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Cookstown Type 5 Noctilucent Cloud Storm - June 17th/18th 2019

I'm hungry, I don't mean hungry for food, I'm hungry for storms, in fact, I'm storm starved. The 2019 season continues to disappoint with no heat or decent synoptic set ups which produce the normal good quality storms we get each summer. It has been a tough period, I feel like I've been trying to squeeze out a photo opportunity from the most desperate of low risk set-ups but it's all I can do until the tables turn. When I get that nature 'hunger' I become restless and tenacious in my pursuit to catch something cool on camera. This is when my love for the sky transitions from a passion to an obsession, I simply cannot and will not rest until I capture the kind of clouds I want, clouds which satisfy my own personal standards which make me feel happy and content. I actually don't ask for much, I don't expect prolific night lightning storms, I'm more of a structure fan, my goal is always to seek out and capture dramatic mean skies, anything more than that is icing on the cake.

Toome Gust Front - June 13th

June 13th presented yet another very low risk set-up across N. Ireland however this one was actually worthy of attention. 100 j/kg of CAPE however an active trough and moist Sly warm sector flow promised an evening of high precipitation cells. Furthermore there was 35 knots of deep layer shear complimenting the synoptics. I always pay close attention for these low CAPE high shear patterns in N. Ireland for history has shown that these have been classic tornado producers and on occasion can cause flooding events and even unexpected clouds structures so for this reason I had devoted the day to monitoring the radar. By late evening things were developing fast, a cluster of cells where advancing north and would soon be within range and I was debating if I should leave or not, there were no sparks (I wasn't expecting any from the low tops) but they were intense and clearly sheared, I held back a little longer and couldn't resist any more. Radar showed two targets, a cell in the Maherafelt area with white core and a larger cell moving up the flank of Lough Neagh, I decided I would hit the road and see what was on offer.

I drove out the Glenshane road bound for Castledawson roundabout, the sky was dry and harmless, however as I advanced south I met the Magherafelt cell head-on ,and my goodness it let its presence known in dramatic fashion. I drove from dry to relentless torrential rainfall so quickly it was as if I crossed a line between two parallel worlds. Within minutes the road was saturated, binding rain reduced visibility, and the sides of the road were flooding. I kept driving at 60mph eager to push my way through however I had to slow down as there was a real risk of aquaplaning. I witnessed a huge black base behind the rain which took me back due to its horizontal extent and it was obvious it was under the influence of strong low level wind shear. I pulled over onto the layby to watch. As rain hammered the roof and windscreen a large lowering came into view attached to that low level base. I put the window down and grabbed a few stills with the 10mm lens while rain drops soaked my jeans. The lowering wasn't rotating, however it was dramatic looking so I decided I would take it.

I punched through the core of the Magherafelt cell and entered better visibility then immediately the Lough Neagh cell had came into view and I liked what I saw. Along the leading edge was a huge gust front marking the cell's outflow boundary with a long line of precip behind which looked like a new cell breaking out so I gave chase. I took the back roads as fast and safely as I could, my intention was to target the Ballyronan area again however I had learned from my mistake during the previous chase and took a different route, this time to the by-pass then I headed for Toome. The cell was already closer and it looked like we would meet within 15 minutes. Several miles outside Toome I pulled over, and for once I had a decent view uninterrupted by trees and power lines. My view overlooked a nice flat field and above loomed the storm. The clouds were solid, held tight, mean looking, a fairly decent sight and beyond anything I expected today so the trip was now a success.

I spent 10 minutes here shooting, cell moving R to L, this image is 10mm wide angle which doesn't do the scene justice, that lowering where the gust front meets the precip looked mean visually and much larger, cloud could be seen rising and feeding into the lowering as I watched, I hoped I would get a funnel but my head told me to catch myself on, the outflow air and precip was undercutting too much and would kill any funnel formation, that being said it was still cool to watch. You can't appreciate how long this gust front was, it extended out of frame to the left far beyond the frame covering the E/NE sky line.

