Rare December Cold Spell & Eagle's Rock Snow Scenes - December 8th 2022

I honestly have to say that December has taken me completely by surprise. After a long year of mild weather, cloudy skies, and little in the way of photo opportunities the last month of the year has turned the elemental tables and presented us weather photographers with an unexpected bounty of Winter scenes. I fondly recall a long range weather expert on twitter confidently stating that there would be no snow or cold weather in Ireland this year, and at the time of this statement in November I had to agree that he would probably be rite, after all, there was not even a hint of anything seasonal showing on the models so I resigned myself to the fact that the year would end on a grey mild note, I was already looking forward to starting a fresh new year in 2023.

Then by early December out of nowhere the models were showing a potent cold spell which could affect UK and Ireland, first with an Ely flow then a Nly, however as is the case with fantasy island model watching one often tempers their hopes as more often than not the outcome is seldom realized, we just don't want to be bitten by the cold outlook let-down so I decided to keep my self control and not get excited, anyway it would more than likely change closer to the time and the warm Atlantic would win the battle. However I was secretly watching model discussion experts on twitter, including the ever passionate Winter-loving 'snowbie' and I soon began enjoying the daily updates and discussion on the empending cold spell. During this period I was really craving Winter scenes to shoot, first of all it would be a fantastic chance for photo opportunities, I was really keen to get the drone in the air again to film snow in the Sperrins, and second of all the thought of any Winter scenes at all on the run up to Christmas would simply be perfection.

I'm one of those people who believes in the law of attraction, so I jokingly informed my mates that I was putting my snow shovel in the van in an attempt to attract the white gold, little did I know then that I would be filming snow only two days later! The models were locked in, cold and seasonal weather was coming however I honestly wasn't expecting much due to the fact it was high pressure and calm and cold, if we could get a few crisp sunny days with frost out of it then I would be happy enough in the meantime. Then December 8th was flagged on the GFS and other models, Polar air would be advecting down across Ireland with -9 uppers with perfect calm conditions. Sub zero temps were expected for several nights and even during the day, however what got my interest was the charts showing snow showers over the Sperrins, however more on that in a moment.

On the night of the 7th I was in my element, the sky was beautiful and clear with that classic dark blue twilight glow fading away into clean darkness. A frost had formed rapidly and the air was dead still, I had an instinct during this moment that this cold spell was going to produce, I couldn't put my finger on why however my instincts were telling me to be ready. I got the Mavic 2 Pro in the air and took this exposure of the lights of Cookstown in Co. Tyrone, that's the two main roads leading into town, the main carriageway on the right and the back road to the left which leads to the Old Coagh road. This was 2 sec's at ISO 400, the perfect still air really helped the drone hold its position exceptionally well.

That night I didn't sleep well in anticipation of seeing the first snow of the season. There was no CAPE so any showers would be weak which was a big let down, furthermore the charts only showed a few scattered high ground snow showers, however on a positive note these would be most prolific over the Sperrins and the lowest temps and shower frequency were peaking at dawn and the first part of the morning. The reality was that there would more than likely be a dusting of snow on the hills and that would be it, would there even be enough for the drone to film?, I decided to trust my instincts and go snow chasing first thing in the morning.

I was up early under cover of darkness, my Dog Rhua joined me in the passenger seat, I packed a flask and snacks then we hit the road, the plan was to arrive on location at first light. I took the back roads outside Draperstown then entered the village of Moneyneany at the foot of the Sperrins, a region notorious for snow. Dawn had arrived and I could make out some snow on the hills however there wasn't enough ambient light to tell yet. I found a car park near a local chapel and waited. I had a warm mug of tea and Downtown radio was playing Christmas music constantly so the atmosphere was great, I decided if I got any snow at all then this day would be a success. Then the sky suddenly turned extremely moody, a huge snow shower appeared over the hills in front of me, the sun had just rose and lit the entire precip core into this surreal orange colour, it looked more like a sand storm, I got out into the crisp morning air and snapped this image for the record.

A brief clearance followed then the sun began to creep a little higher, another snow shower appeared in a menacing manner over the Eagle's Rock section of Mullaghmore lit into this delightful yellow-gold colour. I got the drone in the air, first flight of the morning, quite a cool scene, you can't beat being out early to get these scenes in Winter.

Panning the drone 180 degrees to the left, that's the other end of this snow shower's precip core on the flank of Moneyneany. The golden hour sunrise light was fantastic, however I was pleasantly shocked at the amount of snow showers passing through, far more than I had anticipated and more than any of the models showed, this cold air mass was really digging its heels in. I could see the snow on the mountains and really wanted to get the drone up, however every time I thought about it another snow shower or low cloud would appear so I had to stay grounded, it might seem silly being so excitable about getting my first drone footage of snow this Winter, however this really is a big deal or me.

