Snow Devil Encounter & Lough Fea Ice Patterns - January 18th & 19th 2024

I already had a great day on January 17th with highly photogenic Winter scenes in the form of dramatic snow curtains over Garvagh and Binevenagh on the north coast covered in snow. I came back on a natural high and was determined to get back out for more, the cold spell would continue on the 18th and 19th before the Atlantic would come back with milder air so I decided I would make the most of the remaining two days. The 18th was quite unusual because a strike was taking place from midnight on the 18th all through the day which meant there would be no gritting our plowing of the roads. With further snow showers expected and overnight lows of -5C with black ice it wasn't a safe time for anyone driving, in fact, authorities made a public statement suggesting that people shouldn't travel at all unless absolutely necessary, as a result many people took the day off work to be on the safe side.

On the morning of the 18th temps dropped to -7C in Co. Down however in Cookstown it was only -1C which was a big difference from the previous morning when I couldn't open the van doors due to ice. My intention was to head out for the day and get more drone scenes however due to the lack of gritting I too decided to avoid the back roads of the Sperrins which would be insane near the mountains. Instead I decided to try Benbradagh in Dungiven, I knew the road there was safe thanks to farmers contracted in with their plows, traffic cams confirmed the Glenshane road was clear and absolutely fine. I decided to team up with Portglenone storm chaser Colleen Webb who was also on the hunt for snow scenes. We met in Maghera then made our way over the pass to Dungiven and pulled into a car park covered in snow near the town. Benbradagh was covered in cloud so we ended up having a long wait on our hands for the cloud to pass to get the sun on the mountain (it never did).

In the meantime we stood outside in the snow chatting, watching the sky, and drinking brews while Rua sniffed the area out and played in the snow, there was even a few snowball fights. A snow shower was approaching us as we stood outside, I should make it clear at this point that there was no wind this day, it was dead calm and slack, not even any outflow from any snow showers in the area of note. We stood with our backs to the snow shower looking at the mountain when suddenly we were hit by a very cold squally wind, we thought it was bizarre, Colleen was the first to comment that there was something odd about it and she was rite. The cold air seemed to engulf and swirl about us, then suddenly it was back to dead calm again.

Then rite in front of us in the car pak a snow devil had formed, swirling around lifting the dry powdery snow into the area which revealed it to our eyes. The vortex spun rapidly lifting and spraying snow around, like a large garden sprinkler, it then passed through the metal fence at the car park, crossed the road while rotating in plain view, entered someone's garden, crossed their hedge into a field beyond then vanished from view. The snow devil was broader than a typical SUV car, it was then we realised that the sudden cold gust of wind we experienced was actually the vortex itself, a snow devil had impacted us and passed straight through us. We both laughed with joy and awe, what a 'cool' experience for it to actually affect such a small area which we where standing on, what were the odds of that?, we considered this a good omen for an exciting storm season ahead.

This was actually the second time in my life when I was hit by a snow devil, the last time was on Moneyneany on January 31st 2016 when Roisin, my Dad and I watched them rotating on the flank of the mountain, they then made their way down and passed rite over the car and sprayed snow through the open windows. However back then we saw it coming, this time we didn't at all, there was no warning so we were literally ambushed by a snow devil, we honestly never expected that today. We never got images as it happened so fast, I wasn't near the camera and the drones were packed in their cases, all I had was my phone in my pocket, however by the time I got my gloves off, got the phone out and activated the camera it would have been long gone, but we seen it and felt it so that was special. Incidentally I later learned that a waterspout was captured off the coast of Donegal this same afternoon, it didn't have a funnel but the swirling on the sea was very clear, quite similar to what we saw here, however the Donegal vortex lasted longer and was stronger.

We waited around for a long time in the snow then by mid afternoon a line of snow showers had moved in from the coast on a NWly flow and were building over the high ground to the NW and moving in. We had the drones up to document these cells, we were hoping for more dramatic snow curtains however they seemed to lack structure this time, however the cell itself looked cool with it's anvil sheared downrange with blue skies around it. This was the aerial view of the cell with one of the main roads near Dungiven below, you can also make out a wind turbine farm in the distance about to be engulfed by the core.

