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Weekend Storm Chasing & Cookstown Night Lightning By Drone - May 21st 2016

This Spring has so far turned out to be a very pleasant period with warmer than average temps and more sunshine than I have seen in comparison to the two previous years. High pressure has been the reason for this so storms have been few and far between however with such good weather between convective periods I can hardly complain. A disturbance over the weekend produced three days of convection across N. Ireland however this report focuses on Saturday May 21st and Sunday May 22nd. Day one introduced an unstable SWly flow with 600-700 CAPE with LIs of -3 with minus 40C air aloft with a sector of 0-6KM shear over eastern areas during the evening.

I was up early and ready for any surprises, GFS indicated widespread unstable air by early morning and with the sun out cooking it looked like cells could be popping up early in the period. I was surprised to see notable towers at 09.00 and decent towers by 10.00, the sun was strong, the sky blue and I could feel the muggy air, it certainly felt like a storm day. Moderate showers quickly manifested on radar scattered at random intervals and soon developed strong cores locally. Despite the eagerness of cells to get going I was getting worried, when there is a weak or non existent CAP then the atmosphere can release its energy early generating too many showers and cells, the end result is that the by afternoon prime heating you end up getting a mess of showers turning to rain with too much cloud and grey skies. This process shuts off that all important strongest heating (after it all it is a main source of lift) and second of all there is too much competition as cells compete with one another, in this scenario what normally happens is that all the cells are unhealthy and choke each other with their own outflow sabotaging the moist unstable air in the process.

These days are seldom good and offer little in the way of photo potential, so the best thing to do is try and catch early developments or wait until later in the evening in the hope of a clearance and more heating to get a cell late in the period with cooling cloud tops. I decided I was going to chase anyway since there were not many other chances showing in the near future so I might as well do my best, after all, models were showing CAPE present straight through until after 21.00 so there was always the chance of a surprise. I was out on Glenshane Pass by late morning on the roadside watching strong showers over Co. Tyrone heading NE towards my area, they lacked any structure and were not photogenic, however the warm sun fired fresh new towers in the direction of Dungannon which began moving up, so I hit the road and drove S to intercept, I took the roundabout at Castledawson then went E on the road to Newferry, a nice cell with elevated long black base, I was half expecting a funnel from the lowering base however there was no hint of rotation, I let it go when it got too far E, the cell fired over Antrim producing c-gs, I could see it's nice white cloud tops in the mirror as I was drove back N. John fagan rang me, he was in my area on Glenshane watching cells crossing the Sperrins, I could see their anvils from Maghera. I drove up and joined him just as the rain began to fall, I confessed to John that I didn't like what I was seeing, the cells were too messy with mushy tops and seemed to have no life in them, the overcrowding was already in progress.

John and I drove S and I met my Wife Roisin then the three of us relocated to Cookstown to check radar and come up with a game plan. The radar wasn't very helpful as everything was completely random, I rang chaser Paul Martin who was storm spotting from a mountain near Omagh, Paul was getting rumbles of thunder however he was also saying he wasn't liking what he was seeing either which backed up my own thoughts. Now where to go?, N or S?, we studied the radar and decided that S was best, the cells there seemed more isolated and stronger so our two vans raced out along the Cookstown to Omagh road. When we where 10 min's outside Omagh we spotted the cell which Paul had been on, it was now decaying however its outflow had formed a new cell on its front edge and it was now turning into a storm, we pulled over and decided it was the best thing we had seen all day so decided to give chase, we took a side road off the Omagh road into deep countryside and we were able to trek N and E to get closer to it, thankfully the slow cell motion made this easy.

We stopped several times on the hills along the Co. Tyrone 'plains' and had several nice views of this storm, this was it in the middle of nowhere with intensifying precip core and gust front, the high based clouds ahead of it were slowly swirling. Cell moving R to L in this image, we decided to keep chasing it with the intention of staying ahead to keep the structure in view, we ended up having an exciting drive through narrow country roads with bends and hills hitting puddles, dodging cars, and pulling over at random intervals to check the sky. The core eventually caught up with us so we went further N through Cookstown and while on the main road outside Desertmartin we punched the strongest sector of the core, that was the must exciting part of the day at this point. The rain was torrential and blinding with hail stones pounding us with gusty winds in a sudden and dramatic onslaught, we could hardly see out the window despite wipers on full speed and had to slow down dramatically to avoid hydroplaning. A flash of lightning lit up the rain from overhead then we cleared the core and got ahead, we chased it through Maghera then outside Kilrea until it weakened then decided to call it a day. We had gave it our best, John headed back home and Roisin and I headed out for dinner then returned to Cookstown to chill out.

The sun had set and dusk had arrived. Roisin and I had settled in and where relaxing after a long day driving, we were exhausted and just sat in the room chilling, the house was silent with no television on. I walked out the back garden and to check out the sky and immediately took a step back. The meanest looking storm clouds I had seen in years where building over the south side of Cookstown, I couldn't believe it, the cell was massive with solid clouds, a long black base with precip forming and far above were several enormous updraughts billowing upward by the second sporting a moody dark blue colour. I sensed this was going to erupt at any moment, I had no time to drive outside of town and get a good county location for images so I decided to send the Phantom 3 Advanced into the air. I got a perfect signal and climbed 60-70m above the backyard and for the next 15 min's I got treated to a wonderful show as I observed and trekked the real time developments of this storm via the live feed from the drone. These are still frames from the video footage, the towers were so tall I couldn't tilt the camera high enough to get them in view.

I panned the drone around taking in the entire extent of this cell which covered the entire SE, W and SW skyline, the clouds looked menacing in the semi darkness over the lights of Cookstown. The cell also had several lowerings which at times looked like funnel clouds, however they were more likely clouds associated with the storm's outflow, moving R to L in these images.

