Moneyneany Winter Wonderland, Thundersnow, Drone Snowscapes & Vivid Diamond Dust Sundog Optics Display - February 2020

February 20th, N. Ireland was currently under the influence of a cold unstable Wly air mass with origins from Canada and for the last couple of days we had been getting convective showers or snow and hail stones, I had been out the day before shooting and after a late night of editing and studying weather models I ended up sleeping in later than I had expected. I logged into facebook chat and seen that my mates were talking about an active cell over the Sperrins with red cores, I checked radar and was immediately interested, this low topped Winter cell covered a vast area and looked to be influenced by strong wind shear, I decided I would wait for it to pass over me in Maghera to check for any mammatus on the back edge. Suddenly Nigel McFarland messaged saying he was hearing thunder, we half jokingly thought he was winding us up, then he reported multiple rumbles of thunder, it was then I knew he wasn't kidding. I ran straight of the house, no breakfast, not even washed, I jumped in the van and drove into the Maghera countryside for a look, always a good sign when you are storm chasing as soon as you get out of bed.

I barely had room to pull over on this narrow back road but I did the best I could, I didn't need the wash after all, nature was doing it for more, my eyes were slapped wide awake by a bitter bone chilling wind whipping across the fields. In front of me was the huge cell, this is the north section, the mid section and south side extended far out of frame to the left. I heard thunder rumbling from deep inside the core, I didn't see the lightning as it was embedded within but the thunder was distinct and had that classic bizarre muffled audio characteristic of thundersnow.

The sky was turning black as curtains of snow fell from aloft, I become buffeted in strong outflow winds, this wind was raw, brutal, I jumped back into the van for warmth as I wasn't fully kitted out in outdoor clothes then the storm hit. The sky was like night then I was bombarded with hail stones followed by black strands of blowing snow which I filmed with the DSLR out the window, my hands were pure red and in pain from the exposure, you can view the footage here. Not even midday and I had already experienced thundersnow, not a bad way to start the day at all. None of the snow lay on the ground as the surface was too warm and wet from the modified Wly fetch however hearing thunder and seeing snow falling at the same time is always a rare treat to cherish.

On February 23rd Roisin and I awoke to a surprise snowfall in Cookstown, the forecast had gave snow in association with a frontal system however I suspected there would be nothing of interest at lower levels, imagine my surprise when Roisin casually glanced out the window at 06.00 UT and said ''Martin, snow!!''. We ended up with the best snowfall of the entire Winter, at a guess I would say 4" on the garden however when I later had to use a brush to clear snow off the van window it looked more like 6". I reckon it caught many off guard, schools were closed, buses cancelled and even lorries were stranded at the bottom of Glenshane Pass unable to get up the mountain. It was still dark so I waited until first light to attempt filming, however when I looked at radar I knew I wouldn't be getting any drone footage during this events climax as radar showed rain then drizzle trailing the cold front and cloud too, warming temperatures would soon start a thaw so I decided to let it go and just enjoy the visual experience and snap a few phone images of the garden for the memory.

There was more to come, I was getting prepared for at least three days of Winter chasing, GFS and other models were showing active conditions all week with deeper colder air and strong instability in conjunction with strong wind shear, the 25th and 26th looked to be the most interesting days and with a hint of the strong winds slacking I knew there was potential to get the drone in the air. Tuesday looked to be the main event, inland snow showers, thundersnow risk and chance of night lightning at the coast after dark with further snow showers inland so I was psyched for a busy period of chasing. Even TORRO posted about the potential highlighting the chances of big cbs and mammatus displays in the cold air mass, Convective Weather had us in a slight risk box for both days.

The 25th was largely disappointing, the cold air wasn't cold enough, I was reading 4C at lower levels and 1C on the mountain, the air mass was just not cold enough and also very damp. To add insult to injury it stayed cloudy for much of the day, I saw no convection at all with mostly overcast skies. With no action at lower levels I decided to drive up into the snow line instead and hunt for the snow, I wanted my nature fix. I took my Mum and our dog Rhua with me and we drove up into the Sperrins, the Birren road was black tarmac with no issues at all then we ascended into the Moneyneany area where we found our first snow of the day. We had to wait for two hours for blowing snow and hail to stop to even get a chance of filming, I hadn't taken any DSLR shots as there wasn't anything on offer and anyway I was focused more on drone scenes. Nigel rang for an update then joined us, he was on the hunt too, we waited and waited then finally the snow stopped and we had a short window.

