July 6th 2011 and yet another storm chase on the agenda. The set-up looked good with moderate to high CAPE values across N. Ireland with plenty of moisture and lift from several troughs so it looked like a day of decent thunderstorms. Due to speed shear there was potential for updraught/downdraught separation and hence the potential for more organised storms. Several convergence zones increased the risk of funnel clouds and weak tornadoes however the main restriction could be lack of solar heating so on the whole it looked like a decent chase day and I was ready to go. During the morning I re-checked the charts and monitored the situation until I could locate a possible chase area and then hit the road. There's nothing I hate more than sitting around looking at a computer when I can't wait to get outside after something, however I have learned over the last few years to restrain that compulsion and adopt a more strategic method. So as the hours ticked away things changed rapidly, the Met Office had issued an amber warning for heavy thundery showers with a risk of flooding and by late morning it was plain to see that the W section of N. Ireland was where the action was. Radar showed a cluster of showers and cells over the W and N of the country with red echoes indicating strong precip cores which where probably young storms waiting to mature and become electrified and in that kind of environment they could be producing funnel clouds. A last check on the radar showed that the central, E, and S portions of the country were sunny and completely devoid of anything so it was obvious that W was best.
After getting fuel and a cold drink at the local filling station I began the drive towards high ground up the Glenshane Pass and continued in that direction. My plan was to head W towards Derry then make a turn and head N towards the coast and follow the coastline until I saw something interesting. That U-shaped drive would take me directly underneath those strong radar echoes and in close proximity to others so it would be a perfect location to be, I felt very confident however I began to have my doubts when I passed through Dungiven and lost the sun to mid level clouds which looked worryingly non convective and just shy of Derry city I pulled off the road and studied the sky for some inspiration.
The overcast sky broke and a clear gap yawned open to reveal the top of a huge cell to my N which was likely over the N coast so I made a turn and headed N through more mountain roads with treacherous tight bends. I arrived near the coast at Magilligan and it was then that I realised I had been suckered by the radar because the sky was absolutely rubbish to the highest degree, yes the radar was correct because there was an abundance of heavy precip cores, some of which looked very threatening falling down the cliffs and mountains however there was no evidence of any storms, everything looked soupy, elevated, cold, and outflowy with no structure at all with not a single thing to shoot. I had decided then and there that it was game over, the forecast hadn't panned out and was probably killed by cloud cover and lack of heating so I blew off the chase and went for a long wet walk along the beach to get some fresh air and to come to terms with what was a very disappointing day, it was at times like these when you really question why you do what you do.
It was mid afternoon and I scanned the sky for some hope however it looked hopeless and with the highest CAPE values peaking in the next hour or two it was probably too late for anything to kick off so I began the drive back home. As I drove along the road parallel to the coast I had noticed a dramatic change, the sky had suddenly cleared and the sun was shinning, too little too late I thought but at least I would have a lovely hot afternoon to enjoy which was a bonus of sorts. As I approached Coleraine I glanced to the S in the direction of home and noted how remarkable the sky was, the sky was deep blue with dazzling sunshine and completely cloudless - cloudless that is except for a single compact group of white clouds on the horizon. To the untrained eye they may have looked like some white fair weather cumulus clouds however to the trained eye they where much more exceptional than that. I realised that I was looking at group of towering cumulus clouds which had suddenly come to life under the heat of the sun. It was obvious even from this distance that this was a young cell developing rapidly in an environment where it wasn't competing with any other cell which was always a good sign, furthermore I speculated half jokingly that it was over my home town of Maghera some 20+ miles away to the S of my position so I decided to make a beeline for the cell as I was going home anyway.
This beautiful cell accompanied me all the way home directly through the front windscreen and seemingly above the road in front of me and as I neared it got larger and larger in the sky. When I was on the S side of Garvagh I realised that this was bigger than I had thought and it looked like it could produce something any min. The view was fabulous before 17.00 BST with the primary updraught bulging high into the sky with a train of younger towers in the flanking area all shinning brilliant white in the sunshine. I approached town and laughed to myself because I had been correct, the cell was located directly over Maghera as I had predicted which wasn't a bad guess from 20 miles away with no radar.
I parked outside my house and walked around to the back garden to get a better look. The base of the cell was over the town itself with it's outer perimeter slowly approaching my house in the slack SWly flow. Among the dark base I could see rapidly churning clouds then suddenly a funnel formed within sec's. I watched it spin for several min's as it dragged the surrounding scud tags around with it, it began as a broad cone then transformed into a slender tube which became so fine in vertical form that it looked like a needle sticking out from the cloud base, then after 5 min's it relaxed and vanished in front of me. A funnel cloud!, I laughed at the irony, there I was away all day many miles from home looking for this vary thing and the moment I get home one appears practically over my own house!. It was not a very photogenic funnel I admit but it felt great to see one after the day I had and it's proximity to my own house made it all the more special. I was surprisingly excited by this for some reason and shouted in through the window ''funnel cloud over our house'' to which I got no response.
