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Ballybriest Snow Squalls & Severe Wind Chill - Jan 31st 2015

January 2015 has certainly been a good month for Winter weather across N. Ireland. Since the month began we have experienced two cold spells separated by a very brief warm Atlantic driven component however this was short lived and Winter returned with style back to the hills of the country and occasionally even to lower levels too. The first cold spell was born when a deep low pressure system dragged down cold air from Canada with freezing upper levels in the -47 degree C range over warmer seas generating snow showers and even prolific thundersnow/lightning episodes, all taking place in a Wly to Nwly flow. When this cold spell came to an end the thaw had removed any trace of snow at lower levels however the snow refused to move from the mountains, after 15 days of seeing white on the peaks I stopped counting because I could sense that more was on the way, I didn't have to wait long. The second cold spell was even more potent with a low over Greenland dragging down Polar air straight from the Arctic on a strong Nly flow during the last week of January.

The Met Office had issued a yellow warning for a risk of snow on the hills and at lower levels with a threat of strong winds and blizzards with travel disruption and power failure possible, this would be followed by freezing conditions and more snow showers, in fact, there were Met Office yellow warnings across N. Ireland for four days in a row. The snow arrived on cue however at first it seemed to be affecting Co. Down and Antrim areas due to convergence zones which enhanced snow shower trains over that area. Where I live in Maghera there was little to get excited about, there were active snow showers however temps were too warm at 3 degrees C to lay and even on Glenshane Pass where the snow was blowing sideways and bushes blasted by strong winds there was nothing laying so I began to wonder if this was going to be a disappointment. That evening I drove around Maghera after dark taking video footage with the 50mm F/1.8 lens trying some urban videography. I filmed the snow flurries falling over street lamps, over roads with passing traffic and even the traffic lights, although the snow was just a dusting on the ground it still provided me with some entertainment, I have one fond memory of having reversed up a lane filming cars on the Coleraine road with the road covered in white and cast into surreal orange colours by the streetlights while curtains of hail stones blew across the road in horizontal fashion, even though the hail was small and dry it made quite a noise as thousands of impacts 'dinked' off the van roof, it was quite impressive actually and put me in the mood for Summer storm chasing.

I returned home then called it a night not expecting much the following morning. I woke up early to a Winter wonderland on January 30th, everywhere was covered in snow - everywhere - it was the best snow fall of the season to date and when I opened my window I was greeted by a chill, the kind only felt on the most beautiful of Winter days, the sun was shining and the sky was blue, facebook and twitter were jammed with images taken across the country so I decided that wasting any more time online would be a waste of a spectacular day, January 30th was made for snow photography, I hardly ate much of a breakfast as I was too excited so I just hit the road and ended up encountering crazy roads and getting rewarded by epic scenes with Stags and Deer in deep snow, however that day will be saved for another report. The following day I met up with Roisin and we spent the night at my Dad's house in Cookstown, we had already agreed we would venture onto the mountains in the morning for a walk and to experience the snow. All through the night my sleep was interrupted by gales, the house seemed to rumble when blasted by random squalls straight from the N then intervals of hail stones and snow showers impacted the bedroom window, many times I got up, parted the curtains, and watched the snow and hail fall over the estate and roof tops and past the streetlights, the place was turned white from hail stones, it was mesmerizing to watch and I admit to taking up quite a bit of 'lamp post watching' throughout the night.

The next day was bitter and lively, gusts of wind continued to impact the house with showers of hail stones once more, it looked truly nasty outside and online were warnings about wind chill. Roisin and I then left Cookstown and headed up into the mountains, originally we were going to hike up a mountain however we realised the conditions would be too severe with that kind of exposure on the peaks and furthermore we would be too far from the van to take shelter when we needed it so we decided to park on a mountain road instead with the intention of walking over the narrow roads. The roads were in fairly good shape, they had been ploughed with tarmac visible however at times we still encountered ice and snow which had drifted across the road during the gales from the previous night, however those strong winds were far from done, as I drove uphill I could feel the van shaking and the steering pull to the side as an unseen force grabbled with us. The countryside was stunning, white everywhere with that all important blue sky and it looked like it would be perfect light after all for Winter photo opps. We parked on an exposed mountain road then walked across the snow however we were having difficulty walking in a straight line, the wind kept blasting us off the path to the side, it was pure raw and freezing, it was clear this was not going to be an easy walk.