The wind was strong and the light was against us but I didn't want to go home empty handed so I did a flight anyway and flew out to the nearest hills not far from the summit, it was worth the wait just for this view, I shot several short video sequences then hovered for stills, the wind must have been much stronger at this altitude as I saw the props in the camera several times which is rare for the Mavic 2 Pro unless its very windy, however I checked VS and it was indicating the drone was holding position perfectly, I love this view of the many peaks and valleys, such dramatic relief.

The sky never cleared but even so the scene was dramatic, it has a mood all of its own, I was happy to have got this as there are not many drone images around of Moneyneany area in snow, I promised myself I would come back here another day and give it another go when the wind eased, we went home content. Ocean lightning never happened over the north coast that night however the following day looked much more promising, there was to be good sunshine for much of the day and more snow showers during the early hours of the morning. GFS indicated that the wind would drop to 15mph by mid afternoon so my plan was to head out then to target the lighter wind and hit the Moneyneany once again.

February 26th, I wasn't expecting to chase until the afternoon however I got a text message from Nigel telling me to get up, there was great snow on Glenshane Pass, Nigel had been there since sunrise and had already got images, I was thankful he tipped me off for I wouldn't want to miss out on great snow scenes. We hit the road, arrived on Glenshane Pass where we met Nigel, the snow was amazing, I was actually shocked, this was much better than anything I had expected today, there must have been good snow showers during the night over this area. I wasted no time, M2P in the air, video and stills taken, I also took this 180 degree panorama which I really love, you can actually see the famous road curving through the Pass and flanked on either side by snow covered mountains, such a beautiful part of the world.

We then headed for Moneyneany, there was time to marvel, the conditions were perfect so we needed to get on location and make the most if it, only then could we relax. We decided to take the Birren Road between Glenshane and Draperstown, a gamble as this can be a notorious road, only a few days earlier I couldn't make it up the road even with just a thick dusting of snow, I had to give up twice and today the snow would be deeper, we decided to take the chance.

The main road was fine but once we ascended it was more tricky, the snow was deeper but it was also drier and I had a new tire replaced which improved traction, I got a good run up and I floored the accelerator, stayed in higher gears than usual, avoided harsh steering and with pure momentum we made it to the top, we where suddenly in Winter wonderland, once we crested the high peak of the road the landscape and surrounding mountains opened up all around us. I was ''wowing'' with amazement, this was the most photogenic snowfall of the season so far, everything was perfect, good snow, bright sunshine making the snow brilliant white on the hills, blue skies and the wind was light, practically calm here so we pulled over to get images.

Nigel and I were out in the deep snow with cameras shooting away, it was difficult to know where to point as we were surrounded by beauty. Using the 100-400mm I captured the tops of the mountain near Moneyneany, this was the area I was flying near yesterday in the strong wind and bad light, look at it now, dream conditions, we would make our way there soon.

The locals were having no problems anyway

We decided to get the drones in the air, it would have been a shame not too, that's us parked on the Birren road with Mullaghmore behind us with it's distinctive cleft in the middle, it looked marvelous from the air.

We flew out from several locations along the route, this is Moneyneany summit, what a wonderful sight, my intention was to drive closer and film those peaks up close, this was going to be epic.

Panning to the right

180 degree panorama taking in the entire Moneyneany area of the Sperrins, what a fantastic sight, I was concentrating that much I didn't even notice the Sun Halo and Sundogs over the mountains, however it was these what would quickly become the star of the show and my rarest capture of the day. Rarely do I admit that I like my own images however on this occasion I have to say I absolutely love these two panoramas of Moneyneany, this is Winter perfection with Sundogs and deep blue skies and an area I have never captured before until now.

Another 180 degree panorama with drone panned to the right, bright Sundog with forming Parhelic Circle (tail) visible to upper left, I still wasn't even aware of this display at the time as I was so engrossed in piloting the drone.

Mullaghmore, you can seen the Birren road below the mid section, you can also see why this area would be impassible if there was a serious snow event, I filmed a lorry jack knifed on this very same road a few years ago.

We continued our drive into higher terrain and once again I couldn't resist pulling over for images, this time with the DSLR, when you get vibrant snow, blue skies and good light you shoot and you keep shooting as you might not get these same conditions again for a long time. I was actually taking stills with two DSLRs with 10mm and 18mm lenses with periodic drone flying between shoots, I was also charging my M2P batteries and remote controller in the van between flights too so I would always be charged for the next scene and be ready for the unexpected.

