My best lightning shots

It was not until my third storm chasing tour where I bought a tripod in order to be able to take some lightning shots. I bought it at WalMart for about $15 and it was among the cheapest ones but it did the trick. Using the BULB feature on my Canon I was able to take these lightning shots. The most difficult thing was to catch the lightnings in the frame, many of these photos were cropped to a fraction of the original size since the lightning appeared in a corner almost every time.

Outside of cropping and resizing, these images have not been improved in Photoshop.

 

Double lightning
Double lightning

 

LIghtning
This lightning was nearly missed and appeared in the bottom right corner. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the entire lightning but is still one of my best lightning shots.

 

Lightning bolt
Also one of my best lightning shots, a bit better framed than the one above. I love how you can see the redish light in the cloud.

 

Long lightning bolt
I like how you can follow the full length of this lightning bolt, and how it kind of makes a turn to the right.

 

 

Why you need to bring your iPhone on your storm chasing trip

Yesterday I brought up a fun way to play with your iPhone panorama functionality but the panorama functionality is really useful for your storm photos as well. I assume there is a similar functionality on Android as well but I don’t know (I only have an iPhone). I learned about panorama shooting from Mike Ricciardi that I had the pleasure to chase with in May 2013.

The great benefit of shooting photos with the panorama view is for people, like me, that don’t have a camera with a great wide angle view. It allows for cool storm structure shots anyway.

 

How to use panorama shots in your iPhone

If you have never tried it on your iPhone, this is how you do it:

  1. Start the camera app
  2. Click Alternatives and choose Panorama (on iOS 6 and before) or swipe to choose Panorama (on iOS 7).
  3. Hold the camera in “portrait mode” and sweep from left to right. Make sure the arrow stays on the line.
  4. You don’t have to make a full sweep so you can stop any time.

 

Storm chasing photos in panorama view

These photos were all taken on my 2013 chase with Tempest Tours. Click on each photo to see a larger version.

http://scusa.wallcloudproductions.se/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/IMG_3332.jpg

Sunset photo with iphone panorama

Super cell with iphone panorama photo

IMG_3469

texas storm with iphone panorama

nice inflow storm structure

storm structure with nice colors

inside of a storm chasing van iphone panorama
The inside of a storm chasing van.

 

The panorama photos sometimes gets strange geometrical patterns and other anomalies but generally works really well. Naturally, the shorter the sweep, the less elongated the photo will become as you can see in certain photos above.

Tornadic supercell – as seen from above (space)

Have you ever wondered how a tornado would look like from above the cloud? Well, it would look like a typical supercell (i.e. not really like a hurricane with a big hole in the middle). This animated gif shows really weall how it looks like (as a time-lapse) when storms pop-up over a few counties.

Notice how they burst out over a line and how the anvil spreads out. You can also see an overshooting top on a few of the storms showing that these are quite powerful storms. Pretty cool, huh?

Five day tour with PDS Storm Tours

This blog entry was originally written on my personal blog and directed (simplified) to my friends (who don’t know anything about storm chasing). I have translated it as it was and left it with no major editing. This was my second trip and I didn’t know that much about storm chasing at the time.

I recently came home from my second storm chasing-trips. The first trip I made back in 2009 was probably the best trip I have made (all categories) since we were lucky enough to experience lots of weather phenomena, for example a giant tornado in Wyoming. I tried to keep my expectations low for this trip with PDS Storm Tours (Gene and Barbara Robertson), since it was much shorter (5 days as opposed to 14 days on my last one).

It turned out to be a trip that started off really, really slow but with a great finale! In the end, the last few hours of this tour turned out to be some of the most intensive moments I have ever experienced in my life!

I landed in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on the Saturday and had a quite funny conversation with the immigration officer:

– So, Mr Bejorkenwall, are you coming to the US for business or pleasure, sir?

– Pleasure

– Visiting family in Oklahoma then, sir?

– No, I am here as a tourist

– ???…touristing in Tulsa? *thinking: bring him in boys*

– Eh…Yes, storm chasing

– Oh, you are one of them crazy people. Well have fun then.

