May 21st 2009. The weather has been action packed in N. Ireland over the last four days with thunderstorms breaking out like clockwork. A Sly, then Wly unstable airmass was over the country during the period with CAPE values around 600 and an LI of -3, which when combined with strong solar heating generated some good storms. Many people got to experience some action. Storms with hail and flooding affected the regions to the S, SE, and E of the Lough Neagh basin including Belfast where the rainfall was so intense that sewage had been forced up onto the public roads. Then on May 20th Connla Young photographed a nice funnel cloud at 19.00 BST from several miles outside Ballyronan, Co. Derry looking in the direction of Toome, so there was plenty going on. For me though it was not so successful with the first two days producing no storms at all, on the 20th things picked up a little when a loud rumble of thunder was heard over Maghera after 20.00 which actually caught me off guard at the time since it was so late in the evening. The cell which produced it was not photogenic but had a very dark base with rotating inflow, so I thought at the time that perhaps my luck was about to change. This is not to say that I didn't see some good stuff on the previous days, in fact, I was very impressed by the huge updraught towers which seemed to explode into the sky during the afternoon with plenty of rotation and dynamic scud inflow to keep me busy for a long time. May 21st was the last day of the convective period so I had high hopes. The forecast again had N. Ireland as the main region of interest in the UK with a risk of weak funnel clouds and tornadoes from any surface based storms which developed.
I got up early and was slightly disappointed to see that the CAPE values had been downgraded somewhat with only a 36% chance of storms which wasn't good at all. N. Ireland was still in the risk box though but lack of solar heating was making me very concerned. The thought of having four bust days in a row was depressing. During the late morning the radar showed some moderate strength showers moving in from the W and I reckoned they would soon reach here. I went out to a good country location to watch them come in while hoping against all odds that they would turn electrical when they arrived. A cell arrived over the Sperrins and headed straight for me, it had a large dark gust front with poor structure however the precip falling from it looked heavy. Within a few min's well defined silver curtains where dropping and I knew there was hail forming, so at least this cell was convective. It arrived over Maghera with shocking intensity, even though the hail stones were small, the force with which they fell was really impressive. I had to take shelter in a derelict building as the place got battered. It was a nasty one. Once it passed through mammatus could be seen on the anvil, considering this was just after 12.00 things could only get better once the Sun got higher. It didn't, everything turned mushy and the updraughts lacked so much energy that they couldn't even brake through the cap, feeling bitter I went home and gave up, it was hopeless.
During the late afternoon I got a text message alerting me to thunderstorms over Maghaberry again which put me back on the alert but a quick check out the window showed nothing of interest again. The storms/showers were expected to weaken during the evening anyway so it seemed the show was over. At 19.00 I watched the BBC Newsline forecast and heard that the Met Office had issued a weather warning for slow moving thundery showers over Co. Down and Co. Antrim which took me by surprise because the radar was showing no intense echoes in that area. Over Maghera the sky was gloomy with outflow rubbish and no structures to speak of. I had promised myself that this year I would not let bust days get to me, and that they were to be expected, after all it happens to everyone, however when you are really into this subject it can be a major let down. One day is OK, however four in a row was a bitter pill to swallow. I felt let down by the sky because I had invested so much time and energy over these last four days trying to catch something cool, and with complete modesty, I felt like I deserved to see something interesting, I really believed I would get rewarded on this day...sigh.
By 19.00 I was looking at the radar and feeling angry at the sky then my Mum asked me if I wanted to go to Ballyronan with her because she was going to take our Dog for a walk around the Lough. I thought it was a good idea since nothing else was happening, and besides there's always plenty of photo opps in that area, I had nothing to loose. Just as we where getting into the car I was shocked to see a cluster of huge convection moving in from the W over the Sperrin Mountains and heading for Maghera. It was an impressive scene with numerous towering updraughts exploding upwards to tremendous heights. I couldn't understand why this was happening, the Sun was well passed the meridian so the peak heating period was over. Maybe it was the late evening Sun, or stored heat from earlier getting released again, or perhaps orographic lifting, whatever the case there was good convection going up over a wide area and I couldn't help but feel excited at the possibilities. The convective forecast had been wrong because convective activity was expecting to die out during the evening, now it was obvious this was better than anything I had seen all day. I was tempted to stay in Maghera but since I said I would go to Ballyronan I stuck to my word. This would later prove to me a great decision.
