Dramatic Snow Curtains Over Garvagh & Binevenagh Snow With Glory - January 17th 2024

2023 was a fantastic year for me, so much so that I was slightly anxious about the onset of 2024 as it had so much to live up to, surely nothing could beat last year when it came to storms, that was my general thinking anyway. However as 2024 began I was quietly optimistic that nature would provide me with something special to get the year underway on a positive note. It was all up to Mother Nature who had quite frankly been rather tame and dull for a couple of months until we approached mid January when models picked up on a trending cold spell which looked like it might produce Winter photo opportunities.

The cold spell came in the form of an Arctic blast with a mostly Nly flow which was expected to last almost a week. GFS and other models had picked up on this set-up for at least a week beforehand and confidence was high that it would deliver. At first I was skeptical of getting much potential from it as low temps were sub zero but not remarkable, however the temps were expected to drop in a major way by mid to late week, the cold was associated with high pressure with no deep lows to drag in major fronts or severe wind events, in fact, it looked to be completely calm for the entire period which would aid with falling temps, at best I was hoping for cool frost scenes, maybe hoar frost if I was extremely lucky. The atmosphere seemed rather dry and models didn't show that much in the way of precip so I wasn't expecting good snowfalls, just random snow showers, so during the first phase of this event I didn't travel out anywhere as I didn't see any potential for filming.

That all changed on January 17th which looked to be one of the more interesting days of the week with frigid overnight temps and scattered snow showers during the night and into the following day. Based on model guidance these looked most prolific over the northern half of the country, especially the northern Sperrins and inland coastal regions. After dark +100 CAPE was expected to increase cold airmass cell coverage over the ocean and coasts with a slight risk of thundersnow so this was phase two, I decided this day had potential and I committed myself to a full day out. To be honest my expectations were low but I knew from experience that you just never know what you are going to see unless you are out on the road.

I was up before sunrise and knew immediately this day was promising, in Cookstown we were covered in a thick dusting of snow and the air was dead calm and baltic. I turned on the van and Roisin's car to get the warm air on to de-frost the windows then used the de-icier on the windscreens, it look some time for any of them to clear. The temp was reading -4 degrees C, much to my frustration and humor the side and back doors of my van were frozen solid, I simply couldn't get them open at all until 20 min's had passed. I had a good warm breakfast, packed a flask and supplies, warm clothes, water, spare blankets and a snow shovel then hit the road after sunrise. Today I would be chasing solo, I usually meet up with several of my photography friends for these Winter chases but today all of them were unavailable, it was just Rhua and I.

I was still undecided on exactly where I wanted to go, my first thought was Benbradagh for aerial snow scenes however my instincts were telling me to get further north, I got glimpses of the Sperrins as I drove and although they had snow it was patchy in places and not as photogenic as I needed so I kept moving. Progress was moderate and all traffic activity was of a high standard with everyone keeping a large distance between one another which was good to see. As I entered Moneymore and descended the incline the battery symbol appeared and began flashing, this had me concerned, then suddenly all power was lost while I was in the middle of a busy road, I turned the ignition again and power was returned, however the warning filled me with anxiety about my plans this day. Did the symbol show because the van was so cold?, this had never happened before during any Winter chase I was on, even at -10c or lower, however the battery had never been changed before so maybe its time had come to an end. The thought of the van dying out and leaving us stranded in the cold was really putting me off, I was tempted to turn around and drive back home with my tail between my legs, this was not the good start I was hoping for.

I decided to keep driving, I would never turn the engine off so the battery could stay charged, against my better judgment I continued chasing and the further north I went the worse the snow and roads became. In Swatragh I pulled into a snow-covered layby to think about what I was going to do, when I tried to move off the wheels spun in the snow, and when I gunned the accelerator there seemed to be little in the way of power and the flashing battery symbol appeared again which filled me with dread. I managed to slowly creep back onto the road and again I almost turned around and went back home while I still had the chance, but yet again I kept driving, my passion for snow scenes and photography just made me press on, I decided I would do my best to get results even if it meant getting stranded. Between Swatragh and Garvagh the roads were really bad, despite being salted they were covered in snow and freezing over again, the salt did very little to help, cars were sliding and I was behind a que of slow moving lorries which were doing about 30-35mph on the main road, nobody was taking chances.