It began snowing heavily, in fact, very heavy with big puffy flakes and due to the slow nature of the breeze (dead calm) the snow showers took a long time to pass which was great news, I couldn't get in the air but at least with every passing minute more snow was being deposited on the hills which would only enhance the photogenic potential when it did clear. Colleen Webb rang me, she was chasing on Glenshane Pass and was under the same heavy snow shower, she too was surprised by the activity, she confirmed the cell over us was red on radar which explained the intensity of the snow.

At this moment in time I was glad I had made the decision to commit to this day, now here I was sitting cosy in the van, heater on, big flakes of snow falling from the sky and pattering against my window while Cliff Richard sang Mistletoe and Wine, this was the experience I wanted, I just needed to get in the air soon and I would be content. The cell cleared, I saw subtle mammatus on the rear end and the sun lit up the landscape revealing a white dusting in the car park. I took Rhua for a walk, she loves the snow and was soon trotting through it and rolling in it. Then suddenly a cool sight appeared over the hills in the form of an isolated but very dramatic snow shower majestically draping a curtain of snow across Eagle's Rock, I raced back to the van and got the drone in the air as fast as I could and managed to get a few stills and video sequences, those snow curtains were huge in height.

Very close to the drone here, you can see the mottled structure of the snow flakes within the cascading streamers. I was quite chuffed with this scene to be honest, at least if nothing else happened then I wouldn't be going home empty handed, however I was for sticking it out for the rest of the day, so far the omens were good.

The cell brushed past me and the sky was still clear facing Moneyneany so I did a flight in that direction, fine snow flakes were still falling through the air on the drone, you can make out the streaks on the image. Just as I began a filming session the sky clouded over again with more snow so I had to abandon the session and get back to the comfort of the van.

I spent another hour waiting for the snow to stop and for the clouds to break, it wasn't just that I needed it to be dry to fly, but I also wanted good light so I had to be disciplined. A third mug of decaf tea was taken, more snacks, and listening to constant Christmas music, this time 'The Power of Love' by Frankie Goes To Hollywood, I love that song. It was a long hour because of the cold, my van doesn't heat up well when sitting idle so over time the warm air tends to become cooler air, my feet were freezing in the foot well from lack of activity, I really needed some action soon. Suddenly a brief clearance appeared between two snow showers, the Mavic went vertical again, I could now see the summit had a good covering and the low topped cold air convection looked nice against the blue skies.

This is Eagle's Rock, also known as 'Craig-na-Shoke' which means 'Rock of the Falcon or Hawks' in the Sperrins, the most distinctive feature of this side of the mountain is of course this vertical cliff face, the area always looks dramatic in the Winter. I kept thinking that maybe I should drive on somewhere else, perhaps on up the Birren or to Glenshane to see what the views were like but I became really fixated on Eagle's Rock, I had been starring at it all morning and watched it transition from darkness, to orange, then to brilliant white, it also looked stunning and seemed to be the best landscape in sight so I remained committed, I didn't care how long it took, I was going to get drone footage of this area. The sun lit up the face of the mountain in an instant as if a great torch had been turned on, I got outside with the DSLR and 100-400mm lens and got this image, flakes of snow were still falling from the sky.

Same scene at 15mm wide angle on full frame with full snow shower on view, this actually looked quite cool at the time, low topped convection was really trying despite the limited instability. Convection will still occur when you get freezing air passing over a warmer ocean, then as the towers move inland meeting colder surface air the precip turns more readily to snow. I waited for another hour due to low cloud, I simply couldn't get a break in the weather, so a new tactic was 'change your location, change your luck' so I left Moneyneany village and drove up the Birren road, half way up I hit ice and spun out and couldn't get any further so I reversed into a lay by half way up the mountain, took Rhua for a walk in the snow, and waited.

Nigel Mc Farland rang me to report that the radar showed the heavy snow shower which was over me would be clearing soon, there looked to be a decent clearance on radar so this was the moment I had been waiting for. Half an hour later the clearance moved in to reveal a Winter wonderland, here's the view facing Eagle's Rock face, I couldn't believe how beautiful it was, the long wait had been worth it.

After three hours of waiting I was finally in the air and the Mavic 2 Pro was in its element, timing was perfect, fantastic light, vivid blue skies, crisp air, no wind, and snow covered everything with pockets of freezing mist over sections of the mountain. Eagle's Rock facing N towards the tower at Mullaghmore, I will confess, I was absolutely buzzing.

ER and the southern section of Mullaghmore. I can tell you there's nothing like flying a drone over snow, and especially over mountain snow, I literally can't wait to get doing this every Winter, and its not too often the conditions all come together for a good scene with beautiful light and elements suitable for drone flying.

