on the car roof and filmed the scene while shooting stills with three different lens with the 100-400mm lens close to hand incase I needed it, we watched the base for a long time in the hope of a funnel however the cell seemed to be behaving itself. New cells where forming behind the storm in the clear air (R) where solar heating was plentiful, the last cell (tail end charlie) sprouted fresh new updraughts which looked crisp and strong and the cell seemed minutes away from switching on so we gave chase on down this road and took a right option into the countryside some 5 miles outside Ballymena.

We spotted a beautiful location outside Randalstown and took a back road which led down a long lane towards a farm, it kind of looked private however we took it anyway as we were nowhere near any houses. This beautiful field came into view so I ran in and got a few images and a short video clip, I was in total heaven here kneeling in the grass looking across these beautiful fields with this single tree to the left perfectly located at the rule of thirds and in the blue sky was the now distant pulse storm dropping rain and hail in the distance while I took in the scene under warm sunshine, it was the perfect way to end a chase, the only thing missing was a white rope funnel from under that new updraught on the flank of the cell however it wasn't to be today, I didn't mind, the scene was beautiful and all of this was more than I had hoped for this day.

Time lapse video clip of the 'vanishing rainbow' filmed from my bedroom window over Maghera, check out the way in which the rainbow disappears from the sky as if drawn like a curtain with anti-crepuscular rays on show.

Full chase video of the Portglenone-Ballymena thunderstorm complete with a nice 16x and 32x time lapse segment of the approaching storm over the countryside to the SW, also check out the convection reflecting in the wing mirror on the way home while passing through Toome. Later that day Roisin and I met up with my Dad and together we celebrated with a nice steak which seemed like the customary thing to do after a good chase. Thanks very much for reading.


Martin McKenna

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