October 18, 2006

Storm Chasing

My camera takes pictures of lightning. So when a storm rolled in at night across the Navajo Nation reservation in Arizona, I hopped in my car and set up some shots.

First thing I did was park in the lot next to a gas station with a wide-open view facing the incoming storm. I placed the camera on the dashboard, turned on the windshield wipers, set the shutter speed to 25 seconds, and hoped for the best.

Lightning Experiment Grainy.jpg

It didn’t work out. No lightning struck while the shutter was open, and the exposure was too grainy. I lowered the ISO and tried again.

Lightning Experiment Smooth.jpg

The second exposure turned out much clearer. The graininess went away. Once again, though, all the lightning bolts struck while I set up the shot. The shutter was open during another 25-second lull.

Too much of the frame included the parking lot and the dashboard. I also didn’t feel like having a McDonald’s in all my shots. So I zoomed out the lens and started again.

Lightning Experiment Zoom 1.jpg

This time lightning did strike in front of the lens, in the distance, while the shutter was open. But there was too much ambient light in the town. The picture was overexposed. Believe it or not, it was midnight and dark. I needed to drive into the desert where the only light was the lightning.

I drove toward the storm and into the night. The rain picked up, so I turned the windshield wipers to fast. Flashes and bolts lit up the sage brush and the mud through gray streaks of rain. Thunder rolled across the desert like a box of apples dumped onto hardwood.

Rain drops flew, not fell, straight at the windshield even though I didn’t drive faster than 30 miles an hour. Eventually I found a turnout and pulled off the road. I shut off the car and the lights and proppped the camera up on the dashboard, again with the shutter held open for 25 seconds. Darkness was absolute. Only lightning and incoming traffic would register on the lens.

Lightning Hill 1.jpg

The first shot didn’t work. I was able to capture some lightning inside a cloud, but it was not very dramatic. The car that whoosed past in the rain looked more interesting, and I didn’t go storm chasing to get pictures like that.

So I tried again.

Lightning Hill 2.jpg

Better! Finally a bolt of lightning showed up. But again I got a picture of traffic. And the lightning was weak.

Once more I opened the shutter.

Lightning Hill 3.jpg

And hey hey, I finally got what I wanted – a clear shot of lightning in absolute darkness. (It looks like whoever lived in that house on the hill was having a pretty rough night.)

I decided to drive deeper into the storm. Why not? Now that I had a decent shot I wanted a dramatic shot.

Lightning Closer Blurry.jpg

It’s hard to focus a camera in absolute darkness. The auto-focus won’t work, and you can’t do it manually if you can’t see. So I zoomed out the focus a bit and hoped it would work.

Lightning Closer Better.jpg

Success! The photo isn’t dramatic, but at least it is clear.

I set up the shot again. Just as I opened the shutter a terrific bolt of lightning zotted the hell out of the landscape right in front of me. The crack of the thunder was instantaneous.

Lightning Closer Great.jpg

Woo hoo, that’s what I wanted.

And that’s when I got stupid. I should have stopped there, content with capturing a brilliant tree of lightning from a safe distance. But no. I just had to drive toward it.

The rain picked up, of course. The maximum safe driving speed dropped to 20 miles an hour. There were no more cars on the road. It was just me, the darkness, the lightning, and the rain.

I found another pullout a mile or so away, stopped the car and set up a shot.

New Spot Lightning 1.jpg

Success. The lightning was closer than ever, but dim. The rain became so heavy and thick the horizon nearly vanished completely. I’m amazed the windshield wipers worked well enough that you can’t see any water on the glass. That didn’t last long, though.

New Spot Lightning 2.jpg

Because then the deluge came. Lightning exploded all around, frightfully close. It was bright enough to illuminate the landscape in total darkness, but through dense enough buckets of rain that the bolts no longer registered. I screwed up and got too close to the storm.

New Spot Lightning 3.jpg

I was right in it. This was the worst rain I have ever seen anywhere. Through the windshield it looked like my car was parked in a car wash or beneath a waterfall. This wasn’t rain. The clouds poured a lake onto the ground.

New Spot Lightning 4.jpg

The car violently shook. It felt like the wheels were about to come off the ground. What the hell? Did I park my car in a low spot!? We were on flash flood warning for the rest of the night. Did water just crash into the side of my car? I couldn’t tell. It was too frakking dark. Maybe the wind reached 100 miles an hour. Whatever it was, it was bad. I fumbled for the camera, foolishly trying to photograph what couldn’t be photographed.

