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Spring Storm Chasing - Ballyronan Marina Cells - March 27th 2016

March 27th brought with it my second chase of the 2016 season and the first day of true inland convection across parts of UK and Ireland. GFS indicated 400-500 CAPE, LIs of -1 with other models hinting at higher instability with -40 C aloft, weak cap and with good lapse rates it promised to be good potential for convection. There was no surface convergence however there was some degree of speed shear so cells would be tilted slightly upwind of their precip cores, this process favoured brief organisation in the form of bands or lines of cells so it looked like a good day for heavy slow moving showers of hail and isolated thunderstorms. There were a number of obvious target areas to choose from ranging from the midlands/Lough Neagh to Co. Down, Sperrins and Antrim coast where CAPE was greatest however my instincts decided on Lough Neagh as it seemed a good area considering the wind stream lines and precip charts and I liked the idea of the extra moisture offered by the lough itself so the plan was that Roisin and I would meet Dungannon photographer John Fagan at Ballyronan Marina located on the NW corner of the lough and we would use that as a base of operations with the option of being able to shoot back S to Co. Tyrone if needed, W over the Sperrins or E into Antrim.

I was feeling in top form and psyched up as I had been looking forward to this day for the better part of a week and thankfully the models were consistent with instability all through their many updates, I simply couldn't wait to get on the road and chasing convective weather again. I was up by mid morning studying the latest models and making last minute communications with John, outside the sun was shining and I could feel the surface warming up and already I could see convection to the SE towards Dungannon slowly moving NE with growing towers, there was no question about it, this felt like a chase day for sure and being so early in the season it was like a wonderful bonus from nature for we are more likely to get snow at this time of year rather than storms so I took this set-up as a good omen for an active season ahead. We agreed to meet John at Ballyronan at 13.30 UT however we needed to sort a few things out first, we filled two flasks of tea, water canister, food, nuts etc then called into a local cafe in Cookstown for a caramel latte (soya milk for Roisin) which gave us that last minute kick we needed then we hit the road. As we drove along the carriageway outside Cookstown a cell appeared to our E with bubbling towers at the rear and large swath of precip falling from the front, it looked like the first big cell of the day and it was already a decent height, we where tracking along the road adjacent to it as we drove N and I managed to take some quick hand held video while on a quiet portion of carriageway before we entered trees.

We arrived at Ballyronan Marina in perfect time to intercept a big cell which was slowly drifting across the Lough from R to L, we got out from the van and jogged over to the little beach area and began shooting at 10mm wide angle. The cell was located over the E side of the lough and moving N heading for Antrim, it looked very big with a bulky tall updraught already in the process of anviling out, the sun broke free from obscuring clouds and lit the entire cell into brilliant white with clear blue sky in the wake of the updraught, it was a beautiful sight with a dramatic curtain of hail stones falling onto the surface as we watched.

I heard a vehicle approach behind us, it was John, he had spotted the cell too and within sec's he was outside shooting it beside Roisin and I. This is a pano style crop of the hail core which was falling in streaks over the Lough while Ducks and Swans bobbed up and down on the gentle waves. Click on the image to view a larger version or click here.

Another 10mm wide angle image showing the entire cell with little flanking towers at the rear and inflow cloud, we were well pleased with this catch so early in the day and if nothing else happened then we would be happy enough to bring home this digital trophy. We got the flasks out and stood outside drinking a well earned brew and snacks while watching the sky, the sun was out and it actually felt warm, the solar heating was encouraging and within the next hour or so the sky seemed to be full of convection and growing cells. Towers to the W, SW, S and a brute of a cell to the N which we watched while sipping tea with a solid anvil, it was shocking that we didn't hear thunder from it, however visually it was beautiful. In fact, as I watched the cells popping up everywhere I recall feeling most impressed by their height and structure, in my personal experience this was the best convection I have seen in N. Ireland during the month of March without question.

After a period of waiting we needed to check the latest radar however the phone signal was very poor with only intermittent coverage, we needed to see the bigger picture, was it best to stay here?, what if something big was brewing somewhere else and we didn't know about it because we were only going visual?, an update was crucial and it was already approaching prime heating time so we needed to make some important decision so we decided to drive to Castledawson roundabout where coverage was better. The radar showed showers and cells all over the country at random pooping up and decaying in pulse fashion so it was difficult to choose a target at this stage but visually the towers where good in the direction of Toome so we decided to head in that direction with the intention of filming hail stones falling on traffic, however just as we went to leave the exit we spotted a mean looking cell to the SW, the clouds were black with a nasty core so this stole our attention immediately, it was heading NE so went after it instead leaving the roundabout and driving along the Glenshane Road with our two vans in full chase, we pulled over twice to shoot the cell which sported a nice dark curtain of hail stones, we let it overtake us however it dissipitated and after this things where getting less encouraging.