My goal was to head to the Coleraine direction then perhaps the north coast but first I needed a break to clear my head and calm myself down as driving was intense, the battery light was gone but it was never far from my mind. I found a place to pull in outside Garvagh which was a great spot, with 2cm of snow and beautiful scenes all around. I stopped but kept the van running then poured a brew from the flask and ate a snack. I took Rhua for a walk, she loved bouncing around the snow and was having such a good time that it really raised my spirits, I checked the van user manual for that battery symbol, turned out the flashing meant it was on economy mode to preserve power, the radio being on, USBs, and warm air blowing were using up too much in the cold so I turned all those off. We sat here for an hour, I was thinking, ''what to do?'', ''where to go?'', when suddenly far to the north I saw the tops of impressive clouds associated with a band of snow showers slowly moving my way, the tops had that classic Winter fuzzy anvil shape so I decided I would put the drone up to clear the trees and bet a better view, this turned out to be a good decision as the following scenes made my entire week.

I was sitting in the back of the van with doors open flying the drone with a hot brew steaming beside me, on the FPV screen of the controller I had a most magnificent view across the town of Garvagh and beyond. The landscape was a Winter wonderland with snow everywhere and dominating the sky was a large cold-air cell extending across the NW to N sectors, it had interesting structure, a classic low topped anvil and snow curtains falling from below, I knew from the moment I saw it that this was going to be a great photo opportunity.

I recalled my conversation with Owain Rice, our convective forecaster from the night before, I had said that my goals were to capture dramatic snow curtains with the drone and/or get good aerial scenes of snow on Binevenagh on the north coast which was an extremely photogenic location, even though my expectations had been tempered it now looked like the first event was unfolding in front of me, I just needed the cell to hold itself together for long enough for what I needed and so far it was looking good. The cell was so big I couldn't get it all in the wide angle camera so I took turns shooting the centre, the left, and right edges. Mean looking snow curtains were breaking out as well as strange mammatus-like snow pouches descending to the surface.

The cell was lit brilliant white by the low morning sun and surrounded by pristine polar blue skies, the snow on the landscape below was also in sunshine with nice shadows cast by the trees in the fields, the light was great. This was the left side (NW) looking towards the Coleraine mountain area, the main street of Garvagh is below.

Panning the drone to take in the right section with anvil spreading out across the perfect blue sky, not only was the cell getting closer and bigger it actually looked to be getting more intense too, I was half expecting to hear a rumble of thundersnow.

I was now smiling with delight, I had forgot all about battery lights and stressing over roads and where to go, I was fully emerged in this experience and buzzing with delight, the scene was now stunning, this was what I had wanted to get.

This was now a mean looking snow storm with great structure, those curtains of snow could be seen cascading over the fresh snow-covered landscape.

Panning to the NW, I was taking stills and shooting video segments of the entire evolution of the cell as it neared my location, what a beauty.

It was perhaps five miles outside Garvagh and looked massive in size

Full wide angle, I really do love seeing dramatic snow curtains, it's one of the main photogenic targets I look for each Winter, but getting a good show is rare, this one was really good. It seemed to have two tiers, the lower tier was composed of snow curtains the upper tier mammatus clusters with an anvil on top.

This is a full 180 degree aerial panorama when the drone takes numerous wide angle images and stitches them together, this was the only way of capturing the entire cell. This is covering a huge area of sky, of course the cell is a lot closer and bigger than what appears in the pano. I absolutely love how this pano turned out, Garvagh with incoming snow storm, the resolution of the original image is difficult to do justice to with this re-sized version, the detail on the big image is outstanding, I might be tempted to print it sometime.

I ran out of battery which lasted a respectable amount of time however the cold air can shorten its life span, looking up from my seated position in the back of the van I could see the anvil above me and big curtains of snow towering high in the sky and falling behind the trees, it was almost on me, I put in a new battery and got back in the air for the final scenes.

Quite a beast, especially when compared to the scale of the buildings in town below

That's the main street running through Garvagh to the left, with the town church to the right.

I had only a few min's left until the snow would impact the drone, I got a few final images.