“Put that camera down and get out of here!” I actually yelled this out loud to myself.

I started the car, turned on the headlights, and inched slightly forward. Apparently I wasn’t completely flooded out since the car moved okay, though at least several inches of water rushed down the road in a shallow river.

Visibility was just about zero. Maximum speed to avoid driving off the side of the road: 5 miles an hour. I expected literally at any moment to drive right into a gushing flash flood at any dip in the road, which there was no way I could see until I was already in it. But what could I do other than slowly inch back to town? Wait for the monsoon to blow my car into the flooded out sagebrush?

Actually, I would have been safer if I had just waited it out. The odds of being flooded are obviously higher if you cover two miles of ground instead of only ten feet. And the wind was just as dangerous wherever I was. But fight-or-flight had kicked in. And since there’s no way to fight a storm, I fled.

I fled at five miles an hour. It took ages to get back to town at that speed. And it was white knuckle time all the way. I passed one driver, hazard lights flashing, who drove off the road and into the brush. There was no way to tell if it was because he was driving too fast or if he just panicked. But he was parked, so it looked as though he had panicked.

The rain let up and became a normal deluge by the time I reached town and parked again at the Holiday Inn. Walking thirty feet from my parking space to the door soaked me to the skin, but at least I could see more than ten feet in front of my face. The sky was no longer a waterfall.

I laughed and felt like a fool. The problem with chasing serious storms is that if you succeed, you’re in trouble, like a dog who succeeds in catching a moving car’s bumper in his mouth.

Post-script: I'm going back to the Middle East soon enough, and I'm going to a seriously dodgy part of the region. For now, though, I need a break. So please continue to indulge me for a few more days while I write about something a little more fun and less stressful.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at October 18, 2006 04:21 PM
Comments

Great pics and story. I always enjoy them. BTW, what camera do you have? I'm about to pull the trigger on a digital slr, probably the Nikon d200. Just wondering.

Posted by: Darby Shaw at October 18, 2006 04:49 PM

I have the Nikon D200 and I love love love it. Get one!

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at October 18, 2006 05:09 PM

I love a good, violent thunderstorm.

If you really want a thrill, do what I have been wanting to do for years - hook up with some pros in the Texas Panhandle or Oklahoma in springtime and go hunting for some twisters.

Nice shots, btw.

Posted by: marcus at October 18, 2006 05:17 PM

Can't see the storm through all the rain, hmm?

Anyways,
I'm more than willing to let you use whatever time you need until you go back, though mainly because I need time to get through the set of pamphlets that I bought from a certain someone.

Posted by: Bokaviji at October 18, 2006 05:17 PM

As a resident of N. Texas (Wichita Falls) I've had plenty of white knuckle driving terrified down highways in the middle of a deluge unable to see and dodging in and out of semi-trucks... so I totally related. Thanks for the enterainment Totten and I can't wait for you're next Near East adventure.

Posted by: Rommel at October 18, 2006 05:29 PM

The problem with chasing serious storms is that if you succeed, you’re in trouble, like a dog who succeeds in catching a moving car’s bumper in his mouth.

But the dog still can't resist chasing the next car.

I've never literally chased storms, but if I have a camera handy I usually run outside to try to take pictures. Or I try when I'm driving, which is less successful. Thanks for the excellent photos and tips (and the failed photos too - now I don't feel so bad).

The rain can get pretty bad here in the east, but those western storms are worse. Thank goodness there was no hail.

Posted by: mary at October 18, 2006 08:57 PM

Michael, if you enjoy storm-chase photos, here are some absolutely amazing ones taken by Eric Nguyen:

http://www.mesoscale.ws/pictures/tornadic

(in particular, scroll down to the set of images immediately following the text that reads, "This is one of the most beautiful tornadoes I have ever seen").

Also:

http://www.mesoscale.ws/pictures/structure

Enjoy!

P.S. Here are some storm chasing guidelines; your blog is far too interesting; please stay safe! :-)

http://webserv.chatsystems.com/~doswell/chasesums/Chase_safety.html

Posted by: Zvi at October 19, 2006 12:46 AM

Michael, if you want more thinderstorms and flood-like rains, just visit Israel in winter!
I'm also thinking about D-SLR; your experience with D200 convinced me to go for Nikon (D80, probably)

Posted by: Alex at October 19, 2006 02:37 AM

I am having serious camera envy.

