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Updated May 26th 2016

Storm Chasing By Drone - Cookstown Night Lightning - May 21st

I spent the entire weekend storm chasing, I will not go into detail here however in a nut shell I covered a lot of miles on both days chasing from west to east from Omagh to Ballymena and everywhere in between, storms where high precip and unphotogenic for the most part with little to offer on camera. Saturday however was the best set-up with shear and it was this day that took me completely by surprise. Roisin and I had just returned to Cookstown to chill out after a tiring day on the road, the sun had set and the moody light of dusk had arrived. I walked out into the back garden and observed a spectacular grouping of cells exploding upward. The storm clouds were massive, solid, and arranged in SW-NE line with black base and mean deep blue colour along it's flank.

In the half light it looked stunning, easily the meanest looking storm I have seen in the last two or three years, I knew it was going to erupt at any moment and with no time to drive outside of town with the DSLR I set-up the Phantom drone and launched straight up from the garden. I ended up getting treated to a spectacular view of the entire storm brewing in the deep twilight which looked dramatic over the lights of Cookstown. In the footage you can appreciate how tall the updraughts where inside but also the horizontal extent of the storm which covered the entire skyline complimented by suspicious looking lowerings, I then landed after 15 min's of observation just as the first drops of rain began to fall.

On radar the storm had two large cores showing white on the Met Office radar then we got hit by loud torrential rainfall. We had the house in silence and just sat back enjoying the noise. 20 min's later a bright flash of lightning lit up the room followed by thunder. I grabbed the camera gear and went outside just as the rain eased, on the back end was a beautiful mammatus display under the anvil against the twilight sky then two c-g bolts struck and lit up the mammatus - what an epic scene that would have been!, however I hadn't my camera set up at this point. More lightning and my camera struggles frustrated me because the cell was getting further away with the view blocked by the houses so I ran back to the house, put a new battery in the Phantom and went back outside and lifted off into the darkness, the air was dark, atmospheric and heavy with charge. I began filming to the E while hovering 60-70m high and managed to get lightning on video, I can tell you it was an unbelievable thrill to watch in real time via drone hovering in the sky, an experience I simply cannot describe, here are a few stills from the video.

The screen on the tablet would flash bright pink with in-cloud bolts and several c-gs which where striking down over the far side of Antrim, I saw episodes of 4 or 5 flashes at once. The storm was a stunner, I wish I had been in the countryside shooting it with the DSLR getting my first night lightning images after a very long wait, however as a positive I got to experience the show by drone which was amazing, in fact, so much so that I hardly slept that night as I was still buzzing from the memory. This is something I would like to do again with closer lightning. I will do a report to document the weekend in the near future.

Full video covering both flights, the dusk storm structure over the lights of Cookstown then the night lightning with slow motion segments, the thunder you hear is real, I recorded it with my mobile phone at the time. Thanks very much for viewing.

Sheared Thunderstorms - May 19th

This was a marginal day which turned out great, I had my eye on the situation 24 hours earlier because of the classic low instability-high shear set up which has produced tornadoes in Ireland during similar atmospheric events. There was only 50-100 surface based CAPE behind a clearing front on an unstable SWly flow however it was quite humid outside and moist and it felt like storms could fire. By early afternoon they did, a sheared cell formed rapidly and moved over Dungannon then flooded areas of Cookstown lifting man hole covers accompanied by thunder which then moved NE sparking over Toome them on towards Antrim. While this was crossing the Lough a new strongly sheared cell had formed over the Sperrins which was back building over my house producing heavy rainfall so I gave chase after it into the countryside just to the NE of Maghera. The cell was impressive to say the least, I observed at least four simultaneous areas of rotation with a mean looking rotating updraught on view, this is the cell when it was NE of my position, that tilted/sheared tower was rotating with three areas of rotation under the mean looking base which was stunning to watch, out of frame to the right was a long base of new cells feeding in and under those there was further rotation, I was seriously expecting an outbreak of funnel clouds at any moment.

It was quite a sight watching this cell spin up numerous vortices as it tried to produce multiple funnels over this isolated farm house, the sun was burning the back of my neck, it was warm and humid and the air was heavy, I had the Go Pro tripod mounted on the van roof filming however I don't think the wide angle FOV did this scene justice, I need a new video camera with zoom facility for storms, this cell really made my day. I observed new convection, raced home, checked online and saw new cells heading to the W of Lough Neagh so I gave chase and it was from there where I spent the rest of the day.

