I have a peculiar obsession. I find that during the Spring I spend much of my time in the pursuit of rapidly rotating water vapor. An esoteric addiction to be sure - but it is one that sustains me through the long and dry winter months - knowing that soon the Earth will tilt on it's axis in favor of the Northern Hemisphere and warmth and moisture will surge out of the Gulf again- and inevitably collide with the dry air pulsing out of Canada.
Where they collide in tumult is where you will find me - and other weather addicts, storm chasers in search of that rare storm (one in 100) that will produce that rapidly rotating column of air (in contact with the ground) known as a tornado.
But unlike a lot of storm chasers - I'm not in it for the thrill- the adrenaline rush of standing next to a natural thing that could quite easily sweep me from this earth.
I am instead driven by a quest for the perfect image of the atmosphere in conflict with itself, majestic and quite oblivious to the dominion of man.
I'm not content to take snapshots. My quest is to get as close as I can to capturing the wonderfully amazing heavenly tableau, whirling in ever changing color and light that is commonly known (in dry scientific terms) as a severe thunderstorm.
To me that's tantamount to calling the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel a painting.
My quest is to bottle the moment when the storm is at it worst and - quite ironically - that is also when it is at its best - photogenically speaking.
It's true- Mother Nature is beautiful when she's angry.
In this post and others to follow I will be sending you my best captures of the 2010 storm season. I hope you enjoy them and in some small way you feel as if you have been along for the big show.
Kicking it off are images of a atmospheric conflagration that took place on May 21st in SE Armstrong County.
On that day the atmospheric stage was set for an epic struggle between warm- moist air, streaming in up and over the Caprock and a pool of cool moisture left behind when a non-severe thunderstorm had collapsed over the county the night before.
On top of this layer was a jet of dry air - called "The Cap" and like a lid on a boiling pot of water it was about to get blown off.
Although the official forecast was for a slight chance of "isolated severe thunderstorms" I had a gut feeling (based on years of storm chasing experience) that when storms did develop - they could be epic.
"Isolated thunderstorms" are the best type to chase. Surrounded by clear dry air, they stand out like floating white mountains over an emerald green sea of High Plains grassland.
Think Denali, but not rising out of the ground, attached to the earth but up in the sky floating above one's head.
Morning NWS weather ballon soundings revealed a jet of dry air aloft ( around 5,000 feet) making chances for a tornado very slim but I rightly figured once the atmosphere boiled over- gorgeous and particularly high-based thunderstorms were possible.
"High based" is a meteorological term that basically means that any storms that formed would have a high-cloud-base with the lowest clouds (the base) not forming close to the ground.
Because the bottom of the storms would be above 5,000 feet - any funnels that could form would most likely not reach the ground.
Bad for tornado enthusiasts but great for sky photographers like myself. The storms would most likely be severe "Hailers" loaded with wind-born ice - poised to crash to the ground - dangerous but epically photogenic.
I began chasing around 3PM when the first storm towers began going up east of Amarillo. These early "popcorn" storms would be smacked dead by the "Cap" but as the day heated up - I knew it was only a matter of time until the warm moist-air packed with thermal energy would have no where to go but up, eventually exploding through the dry air aloft that had held it prisoner all day.
Close to 5PM (at the peak of the day's heating) it did just that.
When the cap breaks, it breaks spectacularly with cauliflower-storm towers shooting up in minutes up to 50,000 feet.
I watched as the storm blew up just southwest of Claude, Texas. They swept over me dropping some small hail and producing a rainbow - pretty but hardly epic.
But just after the storm passed northward over the highway it blossomed exponentially and soon I was hearing reports of it dropping golf ball sized hail and bigger.
I followed it on a farm-to-market road as it slowly headed northeasterly at almost walking speed.
Because of the isolated nature of the storm, I was relatively safe from the hail, driving through sunshine even though it was dumping millions of tons of ice less than a mile away.
Once it moved out a little more eastward and into a part of the county without any roads (where I could follow) I stopped to take the storms portrait.
Gazing up at it all I couldn't help but choke up a bit. Before me was a perfect storm of epic beauty and power, massive crackling with sound and fury. it seemed alive, churning shape shifting, angry and placid at the same time.
I set up my tripod, attached my Nikon and set about capturing this beautiful behemoth.
I would follow and photograph until the light was gone.
At sunset - the storm began to fall apart - but it was even glorious in its death - catching the last rays of the sun and lighting up against the clar Panhandle sky like a frozen atomic explosion.
Here it is:
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