This was beyond anything I had expected this day, I estimated 1-2cm on the ground where I was standing and 1-2 inches on high ground. The Birren Road is in that valley to the left, and straight ahead facing north beyond Mullaghmore is the famous Glenshane Pass. As I admired the aerial view via the tablet screen Shakin Stevens was singing 'Merry Christmas Everyone' on the radio, it was a fitting song for this special moment. Believe it or not but potent cold spells and laying snow is quite rare for N. Ireland during December, especially before Christmas. The last time this happened was 2017 (for 1 day) and the infamous 2010 severe Winter, so this was a truly magical moment.

I landed the drone, removed the battery and slotted in a new one which had been in the van warming up, the light was fabulous so I wasted no time and got the drone back in the air. I was between two mountains in the Sperrins, Mullaghmore and Moneyneany, so this time I flew to the latter. I took many stills and video footage then landed before low battery RTH kicked in. This chase had been a success, it was now 13.00 and I began driving back home feeling content and happy.

I stopped at Lough Fea, I couldn't pass it as the scenes were just too beautiful. The lough was surrounded by snow and the Sperrins beyond (where I had been) looked striking wearing it's Winter coat. Using the DSLR and 100-400mm lens I shot these scenes looking across the lough to the Moneyneany area. Surface based convective snow showers where slowly drifting over the hills, sections of low cloud and freezing mist hung across portions of the summit and the crisp clean sky aloft really brought back memories of 2010.

I don't know what it was but 2010 was in my mind, these scenes reminded me of that remarkable period, maybe it was the look of the clouds and sky or the frigid quality of the air, there was just something about this set-up which had similarities to what I felt back then. I'm not saying this was of the caliber of 2010, however certain elements of this cold spell had those traits.

400mm into the summit and low snow clouds, you can almost imagine someone skiing down the slope. I then called it a day and headed home, little did I know it then but this lough would completely freeze over within a couple of days!

I know this isn't a nice thing to say given the current energy crisis and people struggling to pay fuel bills and stay warm (I'm also in that category), but I fell in love with this cold spell from this day forth. It was like a perfect dream cold event and the visual scenes were just fantastic, in the days and nights which followed I had some special visual memories. Seeing harsh frost day and night, zero or sub zero temps every day and night, completely clear skies, dead calm, crisp frosty air and crunchy ground with white all over the landscape.

I recall doing shopping in Cookstown after the December 8th snow chase, it was dusk, and I as I was driving the view of the landscape and horizon reminded me of Ice Road Truckers. The sun had just set, a few early stars and planets were appearing, the sky had that remarkable deep blue twilight glow with a pink tinge below on the horizon to the east, the vivid clean colours was like a scene from a Christmas card, then among this amazing back ground where three tall updraught towers with growing anvils lit pink against the dark blue, these where from snow showers over the North Channel miles away, I saw a similar scene in 2010.

Another good memory was December 9th when my Dad and I had spent the afternoon hanging the out door Christmas lights on the tall trees in our front and back gardens, this is a two man job, with one person feeding the lights and the other using a pole and step ladder to get the lights on the branches. Normally when we are doing this before Christmas its either grey, mild, windy or raining, but this time was a rare deviation from the norm. As we finished it was dusk again and that beautiful deep blue Arctic sky had descended over us, against this in the sky was our cool white Christmas lights with stars and planet Mars and Jupiter watching down on us, it really was a magical moment, it kind of reminded me of Clarke Griswold and his Son putting on the lights in 'National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation' so this was a very nice memory.

Another good memory was Saturday in Cookstown street. Dad and I had met in a local cafe for a hot chocolate then we went for a walk through the town. The atmosphere was fantastic, the town was really buzzing, people were in high spirits, a busker was singing in the street, Christmas music blared from the Burnavon and markets in the street were selling decorations, cakes, sweets, and reefs, it was a fantastic festive atmosphere and do you know the reason why? - the weather. All this was happening under crisp skies, dry air but with severe frost on the ground, people's breaths were condensing in the air, it felt like proper festive weather and I firmly believe this put people in good form despite the cold.

Vlog and drone footage showing the scenic flight over snow-covered Mullaghmore with Eagle's Rock

Last flight over Moneyneany showing the summit and landscape of the Sperrins. Both videos best watched at 1080p HD, or better still watch them from my youtube channel on your smart tv for a better experience.

This cold spell was far from over, in fact, at the time of writing it remained locked in with us for two weeks and brought sub zero temps every day and the coldest minimum temps since 2010, so perhaps my instincts had been rite. However the best scenes had yet to come when a remarkable and beautiful hoar frost event covered Co. Tyrone and Co. Fermanagh bringing stunning photo opportunities, as a result I spent two more days chasing, the details of these chases will be the subject of my next report. Thanks very much for reading.


Martin McKenna

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