Just leaving home here, that's the Station Road, Coleraine Road runs from L to R in the distance. We briefly pulled over for a look, I quickly rolled down the window and took a few snaps of the convection. This is just a section of that cluster of big cu heading in, all back-lit by the lowering Sun. Looking W. I need to underscore the issue that these were MUCH bigger than they appear on the wide images, and that goes for everything on here.
When we reached Ballyronan, Co. Derry, it was obvious that something big had recently passed through because the roads were completely drenched. When we crested a hill and had a break in the hedge rows which lined the road side we could see the culprit which had produced that down pour. It was a large cell which was in the process of crossing over the Lough heading for the E shore and it looked a nasty piece of work. We pulled into the car park at Ballyronan Marina, on the NW shore of Lough Neagh, with the nose of the car facing directly E providing a clear view at the rear of the cell. We actually became transfixed by the sight of it and just sat in the car watching, it really dominated the sky to the extent that other members of the public were watching it also from their own cars. The Sun was breaking out in the W behind me so I was thinking there could be the chance of a nice bow forming on the rain so I got my camera at the ready.
There was alot going on here. The cell is moving directly away from us, slowly, it was extremely dark in the region where the precip was falling, above this, in the inflow area was a complex mess of inflow cloud, scud tendrils, all underneath a very large wall cloud. The area below the wall cloud was an eerie dark blue colour, while the wall cloud was a tone of white when it caught the Sun, above this, shades of pink could be seen on the rear flank. There was considerable motion evident under that wall cloud so I jokingly said to my Mum, ''wouldn't it be cool if a funnel came out of that''...a few min's later one did!. I couldn't believe my luck, the last time I was here in April I watched a great thunderstorm over this very same stretch of Lough, and this evening there was a funnel forming. I rolled down the passenger window, stuck my camera out and began snapping, occasionally using the wing mirror for support. The following images are a selection of the many I took, I have annotated the features to help new spotters understand what's happening, I have also included the time on each image. I have pointed out the funnel on the above image, it was lurking within that mess and pointing down, keep an eye on that area for now on.
At first I was unsure due to the low contrast light, but within a few min's I was certain, and even my Mum noticed it to. A thick tubular form dropped down, which to me looked like a bloated worm which was clearly rotating, not just spinning, the funnel was changing in both shape and girth. When the above image was taken the funnel was pointing down but also towards me so it appears foreshortened, it had also bent downwards towards the Lough while spinning away. It's just LOC on the image, the dark feature. The arrow points towards it's snout. It was visible between 20.22 and 20.32 BST, 10 min's in duration. This is the second funnel I have seen this May, however it was the least photogenic one I have seen since 2007. It's actually quite a large and impressive funnel, but observed in some of the worst conditions. Ironically this was the best place to have seen it. Had I been looking at the cell from the N, it would have been hidden by precip, If I was S it would have been blocked by the wall cloud, E would have shown the gust front and precip and nothing more, so viewing from the W was the perfect place to be. Now I was glad I went to Ballyronan.
Here the funnel can clearly be seen at centre with a very nice bend, the snout is facing me and down at the Lough at the same time. It was rotating so fast that the white scud in the area was wrapping around it. The scud from the R, under the wall cloud, was getting dragged across to the L and getting caught around the funnel. If you compare this image with the image below you will see this happening in dramatic fashion, look at the time, this process happened within the same min.