I continued chasing the cell further E and this time I targeted that blocky lowering, I found a place to pull in outside Toome not far from the bridge for a close up look. This was that same lowering, moving R to L, 10mm wide angle so this was massive in size, this marks where the gust front and precip core interact, compare this size to the lowering in the image above with the same lens for a sense of scale, in the earlier image it looked small, however that was just perspective from being further away. Despite being an outflow structure it looked dramatic and once again validated the chase.

Standing on the same spot with same lens and panned more to the left, check out how extensive that gust font is with whale's mouth covering a large area of sky. The sky really was this dark, in fact, at times the clouds were even darker, I tied to expose the scene to match the visual view. I was feeling content enough with today's catch until a thought hit me which sobered up my internal celebrations. I was under the gust front looking towards the lip of the huge structure which was moving R to L and away from me at a swift speed. I had messed up big time for had I got ahead of this into the clear sky I would likely have captured a stunning shelf cloud!, I now couldn't do this due to lowering light and rain on me once again, had I left half an hour earlier I may indeed have got that shelf cloud. Always listen to your instincts, decisions on when you leave home and what road you take can have a dramatic effect on what photogenic prizes you might catch, however that's storm chasing for you.

Storm Chasing Woes - June 16th & June 17th

Out of nowhere the excitement level went up a notch, an unexpected and strong set-up appeared and the outlook went from 0 to 10 within one day. On June 16th an unstable Sly flow with great moisture, low LCLs and 45 knots of deep layer shear promised an exciting day. I saw the potential myself on the models however due to the low CAPE I considered it on a knife edge once again. Convective weather produced a very exciting forecast with a 'slight risk' box extending into N. Ireland by evening, the forecast was for low topped supercells and tornadoes. TORRO followed this up with a convective watch, our first of the season from TORRO, so an obsessive day of radar watching ensued, John Fagan, Nigel McFarland and I spent a lot of time going through the models and exhausted all resources. It was true the parameters were there for supercells, perhaps moving into Tyrone, Down and Antrim later. The hype train had begun and many were excited by the prospect, including us. What we didn't like though was the morning GFS run which showed a downgrade in CAPE to 200 and all instability gone from N. Ireland by 15.00. Add to this GFS showed intense rainfall by evening and we were having serious reservations about getting a result. Weak instability, cloud cover, heavy rain, all of these could kill the day, however we just hopped the strong shear could compensate. I spent an entire Sunday on the lap top looking at radar, excitement changed to disappointment, this day was a bust. Storms formed in the republic but for N. Ireland it was heavy rain until sunset, there was simply nothing on offer, the day had been a huge disappointment.

The following day June 17th looked much better, a classic post-frontal air mass, my favourite SWy flow, 600 j/kg of CAPE, -20c air aloft, and 30-40 knots of DLS combined with sunshine. This looked to be a good day and I felt confident it would produce, multicells and supercell structures were possible once more but this time with better energy and light. Roisin and I began our chasing early from Belfast, we witnessed nice cells and low bases, the sky was talking and looked ready for action by late afternoon. Then by 13.00 everything went down hill again, towers were very low topped, the base rose in height, clouds became mushy and flat, we chased a weak gust front out the Omagh road then came back defeated, I spent the rest of the day watching radar and yet again nothing happened, it was a cap bust, both days ruined by a layer of warm air aloft. To get two let downs in a row was bad enough but to get two days with 40 knot shear busting was simply unbelievable. I was heart broken, I know I shouldn't have been as I have been doing this long enough to learn to deal with let downs and keep pushing on, its' all part of the experience. However I was truly gutted, my quest to get something decent on camera had yielded no results yet again, was it much to ask to get decent storm clouds?, it seemed 2019 was living up to its reputation as the worst storm season we have had (so far). I eventually got over it and even laughed later, I posted on facebook about how bad this season was, no storms, cloudy nights and missing NLCs too, however I did say that the tables would turn and the storms and NLCs will come. Little did I know the rewards would come in only just a few hours!