We parked at our target location and the goal was to get aerial video and stills of Moneyneany summit, I was buzzing at the thought of it, however as soon as we got out from the vans we knew conditions were not favorable for proper flying. It was too windy, the models had shown 16mph by this time and easing however I was measuring gusts of 23mph at ground level and since the drones would be at a higher altitude the wind would be considerably stronger near the summit. We could fly yes, it was doable, however we needed a bit of range to get to the area we wanted and it wasn't worth loosing the drone over so we just had to wait and hope that the wind would ease to give us a chance. I couldn't sit still, the Winter landscape was so fresh and invigorating that I had to get more images, this is the north side of Mullaghmore.

To pass the time while waiting on the wind to drop I walked out into the snow, it was up to my ankles near the road side, then I went across the marsh and set up the DSLR with 10mm lens and shot static video then a time lapse, there wasn't much happening to capture on time lapse except the blowing tree however the snow clouds moving in from the left had some motion so I shot a time lapse anyway. I knelt down in the snow, it was very cold and the wind was affecting my hearing however I sensed a presence behind me, I turned and looked up, it was Nigel standing rite over me, he startled me which got a laugh, then as I glanced over his shoulder I spotted an unusual form in the sky, I said to Nigel ''Parhelic Circle!'', as we scanned the sky the phenomena rapidly grew more intense and quickly stole the show.

These types of ice crystal phenomena are known collectively as 'Atmospheric Optics' or 'Optics' for short. I'm sure you have seen examples of these at some stage in your life while checking the sky, usually in the form of a Halo or Sundogs or perhaps an Upper Tangent Arc which are the more common forms, they are often seen when strips of Cirrus Clouds or Cirrostratus overspread the sun ahead of a frontal system, these high level clouds are often rich in ice crystals, when sunlight reflects and refracts through these ice crystals the results are these unusual optical phenomena. With the exception of Cirrus Anvils and Orphan Anvils the majority of ice crystal optical forms in UK and Ireland most often appear through a hazy sky within vast sheets of these gradually thickening high level cloud regions ahead of warm fronts and occluded fronts.

I have a big interest in this phenomena and have documented many examples over the years, however its been a very long time since I've observed a proper display, out of interest for the New Year I wrote out a list of all the phenomena I wanted to get on camera this year, on that list was a good optics display or a good optics display over snow, in fact, the last time I observed good ice crystal forms over snow was during the severe Winter of 2010 and back then I was only shooting with a bridge camera and have since lost my files due to a bad external hard drive so I was eager to capture another of that caliber. In the years since I have seen these forms periodically and for the most part I don't even shoot them as they have not been up to standard, until now.

What I saw first was the Parhelic Circle, it actually got my attention the moment my eyes looked up, at first I thought I was mistaken, perhaps it was a long strip of bright Cirrus but when I looked again the form actually intensified and extended in length, it was then I knew my instincts had been correct. Then the Sundogs (Mock Suns) appeared 22 degrees from the Sun which itself was surround by a segmented 22 degree Halo. When the Parhelic Circle and Sundogs grew brighter again I was awestruck, I grabbed the camera from the tripod and began taking images rapidly, the sun's glare made it difficult to see my LCD screen so I had to bracket my exposures widely, I also stopped the lens down far. I couldn't believe I was getting an optics display over bright snow, one of my 2020 subjects already ticked off the list.

This optics display was different from all the others I've seen, this one was special, these didn't form from Cirrus or on a cloud shield ahead of a front. These exceptionally vivid Sundogs are a result of diamond dust, these are ice crystals which are falling through the atmosphere, they require a unique range of temperatures and atmospheric conditions to get in this country, they are more often seen in climates much further north where the atmosphere is rich in ice crystals. You can tell this is a diamond dust display as the optics are visible against a clear blue sky, furthermore these ice crystals need to be a specific size, shape and orientation, in addition to this I believe that millions of ice crystals may have been lifted from the snow on the top of Monyneany and blown across the sky by the stronger winds aloft and our higher altitude likely helped us get closer to the crystals too. It was a brief show however as a clump clouds were moving in and about to disrupt the crystals, I had just enough time to shoot a bunch of rapid fire stills and short video, Nigel filmed me for a vlog using his DJI OSMO.

Nigel made for a cool foreground subject to get that Earth-Sky-human connection, I was using my 10mm lens on a crop sensor DSLR. Check out the horizontal Parhelic Circle extending from the Sun and through the Sundog and even extending beyond this into the blue sky. Seeing a rare show like this over snow has made my entire Winter. A pity about the pylons, however with a little imagination I like to pretend it's a ski resort up north with cable cars with skiers sitting holding their skis.