My Sister asked me to drive her into town to get shopping for the dinner so that's exactly what I did. As we drove through the main street our view was somewhat restricted by the buildings however overhead I could see a wonderful updraught base below the same cell which had produced the funnel which had great structure but I couldn't study it properly while keeping my eye on the road at the same time. We pulled into the local Eurospar car park and my Sister got out to do the shopping, I casually put down the window to get some fresh air inside the hot car and glanced to my W and said ''holy crap!!'', another funnel cloud was visible hanging from that very same updraught base, that cell had produced a second which was now clearly visible over the W side of town and from my vantage point it was rotating not far from Eurospar's roof, I suspected from its position it was likely twisting over Glen filling station. I couldn't believe my eyes and had to react fast, I was kicking myself because this was a beautiful photogenic rope funnel and I knew that if I got back in the car and chased after it then it would be gone before I got any images so I stayed put and tried to get what I could from the car park. The frame of the above image is filled with the updraught base of this developing multicell, the 'updraught base' or 'rain free base' or 'inflow region' is the place to be for funnel clouds and tornadoes. The funnel can be seen at the corner of the roof belonging to the building at centre.
Another quick shot with the 18-55mm kit lens, this time at 55mm. These images don't do it justice at all, with the naked eye it looked spectacular like a slim snake spinning and morphing in real time, I was so angry with myself for not being more switched on because I could have had stunning images of this over a nice country location instead of these ugly buildings, however with funnels you have to use what you have because they rarely last long. I watched as the funnel bent in two places along the rope while rotating upon its axis which made it look like a living breathing creature so the snake comparison was a good one. If you look very carefully you can see the slender snout extending far to the LHS from the darker clouds into the bright sunlit portion of sky, it was probably several hundred feet long and I suspected I was the only one in town who had noticed it.
The rope funnel became longer and slender and I knew it wouldn't last long but should I take a chance by taking out my telephoto lens?, I took that chance, unlocked the boot, removed my kit bag where the Canon 100-400mm IS USM lens was located and attached it to my 450D, luckily the process had taken sec's and I swung the camera back towards the funnel. This image was at 210mm and through the viewfinder the funnel was awesome has it spun at a surprising velocity which betrayed the naked eye view.
This is a crop from another telephoto frame. The funnel has a portion of cloud wrapped around the tube which could be seen spinning as the funnel bulged and shrank before turning into a short translucent tube then the rope funnel roped out leaving two barely visible tubes hanging below the base before fading from view, I had been watching it for 3-4 min's. My Sister appeared with the shopping bags and I told her about the funnel I just seen above the town which actually did surprise her.
I decided that dinner would have to wait so my Sister I went on another chase through the local area in pursuit of that same cell, I reckoned if it could do it twice then a third time was not out of the question. I headed W out of town and near the Glen Road then popped out onto the main Glenshane road at the bottom of Glenshane Pass. I drove along the main road and soon forgot about my old cell when I spotted another on the verge of maturing at close range to the SW so I pulled off the busy road feeling glad to have escaped the rush hour traffic and parked up on the hard shoulder not far from the Oak Leave restaurant and filling station. The passing cars where moving so fast that their slip streams rocked the car so I got out and quickly moved over to the safe side of the car. It was evident that I was parked between two cells, my old one to the N still over the town which was getting bigger by the min and this new one to the SW moving towards me, I was in a perfect position to watch them both so I stayed here for a while and did just that. The above image shows one side of the SW cell with good separation between its base and young precip core and as I watched I saw a very brief translucent funnel from the base to the R of centre as a white slender lowering which I could clearly see rotating without optical aid. I fired off several images however my auto focus was having problems and by the time I got it sorted the funnel had gone leaving me with this structure shot for the memory. I asked my Sister if she had seen the funnel but she hadn't, this was funnel number three and my smile was getting bigger as the day went on. Overhead I could see the central tower of the cell leaning forward over the main road which looked fantastic in the late afternoon sun. On an impulse I realised I had been distracted and had forgotten to have a look at my old cell so I turned around to check it out.
Unbelievable, a large well defined funnel cloud was hanging down from the flanking area of the cell in the form of a bold white-colored tube which was spinning away merrily above the tree tops, I couldn't believe it, this same cell had now produced three funnels. This was looking N across the main Glenshane Road in the direction of Maghera and was probably near the town or even over it, I wondered if anyone else it noticed?, if only they had known that three times this cell had tried to drop a tornado over the town!. This funnel didn't need a trained eye to see as it was a striking sight and easily visible to anyone who bothered to look up. On came the zoom lens again and I got this one at 115mm, shame about the power lines though.
220mm, the view through the lens was spectacular, it was spinning as fast as a drum in a washing machine and this time my Sister saw it, this would be her first ever funnel cloud sighting. I took many images until the funnel seemed to retract back into the base then I lost it behind inflow clouds. I quickly checked the times on my images which confirmed what I had suspected, that was four funnel clouds I saw over the Maghera area within 35 min's and three of them came from the came cell, the table had certainly turned for today was now a resounding success.
We got back on the road again and chased after the SW cell which was looking good so we got to the top of Glenshane Pass then took the small road and parked near the fields approx 1000ft above sea level to check out the view. I got into a field with camera in hand with the SW cell behind me and almost over the car (image) however it now looked outflow dominant and hadn't became electrified so it had suckered me this time. However straight ahead to the N was my old cell which had never let me down, it was now a fully formed multicell thunderstorm with a huge anvil sweeping across the sky and from down below in the distance I could hear angry thunder rumbling away from its precip core as it trekked N over Swatragh, Garvagh, Coleraine, and towards the N coast, the cell must have exploded under the intense sunshine on a convergence zone and put on quite a show, I am sure it put down more funnels too but I would never know for sure. I was tempted to chase it but it was well on its way N so I let it go feeling very content with what it produced, it had been a fitting end to an exciting day and this time the drive home was a good one. Thanks very much for reading.