This was my second trip storm chasing in Co. Fermanagh within a couple of weeks and without question my longest chase from home to date. The weather set up this year has been very different from what we typically would expect so the storm season thus far has been rather muted because of a synoptic pattern similar to what we had during the Winter months which resulted in us having colder than average temps with wind directions coming from the NE, N, and NW with the former two most prevalent, it seems we have got stuck in this cold pattern for months, according to the Met Office this was the coldest Spring in N. Ireland for 31 years, we should be getting warm Sly and SWly flows which generate our very best storms, when this happens cells can form down S, grow and organise as they move NE which then cross into N. Ireland during prime heating time as mature storms. However due to these different flows in conjunction with below average sea surface temps (SSTs) the unstable air has moved away from my normal storm hunting grounds leaving stable air at home, however miles away to the SW of N. Ireland is where all the instability (CAPE) had propagated. I said myself I had two choices, I could sit at home missing everything and complain about the lack of storms or I could push the boat out and make that extra bit of effort and hunt in far away grounds, so being an optimist that's exactly what I had decided to do.
During my first chase to Fermanagh I busted, I drove 150 miles and spent 9 hours behind the wheel, I was all over Fermanagh near Belleek, Kesh, and at one stage I was only 15 miles S of Donegal then I turned around and went back to central Fermanagh. I didn't get anything really photogenic although I did encounter many cells however it seemed a capping inversion, lack of forcing, and no surface convergence killed the day, but I have to say I absolutely enjoyed the chase, it was an absolute thrill to break out from my comfort zone and explore new territory not to mention the wonderful countryside. Despite no photo rewards I found the chase a very positive experience and considered it a success on a mental level and I vowed I would be back again in the near future the next time a decent set-up presented itself.
On May 28th Fermanagh seemed to be calling to me once again, I had my eye on this area for 48 hours previous to this and already decided to go in my mind however on the morning of the 28th I was certain I would be going for the morning GFS model run had upgraded the potential. The entire SW of N. Ireland down across the border into W Ireland was prime territory with the best instability of the year so far sporting CAPE values between 700 and 1000 with LIs between -2 and -3 with a trough moving in from the W/SW over coastal areas behind an overnight front and with good surface heating expected there was a high chance of thunderstorms. Wind shear profiles were very weak and the temp-dew point spread was fairly large which indicated that storm bases would be very high, this factor alone almost put me off going as high based storms are rarely photogenic, however on the plus side the models showed surface based CAPE during the evening time so there was as chance that some cells could get rooted and lower later in the day. What sold this day for me was the presence of convergence which is one of my favourite ingredients for storms, I usually get excited if this is included in any convective forecast. Convergence or a convergence zone is an area where wind from different directions meet or 'converge' which acts as a lifting mechanism forcing air to rise which can easily trigger storms, also in slack environments when surface winds are weak or calm you have a good possibility of getting funnel clouds and convergence zone tornadoes so this sold the day for me, my own personal forecast areas were Omagh and Co. Fermanagh so I decided to target the latter.
The chase was on, my Mum is now retired so I decided to take her along with me as well as our Dog 'Rua' for the day out plus it would be company for me too on the long drive. The clouds from the front were breaking and the sun was coming through and I knew that solar heating would soon get to work, the best CAPE would be moving into my target area at midday and peak between 15.00 and 18.00 BST so we needed to leave early to get on location so we left Maghera just after 10.00 and hit the road heading S with the car packed with gear, snacks, and a flask of brew, we stopped outside Omagh in the amazing open countryside to let Rua out to the bathroom and spent some time in the company of a lovely Stallion and Mare who seemed to be delighted we had arrived to give them company although Rua wasn't to sure and was barking away at them. The drive was very pleasant and before 12.00 we had arrived in Fermanagh. I have always loved Fermanagh, when I was younger my family and I would take a holiday there for a week or two during May staying in a caravan fishing on our boat on Lower Lough Erne and the River Erne catching Trout, Salmon, and even the annoying Perch, these were all happy memories for me, in my mind's eye I can still see and feel the sound of the water, the click click of the fishing reel and the soothing sound of the road and line slicing through the air then with a flick of the wrist the dry fly called a 'Spent Knat' would gently settle onto the surface of the lough and with a gentle tug on the line cause motion rings around it mimicking a real fly to entice a fish, I would wait in anticipation for the fish to rise. It was peaceful, exciting and special, Fermanagh will always have a special place in my heart for this reason and it felt great to be back again, in fact, my Dad was actually down here on a fishing trip during this time so he could have been anywhere in this huge area.
