Winter has arrived!, those words may well send shivers down the spine for some but as a lover of Winter weather I was delighted to see it arrive in style. This image report covers the period from Sunday December 5th to Tuesday the 7th 2011 when my girlfriend Roisin and I did alot of chasing during the day and night in search of photogenic weather and as a result we ended up having some very memorable experiences. The set-up was the usual unstable post-frontal airmass in the wake of a cold front which introduced cold air over N. Ireland in a sheared-enviornment which meant inland showers of sleet and hail with snow on the high ground along with a risk of coastal thunderstorms and thundersnow, the latter is something I cannot resist experiencing, there's nothing more astounding than seeing snow falling with brilliant lightning and deep thunder at the same time, very often the lightning itself can vary between blue and orange/yellow in colour due to the filtering effects of the snow curtains around the bolt, just to show you how cool thundersnow can be along with it's profound affect on those fortunate enough to experience it check out this rather amusing youtube video, make sure to turn your volume up loud.
The set-up for December 4th/5th was too tempting to ignore because not only was there a chance of snow and lightning but also good opportunities for night time cold air convection and with a waxing moon high in the sky with clear periods and stars that could only increase the potential for photogenic skies. I had decided that we would be chasing to the N coast that afternoon to see what we could catch. We knew it was going to be cold so we dressed in three layers of clothes and prepared some food supplies to take with us then £20.00 of petrol was put in the tank and we were ready to go. It wasn't quite dark enough yet so we went into town and had a lovely hot chocolate drink in the famous Mid-Ulster Garden Centre, a place which I highly recommend. When we came back out it was dusk with golden planet Venus very low in the SW like the Christmas star and along the entire NW to NE skyline was a huge line of moonlit convection stretching for tens of miles from N. Ireland into the North Channel. The line looked wonderful against the deep blue starry sky with the lead cell's wispy anvil drifting across the Moon which really got my blood pumping, it would have made for a great image however the cells where already too close and would have swallowed my 18mm frame, at this time we could really feel the bone-chilling cold air moving in and soon that line was producing sleet and hail over Maghera. Roisin and I hit the road just as darkness fell and headed north into the very dark skies below those showers, the sferics charts were already showing lightning over the sea so all looked encouraging.
We saw quite cool scenes so we pulled over into a lay by outside Portrush so I could take a few exposures. This was looking NE at a nice line of moonlit convection with the constellation of Auriga visible above, the cumulus line was moving from ocean to land from the NW and would eventually develop into heavy snow showers along the high ground over the E side of Antrim. Check out that distant outcrop of cliffs to the L of the road sign, we where going even further than that. We stopped in Bushmills for a much needed burger and chip then advanced on around the coast past Portballintrae, during this time Roisin spotted two flashes of lightning to the NE across the sea near Scotland which was a good start, then we finally reached our destination at Ballintoy Harbour which is one of my favourite locations along the coast, to get a better description of what it's like to be there and my impressions of the atmosphere check out my previous storm chase to the Harbour on November 29th.
We parked on high ground half way down the twisting road into the harbour where we took in the sky. It was cold with strong gusts of wind and plenty going on in the sky, I could see a tall line of convection with updraught towers and low-topped cbs crossing the sea at close range between the coast and Rathlin Island. It isn't easy taking exposures of storm clouds at night with strong winds shaking the camera and a painful wind chill added to the task however I was quite distracted from this by the sight of beautiful convective clouds at night, in reality the bases were pitch black and couldn't be seen however the cloud tops were visible because of the moon which made for some lovely light, it really is impossible to convey this on camera. The above image shows the rear of these showers moving from L to R with a nice RFB visible under the flanking area to the R of centre. The red light is from a sweeping lighthouse beam on Rathlin Island itself. I have another image taken from this same spot showing convective clouds with stars which I didn't add to the report however you can still view it here.
I wasn't going to add this however decided I would because it looks quite attractive despite the lack of more serious clouds in view. This is looking N from the cliff towards a line of convection miles away over the Atlantic moving from L to R, above was a cluster of black scud from the base of an elevated line of tall cumulus, the orange glow was from the harbour lights.
Took this one to capture the mood with the dark cliff dropping away to reveal the sea with wintry showers in the distance. Roisin was back in the car warming up and I soon joined her as the wind chill on this exposed cliff was killing my hands. The mobile phone signal was horrendous from here so we couldn't check out the radar and sferics charts so we decided to drive down to the bottom of the harbour and check out the area.
Standing near the shore looking due N across the ocean at a brutal looking squall approaching land, it was heading in directly towards us so I took exposures before it got us. The storm clouds on the leading edge of this cell were very solid and more akin to the kind of convection one would see during the Summer months, this was a good sign as it indicated strong updraughts so this was a healthy beast coming in. The actual dark clouds above the sea were black as night to the point were I could see nothing with the naked eye however with a 14 sec exposure at ISO1600 the camera managed to record what the eye couldn't see. Winds from the cell's outflow were spreading out across the waves and hitting me which meant holding onto the tripod legs with both hands to reduce camera shake, this is something I'm now getting well used to with chases to the coast at this time of year.