Awesome scene, I looked up and those massive curtains where on me, I landed the drone onto my hand, packed it away and got back inside the warm driver's seat where Rhua was waiting. I was on a complete high, I had burned through one and a half drone batteries documenting this single event and it was worth every second of air time, a really beautiful, majestic, and photogenic moment which I didn't expect to happen so soon, the time was 11.10 LT. I was buzzing and decided to drive into those snow curtains and punch the core.

The roads were covered in snow as I drove under the cell, snow-covered fields all around me and the van was still reading -4C, the road wasn't in good shape but I managed to stay at 40mph and continued driving north, big white snow flakes falling everywhere against a dark sky background, I never cleared the snow curtains until I reached Coleraine. I made my way to the coast then pulled up for a break at Castlerock beach where Rhua and I had a good walk, the beach had snow on it, another one of life's pleasures which just had to be enjoyed.

I stayed around the coast for a couple of hours, I figured that if the big cell I had encountered came from the coast then there was a chance I could get a repeat scene over the sea which would be cool to catch. There where two cargo ships at the outer anchorage over the sea near the entrance to the Foyle which served as a good sense of scale for anything which came inbound. I did get this one big cell which had a long dark base over the ships and snow curtains falling downrange, there was strong shear today in the 30 knot range so anything was possible. After a long wait I never saw anything exciting, certainly not on the caliber I had seen earlier so I pondered what to do, I still had 1.5 batteries left, it would be nice to film one more subject matter, but I needed snow.

There wasn't much snow where I was, just inland of the sea looked milder and wet with just a patchy dusting, it wasn't worthy of flying over, I trusted my instincts and decided to go for a drive along the coastal route to scout out anything interesting, in the back of my mind was Binevenagh, if this had snow on it then it could be a great catch but based on what I was seeing in this area it likely wouldn't be good enough, but I would check anyway. The road was really bad with thick snow and ice at times, driving was slow, and the van slid easily, I knew I didn't want to be here later at rush hour especially when the temps would drop rapidly at sunset as -5C was expected tonight, the roads could be a big problem so I didn't intend on sticking around to then, I would give it one hour then head back home.

I rounded a bend and Binevenagh came into view and it was beautiful, it was covered in snow but it was also under cloud blocking the sun so I drove as close as I could until the roads were too slippery then stopped, and waited. After half an hour the sun appeared from behind the cloud and lit up the snow, but a portion of the cloud blanket was still over part of the mountain, I was going to wait until it cleared to get full blue skies but I liked the look of the low cloud passing the summit, it had atmospheric drama, so I wasted no more time and sent the drone up for a look.

The view from above was stunning, the mountain covered in snow with a fine veil of low cloud and fog illuminated by the sun and there perfectly placed between two peaks was a glory. A glory tends to form on fog and can only be seen by an observer from above the fog, such as on a mountain or plane, they are often seen by drone too, however the sun needs to be out to get one, they are caused by sunlight reflecting/refracting through water droplets, they take the form of a coloured ring with a shadow at centre called a Brocken Spectre.

I've never captured a glory over scenery like this and especially with snow so this is a first for me, this image is a crop from another wide angle capture.

I was recording footage and stopping for stills, as I moved around I was treated to atmospheric magic!

Almost like volcanic steam venting over the summit from some epoch when Dinosaurs ruled the Earth or an ice age event from the past.

Battery was starting to get low in such cold air, I slowly began to descend but couldn't help stopping for a few more images.

For a grand finale I flew alongside the mighty peaks on this famous mountain, the low cloud and fog back-lit by the sun drifting eerily across the peaks was a pleasure to watch. Finally I landed the drone buzzing for the second time this day, I packed away the gear, made my way across the snow-covered coastal route and began my drive home before sunset and without incident.

Drone footage of the stunning snow curtains from the cell approaching Garvagh during the morning showing different aspects of the cell over time.

Drone footage of 'ice age Binevenagh' with fog and glory.

This turned out to be a highly rewarding first Winter chase of the year, however it wasn't over yet, I would be chasing again over the next two days so please take a look at the next report in the 2024 section for more. During the early hours of the 18th the first lightning of the year took place over the northern Sperrins not far from the coast, it was a thundersnow event, the convective season was now fully underway. Thanks very much for reading.


Martin McKenna

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