The wind was picking up now, we were getting high wind warnings on the drones (not unusual), another image before the snow storm hit us showing large curving strands of snow falling and about to impact the town.

Last image showing the main roundabout near Dungiven, what struck me was how quiet it was, normally this area is frantic with traffic, now after mid afternoon when it should have been very busy there was little to see, I was struggling to capture much in the way of traffic going around it, only one car can be seen in this image. This was a direct result of the strike action, the roads were quiet! We landed the drones and it began snowing heavily, we decided to get on the road and follow it over Glenshane Pass.

As Colleen and I drove along Glenshane Pass we where positioned at the outer edge of the cell, all we could see was snow falling through a blue sky through our windscreens, however the cell caught up with us and we found ourselves inside the core. We pulled into Oak Leaf and got out with the cameras to film the traffic, the snow was fantastic, by far the most intense snow shower we had encountered during this cold spell, it was really heavy and prolonged and blowing snow into our faces while freezing outside. The only way we could get images was by keeping our backs to the wind to protect our lenses then shoot downwind facing east towards incoming traffic, this was 50mm on full frame.

100-400mm on full frame, this was when the snow was at its heaviest, looks like some lucky person had an oil delivery coming.

The follow day, January 19th, was the last day of the cold spell, I was chasing solo once again and fancied something different. I decided to check out Lough Fea, the area is notorious for cold temperatures and is highly exposed, I suspected there could be icicles on the wild grass and bogland surrounding the lake so I made my way in that direction. Rhua and I arrived to a proper Winter wonderland with snow everywhere, but what shocked me the most was that a large percentage of the lough has completely frozen over!, I wasn't expecting that, in fact, the last time Fea was this frozen was back in 2010, as soon as I saw it I couldn't wait to get the drone in the air.

The ice on the lough was covered in snow, however at random intervals breaks were visible on the surface, I panned the drone camera straight down to get a bird's eye view and was delighted to discover beautiful patterns on the ice. This reminded me of ink on blotting paper, others said it looked like the view on a microscope slide.

Hovering close to the surface, it was like nature's art, you can even see the brush strokes, Roisin saw Panda faces in these patterns.

Some areas were very complex like this section, the impression I got when looking from the drone's perspective was of a spacecraft in orbit around some icy alien world studying a frozen landscape, perhaps like Europa or Callisto - moons of planet Jupiter.

To me these looked like frozen volcanoes on another moon within our solar system, what do you see?

These are the natural colours too, the semi-overcast sky moving in ahead of a front was generating these monochrome type hues which accentuated the abstract arty look to the frozen lake.

I could hear all kinds of bizarre noises coming from the lake as the ice creaked, cracked, groaned and moaned with strange echoes crossing the lake, if this had been night time it might have been a little eerie. My hands and fingers were killing me, the cold was brutal here, and made worse by an increasing wind which was blowing across the lake, my exposed hands were not used to it, they were red and in agony, flying was difficult so I landed the drone and it took me some time getting the drone back in the bag due to my numb hands. Rhua and I walked out across the lake, just the shallow area close to the path, it held our weight quiet well, this was a great sensation which reminded me momentarily of 2010.

While all this was happening an optics display was visible around the sun thanks to ice crystals present in the high level cirrus cloud moving in which preceded the next Atlantic frontal system (a big storm as it turned out). On display was a faint 22 degree halo, upper tangent arc and 22 degree eastern sundog which on several occasions had a short parhelic circle (tail). The display was not remarkable however what made it unusual for me was that I captured it over a frozen lake, something I had never done before. With fingers killing me I got back in the van to warm up and when I eventually could feel my hands again I began the drive home.

Drone footage of the curious ice formations on frozen Lough Fea

This brought to an end the cold spell, the last three days had been highly rewarding with great memories which yielded satisfying photogenic moments, as far as I'm concerned 2024 is off to a very encouraging start. Thanks very much for reading.


Martin McKenna

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