 

Severe storm risk according to SPC

The setup for this week, at first, looked quite good but later on turned out really bad. Basically, you can get an idea of the risk of severe storms on this map at Storm Prediction Center. You can have a few different variations in terms of: No severe risk, Slight Risk, Moderate Risk and High Risk.

If you are facing a non-existing risk it is quite likely you will not be able to find any severe storms at all. With a Moderate Risk, most who have storm chasing as a hobby are likely to hit the roads if they can. At a Slight Risk you may only go chasing if the risk area is nearby. For this week it looked like Slight Risk would be the highest risk we would face.

 

Stockholm – Bombay

Storm chasing involves miles and miles in the car, for which I was well prepared. This trip, however, was exceptional since the risk areas were so few and so spread out. We were in New Mexico (which borders to Mexico) on Monday afternoon and we touched North Dakota (which borders to Canada) on the Tuesday afternoon! We literally drove over the entire country in one day! After summing up the miles driven during these five days it turned out we had gone over 4.000 miles. This is compared to driving from Stockholm to Bombay. In five days!

First four days of finding nothing

Even if we got to chase some sort of storm setup every day we didn’t really find anything to write home about, since nothing really superseded anything I saw on my previous trip. The most interesting that happened of the first four days was that we ended up 45 minutes from Rochester, Minnesota, where I lived for a month in August 2011.

It was in the corner of Minnesota and Wisconsin where we had our last planned chase day, since our last day (Friday) looked completely dry with a non-existing risk of severe storms. At this time I wasn’t exactly bitter but really wasn’t happy either. I mean, it’s fun to road trip in the USA and the Midwest has a special place in my hear after my year at K-State – but it’s not thaaaat much fun to experience disappointment after disappointment every day!

These are some of the best and most interesting photos from my first four days, which says quite a lot:

mammatus
Beautiful mammatus clouds

 

sunset storm
A nice storm at sunset

 

shelf cloud from a mcs
Shelf cloud from a linear storm in Iowa

 

Our great change of luck

When I woke up on the Friday morning my greatest expectation was to be able to drive by Manhattan, KS, and visit my old university town. I checked the SPC outlook in the morning and was positively surprised to see that they had changed the non-existing risk to Slight Risk in Kansas that day. This was perfect since Kansas was on our way home. So, we got a bonus chase day on our last day after all!

manhattan kansas
My old house when I went to K-State

At the same time as we were driving around in Manhattan, the weather forecasts were becoming better and better (from a storm chaser’s perspective) and central Kansas suddenly appeared really interesting! So we finished up quickly in Manhattan and continued through the beautiful, flat plains of Kansas and even managed to pass by the old Swedish settlement of Lindsborg, KS (just south of Salina) before arriving to the show just in time.

anvil
Anvil of the Storm of the Day. The cap was broken!

So, basically and quite simplified, what you do when you chase storms is pretty much you:

  1. Find your target area of the day, based upon your weather forecast
  2. Drive to that target, and wait for the afternoon (where storms usually start).
  3. Keep track of your weather radar to see where storm cloud start to tower up and visually you look for large towers of storm clouds, with anvils spreading out and position yourself in front of them.
  4. You observe and move around the storm cloud to avoid high risk areas of it, such as straight underneath the so called wall cloud, which may produce tornadoes. You also try to avoid the core which produces a lot of rain and dangerous hail. The constant re-positioning is to always keep you out of danger’s path and to get the best possible view of the storm
dust below storm cloud
Our storm is kicking up a lot of dust from winds coming down from the storm.

In our case, our first storm looked really promising with lots of dust being kicked up and strong winds. We were basically just waiting for it to produce a tornado but the storm never really got that far. The hours went on and even if it was an amazing storm with really cool features, we still lacked that extra icing on the cake. I was still quite satisfied since it was about 10 times better than anything we had seen during the entire week. Finally, the sun started to set and our longing to see a tornado from this great storm became a matter of time. Would we see anything before the sun set?

sunset
The sun was setting

Then, at last, something started to happen.

We placed ourselves at a field in the strong evening heat (+30 C) and watched the tornado warned storm while the sun, all too fast, were closing in on the horizon. The feeling was very much like watching the end of an exciting football game with one eye on the game clock. Then, just like a goal on overtime, the storm finally produced a tornado!

