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North Coast Night Storms - Nov 2nd 2010

This report documents the best solo storm chase I have had to date, from the on-set let me confirm that your first quick scroll down the page is correct, I have very little in the way of images and no good images at that so I completely agree with you on this matter as this chase was not an image success but more of a personal achievement and fantastic adventure which thrilled me so much that I wanted to make this permanent report for the record. It began during daytime Nov 1st when ESTOFEX issued a level 1 threat for all of UK and Ireland for a risk of severe wind gusts, tornadoes, and high lightning rates as an active cold front crossed the country from W to E from the Atlantic Ocean. Myself and others were naturally very excited by this unexpected forecast since none of us had noticed any severe threat on the GFS charts as no CAPE was available inland however the shear charts more than compensated for that if any line convection could develop from forcing so there was room for a surprise. The 'big event' turned into a damp squib, the cold front passed through producing nothing more than heavy precip and by sunset the sky was clear and harmless. Danny Power, Paul Martin and I were discussing this on facebook and to put it a nice way we were rather frustrated and angry for having been suckers for yet another let down forecast, it seemed this was happening far too often during 2010 and our patience was being pushed beyond tolerance. I was in a very foul and negative mood because I was really hoping to see or photograph something cool and that mood got worse as I kept checking the radar to see dry air all across Ireland, it was one of those times when you really question why you are interested in storm photography, after all what was the point of practising nearly every day and night to hone your skills for these events when you get let down at the end, could this 2010 storm year get any worse?.

My anger and resentment made me thirsty for a storm of some kind, in a desperate attempt to find light at the end of the tunnel to lessen the burden of storm deprivation I searched through my mind and reflected back on the forecast. Wait a minute, the post frontal air mass was unstable over the Atlantic Ocean in the SWly flow with 100-400 CAPE between N. Ireland and Scotland expected during the night with a cool pool of air aloft in the polar maritime wake of the cold front, those low temps would be good for lightning, the instability was more than enough for storms because after all you don't need major CAPE if you have the other ingredients plus take into consideration that the SSTs were warmer than usual this year and you have the potential for off-shore and ocean thunderstorms. I recalled that I had checked the convective maps earlier and they had shown a trough of showers moving down across the N Atlantic with well defined convective precip progged in an environment with strong vertical wind shear and helicity, this was clear on the maps with strong tornado and supercell parameters. To sum up there was a high chance of thunderstorms forming anywhere around the W, NW, and N coasts of N. Ireland including the W coast of Scotland. The maps showed a line of convection late in the night so it was possible that not only would there be storms but there also could be a chance of embedded mesocyclones/supercells with a risk of tornadoes. Yea rite I thought!, how many times have those been predicted this year and nothing happened. I briefly mentioned the idea on facebook and seriously considered chasing to the coast later.

Mr negative popped up on my shoulder again and I began to have my doubts, was I just hopecasting?, after all none of the other convective forecasters were going for storms. As if to put an end to my doubts I heard the RTE TV forecast in the background, they were going for heavy thundery showers along the W and NW coasts with plenty of lightning symbols, interesting indeed, I checked their site and they mentioned the same thing. It was now late evening and dark outside, I checked the radar once more and was shocked to see an intense cell already over the NW coast of NI, it was isolated and of large size with pink and red radar returns and it was producing lightning. Danny Power informed me that the cell had a possible inflow notch and given the atmospheric environment the chances were good that it was a supercell, I kicked myself!, my instincts had been correct all along and now I had waited too late to act, if I had left one hour earlier I could have been at the coast watching it, its not often someone in N. Ireland can say they were watching a supercell at night time over the sea, what an experience that would have been. The cell was still going strong and producing sferics so I decided I wasn't going to waste anymore time, now Mr positive was on my shoulder, he was saying why wait until the next event?, do it now, live for the moment, this is what you do after all, don't think about it just do it!.

Credit: Met Office Invent

(Above) High res radar echoes on the two evening cells over the NW coast of N. Ireland, the possible inflow notch is marked indicating a likely supercell. Image credit goes to Met Office Invent, thanks to Danny Power and Skywarn UK for the help.