The moon popped out from behind the clouds and it was like a torch beam pointing directly down onto the ocean which made the waves a beautiful pearly white colour. To the centre and R you can just make out a very dense precip core beneath the cell which was probably red on radar, I braced myself for a close range c-g strike on the sea but none happened which was shocking, in any case the hail got me first, it was big and well formed like perfect spheres of dry polystyrene which hit me in the face making a sort of tickle/sore impression upon impact then hitting the car roof and bouncing back into the air again.
We then went for a memorable walk off the main path and onto the ancient rocks along the shore as the sea undulated and crashed against the rocks with a muffled roar, it was slow treacherous work but it felt magical and with the rocks reflecting the pale colourless light from the moon it felt like walking over uncharted land on some alien world. The above image was taken on the other side looking N to NW across those basalt rocks millions of years old as a field of cumulus clouds head for land. The stars of Job's Coffin, Hercules, and Lyra can be seen above.
The main wave activity was taking place far out where those distant rocks are located however every now and then a freak surge of water would fill in like a mini tsunami and despite being only an inch or two deep it looked rather sinister as it silently crept in. The water at the bottom of the frame of both these images came from beyond those rocks and covered our boots. The increasing density of the advancing cumulus field indicated something bigger was heading in so we retreated to the car, warmed up, and checked radar.
The signal was still dead so we decided to relocate and drove to high ground for better coverage and found a great location in a lay by near the harbour on the very edge of a huge cliff. Below was a precipitous drop onto White Park Bay beach and beyond was the ocean where an enormous storm cell could be seen over the sea. The above image shows the leading edge of the cell as it moved from L to R, the rest of it was out of frame to the L out to the NW. The huge storm had a stupendous wispy anvil covering many miles of sky, part of it could be seen in the W sky and crossing the zenith over the moon and jupiter with another portion of anvil to the NE towards Co. Antrim, it really was shocking how big this thing was. For a sense of scale check out the lights on the horizon to the far R, that's a fishing vessel, compare that to the size of this storm, and that's not even half of its true girth. The precip core was pitch black again but as it neared the shore the moon made the long precip core line a strange silvery colour. It arrived with car-shaking wind gusts with sleet and snow mixed in, again I was amazed it didn't produce any lightning. The phone signal improved and Roisin got back on the net and checked out the radar which showed an interesting line of echoes over the far NW of Ireland moving down behind the big cell in the above image so we decided to stay and see what that looked like so we headed back W along the coast in search of a new vantage point.
It was late in the night and time had no meaning which made the adventure seem all the more atmospheric. We parked at White Rocks beach and walked onto the glorious compacted sand which stretched for miles in either direction. The wind was strong and blowing narrow streamers of sand across the beach at high speed like blowing snow drifts which made walking into it hard work, it wasn't long before sand and salt was blowing into our eyes, hair, mouth, noses, and into the camera lens. I turned my back to the airborne sand and took this exposure of Roisin on the beach, she wisely kept her back to the wind too, the lighter coloured linear markings in the sand are those wind-blown streamers I mentioned. Witnessing these along with the moonlit clouds, sky, and stars was utterly surreal!.
Panning the camera back to the NW facing into the wind and flying sand towards the feature which we had spotted earlier on radar. That line of white cloud extending across the image in the distance was a squall line feature which had just come in off the Atlantic and in the process of passing over the W coast of Ireland and over Donegal, further more it was heading directly towards us and as the min's ticked by we could see it getting closer and slightly bigger in the sky. That row of convection had hard tops in places and was composed of a line of towering cumulus and cb cells covering a very wide section of sky, it looked cool lit by the moon with the stars above.
Getting closer, that line of rocky islands over the sea are called 'The Skerries'. For the night sky enthusiasts out there the constellations above the squall line are, from L to R, Cygnus, Lyra with bright star Vega, Draco, and Hercules.
Closer still, the leading edge of the line can be seen reflecting the full brilliance of the moon, the rest of the line extended well into the distance out of frame to the L. I love moonlit convection and I love the coast but it can be very uncomfortable despite it's beauty, sand was flying on my camera lens, I knew because I could hear the sound of it hitting the glass and the wind was shaking the tripod which yet again involved holding it steady with both hands, what I wouldn't give for a calm night at the coast for a change.
Here's the squall line in all its glory dominating the entire sky with anvil top lit by the moon and the distant town lights of Portrush casting a beautiful orange-pink hue to the clouds. The more meaty looking section of cloud at bottom over the sea is the storm's gust front, below it with the naked eye the sky was black as coal with no detail discernable, the wind suddenly picked up and sand became airborne again as its outflow surged towards the beach, we began walking back towards the car as the wind chill was getting too bad. Before we left the beach we glanced behind us one last time and saw huge curtains of hail and snow with eerie mottled texture catching the moonlight, we didn't have time to study it because the squall was approaching and we needed to get back to the car. The drive home was fun just as the squall line hit, we ended up driving through a very heavy snow storm all the way from Portrush to Swatragh and it didn't stop once during that time, the snow flakes were big and dense as the wind blew them sideways through the air, visibility was down to a few metres and if it wasn't for the cat's eyes marking the centre of the road I'm sure we would have ended up in a ditch, it was a hairy drive back but exciting in equal measure to experience such a wide spectrum of weather in a single night.