We had time to kill and it was turning into a beautiful day, warm, and humid with convection forming, I said to my Mum that once the better CAPE arrived around 15.00 things will start to happen. We used the time driving to various locations exploring the area such as a castle which I explored myself then we had a walk through a forest then rested near the lough shore watching German fishermen in cruisers casting from the walk ways, the sun was shining on the water and it felt wonderful. I was shocked when my Dad pulled into the car park, I couldn't believe the coincidence, I also couldn't believe he appeared at the very same area I was during this specific time interval and I'm sure he was even more shocked to see me for he didn't know I would be here this day!. It felt good to meet up, Dad told me there had been great storm clouds here yesterday and I said I was here today to look specifically for storms, it was funny because he was here hunting for Salmon and I was here hunting a big fish of a different kind, the kind that forms in the ocean of the atmosphere above, I recall saying that I hoped I catch something cool today to make the trip worth it. Mum and I then had lunch in Belleek while catching rays then we checked out Belleek Pottery, this was feeling more like a holiday at this point. While enjoying a brew I noticed that proper convection was firing in this area and moving inland so I quickly got out of holiday mode and got back in the car.
My instincts told me to move inland more so I listened to them and began a very nice drive through the countryside with the sun shinning in through the window, sunglasses on, side windows down, radio on, then at 15.00 I rounded a corner on the road and immediately saw a big funnel cloud hanging down from the base of a cell miles away in the distance, it was a shocking sight, so obvious, abrupt and impressive, I shouted out loud ''look at the funnel!!'', I quickly pulled off the road onto a large grass verge and I quickly got out, I could see the funnel rotating even from this great distance and it looked very well defined, I was in a panic because I needed to get an image before it vanished, should I just use the kit lens or take a risk and waste more time attaching the telephoto?, I took the risk and put on the Canon 100-400mm and began taking images, I was glad I reacted quickly otherwise I would have missed the most photogenic moment. Here it is with a pesky power line, we where located between Belleek and Kesh looking SE over Lusty Bay in the general direction of Enniskillen, the cell it came from was moving from R to L, you can see the precip core to the L and the rain free base on the R with a lowering/cloud collar above the funnel.
Full in at 400mm to get below the lines and despite the haze in the sky in that direction the funnel looked very clear with a nice tube, through the viewfinder I could see it rotating easily. Rua was in the back seat of the car and a little scared due to all the excitement, she didn't understand what was going on.
This is a crop from another image. The mountain in this area blocked our view of the ground so there was no way of knowing if there was contact with the surface. You don't need to see a funnel extending all the way to the ground to be a tornado, the condensation funnel is what you see in the form of cloud however the invisible vortex itself is wider and longer than what you can see here so anytime you see a funnel there is always the chance it could be a tornado which is why some need to be investigated, I wondered if there was anything on the ground from this one. I hope there were other eyewitnesses who will contact me and share their own experiences of this wonderful sight.