It was 22.30 and my adventure had reached ingress, I put on several layers of warm clothes, grabbed my camera gear, a wind proof coat, and filled a huge bottle of water to keep me hydrated. I jumped in the car and drove into Maghera and topped up the car with another £10.00 of petrol just in case. When I left the petrol station I was driving confidently N towards the coast while listening to Nick Cave's 'Tupelo' on CD which was rather fitting because the first track of the same name made many references to storms with thunder in the background which put me in the zone for the night ahead. As I drove towards Swatragh under a dark starry sky I wondered what this night had in store, was I just wasting my time?, this wasn't a 5 min drive as I would be a considerable distance from home, it's not that far to the coast but not that close either. I decided that no matter what I was now committed and there would be no turning back, I kept my expections low and came to terms with the fact that I may see nothing, however one cell over the sea or one flash would be more than enough to make me happy, as a support system it was a glorious clear night so I could do some star photography too while I waited.

Nature had picked a good night for a storm chase, this was late Monday and the roads had very little traffic which meant more peace of mind driving and less people to get in my way, I also hoped I would be the only one on the beach when I arrived. The road was quiet for miles however once I was located between Garvagh and Coleraine a tremendous blue flash of lightning lit up the sky out the windscreen in front of me, when I say tremendous I mean it, this flash was unreal in magnitude and I perceived it as filling the entire N dome of the sky with it's brilliant blue sheen interrupting the peaceful majesty of the stars and for a brief instant it even messed up the song on the car radio. I shook my fist in the air and yelled ''yes'', I was already successful and felt on a high, now I knew I had made the correct decision and my trip wasn't in vain. Another flash of lightning affirmed this and I felt the rush of adrenalin and as a result more pressure was applied to the accelerator, I couldn't wait to get to the coast. It was obvious that the lightning was over the coast to the NW and without doubt it was coming from that possible supercell we saw on the radar earlier.

I arrived at my destination which was Downhill beach not far from Downhill Manor and Mussenden Temple where Conor and I had been doing night photography two nights earlier, I never would have guessed I would have been back here so soon looking at night storms. The beach was dark and completely empty and the sand felt very compact and hard with no chance of getting the car struck so I drove well down into the darkness and parked up with the nose of the car facing N. The sky was a mix of light scattered cloud and stunning clear sectors and even without dark adaption I could see intricate detail in the Milky Way. The tide was well out more than 100m in front of me and the sea was fairly calm except for the regular rumble from small white breakers which sounded a little sinister from the dead quiet beach. I was delighted that I was the only one crazy enough to be there at this hour of the night so I got out and stretched my legs and got fresh air. The view to the N was absolutely pitch black over the Atlantic Ocean with the familiar pattern of Ursa Major above the breakers sporting more stars than I would usually see from home. I took a few min's to adapt to my new environment then got out the camera and began taking exposures to the N and NW.

This is the view from the beach looking NW, the lights mark the coastline where it enters the Atlantic Ocean where the light-dark boundary is very well marked. If you follow the coast on round you come to Donegal, the white light on the horizon is from a flashing light house. If you look carefully you can see a dark hazy layer above the horizon, those are the upper level clouds/anvils from a line of showers and thunderstorms miles away moving L to R between NI and Scotland, the direction of Scotland is more than two 18mm frames to the R of this image. I didn't go mad taking images so after a few exposures I turned the camera off and watched. Then the show began, at first it was sporadic but with time it became more active. Bright blue flashes of lightning lit up the sky on the horizon to the N and NW near the W shore of Scotland. They where too far away to catch on camera so I just enjoyed the show with the naked eye, at least I was now seeing lightning again. It's amazing how bright these flashes are considering their distance. Not having radar meant that I didn't know if anything else was moving in behind those storms, my logic was that there would be so I stayed here for several hours watching the sky light up.

Still on Downhill Beach during the hours after midnight, I had been enjoying myself sitting in the car watching blue lightning break through the darkness where I guessed there where two or three active cells doing their thing over the Atlantic. I passed the time listening to Talk Sport radio while drinking from my bottle of water to keep hydrated because I had the car heater running for a long time which dried me out, I decided to turn it off incase the battery went flat. I went back out for more exposures, I saw more lightning however it never seemed to flash when I was taking an image which was typical. A dramatic change began to happen as cloud moved in from the SW which began to swallow up the stars so I took one last exposure to the NW before I got hammered by precip from the obvious heavy showers approaching my area. In the above image you can see the precip falling above the lights but look to the R where the clouds and stars meet, do you see that slightly curved vertical feature with the red colour? - that's a very faint moonbow, the waning crescent Moon was behind me to the NE near the horizon so this was the lunar version of a sunrise rainbow, granted it is only a partial moonbow however you can tell that if it was complete it would have been huge in size. I'm certain I have broke my own personal record by catching a moonbow from such a weak moon phase.