Still in the same min. Note how the rotating funnel has dragged the scud across from the R, with the snout of the funnel now wrapped in scud completely has if it had been dipped in cotton wool. This was amazing to watch. Not all funnel clouds are visible in high contrast situations against a clear sky background, some are hidden in cloud or within precip curtains, which is why there are probably many which go missed in this country. Funnel clouds like these require an experienced trained eye to see, however in ALL cases, obvious rotation needs to be observed. Rotation is easy to see on any good funnel, however if it's a large distance away it may not be so evident, a pair of 7x50mm or 10x50mm binoculars are needed to identify these kind of funnels.
Still 20.25 BST, within the same min again, notice how the shape of the scud has changed again due to the rotation. During the last few images the funnel has straightened out and is now pointing away to my R (S) at a slight angle. Compare with the first few images and this changing shape and angle will jump out at you. I wish I had taken video now when I look back on this, but I couldn't do two things at once. I would like to get a digital camcorder for situations like this, I could set it up on the car roof and press record and leave it alone while I concentrated on the still images. This is something I should look into in the future. A long video clip speeded up would show the rotation and it's interaction with the scud perfectly.
Vertical shot. Funnel is now quite substantial and pointing back down towards the Lough.
Two min's later and the funnel has retreated back up into the cell quite quickly. The dark bump at centre is all that remains.
Zooming into the same region one min later. At this stage I thought the show was over so we got out from the car and began to walk along the shore line.
Three min's later I looked back towards the cell and got a shock. The funnel had gone back down again for a second time and was now very close to the surface. I quickly snapped this shot. You can clearly see it just to the ROH actually within the falling precip. The dark funnel is bent at almost a 90 degree angle half way down with the bottom section of the spout pointing vertical towards the ground. I'm not certain if at this moment in time it was above land, or over the Lough on the other side, if the latter case then this could be a possible waterspout!. I would never be able to confirm it unless someone else saw it from that location. The bright white area catching the Sun to the upper L is a section of one of the updraught towers at the top of the cell which has just popped out during a clearance in the mid level cloud.
My last shot of this funnel with a little more zoom. I have marked the upper and lower sections of the tube incase anyone can't see it. It has the classic 'tornadic' shape here. Soon after it became so dark under there with the precip so dense that I could no longer see it. By this stage I was on a high, even though it was seen in challenging conditions, and unfriendly for the camera, it was a beauty to watch. Nature really is amazing. I have seen many funnel clouds from Maghera over the last three years and have become very experienced in the visual observation of these vortex's, but I have to say, this evening I had to call upon everything I have learned over the years to recognize this for what it was, it's at times like these that you understand why you have put in so much time observing the sky, it all comes together, your skill and experience all convergence on a single moment in time and it all pays of. It made me understand that even those bust days are all part of the visual training because everything you have learned will be called upon to help you when you most need it, so in that context, you are never wasting your time when observing the sky, it all adds up, and you will get rewarded at some stage, and very often when you least expect it, so always keep observing and learn from what you see. Also, it pays to really understand your storm structures, spending time researching these on the net is time well spent, by having a good foundation you will not be let down when it comes to crunch time, however if you don't understand your structures then you won't know what your looking at and may not recognize these transient events.
The Sun came out for good and produced some wonderful scenes over the Lough. A wonderful primary and secondary bow against a back drop of stunning sunlit clouds. It was amazing to see the reflection of both bows stretching across the entire surface of the Lough to where I was standing.
The bows were complete arcs but this side was the most spectacular. Supernumerary arcs formed on the inside. The bows stayed visible for a very long time, possibly the longest duration I have ever witnessed. My Mum was blown away by the scene. The Lough was so calm and peaceful with Trout rising out of the water to catch flies leaving a huge circular ripple on the surface. They were doing this constantly, every time you heard a splash you could catch sight of the Trout's head or tail above the water. Some of the smaller Trout where jumping completely out.
Using tree branches to frame the bow. The outer edge of the bow was slightly reddened by the low Sun.
This was such a cool scene, primary bow with great clouds complete with reflections on the water. Those back dots are the famous Lough Neagh Fly, they come out in dense swarms in their millions each May and are unique in the country to this Lough. They can be really uncomfortable though, they go in your ears, nose, eyes, and even into your mouth if you have it open. More on page two.