The Noctilucent Cloud Storm - June 17th/18th

After a tough two days of storm busts I wasn't in a good mood, I was craving something special from nature and wondered how long I would have to wait for the next experience. I had just about given up hope however the forecast was to be clear so I wondered would we get an NLC display? We are in the middle of a deep solar minimum, NLCs tend to be more prolific around this time, during the last minimum in 2009 I got treated to the finest NLCs I have ever seen in my life which have yet to be surpassed. The 2019 season has begun in spectacular fashion with NLCs witnessed from mid May onwards with displays almost on a nightly basis, substantial displays formed during June and have been seen all over Europe and into parts of the mid west of the USA, this was already shaping up to be the finest season in a decade. I have been clouded out for all the major action, I did observe a weak type 1/2 display one night which faded rapidly however I had yet to see anything substantial, I was hoping my time would come soon.

I was chatting with John Fagan and Nigel McFarland as we all monitored the skies from our own locations. Reports came in of a bright NLC display from Germany so I figured we should see it once the sun lowered somewhat. By 23.30 I spotted NLCs in the bright twilight, high in the sky above Capella and it had that look that got me excited, this had the potential to become a major display. By midnight the display was jumping out from the sky and getting better by the minute, I grabbed the gear and drove out the road and took a minor road into the countryside near Cookstown. I jumped over a gate into a field and set up the tripod in tall grass and began shooting a time lapse of the clouds over a nearby farm house. The NLCs were stunning, type 5 and casting shadows with every structure imaginable, I could see whirls and herringbone with sharp bands all moving in real time with the naked eye. What got my attention was how solid the clouds look, in normal seasons NLCs are rather tenuous, however these looked solid and so thick they gave the impression they were emerging out from the sky background, the last time I seen this was in 2009. The full moon sat low in the sky behind me with planet Jupiter however they were out shone by the unearthly display glowing across the northern sky. The sky was illuminated with these silver and electric blue clouds which crept across the stars, Capella seemed to wax and wane in brightness as alien-like bands passed over the golden star. I received text messages and calls from John Fagan, Nigel McFarland and John C. McConnell who were all out watching the show.

I was having problems with heavy dew forming on my lens and nearby cows and a barking dog kept alerting the farmer to my presence, I didn't fancy a confrontation within his field so I packed up the gear and prepared to move. It was approaching the darkest part of the night, the NLCs had lowered but they wouldn't stay that way for long, I used the chance to relocate to a new position.

I drove into a layby adjacent to the carriageway outside Cookstown. The night was clear, calm and cold, after 01.30 the NLCs morphed into a new appearance, they seemed reborn and ready to take to the stage again. As the sun began to climb below the horizon the NLCs would rise in altitude and brighten significantly, I suspected I was going to get an epic show and I prayed that the sky would stay clear. With great excitement and anticipation I watched as the clouds took to the stage. I was utterly amazed to see the clouds rise in height in real time and grow in horizontal extent while changing structure as they did so. This was simply incredible to watch, it seemed that structures were evolving within minutes, a combination of upper level winds and gravity waves within the Mesosphere were shaping these ice bound meteor particles into dramatic forms, these actually propagate through the atmosphere at some 400mph. By 01.30 the display was already type 5 brightness again and illuminating the side of my van. I set up the 600D on a tripod and began shooting a new time lapse.

The roads were busy, I saw many late night truck drivers passing by, many of which were bound to have seen this display and wondered what it was. Two trucks made for a nice foreground element to contrast against the NLC ocean aloft.

