Binevenagh Snow Storm & DJI Mavic 3 Classic - January 17th 2023

2023 is here and with it comes a brand new year of storm chasing and photography adventures, something I've been eagerly looking forward to. The New Year began mild and uneventful however after mid month a pattern change introduced a notable cold spell which got my attention and resulted in the first two Winter convective chases of the new year.

January 15th was to be my first convective outing of the year with my mind fully focused on storm clouds. A cold air mass with a strong Wly flow sporting 100-300 CAPE over the N and NW Atlantic in proximity to the north coast of Ireland looked to be the kind of day my chaser mates and I had been looking forward to, those classic days of cold clean Polar convection over the oceans with big anvils, snow curtains and mammatus, at least that was the hope anyway with such scenarios. I did have some concerns about the set-up, the -20c air aloft was only borderline cold for lightning, there was 30 knots of deep layer shear over the sea off-shore which should be enough for multicells or lines however the surface flow was also 30 knots too, in fact, the Met Office had issued a yellow warning for gusts of up to 65mph.

This was a problem as the surface winds would be far stronger than the shear, so the shear in effect was being negated, the cells could be pulse type and the worse case scenario was the precip would fall back through the cell's inflow area on the wrong side. Owen Rice informed me the hodographs were showing directional shear from the NW so there was a chance the anvils could be sheared allowing for some upper left wind sculpting. Despite these issues I was game for chasing anyway as I just wanted to capture a cell, it had been so long that if I got one decent convective cloud then I would call it a success to break in the new year.

I left early in the morning and by 11am I had arrived on Benone beach where I teamed up with Nigel McFarland and John Fagan. We spent the day at this location watching the cells pass hoping for something special. Long story short, the atmosphere was a mess, cells were low topped and mushy and choked themselves with their own outflow as expected. Even worse was the low grey cloud which covered the convection all day so we could barely see much anyway and what we did see had no structure and wasn't worth shooting, so the day was a bust, except for this one beautiful cell.

We had light and a brief period of good visibility around noon when this Cumulonimbus came into view from behind Co. Donegal, moving left to right. The cell was white and photogenic with curtains of hail or wet snow falling over the sea. The anvil was beautiful and eye catching, Owen was rite, the directional shear had indeed sculpted a nice anvil pattern from the NW, there was even small mammatus present and we had all this with blue skies surrounding the Cb. All of us took images from the beach, this was using the Tamron 15-30mm at 20mm, that lady walked into the scene and made for a great sense of scale and foreground interest. It was this scene which made our entire day, we stayed until sunset then called it, however our chasing was not over yet as we discussed the snow and convective prospects the models were producing for the following week which really had our attention.

January 17th was the big event of the week and the first day of the second cold spell, this one had my attention again for convection. Arctic air all over Ireland with -40c cloud tops over the north of the country and even -50c tops over the ocean. 200-400 CAPE on a NWly flow however shear was weak, but given the cold air and such frigid cloud tops there was a high chance of beautiful cells, dramatic snow curtains, snow, thundersnow and ocean lightning. I wasn't going to miss out on this. I didn't sleep well during the previous night then I woke at 06.00 on the 17th and just stayed awake until daybreak. I packed the gear including two drones, the Mavic 2 Pro and Mavic 3 Classic, then hit the road with Rhua beside me on the passenger seat.

I didn't have a location plan yet but instincts were telling me the north of the country and inland coastal areas would be best but I decided to check out the Sperrins first just in case. Glenshane had a good thick white dusting of snow but it wasn't photogenic, also there was unexpected low grey cloud over the mountains killing any light so the snow was flat and grey, I then went on to Dungiven, Benbradagh was the same, snow but poor light and low cloud, not worth putting the drone up for. I was starting to get worried, I hadn't even taken an image yet, then I got a call from Nigel McFarland, he would be free soon and we reckoned being closer to the coast might have better visibility so I arranged to meet Nigel in Limavady.

I drove through the back roads in the Roe Valley area, I saw a break in the clouds and observed a row of big cells in the distance, those looked encouraging, I was beginning to think I was making the rite decision. I arrived at Limavady and pulled into the car park at homebase just as a cell arrived with a very black sky. The snow was brilliant, heavy, thick, coming down constantly, the heaviest snow showers I've seen this Winter so far. The ground was covered with snow, Rhua was out running around and jumping through it like a lamb. Nigel and I drove through Limavady (above) filming the snow as we drove through the town then took a detour to Myroe to search for snow curtains coming in over the lough with the next cells.

It was then that we realized this day was in trouble and that we were not going to get our dramatic cells or even good light for filming. The atmosphere looked more like a SWly flow rather than an Arctic air mass, just grey low cloud constantly blowing in hiding all the cells and killing the light. This would be the theme for the rest of the day and our spirits were low. We hit Benone beach which was covered in snow, that was actually cool to see, not to often one gets to experience a beach covered in white. We spotted the summit of Binevenagh which looked spectacular moments before more cloud covered it from view. I said to Nigel my goal today was drone footage of that mountain with snow if we ever got a break. Next location was Downhill beach, just a rotten experience, cold and windy with wet snow, dull grey and horrible with nothing to film, we came close to calling it a day and going home by 13.00, we just didn't see much hope. My intention was to use my new Mavic 3 Classic to film a cool snow scene, I really wanted to pressure test the drone in a real world scenario and see how it performed, I had done four flights with it but not a real world session during a chase and I was eager to see if it could earn its rite of passage.