The following morning, December 5th, we checked out the sky and saw that Slieve Gallion had a good layer of snow so we figured that Glenshane Pass, also being on high ground, would have a dusting of snow too so we decided to check it out. For the first time this season the car windscreen was covered in rock-hard ice which required a good spray of a de-icer to the remove, then we began the ascent onto the Pass. We were not disappointed, in fact it was the complete opposite, the snow on top was simply beautiful, varying from 1/2" to 3" thick depending on where we looked, hardly an impressive depth but when you haven't seen laying snow for such a long time it was simply divine. The entire area was like a winter wonderland and with Christmas music playing in the car it couldn't have been more festive. It was one of those magical winter mornings with bright sunshine making the snow glisten like diamonds with a crisp blue sky above. Roisin and I had a great time taking images and video footage, I somehow managed to take 80 images and didn't realise which just goes to show how much fun we were having. Above was taken from the lay by near the top, in the distance you can see the land out E towards Antrim which indicates just how high Glenshane is.
During the evening time we drove through further snow storms outside Ballymena where it was plain to see that the roads had become hazardous when we saw a car in the ditch which had slid off the road, luckily the occupants seemed unharmed because they where standing outside the car chatting. Later this same night we went back out again, the radar showed more heavy showers moving from the NW over land and I suspected they would be dumping more snow on Glenshane so we decided to check it out once more. At ground level in Maghera it was a horrible dark rainy night but as we got to the bottom of the pass it changed to sleet, as we climbed in elevation it was like someone flicked a switch and it began snowing like crazy, it was so bad it made the previous night's storm look like a joke in comparison, it was almost blizzard-like in nature with dense snow with big flakes blowing across the road making a wall of snow which dropped visibility down to a matter of feet which was quite alarming because I could barely see the road at all and what side of the road I was on for that matter, this was quite frightening, especially knowing the deadly reputation of this place, then the wheels lost traction and the car began to slide. However I managed to keep it in control as my mind had applied the experiences I had learned during the last two severe winters. We pulled into another lay by and watched the snow falling, it looked beautiful which stirred up that childhood fascination of snow within us all. After half an hour of constant snow it finally stopped and the sky cleared so I got out for a few exposures. That's the main Glenshane road with the snow shining under the Moon with Orion on view, the white and pink clouds where the tops of the snow storm retreating into the distance which had caused us such anxiety on the way up.
I love moonlit snow scenes with stars, to me this is heaven!. The fuzzy nebulous look to Messier 42 - The Great Orion Nebula - can be seen in the sharp air which boasted great transparency after the storm's passage. High in the sky to my R was a nice 22 degree halo around the moon above the pine trees which completed the scene.
A very special moment, Roisin and I enjoying nature at its finest, there's nothing more magical than standing on moonlit snow, try it some time late at night and you will understand what I mean, the affect is even more powerful when you have a sky full of stars above you, when you wake up the next morning it will feel like a dream and you will question that it even took place, this is how you know you have experienced the heart beat of nature.
A short video clip taken on December 5th showing the snow on Glenshane Pass. The first half is my video footage and the second was taken by Roisin herself, towards the end you can see how the snow line suddenly vanishes as we descend onto lower ground.
On December 7th/8th I ended up going on another coastal storm chase at night, I ended up leaving on a split second decision because a few thunderstorms had formed over the N coast after dark so I raced out in pursuit, I ended up seeing 8 flashes of lightning, mostly from distant cells over Scotland and the far NW Atlantic, the highlight was seeing the moonlit back of a cell light up from within by a bright bolt near Rathlin Island, it was a spectacular scene with cb calvus top lit by the moon however I was driving at the time and had to let it go, that single image would have made the entire night. As it turned out the session was a tough one because the fan in my car's heater had malfunctioned so the car was freezing inside and I stayed in there for hours, the gales were so strong that I half-seriously thought the car was going to flip onto its side, I was parked beside a steep cliff again looking at the ocean while getting battered by sleet and hail, all the clouds were moving too fast and it stayed too cloudy so it was not a photogenic night, I got a few images however they are hardly worth posting, below is one of them looking out to the NW with a narrow cb anvil to the L and towering cumulus to the R all lit by the moon during one of the few clear moments, these moved in during the wake of the thunderstorm I saw, White Park Bay beach can be seen below.
However at one stage I was deeply impressed by the convection which was by the far the best coastal updraught development I have ever seen so far, the base of the cells where over the sea miles away however the tops of the moonlit updraught towers and calvus tops where directly above my head seemingly miles high against the stars and leaning forward with wind shear, they must have been exploding up due to great lapse rates, I just stood outside the car and cranked my neck back as I starred with disbelief at the zenith and shouted out loud...''holy s**t!!!'', it was just me, the storm clouds, the stars at night, and all on my own with that strong feeling that lightning could hit me any sec, now that was a memory worth taking home with me!. These last three days and nights have been action packed and have produced new fond memories which I shall always cherish, I hope there will be plenty more winter weather to come because nature and I have alot of catching up to do.