For me a funnel cloud or tornado is the golden trophy for any storm chase so you can imagine that I was well chuffed to have caught this one in the act, it had been rotating for 5 min's in our company and I wondered what it had been doing before we rounded that corner. Mum was just as excited as I was and was highly impressed with it, she kept commenting on what it was doing and saying ''my God'', Mum had experienced funnel clouds with me before with small funnels over Ballyronan in 2009 and 2012 however she had never seen a big one before so this was her best sight to date. I got what images I could and tried to get some video which involved unscrewing my video camera which was attached to the windscreen window mount and then zooming in trying to use the roof for support, I got a quick clip however my hands were shaky and I had trouble seeing through the viewfinder due to the strong sun, plus taking stills and video at the same time is nearly impossible so I had to set it on the roof when I was shooting stills then lift it up again for more filming only to have auto focus issues, however despite all this I got some of it on video which I have posted below.
The funnel turned into a straight tube then vanished, what a sight it was, both of us were buzzing and I felt on a natural high from the experience, when I set my camera down my right hand was trembling vividly from the rush. I was delighted, this is what I had come here for and this is what chasing is all about, reflecting upon it now I ended up driving 150 miles this day with 11 hours on location, combine this with the previous chase and that adds to 300 miles, 20 hours, and over £50.00 in expenses, that's what it took to catch something cool like this, I love it when you have to work really hard then get rewarded by nature, this way it feels like I earned this funnel and that feeling of success is all the more richer since I put in all the effort. My final memory of this moment was Mum and I standing on the grass leaning on the hot car roof watching where the funnel had been in case another appeared, it was so warm, intense sunshine, camera lenses on the roof where we leaned on, bright grass, hills and mountains, lakes, then behind us was a stunning scene of rich sloping green fields, vivid yellow whin bushes, a blue lake, blue sky and beautiful white convection over the fields at close range with cows and sheep grazing lazily, it was such a beautiful sight, I left the camera where it was and enjoyed the moment for half an hour in complete peace and surrounded by nature.
We chased again then decided to stop for lunch in Kesh near the river which flows through the town. We brought this portable gas stove with us and using it we heated up two trays of Irish Stew, you can see the reflection of Rua on the saucepan. The stew tasted gorgeous and the brew which followed almost knocked me out, after all that driving and excitement I felt I needed a rest. I just lay down on the warm concrete flat on my back, arms behind my head, and looked at the sky while enjoying the sun on my face. It was very sunny and much warmer than what had been forecast, I watched convection grow higher and had a feeling the day was not over yet, with another few hours of CAPE combined with this ground heating and convergence there could be more vortex phenomena. I text Roisin, Paul Martin and my Dad to report the funnel I had seen, not long after I got a reply from Paul informing me that he had just seen a small funnel cloud from Omagh!, my goodness that was the 2nd funnel of the day so I got back on chase mode and hit the road once more.
We spent a good hour in the beautiful countryside outside Kesh. I enjoyed watching this high based updraught tower rapidly expanding skyward with great energy which looked crisp and pure against the deep blue sky.
Further along the road I spent 20 min's shooting the convection in this area in the form of this young cell brewing over the farm buildings on the hill.
The structure looked rather menacing and impressive along the base as the dark clouds loomed over the barns and tractors with the blue sky creating great contrast. I hoped a funnel would drop over that barn, what a shot that would have been!.
Paul Martin text me saying he was late in work but hoped to get out soon so we could meet for a chase, I was gradually heading in his direction anyway so I felt certain we would meet up. I stopped further along the road to shoot this distant cell which was approaching over these derelict buildings. The first place I stopped looked awesome, I would have had a great shot however tall trees and a huge drop into a ditch below stopped me getting shots so I had to drive on in search of a place to park. I found one in the form of a narrow entry beside a gate covered in hedges so made it in there onto the rough ground covered with sticks and branches, thankfully not getting a puncture in the process, I then climbed the gate, then ran into this long green field. The white cell, blue sky and rusty orange tin roofs made for a nice scene, it wasn't the result I wanted however it would suffice.