The tornado quickly stretched out like a rope over the horizon with the sunset behind it. The finale couldn’t have been better and we were all ecstatic!

Sunset tornado
Just like a last second touch-down, the tornado touched down just in front of the sunset.

 

sunset tornado rope out
This sight was just amazing. The tornado quickly roped out just in front of the sunset.

 

sunset tornado dissipating
The tornado dissipates and the sun has already set.

Ten minutes later the tornado dissipated (but it apparently demolished some houses during its lifespan). We drove a bit closer to the storm to photograph the magnificent lightning display and thought we had experienced the best of today, but there was more to come.

 

One does not chase storms at night, now I know why

Eventually, the dark settled and one does not chase storms in the dark. It is dangerous and relatively pointless since you can’t see anything anyway. We did however have to go south in order to get back to Oklahoma. Driving south also meant driving in between two tornado warned storms, i.e. storms that could spit out a tornado at any time – without us not being able to see it! We also had to drive quite close to the core, although not underneath the wall cloud (which is the part of the storm that usually produces a tornado).

With some curiosity I kept my eyes on this wall cloud that was a bout 1-2 km away to our right. The sun light was long gone but the frequent lightning lit up the sky once every second or so. At first I kept the window rolled down in order to be able to see, but doing so was quite noisy so I gave up my search and kept my eyes on the road instead.

 

I can’t believe what I see lit up by the lightning

Suddenly, we start to see wind gusts in front of our head-lights. The rain and the winds were acting strange. Something was definitely going on!

I roll down my passenger window again and stare out into the darkness, towards where the wall cloud used to be (2 km away). Lightning flashes a couple of times and I…wait a minute…What. Was. That!? Another double lightning lights up the sky and I turn my eyes from the field further away and look up. I see what I only thought I saw the first time: A white, cylinder shape is apparent on the sky, like an elephants trunk and it’s just above and beside us. I stutter to Gene and Barbara in the front seat:

Eh, I think there is a tornado to our right

Gene pulls down his window as well and the sky is lit up by another lightning again. It’s quite obvious that we have a tornado touching down just a few hundred meters to the right of our car. We cannot see the end of the tornado but when I follow the trunk I can see that its base is just above us! It stretches like a snake from the sky down and just like the head of the snake is the most dangerous part, that part of the tornado is fortunately not in our path, but rather to our right. The sight itself is boh deeply terrifying and amazing at the same time!

We, obviously, put the pedal to the metal and drive as fast as we can. A couple of lightnings later I can no longer see the tornado but that doesn’t really ease our minds.

When were back in safety again and my pulse has slowed down, the whole situation strikes me. This was probably one of the most intense moments of my life (and I have had the pleasure of experiencing a lot of cool things). I know we were in a very dangerous place and things could have gone really bad but despite that it was so intense I never feared for my life or anything.

I don’t want this to put PDS Storm Tours or Gene in any bad light for this incident. I trust him to have made good calls due to the circumstances and this was, as well, such an amazing event for me so if anything I feel gratitude! The effort they put in to make this a remarkable tour was incredible.

It is difficult to explain what it is with these spectacles of Mother Nature but the adrenalin, the uncertainty, the beauty, the dramatic weather phenomena is something that is something out of this world. Unreal is probably the word that best describes storm chasing and there is nothing that can compare these super storms with anything else, especially not the thunderstorms we get in Sweden.

Lastly, I would like to thank Gene, Barbara, Dennis & Jeanie Jones for this amazing trip. If there is something I bring with me from this tour, outside of these amazing events, is the incredible dedication of the team to really find some storms. We got up at 5 a.m. some mornings to drive over the entire country for only a meager risk of severe thunderstorms, and then back again. They really went above and beyond to find me some storms and for that I am forever grateful! “Walking that extra mile” is something they are purely dedicated to do and doing just that made us having this amazing experience in the end.

 

Day 14 – A puny tornado

We went down to Texas our last day and I’m now on my way home from there. I will have about 2 hours sleep before I go to the airport and then back to Stockholm.

We ended Day 13 at a gimmick Texas theme restaurant – The Great Texan. They had bull cojones (“mountain mushrooms”) and rattlesnake on the menu. The rattlesnake, was unfortunately not in season and the bull balls tasted… not good. Instead I had a bloody piece of 18 oz  M E A T .