We could see snow being lifted off the hills and blown across the skyline like a white phantom, to the N I spotted trouble, a line of convective cells moving swiftly in on the Nly flow with white tops and black bellies, these were heading straight for us so I suggested to Roisin that we returned to the van quickly before we got caught up in these. We made it back just in time, parked the nose of the van facing the 'scenic route' road sign, and watched as the van shook and snow blew sideways past the sign in blizzard style, it was fantastic to watch, it was obvious that our walks would be short lived events this day if we wanted to avoid getting caught out in this weather. We drove to another location once the blizzard passed and parked on the edge of a narrow road facing down the mountain then got out into the elements for another walk, all the camera gear was with me and my wind buff was tight around my face to protect me from the wind.

What a stunning day with clean blue skies in the Polar air and glistening snow lit into brilliance under the bright sunshine. I love this kind of weather, it cleans the mind and soul, there's something about the pristine cold air that transforms you when you breath it in, then the sensation of sunshine on skin and the joy of the beautiful snowscape to interact with all on high ground completely exposed, I get a real buzz from moments like this, it feels like you are connecting with nature on some deep level. This was the high ground between Draperstown and Moneymore and looking due N was more trouble on the horizon in the form of three cells making a beeline straight for us, these had arrived straight from the ocean then blew inland and would sport hail and snow combined with nasty squalls which when combined with the gusty background flow would really increase the local wind strength and chill factor. However these always look beautiful from a distance so I stayed for a while to get images with the 10mm lens, Roisin continued walking, she can be seen on the road to the right, I would catch up with her in a few more min's.

These images may look peaceful and calm however it was far from that in reality with a constant blowing wind and terrible wind chill, it actually hurt taking images with my hands touching the camera body and lens. Roisin had disappeared from sight, I heard her yelling to me in the distance however I couldn't make out a word due to the noise of the wind, she re-appeared and was pointing to the left up a field at something so I ran down to see what she had discovered.

She had found a sign pointing the way to an ancient burial site called Ballybriest stone tomb, I had never even heard of the place before and since Roisin and I love checking out ancient locations we decided to investigate, we lifted the wire and made our way through the fence and began an uphill ascent across hard snow, when I looked down I noticed that it wasn't just snow, millions of hail stones were frozen onto the snow layer, it looked amazing, they were visible everywhere I looked, I don't recalling seeing this before to such a widespread extent. The sign at the top of the hill on the left marks the location of the stone formation, the bronze coloured wild grass looked very dramatic across this frozen landscape protruding through the snow.

We walked across the snow, crunch, crunch, crunch until we made it to the top of the crest, the view was incredible with virgin snow for miles with deep blue sky aloft and the world lit by a brilliant sun, it felt like we were standing on the Arctic. This was an amazing memory unfolding, it was the view, the experience, the feeling of being truly 'alive' and living in the moment and experiencing the raw beauty of nature first hand. The tomb stones can be seen to the left, Roisin went over to investigate while I stayed here to shoot the landscape and sky, I was in my element and loving every second of it. The Sperrin mountains covered in snow can be seen in the distance with the leading anvil of the snow shower line edging closer to us.

This is what life is all about, experiencing the joys of nature in the middle of nowhere with snow, ice, hail, blue skies, sunshine, convection and all beside an ancient megalithic site with Roisin, the glistening line to Roisin's right is Lough Fea. The only visual indication in this image indicting the wind speed is the spot on the lens to the far left against the rocks, there were snow flakes and what felt like ice crystals flying through the air downrange from those cells which were gaining ground on us.

Snow squall heading straight for us, the sky was getting darker and visible curtains of hail and snow manifested in the sunshine. I did some filming from this spot, a TV company wanted me to get footage of me talking into the camera to describe the conditions so that's what I did, the temps were unreal, I don't think I have experienced wind chill like it since the blizzard of 2010, as soon as I took my hands out from my pockets to hold the camera they turned red within sec's then I felt discomfort, even sore within min's, it was difficult to stick, I don't like wearing gloves as I cannot operate the camera properly so I felt badly exposed. I yelled to Roisin that we needed to retreat to the van again before we got hit again so we made our way out of the field and up the hill, the cells hit us as we walked with hail stones then snow however we made it to the van just in time before the winds blasted everything sideways once again. We got warmed up inside, the hot air on my red hands caused pain however the moment passed and I was feeling comfortable once again, on a hunch I reckoned the wind chill was -8 degrees C or lower, later I checked websites which gave the true value for this altitude and it turned out to be between -14 C degrees and - 15 degrees C, now that explained the pain!. We called it a day, did our shopping and Roisin made us a wonderful homemade stew which tasted like heaven.

Video clip of some of the scenes, you really had to have been there to have felt the cold and breath in that wonderful pure air. What a perfect day with wonderful Winter scenes, I really wanted to do this short report to have a record of this brilliant day out in the elements. Thanks very much for reading.


Martin McKenna

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