By mid afternoon we drove back W where the snow was thicker and drove up a section of Binevenagh and waited. It snowed and snowed and snowed, it never stopped, proper heavy snow, it looked fantastic but now it wouldn't stop, I was feeling tired and defeated and the prospect of driving home empty handed wasn't thrilling so I stayed put and remained patient while drinking tea and snacks and watching the low clouds hoping to see a hint of the mountain. Then suddenly, 30 min's before sunset, the snow stopped, I saw Binevenagh appearing through the clouds like an apparition.

I knew from our last look at the radar that another prolonged heavy snow shower was moving in so this would be my only chance of the day. There were no blue skies and sunshine, it remained overcast just with some ambient light filtering through the hazy void between snow showers. I powered up the Mavic 3 Classic, I was using the DJI RC so start up time was fast, I set the drone on the van roof and took off and got above the trees and checked my screen and all was well. Video on auto settings, white balance auto, I focused on the mountain, then began my fight. I flew the drone 65m above the surface over snow covered trees in a forest then emerged into a clearing covered in dramatic rocks and an amazing cliff face covered in snow. I was already impressed by the view on the screen, the M3C was getting its first taste of the white gold. I was shooting video sequences then hovering for still images, the summit was covered in a veil of cloud which was scudding across the peaks which made for a very dramatic moment.

Turning to the S side of the summit. Binevenagh is one of several mountains which I love to capture in snow alongside Glenshane, Benbradagh and Birren road areas of the Sperrins which usually get my full attention. A good coverage of snow at the coast and staying on the mountain is more rare due to the salt in the air and warmer temps so this is why I like to capture this region when the opportunity comes along.

Huge snow curtains cascading across the ocean in the distance with the low lands near Benone and Magilligan where the beaches reside all covered in snow, a rare sight for sure.

Cloud blowing inland to reveal the summit and surface features. I looked behind me and could see the next snow shower coming, I knew when it hit it would be game over so every second in the air counted now.

Then I got my favourite image of the day showing Binevenagh covered with a quilt of snow with a dark stormy sky in the background. I was really impressed with the dynamic range and low light abilities of the four thirds sensor on the M3C, it really excelled in this situation. The above image is 6x4 format using the entire surface of the 20MP sensor.

Another image, this time a 16x9 version, I couldn't decide which I liked best so I included both here.

Flying backwards watching the mountain enjoying every second of the aerial experience. I was impressed by the battery life, the Mavic 2 Pro already has a good battery life and I've trained myself to make the most of as much of it as possible without wastage so I was quite astonished by how long I could stay in the air today, especially in the cold at this altitude, I had spent a lot of time moving around the summit shooting and experimenting with angles and I always seemed to have battery remaining so hats off to DJI for that advantage. I landed the drone just as the first snow flakes began to fall from the sky onto the drone, the Mavic 3 Classic had been Christened.

This one flight made my entire day, even enough I didn't get great light I still liked the images and had a great time exploring in the snow with this delightful large sensor. Now the day was officially a success and I could relax and enjoy the drive home, or could I?. At sunset I began the one and a half hour drive back from the coast to Cookstown however it soon turned into a tense experience. Darkness descended fast and so did the temperature, it was already 0C and there was snow on the road, even at the coast, furthermore I would be hitting rush hour traffic. The radar showed many more snow showers inbound so there was no point hanging around until the traffic eased, I just had to get on with it before things got worse.

The entire coastal drive to Coleraine was non stop hail stones and snow, with very slow drivers in front of me terrified of driving, I felt like I was crawling in slow motion which was frustrating, I managed to overtake a couple of the slower drivers but could feeling the van fish tailing, it was already very slippery and traction was sporadic. From Coleraine to Garvagh was the worst, constant heavy snow and deeper snow on the roads, the salted roads made little difference, it felt like any sudden movement would send me sliding, even turning the volume on the radio for a brief second was enough to cause a slide.

I had to concentrate 100% to avoid coming off the road or sliding into another car and the other drivers were doing the same. On one hand it was great to be driving in the snow watching the flakes hitting the windscreen like a time warp but the lack of traction took the edge of the fun. But I remained calm, concentrated and stayed patient, I battled the snow all the way to Cookstown and finally arrived home. When I got inside I was absolutely exhausted, I then had a warm dinner and had the luxury of watching the falling snow from inside the cosey house.

Drone footage with the Mavic 3 Classic from that well earned snow flight to Binevenagh. What began as a frustrating day turned very rewarding during last light so this chase definitely deserves to be my first documented adventure of the new year. If we get any more Winter action I will take it, however my mind is new turning to comet C/2022 E3 ZTF, the aurora, and the prospect of warmer days and Spring convection. I have high hopes that 2023 will be an action packed year for sky phenomena. Thanks very much for reading.


Martin McKenna

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