This was on the road to Ballyronan, a new cell brewing up in the afternoon heat, I pulled over on two occasions for a few stills at 10mm, I was also recording this with the window mounted Go Pro. I met John Fagan at the marina and together we spent the rest of the day watching the skies, two cells crossed the lough producing rumbles then at 18.00 we got treated to a back building multicell which affected Antrim, in total there was a decent number of storms this day with plenty of c-g lightning, especially over the east so quite a good day out chasing.

The 2016 Noctilucent Cloud Season Beckons - NEW

On the next clear night the 2016 Noctilucent Cloud season could begin when the first confirmed sightings appear over favourable locations in the northern hemisphere so now is the time to keenly monitor the sky for the next two months are going to be very busy indeed. Noctilucent Clouds or NLCs are a high atmosphere phenomena taking place some 82km within the Mesosphere at the same height where meteors ablate in the Earth's atmosphere. In fact, these mysterious luminous clouds are a true spaceweather phenomena and current thinking is that NLCs are composed of meteoritic (comet and asteroid fragments) material incased in ice crystals which reflect and refract sunlight far above the horizon despite the fact that the sun has long set. These particles are tiny - in the cigarette particle range - and for this reason they are tenuous and can only be seen when the sun is between 6 and 16 degrees below the horizon for those living in latitudes from 55 to 65 degrees N.

The typical NLC season runs from mid May to early August however during odd years sightings have occurred outside this window period. Records suggest that NLC seasons are connected with the solar cycle with the most impressive seasons coinciding with solar minimum, in fact 2009 was the deepest minimum in our life time and it was no surprise that it also produced the finest NLC displays I have ever seen. NLCs differ from high level cirrus cloud, they can bare magnification and exhibit a multitude of forms and structure which are highly visual and often extremely photogenic with patterns varying from diffuse veils and bands to complex 3-D like waves, whirls, knots and the classic herringbone structure similar to 'weird small cloud forms, at times very regular, like ripple marks in sand, or the bones of some great fish or saurian embedded on a slab of stone'' - a phenomenal description by the late NLC observer Robert Leslie. These clouds often glow electric blue however they may also exhibit white, gold, green and orange colours in conjunction with local atmospheric conditions. On occasion NLCs can be so bright that their light can cast shadows and illuminate structures with many of the old time NLC observers describing being able to read a newspaper by their light - these type 5 displays are unforgettable.

A bright NLC display will be easy to spot, they cannot be predicted in advanced so a nightly watch is required to increase your chances of success. No astronomical equipment is needed however a pair of binoculars may aid in ferreting out the high definition detail within complex displays, just don't be shocked when you see these clouds moving in real time for they can propagate across the Mesosphere at some 400mph. A good Summer time observing project would be to visual check the W to N sky two hours after sunset then towards the E to N again before dawn as NLCs are at their most distinctive when the sun is not far below the horizon, however in strong apparitions NLCs can be visible all night long and have been known to cover much of the entire sky before being washed out by the rising glow of dawn.

NLCs are an obvious attraction to photographers and it is here that the greatest rewards can be found. Because of their great magnitude NLCs are easily photographed, one can manually focus on the clouds with ease at the dead of night. Short exposures in the 5-25 sec range between ISO 200 and 800 will do for most occasions although these settings can vary widely depending on brightness, time of night, moonlight, lens and camera sensor so do experiment, In the past I have used exposures of less than 2 sec's!. I invite you to check out the Nightsyhunter NLC Gallery and the extensive NLC Structure Guide to help identify NLC brightness, forms and a little introduction into their mysterious history. I wish you all a spectacular season and I for one look forward to making my own first sighting of the season on the nights ahead.

N. Ireland Storm Chasing Image Reports

N. Ireland Storm Chasing Reports

Astronomy is not the only subject I'm interested in. One other such area is severe weather which will be playing a major role on nightskyhunter from now on in conjunction with my other astronomical pursuits. Check out my new N. Ireland Storm Chasing section and view the chase reports and images which detail not only storms but other phenomena such as a moonbows, noctilucent clouds and aurora displays.

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Martin McKenna