On a stage in the restaurant you could challenge the restaurant in an attempt to finish a 72 ounce piece of meat including baked potatoes, salads and snacks – all in one hour. If you can make it you get the food for free. Two men accepted the challenge, one was successful but it sure looked painful. Only in America!

The last day was actually the opposite of most other days, and actually resembled the first day the most. No real storm clouds, a long elusive search of a cloud but, in fact, a tornado!

Not everything is bigger in Texas, at least when it comes to tornadoes. Today’s tornado crept down from the cloud, sniffing gently at the ground and retreated back to the safety of the wall cloud again – all in about 8 seconds flat. I just had enough time to put down my binoculars and take a picture of it in horizon. In addition to this we managed to see some spectacular lightning, including five parallel flashes simultaneously!

This was the end of my trip and I really would love to go back for the next season as well. It is, however, a bit expensive. I will see how things turn out but I really would like to! This trip was one of the most amazing things I have done in my life and I have been travelling everywhere from the Amazon jungle to Sydney.

The funny thing is that I have never before had a real interest for weather, and in a way I still don’t. I am just so completely amazed in how spectacular severe weather is!

great texan steak house
Great Texan steak house
meat in detail
Detail Study of my food at the Texan Stake House. Excised muscles with third degree burns from a smelly animals – mmm …. Tasty!
carnivore
Carnivores – this guy had 72 oz of meat, together with a baked potato and salad…in 30 minutes!
chicken tornado
This chicken tornado just dared to be on the ground in a few seconds.

Day 12 – Photogenic storms

Day 12 turned out to be a classic Storm Chase-day. We went to Colorado in the morning and drove toward a promising storm, but the roads were not in the same direction as the storm so we got behind and inside the storm again, which meant rain and poor visibility.

Fortunately, the storms pops up earlier in Colorado than the rest of the Midwest so even though we wasted 2 hours on this storm in vain it was still only around 4 p.m. when we made our second attempt. This time, ee ended up in front of a perfect scenery with two super-cells next to each other – we stood and looked back and forth and did not really know which one to keep an eye on. All that was missing was a tornado and the Pulitzer Prize 2009 would be mine! Supposedly it was very close since virtually all the data indicated that a tornado could be formed at any second but the storm rotated a bit too slow.

We continued on and I guess you know the story now. Repositioning, wall cloud, core punch. Today’s big event was that we got directly under our first great hail storm and we followed it for nearly 40 minutes. The hail was not as large as before (dime sized hail) but it was cool to see how it completely tore the trees to pieces and was drumming so hard on the car making it completely impossible to talk.

The two super-cells merged some time later and we were hoping for The Perfect Storm, but even if the storm was unbelievably photogenic, it never went as crazy as we hoped.

textbook example
Textbook example of a storm cell – the rain on the right is the outflow and the low cloud on the left is the inflow. You can see how the rain is sort of sucked into the inflow, almost even before hitting the ground.
zoomed in
Last photo a bit more zoomed in.
rain
Rain is beautiful – if you look at it from a distance.
black and white cloud
Two clouds, which we hope will begin to rotate. One is white and the other dark gray, depending on how the sun shines at them.
otero county sign
Otero County
white scud
White Scud
boob clouds
Boobie clouds – but not Mammatus 🙂
mothership supercell crashing
One of my favorite pictures from the trip – this was the northern part of the double-super cell we looked at.
storm cell detail
This was the southern part of the same super cell – I would have liked to see this from a bit further away!
mothership supercell striations
You can clearly see how the super-cell is divided into layers
striations supercell
Striations and layers of the supercell
counter clockwise rotation
One part of the cloud with an anti-cyclone rotation – that is, against the direction the rest of the cloud was rotating
christoffer björkwall storm chaser
Me posing in front of this really cool storm.
hail tearing up a tree
Then it began to hail immensely – you can see how the leaves from the trees are torn apart.
artillery by hail
The hail came down like artillery fire on the fields
hail driving range
Foooooooore! I went out to see how it felt but it was not so bad with a thick sweater.
road covered in hail
A road in Colorado in June!
catamaran cloud
The sun started to set and the clouds looked like a catamaran boat – a lovely sight.
Two details that one sees a bit now and then. A beaver tail-cloud and a vortex (a mini tornado in the clouds), you can see the latter above the beaver tail cloud, a bit to the right of the pink cloud.
Two details that one sees a bit now and then. A beaver tail-cloud and a vortex (a mini tornado in the clouds), you can see the latter above the beaver tail cloud, a bit to the right of the pink cloud.