While on the road further N I encountered the most menacing storm clouds of the day coming towards me straight down this road. The clouds were extremely dark and threatening then the sun broke out behind me turning the fields into a stunning lush green which made for a great scene, this image doesn't even come close to capturing how rich the colours were. This was 10mm ultra wide angle and a 107 degree field of view. Check out the dark base to the R of centre where the clear sky can be seen, that region of the base had definite rotation, I watched it for a while as black scud rose in fragments and rotated together in unison, they didn't put anything down but it was exciting to watch, I figured with this much activity going on there was bound to be more funnels soon. As I was shooting this scene a car appeared out of a drive way across the road, the female driver asked me ''what are you photographing?, she was implying that I was taking pictures of her house which was out of frame to the R, I pointed at the sky and said ''clouds'', she looked to where I was pointing, I said ''storm clouds'' and she caught on to what I was doing and seemed happy enough, she asked ''is there going to be thunder and lightning?'', I said ''I hope so'' with a smile then she drove off. Paul Martin text me to say he would be leaving in ten min's and would meet me so we drove off once again in the direction of Omagh. He also said big towers had gone up outside Omagh, you can see them in this image through the falling precip behind this cell, that's the direction we headed.
We parked outside the entrance to a building yard just outside the town to the S of Omagh and waited on Paul. A dark base was sitting over the town and unbelievably another funnel cloud formed below it!, here it is at 400mm, I got quite a few images showing it's entire evolution.
Look how high up the base was, this was without doubt the most elevated funnel I have ever seen since I began photographing convective weather in 2004/2005.
Yet again this one lasted approx 5 min's, it morphed from a straight tube into a shark tooth shape then finally a thin rope which then bent with several twists into an 'S' shape rope-out feature at the tip. Paul arrived and I asked if he had seen the funnel, he hadn't and he quickly worked out that he would have been driving under the base at the time and would have no chance of seeing it from inside the car.
We chatted for a while and kept observing that slow moving base over Omagh and much to our great surprise it produced another funnel cloud as we watched. This one was difficult to photograph as it was in bad light and seen against the base - dark funnel against dark base, it was a shame it didn't drop any lower against that nice clear sky however you can still see it, the tube is quite substantial and solid and slanting away from the base towards us, that's the tops of trees at the bottom of frame. Shortly after this we saw yet another funnel, it was skinny and bending and there was no question about what it was, I didn't include an image of this one however Paul and I do have them and in one frame there even seems to be two funnels interacting with each other. That one base had dropped three funnel clouds one after the other which brings today's count to four funnel clouds and including Paul's earlier sighting that makes five in the one day!. One funnel over Co. Fermanagh and four funnels over Omagh.
This was shot with the telephoto through a gap in a tall wire mesh fence looking towards a new base which had moved into view. The atmosphere was weakening and we were loosing the instability and heating so activity was dying away rapidly, however this line of towers didn't want to give up without one more try. We had two areas of interest hanging from the base, one of them shown here was trying to form another funnel however it didn't quite make it, I saw rising/inflow motion to the scud and in the viewfinder there was slow rotation, suddenly the bottom of the feature tightened up into a smooth shape like a funnel and I snapped it at it's prime, seconds later the base became loose and the whole thing opened up so this was a semi funnel or attempted funnel or scud vortex or whatever you want to call it. It felt great to meet Paul once again to watch the sky and especially so from his own home town, it seems every time we meet something cool happens from surprise auroras to epic sunrises to funnel clouds. We parted company and then began the long drive home, I was tired however I was in top form, it had been an amazing day, we got a funnel cloud outbreak, nice clouds, great scenery, soaked up the sun and had a great road trip which made for another great experience and memory. The sky was bright all the way home with blazing sun and blue sky with a nice sundog to the W of the sun with nice blue, red, and yellow colours which kept us company all the way back, we stopped for an ice cream to cool down then watched the sun drop behind the familiar Sperrins and where home before 21.30 BST.
I heard the next day that there had been another big funnel cloud captured over Co. Meath in the Republic which brings today's count to six funnel clouds over the country and I suspect there were probably more which went unseen. What a day, I got my 'fish' and now it's on the digital frying pan here!, thanks Fermanagh and Omagh for the action, I will be back again soon for the next chase, thanks very much for reading.