This was a short exposure I took with the camera, perhaps 2 sec's long, the scene looks much brighter than it really was, in fact, the true sky was black and blue and mean as hell, however the camera shows all the details well. When watching the video check out the smoke rising from the factory chimney outside town, it's blowing in one direction then when the base approaches the smoke goes straight up, that's because the storm had ingested it as a form of inflow, it's quite fascinating really because its a visual manifestion of inflow that otherwise you would never see in a clear sky.

I was a little nervous about the drone hovering up there above me, I could sense the static in the air and knew this storm was going to erupt soon, the drone was the highest thing in the area so it could get zapped so I brought it back down after enjoying immensely this unexpected flight watching these brutal storm clouds, I landed just as the first sprinkles of rain began to fall, talk about good timing.

I was back inside sitting in the silence with Roisin, the house was silent and the sky dark through the glass, torrential rainfall began to fall which was wonderful to listen to as it drummed loudly on the windows. I checked radar and saw that this cell was the most impressive event of the entire day, it was orientated on a SW-NE line and sported two massive white cores on The Met Office Radar. Suddenly the inside of the room lit up with lightning!!, I said to Roisin I knew this was going to do it, I went out the back door and more massive flashes to the E, the rain was hammering outside so there was nothing I could do but watch, this was my first night time lightning show in a long time and I had been completely caught off guard. I recorded the thunder audio with my mobile phone and watched the sky flash powerfully as the storm slowly moved across Lough Neagh.

The rain eased to a sprinkle then stopped, I looked behind me and saw an amazing clearance behind the storm with large anvil covered in an array of impressive mammatus clouds against a backdrop of deep blue Summer twilight with Jupiter joining the view. The mammatus was an unusual wine colour against the twilight darkness from the light pollution. I grabbed the DSLR and ran out into the estate for a better view, I wasted valuable minutes changing day time settings to night and putting the DSLR on tripod and messing about trying to find my cable release in the dark when - flash flash - two big c-g bolts strike down illuminating the entire mammatus show, I couldn't believe what I had just missed, this was an epic scene - mammatus, lightning, twilight and bright stars all in the frame over the lights of town - however I had missed it. Also I had dropped my cable release back in the house and instead had tried to plug in my USB cable in the dark - an utter amateur mistake I had never made before in my life, this was utter chaos, I had messed up this rare photo opp and had only myself to blame, then more flashes and rumbles which I never got on camera, then suddenly I remembered the drone.

I was loosing the view of the storm over the rooftops anyway so this would be the perfect tool for the job, would the storm last long enough for me to get in the air and would I get any lightning on video?, the storm had gone quiet, maybe I had lost my moment, but I ran back as fast as I could through the rain soaked road and past the bushes and trees which had that glorious scent of Summer then ran inside, grabbed the drone and went into the back garden once more. I got calibrated perfectly, full GPS, and lifted vertically into the darkness overhead. I switched off the red lights on the front arms so it wouldn't mess with the footage, I was recording at ISO3200 at F/2.8 with a 28mm lens with exposure compensation maxed out to get as much sensitivity as possible. Just as I was settling into position the E horizon lit up once more with a new round of lightning and I got it on video!. These are all stills from the video footage to follow, on the screen all I could see was blackness with a few random ground lights then more flashes, the screen would light up with a pink flash and I could see the bolts in real time on my tablet, the experience was beyond exciting, I couldn't believe I was watching night lightning with a drone.

Most of the lightning episodes were composed of multiple pulsations of pink light as a rapid fire combination of bolts struck down over Co. Antrim on the other side of the lough. This was a massive c-g striking the ground and turning the precip band pink.

This was another outburst of four lightning bolts at the same time, a combination of large in-cloud and cloud to ground bolts, flash, flash, flash, flash in quick succession.

The last two frames are close together, this one shows the c-g strike, I saw this on my tablet screen as a stunning pink bolt hitting the surface like a blazing arrow in complete darkness. This night with the drone has been the highlight of the 2016 storm season for me to date, I will never forget it, I may have messed with the still camera however at least I made up for it with my good old faithful quadcopter. I hardly slept the rest of the night from the buzz, even in the short sleep I did get all I could see was blackness and pink lightning, what an experience this was, however I would love to have another go at it with closer lightning next time.

The following day presented us with 1000 CAPE and LIs of -3 in a Wly flow with no shear. The day began with good morning towers and I knew it was going to be a let down for the same reasons that affected the day time storms on Saturday only this time shear was non existent and soon everything would be a mess. Models showed the CAPE moving into the E by the afternoon so that was my target area. However storms fired over the Sperrins and moved E, Roisin and I left Cookstown in pursuit and I got this shot of the building cells passing over Maghera with a dense curtain of precip with the Moyola River sign in the frame. I'm glad I took this because there would be nothing photogenic for the rest of the day. We heard this cell rumble with thunder in the distance while parked at Upperlands getting fuel then it sparked over Ballymena. We chased to Ballymena and got held up by slow traffic and road works, the entire sky was wet with flat grey clouds and it looked like game over. Roisin and I made a positive out of it and had a nice dinner out then drove back home for a pleasant evening walk in the sunshine, we had no regrets and gave it our best shot however the atmosphere wasn't in top form this day, however that's storm chasing for you and why I love the unpredictability and hunt so much.

Full drone footage of the dusk storm clouds over Cookstown and the night lightning display with slow motion segments. In the first half of the video you can hear a spooky soundtrack from 'The Shining' then the thunder later is the real thunder I recorded with my phone. I hope you enjoy the footage, thanks very much for viewing.



Martin McKenna

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