When I got back in the car I spent an hour sitting under a train of nasty showers and strong gusty winds which shook the car, I began to worry that the saturated sand would leave me stuck, Mr negative was back on my shoulder again. During this hour I began to feel very lonely, when you are sitting in complete darkness with wind and rain as your companion with nothing to see you really begin to question yourself. I was getting cold, tired, and sick of the radio so I just sat there in the dark wondering what to do next, OK at least I had seen lightning already but was the show over?, nothing interesting had happened for a long time and for all I knew the storms were over for the night. I felt a strong urge to go home then my Sister rang asking me when I was coming back, I told her I would be back within the hour. I waited for another 10 min's then the showers stopped and presented a brief clearance across the sea. Then I saw two more active areas of lightning among the stars, then another lit up the inside of a huge anvil near Scotland, wow I as now seeing cloud structure at that range. Straight in front of me the sky was dark with nothing visible, then suddenly I saw the outline of a huge dark tower light up from within like a blue light bulb!, that was high in the sky too, possibly 15 degrees above the sea horizon and more than high enough to catch on camera so I went back out again to take images, I saw more lightning either side of that tower but I came to the conclusion that the two or three storms I could see where too far away so after much thought I decided to drive home.

The drive back was pleasant as I left behind the N coast cloud cover and was greeted to a stunning pitch black sky with wonderful transparency, in fact I have never seen Orion looking so fine in years so I pulled over at a parking place to the S of Garvagh in the countryside. Using the binos I tracked down comet 103P/Hartley 2 below Gemini then could see it easily with the naked eye along with a few early Taurid meteors, it really was a beautiful night. My Sister rang again to see where I was at and I told her I would be home shortly, however that plan went out the window when I saw a group of lightning flashes to my W, these flashes were more like the first one I saw on the road down with considerable brilliance with the clouds lighting up with each discharge, there were more which bounced off the moisture in the sky far behind me, I was thinking that this storm was the real deal with active lightning and it was getting closer to me. I decided to get out the camera and take exposures from the road side.

This is the view from where I was parked at 02.30 looking W towards the NI coast, I saw flashes to the W below Pegasus and to the NW in Cygnus, they where still far away but the motion of the clouds in the exposure indicated the storm was heading my way. The lightning was coming from the orange area at image centre and to the ROC. Despite this long distance the view was amazing and I began to wonder if I should chase it. The red trail in the image belongs to a Police car which passed then turned around and pulled up beside me. A male and female officer greeted me and naturally wanted to know what I was doing. I must have looked like a complete weirdo standing there in the dark with my Deer-Stalker hat with big fluffy flaps which hung over my ears and a hood pulled over that. I explained to them that I was trying to photograph the lightning, they said ''ah so that's what those flashes were'', turns out they had been watching the flashes too while on patrol and obviously didn't know what was causing them. Then a big flash lit up the NW and I pointed and said ''there's another''. They asked me questions about the storms and I explained where they were located and the direction of motion, this was followed by further questions about the camera so I explained that I was trying to catch a bolt on camera but my chances were slim at this range, they seemed genuinely fascinated. The female officer said it was a little weird seeing someone standing out with a camera in the middle of nowhere at this time of the night. I informed them that I do this stuff all the time and have been for years and that I run a website featuring images of these late night photo shoots. They were interested and satisfied by what I said. They asked how long I planned on staying here as I'm sure they thought I was unsafe at this location so I said 10 more min's or so then I would be going home to Maghera. They wished me well then drove away into the night, they passed me again 5 min's later and beeped the horn.

I figured the lightning would stop soon so I began to drive home for the second time however those lightning flashes were playing in my mind, what was it about them that got my attention?, I had a feeling I shouldn't be leaving so soon. Unknown to me at the time the radar was showing a stunning line of storm cells over the W of NI moving NE along a trough with intense radar echoes with upper cloud temps of -30 degrees C complimented by strong wind shear creating a bowing line of storms and at least one of them may have been a supercell or at the very least with supercell characteristics, those where the flashes I had been watching when the Police stopped. I drove on S inland through Garvagh back into the countryside and was shocked to see massive lightning 'explosions' to the W out the driver's window, bloody hell those were bright, then flash flash - a blue double whammy like detonations of light above the horizon, as I continued on I saw more lightning in the wing mirror, that was it I had enough of this wondering so I pulled over at yet another parking area between Garvagh and Swatragh for a better look. There was a hedge blocking my view to the W so I stood up inside the car with half my body out the door frame to get a better view. I was not disappointed, I saw huge black updraught tower illuminated from behind by another lightning bolt followed by yet another which revealed the outline of a huge anvil and after a wait I was certain I could hear a very faint rumble of thunder, could that be possible all the way from Garvagh?, I was sure of it so I decided to turn back around and drove back N again, I couldn't believe I was almost home and now I was going back out again on nothing more than instinct.