The Parhelic Circle is very pronounced here, in some occasions these Parry Arcs can extend all the way around the sky behind you for 360 degrees before merging back with the sun again, I've been lucky enough to have seen these several times in my life and have always been impressed. Then the display suddenly vanished as fast as it appeared, I kept monitoring the sky for a long time after hoping for another show however I never seen them again, my only regret was that I didn't get a time lapse, I wonder will I get lucky another time for a go at that.

By mid afternoon the stronger February Sun was melting some of the snow, I couldn't get my Moneyneany summit footage as the wind stayed too strong so I did a short safe flight showing Mullaghmore and Birren road instead as the light was still great. Half an hour later the sky clouded over and the light was gone, talk about a lucky day, beautiful snow scenes, blue skies, great light and rare diamond dust optics, I'm really glad Nigel text me when he did, it always pays to be out early, you never know what you are going to see.

February 27th, I had planned to go back into the mountains snow chasing however I needed to take my Mum on an errand to Magherafelt. I was surprised to see such beautiful snow scenes on the mountains once again and Moneyneany in particular was stunning, I really wanted to be back there trying that dream summit flight however we had other matters of greater importance to attend to first and besides, it looked too windy anyway, even at lower levels the trees were shaking bad. Within an hour everything was sorted and we began the drive back from Magherafelt to Maghera and it was then that we spotted a huge cell over the mountains from outside Magherafelt town itself, it really caught my eye at this range and it looked to be over Glenshane, I knew there was low end instability today and cold air aloft and good lapse rates however the lifted index was very positive so I wasn't expecting anything interesting sky wise this day, all that went out the window because this huge cell was dominating the sky. As we drove it got bigger and bigger to the point were I could ignore it no longer so we ascended Glenshane Pass for a closer look.

What struck me was how well sheared this cell was, it's vast bulk seemed to cover the entire mountain with precip so far forward the outflow was falling over lower ground while the updraught region was still on the mountain, as we climbed the Pass a huge anvil covered the sky ahead of it, again this anvil was incredibly sheared, I wish I had studied the synoptics before I had left this morning. I drove quickly up the mountain hoping to get into the snow line because getting a cell like this over snow would be such a cool scene, however it was rapidly gaining on us and the precip was very close, I wanted a structure shot so I pulled into a side road and rushed out with the 10mm lens on. Beast of a snow cell with sweeping anvil and mean looking curtains of snow falling down the Pass.

I climbed over a gate into this field and set up the DSLR on the tripod and began shooting a time lapse. Main cell at centre with new cell entering frame on left, the way in which the snow core fell from aloft was fantastic to watch, I was very pleased with the way the time lapse worked out (below).

Looking overhead at the anvil and using my hand to block the sun. Impressed and motivated by this cell I decided to hang around a while longer, I observed a new cell forming behind this one and decided to get higher on the mountain and into the snow line.

Brutal outside, the wind was strong and sustained and at this height it was absolutely bitter and penetrated all layers of clothing. Wide angle view of new cell moving across the mountain from left to right, once again the precip core is extremely well vented away from the updraught region, and the updraught area itself really got my attention. It's difficult to see on this wide image but the base was actually round in shape and looked to me to be slowly rotating, furthermore cloud was rising upwards into the base as obvious inflow with several lowerings, one of which gave the impression of a weak funnel trying to form which you can see in this image. I shot more time lapse but stayed out in the nasty wind with the camera and kept an eye on that base area.

Another cell came in with a very black solid base, the clouds actually looked more like Spring quality, almost a warm sector moist look to them but over snow which was strange, it was clear to me that solar heating was actually affecting these clouds today. The outflow wind from this cell became so strong it ruined my final time lapse as the tripod was shaking too much in the soft snowy ground so I ended up binning it, however I kept this image for the memory, a 'cool' scene. When I went home I did a check on the synoptics and wasn't surprised to see very strong wind shear indeed, in fact, during the afternoon deep layer shear increased from 60 knots to 80 knots in this area which is exceptional, no wonder these low topped snow cells were taking on these organized traits with structure, if only we could get shear like that in Summer, however the way things are going this year I wouldn't be surprised if we did.

First drone flight approaching Moneyneany summit in strong winds and overcast skies, a short flight but the view was great.

Drone flight from Glenshane Pass with photogenic snow and great light.

Footage of the beautiful diamond dust Sun Halo, Sundogs and Parhelic Circle over snow at Moneyneany.

Snow chase video following on from Glenshane Pass and continuing from the Birren Road with Mullaghmore and Moneyneany snow scenes, time lapse, and a vlog too. It has been an exciting and rewarding three days and after a little frustration nature produced the goods with photogenic prizes, thanks for coming along with the adventure with me.



Martin McKenna

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