Between 02.00 and 03.00 I was witnessing the best show since 2009. I knew it, everyone else knew it, I was getting texts from John McConnell saying ''best I've seen since 2009'' or ''stunning!'' and ''look at that smoke ring''. John Fagan rang again, he was just as excited as we were, for him it was the best display he had ever seen. We were observing and commenting over the phone about what we were seeing in real time, we observed spines, skeletal structure and even forms like the creature from the Alien movies. The glowing band which covered much of the display looked like a silk sheet rolling with an ectoplasmic glow. Then a strange structure formed to the left of Capella, it was like watching an NLC fountain moving vertically upwards, advancing through the veil and fanning out with whirls, knots, and billows forming a very complex structure, it was literally was beyond words.

My first DSLR was shooting time lapse on a tripod from the layby. I decided to set-up by second DSLR, I had a back up tripod but it had broke and the screw in the base plate was missing so I couldn't use it, I ended up dumping it in the bin. I instead found a mini flexi tripod from my kit bag and screwed it into base. I set the camera on the roof of the van and took exposures this way while the other camera shot time lapse, it was a good system. I also began shooting video and a few vlogs from the scene, I was so amazed by the sky that I simply had to talk about it. This image was taken from the roof with NLCs reflecting on the van, you would think it was over a lake at a casual glance, the only give away is the aerial in the frame.

24mm facing N/NE along the carriageway. If you look carefully you can see the NLCs glowing on the road. Check out the complex structure, a combination of whirls, veil, bands, herringbone and lacunous holes. A taxi driver drove into my time lapse with full beams on then pulled up beside me, he asked if I was a speed camera?, I said ''no, I'm photographing clouds'', to which he replied ''are you serious?'', I said ''yes, I'm an astrophotographer'', he just drove off mid sentence.

This was truly epic, normally with a good NLC display you need to use a zoom lens or at least the 35mm range to fill the frame, it's rare to get a display which dominates the sky using semi wide and wide angle lenses. This structure was jaw dropping, I shot a beautiful time lapse of this moment lasting 14 seconds showing the evolution of these structures, I was very pleased with it.

Now extending over 50 degrees high (100 full moon diameters). I was in full flow shooting images with the roof mounted DSLR. The new forms above the trees were beyond words, to me they were ghostly in form, an NLC banshee wailing across the heavens.

This was using my ground camera at 18mm

Seriously? this was so bright I was able to record hand held video with the 50mm lens at 3am in the morning. Watching these move in real time accentuated the impression of meteoritic smoke encased in ice crystals reflecting sunlight.

It's amazing to think these are made from dust and organic particles from meteors and ancient comets, I wonder which comet tails they came from?, it's just as staggering to think these particles are 4.5 billion years old.

The traffic vanished and all went quiet, it was just me and the NLCs, I was in my element and loving it.

This is one of the very few times I've used a 10mm lens for NLCs. By 03.30 the upper sections of the display where at the zenith then passed it into the southern sky sector which was unreal. Despite the advancing dawn the clouds glowed proudly but as the birds began to sing I decided to call it a night. I ended up with over 3000 exposures between the two cameras. It was 04.00 before I was in bed, I slept peacefully, all I could see in my mind were NLCs.

Video footage of the storm chase from Maghera to Toome featuring the heavy rainfall, Glenshane road lowering, and my final chase to intercept the gust front near Toome. Featuring Go Pro and DSR footage.

DSLR video footage from live on location showing the display, I narrated sections of it to try and capture the essence of the experience for viewers. The kit lens needed higher ISO so turned out noisey however the 50mm lens did a remarkable job on the banshee structure, it's impressive to get NLCs at all on hand held video.

Full DSLR time-lapse of the display using 18mm, 24-70mm and 10mm lenses, I was rather pleased how this turned out, as always best viewed at 1080p with youtube opened. This magnificent show has currently made the entire summer, however I have feeling the tables have indeed turned and that more wonders are in store. I'm anticipating several more major NLC displays and perhaps I will get rewarded with storms too. At the time of writing the models are showing warm weather and a plume next week which might generate high quality storms for UK and Ireland, it's still far out in forecasting terms however its good to see a welcome change to much earned t-shirt weather, thanks very much for reading.


Martin McKenna

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