I drove N rapidly, there wasn't a single car on the road at this hour of the night, it was just me, the blowing leaves, and the glowing eyes from a few Foxes stalking through hedges. I was driving fast and with purpose, the chase was on. I did some quick calculations in my mind as I drove, the storm must be moving along the W to NW coast and is of huge size, if I went back to my first location I would have an amazing view but what if the storm died before I got there?, I didn't like the thought of having no images so I made a sudden impulsive decision to get off the main road so I took the first option W that I could find, this was between Garvagh and Coleraine through roads I had never been on in my life before, I figured I was at Ringsend in the middle of nowhere between Coleraine and Limavady. These roads were narrow but completely empty, I mean there was absolutely no one on those those roads at all, it felt like a ghost town which really added to the excitement of the chase.

I was on very high ground surrounded by fields and wet marsh land which reminded me somewhat of Glenshane and with the exception of a few homes and farms it was barren. Lightning continued to flash through the windscreen, I just kept driving towards it hoping to get closer, cloud was increasing from the W and NW so the storm was advancing. I pulled over somewhere at random, got out on the road under a stupendous starry sky and began taking images looking W, I have to admit that my hands were shaking slightly from the excitement I was feeling. I began taking images at ISO800 using the remote shutter, the storm was still far away but if I was lucky I might just pick up something on camera. I got lucky and caught this brilliant blue flash from another bolt which almost destroyed my dark adaption, you can see the distant storm clouds below yet the blue flash is visible high in the sky through Pegasus. I figure the c-g and I-c bolts from this must have been over Buncrana to the E of Donegal, maybe even closer to Derry but it was hard to say for certain. All I can say is that it took the thunder over one min to reach me after those flashes, the time was 03.16 UT.

I wasn't happy with my location so I got back in the car and drove rapidly W further into the night along this unknown road looking for a better view, as the miles went by I thought I'd better stop and get images or else I would have nothing to show for this night. The roads were great here with a decent view almost to the horizon with no trees however I was wasting time being picky by stopping and starting at different locations trying to find somewhere which was perfect and while I was doing this I was missing alot of awesome strikes. I came to a cross road and found a perfect location looking W but I didn't feel comfortable, there was a house behind me at close range with a light on, for some reason this bothered me as I didn't want the occupants getting scared about a suspicious car outside their home so I drove on again taking one of the options at the junction and just kept going, at this point I didn't know where the hell I was but that feeling of the unknown made my adventure all the more thrilling. The roads out there were flat and lifeless, there was not a soul or car light as far as the eye could see so I just stopped on the road and got out which felt like a breath of fresh air with no traffic to worry about, I felt completely free up here.

Looking W the sky was pitch black, I could see the huge anvil on this storm filling the sky with it's highest point directly overhead while the base of the storm was miles away, and around the anvil was a dark sky rich with stars, I looked around me and took in the fantastic view of the Milky Way, comet Hartley, and the storm with the crescent Moon to my R with a formation of crisp dark convective clouds crossing the cratered southern highlands, it was a beautiful night and a true visual spectacle, I was absolutely loving this!. Another flash of lightning lit up the entire structure of the anvil and towers from behind as if someone was standing with a huge torch, that brief sight would stay in my mind for many nights to come. I took the above exposure showing just a portion of the big storm at 18mm, it extends beyond the frame on either side, you can see the precip and some structure however it also shows ugly power lines and a telegraph pole which I didn't see with the naked eye at the time and that bothered me.

Same scene shortly after the previous image and wow, it was like an atomic bomb had gone off, a blinding flash of purple and blue light turned night to day from a brilliant c-g strike, 5 sec's later it as followed by a loud rumble of thunder which sounded quite frightening from this desolate location on such a quiet night, and I caught this one on camera, or at least the glow anyway, this storm was getting close fast but it was also moving to the R (NE) at a good rate so I couldn't hang around here for long. That strike was in the direction of Lough Foyle ,maybe even closer than that and it was putting down c-g strikes inland with plenty of I-c bolts including more flashes over the sea, and to think it had been doing that earlier when I was heading home, that seemed like a life time ago now, this storm really was producing alot of lightning for a long period of time, I stopped counting after 31 flashes. The above image was taken at 03.36, I was annoyed by the pole so I climbed a gate and walked into that dark field until I had cleared the wires for a better shot, bad decision, the field was water logged and filled with mud so I ended up to my ankles in cold water with mud all over my trainers and jeans, I felt miserable standing there with a cold wind blowing across the highlands, within a min I was feeling badly chilled so I went back out again.