The sky was very cloudy, the temperature had lowered, it was clear that the abundance of cells were affecting the atmosphere, they were getting in each others way and their cold downdraughts of rain cooled air were creating a widespread cool pool effectively shutting off solar heating and lift with the cloud cover aloft aiding this process further, the strategy now was to wait it out and watch for a clearance to get the sun working on the ground again. We decided to drive to Glenshane Pass and wait at the service station where snacks were purchased and new brews were consummed from our faithful flasks. A new radar update showed that the N was not the place to be, the cells where weak there however further S and E they were stronger. Cells just below the border S of Armagh where producing c-gs and radar indicated several nice looking cells in that area moving N, these were isolated, strong, with linear red cores and judging from the radar they would be moving up over Antrim or even the E side of Lough Neagh so we decided that these would be our new targets so the plan was to return once again to Ballyronan Marina which would offer us a great uninterrupted view across the Lough. It had already been a long day and Roisin was feeling it so I dropped her off at her Sister's house in Cranfield for a few hours while I got back on the chase, I took the narrow country roads and finally reaching the Marina where John was already parked scanning the sky.

After a 30 minute wait we spotted new convection firing to the N so we grabbed our gear and hiked around to the other side of the marina and made our way out the quiet pier which provided a great view across the lough to the N and NE. Within ten min's a beautiful cell had formed and was dropping a delightful curtain of hail with two segments of rainbow forming on the core, it was a great sight and soon John was set-up shooting a DSLR time lapse of the scene. While John's shutter was making a nice shutter click every second I decided that this could be my chance of getting the Phantom 3 Advanced (P3) drone into the air to film convection, the conditions seemed ideal, the sun was out, visibility was great and the breeze had calmed down, furthermore the cell was a good distance away from us which meant its downdraught would not affect the P3 and I would have the full structure on view. I got set-up as quickly as I could, got calibrated, then a warning light on the app told me there was weak signal to the controller, that meant I couldn't fly, so I switched all off and re-started a few meters away, re-calibrated and tried again. Same problem, weak signal, now I was getting frustrated and the cell's photogenic moment would soon be gone, John said I needed to decide quick because if there was no signal then I needed to start shooting with the DSLR instead, he was correct. I decided third time lucky, moved a little away, calibrated and this time I got the green light 'safe to fly' and full GPS, I was good to go. I took off vertically, climbed above the trees which lined the pier and reached a decent height above the lough, the view on the tablet was fantastic, full cell with hail and bows, it was such a thrill to view these structures I love so much from a higher vantage point, I felt exhilarated, the footage can be viewed below, however here's one still I took before I came back and landed, the flight went perfectly.

Soon after the sun was out and the evening was lovely and serene at the Marina with ducks quacking and just a great atmosphere. It was already golden hour and the day was waning however we spotted a new cell inland heading for the Lough, it looked pathetic however once it reached the water it seemed to come to life and we realised this was a proper cell so we grabbed the gear and jogged back to the main beach again where we had been watching from earlier. John was set up shooting a new time lapse, I got my DSLR shooting its first ever daytime DSLR time lapse of convection and my Go Pro was tripod mounted filming the scene. I even got the P3 in the air for another flight so at one stage I had three pieces of equipment all filming the same scene. Once the cell vanished a new tower appeared behind the previous and once again it simply exploded to life once it crossed the Lough, this was the best cell yet, the above image shows it well with solid clouds and tall back-building tower at rear with low dark base and segment of rainbow.

A combination of solar heating, moisture from the lough and cooling cloud tops must have helped this one explode to life. I was shooting a new DSLR time lapse of this cell with the 24-70mm, moving R to L in the above image, on two occasions John and I swore we heard distant thunder rumble across the lough. Underneath curtains of hail stones could be seen growing in extent from water to Antrim where they must have been getting quite a pounding, this surprise cell made our entire evening and yet again I was surprised how good the caliber of convection was this day given the time of year, low CAPE and weak solar heating so John and I were more than happy with the way things had turned out.

Last light on Lough Neagh, this time we walked out along the southern pier to enjoy the tranquility of the evening with new convective cells moving onto the lough once again, it seemed the clouds just didn't want to stop showing off, however it was obvious they were loosing energy but that being said they still put on a lovely show in the wonderful evening light with the setting sun catching the flank of the towers and low topped anvils while glitter paths of the clouds reflected upon the water.

Last scene of the day and a nice memory from our chase, here's John in his element shooting the scene min's before the sun set and shadows descended across the landscape and after 8 hours of shooting we called it a day.

Full chase video featuring an edited version of the P3 flight and my DSLR and Go Pro time lapses of the passing Lough Neagh cells at golden hour, best watched at 1080p. This was an extremely successful chase with photogenic cloudscapes so I was more than satisfied with how the chase went, I hope it's a good omen for an exciting season ahead, this day really got me in the full storm chasing zone and luckily enough there was a chance of more storms on the following day however I will save that story for another report. Thanks very much for reading.


Martin McKenna

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