Day 6 – Supercells and sunsets

We continued to drive towards to the storm that had created the tornado earlier in the afternoon. It still had a strong rotation which created a super cell with a beautiful round shape with different layers. We drover in underneath the base hoping for more tornadoes but the supply had run out, I guess 🙂

Instead, we once again experienced the tremendous feeling of being under a super cell with a wall cloud underneath eating its way over the fields. The sun was about to set, which painted the sky in dozens of lovely colors. When the sun went down the dying storm played out a lightning spectacle I have never seen the likes of before. When you have seen what nature can do during the day and then hear the storm clouds rumble and flash, you feel very, very small.

We called it a day around 10 p.m. and began to move towards the hotel and something to eat, having the twin super cells next to us. They moved diagonally along our route, towards the highway we drove on and continued to throw out amazing lightning that lit up the whole sky. It was probably 2-3 flashes per second! This accompanied to the radio in the dark announcing: “We have a tornado warning. Go down to your basements. Go down to your basements. This is a very dangerous storm. This is a very dangerous storm. etc. etc.”. Quite dramatic!

The day ended at a restaurant that, a few minutes before, had been in the way of super-cells but was left undamaged. We ate dinner with the whole group of researchers,  TV people, etc.

What a day!!

stacked pancakes storm
Supercell with the stacked pancakes-shape. “I know, let’s go in underneath it!”
shelf cloud
A little closer, the shelf cloud underneath looks amazing.
shelf cloud
Here we are just at the edge of the cloud. The shelf cloud (dark gray) looks like something from a disaster movie.
perfect shadow
The cloud is so well defined that you see a completely straight shadow from the sun.
90 degree angle on cloud
Looking the other way you can see the second super-cell that is as finely rounded and very, very well defined. The wall cloud underneath is barely visible.
mmaturs clouds
The sun begins to go down and creates long shadows of the mammatus clouds.
mammatus
A magnificent sight.
lightning
I took about 50 pictures of lightning at this stop. This was the only one I caught 🙂 At this point it flashed only about every 10 seconds so it was a bit difficult.
post storm discussions
We came back to a local restaurant and watched the weather news. The feeling was very much like when you have been to a football game with your favorite team and seen them win. Then you come home, watching the sports news to see the goals and everything else from all other angles, and discuss each others’ perceptions of today’s event.
hail used as ice in drinks
Huge hail. The storm chasers used them as ice for their drinks!

Day 6 – Funnel cloud

I do not remember if it was the same storm with the tornado that we ended up by a bit later again, but I believe it was. We stopped out on a field where a wall cloud came in slowly and majestically. It was the perfect arrangement for a beautiful tornado, but the rotation was not strong enough. It created a very clear funnel (i.e. a tornado that does not reach the ground) but could never reach all the way down. A very beautiful experience that I could enjoy more now that the adrenaline had begun to subside.

funnel cloud
A funnel cloud out on the wheat field.
stopping
We stop again, this time since our tour guides wanted to talk to a guy that has been doing storm chasing in 50 years! It’s the guy in white, I saw him in a book I bought later so I guess he is somewhat of a storm chasing celebrity.
sun dogs
This was one of those days when everything goes right and you see things everywhere. To the left of the sun is a so called “sun dog”, a miniature sun next to the sun (as a part of a halo). A celestial phenomenon that I have no idea whatsoever of how it arises.
two supercells with anvils
Two super-cells joining each other. One can see the lenticular clouds on the right cloud and Mammatus on the anvil (”roof cloud”) above.
anvil
Here you can clearly see that there are strong winds on a higher altitude. They pull out the upper part of clouds to an anvil.
long train
A picture where the camera, for once, is not pointing upwards. An incredibly long train.