Back on the road again taking exposures, on my second one I caught another explosion of light, this was a double c-g barrage at 03.40 which created so much light that it overexposed the frame, you can see the entire side of the storm lit by the lightning from ground to top, you can also see the anvil above with stars aloft, again this is 18mm so this was big. The really intense area to the lower L behind the trees was where the c-gs where hitting. I made a big mistake using ISO800 when it should have been 100, that wasn't exactly stupidity on my part as I hadn't expected to get these bolts so close hence why I ISO'd up higher hoping for storm structure. Then it dawned on me that I had made a bad decision because had I stayed on Downhill Beach I would have had a perfect close up view of this storm and no doubt would have got great images of c-gs over the Ocean, oh well at least I seeing this great show anyway so I was happy enough. The thunder from this was so loud that I almost felt the shock wave. Considering the environment this thing was in it's very possible it could have been dropping a tornado over the sea, however in the dead of night such a sight would go missed.

I drove on yet again in chase of this storm, it was moving L to R on the image and slightly towards me so I went further N which involved back-tracking through these high roads using nothing more than memory and my own built in sense of direction to find my way back, it would be very easy to get lost up here. I made it onto the main road again and headed straight N passing the roundabout outside Coleraine for the third time that night then taking the N option along the coastal route, I passed through several small estates and into the darkness. By now half the storm was over the Sea with the other half over land and I was caught directly under the precip core where I experienced torrential rain and powerful gusts of wind which nearly blew the car off the road, by that I mean the steering wheel was tugging me into the ditch from the straight line winds so I had to fight the wheel and steer into the flow, leaves blew past me filling the road and sky which in conjunction with the soaking road made conditions very dangerous and slippery, it's just as easy to lose traction on that kind of surface as it is on ice. As I was punching the core I watched with awe as more lightning flashed at close range, I had a great view of a brilliant pink flash filling the entire sky over the orange lights of Coleraine which was one of my favourite sights of the night, that was an I-c bolt. I made it through and the sky cleared, I had planned on hitting Downhill Beach again however the sky was clear in that direction as the storm had already passed me.

I'm not sure exactly where I was, perhaps a few miles from the coast near Anticlave, all I know is that I was on high ground at a cross road with houses nearby, I pulled over at the side of the road as quietly as I could, that was the beauty about this time of night, I could have set up the camera in someone's yard and they wouldn't have known about it - not that I would do that anyway. A gate was open at the top of a field so I walked in getting soaked once again, I could hear torrents of water running down the hill from all the rainfall. I began taking exposures looking E towards the lights of Coleraine. This is the rear of the storm moving away from me, don't be fooled by it's size, that storm is big but many miles away and getting smaller as it headed E/NE towards Scotland.

You can see the orange/yellow sodium lights reflecting off the high precip, the strongest area of precip is to the R with a well defined dark core visible at image centre. The horizontal line to the R is the back of the gust front/shelf cloud and at centre is an interesting section of inflow cloud. You can just make out the shape of the circular low-topped anvil which was clearly beginning to weaken and break up as it moved inland where it lost the instability from the sea.

After this image I stopped taking exposures as it seemed the show was over, then a beautiful c-g hit down to the far RHS of the image just where I had been shooting only sec's before!. That last c-g was the finale and the show was definitely over. To see how late in the night it was just check out the stars above the anvil, Leo and Coma Berenices are easy to see which meant it was the pre dawn hours, the time on the image reads 04.05, it honestly felt surreal standing here at this time so far from home. I then began the long journey back, at least it seemed long when the action was over and tiredness took over me, I was driving through heavy rain and blowing leaves all the way back to Maghera while Roy Orbinson sang ''I drove all night to get you'' which summed up my storm chase perfectly. I arrived home just before 05.00 so I had been in car for 6 hours or so making this my longest solo chase yet and one heck of an adventure which I won't forget. It wasn't an image success however the visual view of the lightning in conjunction with the beautiful starry night will be a memory I will always cherish, not to mention starting off the previous night on nothing more than a whim then ending the next morning with a stunning and unexpected light show. Before I went to sleep I checked the radar to see what that storm looked like, it was impressive as any strong daytime storm with pink and red returns in a well defined line with what looked like bowing segments, this certainly could well have been a severe storm indeed. Thanks for reading.


Martin McKenna

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