Posted by: John at October 19, 2006 11:32 AM

My wife and I had the exact same experience (strangely in the exact same area). We were out that way a few months back when it got record rainfall and flooded. Driving up from El Paso to the indian reservation, we got caught in a storm. Couldn't see jack, and noticed that the flat desert was slowly becoming one large lake. Best thing to do at that point was to keep pushing on to the Arizona mountains and hope that a flash flood did not run down the mountain channel.

The wind in these storms is absolutely ferocious, and the tumbleweeds will make the inexperienced desert driver jerk the wheel. Fortunately, we just kept going straight and managed to force our way through the storm. My wife and I can honestly say that it was one of the most horrifying experiences in our lives.

Posted by: nick at October 19, 2006 11:53 AM

Nick, now imagine doing the travelling in that same storm in a covered wagon in the late 1800's. Or trying to make it back to the tepees huddled along some swollen river. Incredible ancestors we had.

Posted by: allan at October 19, 2006 12:51 PM

Michael, lightning is in several repetetive strokes. With a film camera you can point at an area of sky and when you see the flash, push the button. You will get the flash if your reaction time is reasonably fast. The technique may not work with some digital cameras because of the way they start recording the image, but I think it should work ok with the latest models.

Posted by: charlie at October 19, 2006 12:58 PM

EXCELLENT REPORT !!

Posted by: Jimmy K. at October 19, 2006 06:58 PM

Once got caught in a New Mexico high-desert rain storm thta was nothing less than biblical. The rain was so fast and thick that it overwhelmed the windshield wipers. Tried to drive down the highway with visibility less than four feet, keeping me left wheels on the dotted yellow line. Lightning bolts like howsers, rain like God was finally fed up and broke his Second Covenant.

There is nothing like a rainstorm in the high desert of New Mexico; why that is, I don't know, but they are so ferocious--visibility in the torrential rain is down to only the length of your arm--that prayer becomes a recovered and revered skill.

Posted by: a Duoist at October 19, 2006 07:30 PM

This last fourth of July I was in Spokane, Washington after a wedding. I'd managed to completely forget to charge my camera, so I have no shots of the reception. I was very much looking forward to the city fireworks show.

Earlier that day, the friend whom we were visiting told us that a storm was expected that night and the show might be cancelled. We kept a close eye out and decided to walk down to the riverbank about a half-hour before the show was due to start.

Except they started it minutes after we left the hotel, due to the approaching storm. I set my little camera (Nikon Coolpix) to its fireworks mode, and we were treated to the AWESOMEST fireworks show ever. Two reasons for that: they compressed the 45-minute show into 20 minutes, finishing just two minutes before the rain rolled in; and the storm brought lightning.

I think the people around us thought I was nuts. I had a tiny little tripod to go with my tiny little camera, so I'm sitting crouched on the ground, hitting the button every time it finishes taking a picture and saying "Oh please oh please oh please" every time the lightning hit. I got nine shots, three of which are pretty good.

Lightning's damned near irresistable as a photographic subject. Spokane and Denver are both pretty good places for lightning photography because chances are that you'll stay pretty dry while having visual access to dense lightning storms.

Posted by: B. Durbin at October 19, 2006 07:53 PM

Great shots MT.

Being in extreme weather can be scary, especially at night, and alone (if you were).
I foolishly walked up a hill on Lantau in Hong Kong in the middle of a typhoon with a buddy years ago, we both had a 1/2 dozen San Miguel with us to drink on the way up but they got so diluted by the driving rain we did not get enough alcohol to sustain us, and a river nearby, normally calm, looked like it was ready to overflow it's banks and was simply gushing downhill with tremendous force, so we got the heck out of there and went home. Unfortunately we did not have a camera which could sustain the rain and take pictures in the dark.

If your camera can do mpeg's and you can post them in any future adventures that would be cool as well. If not, pictures are good enough.

I do not always agree with you on your take on Israel, Hezbollah and Lebanon, but respect your opinion, and when I do not agree I re-examine and adjust my own opinion, if needed. I may donate in the future if I do not get detained as an American citizen deemed to be an enemy combatant due to my anti GWB views next time I visit the US.

Seeing as the Military Commission Act is the law and the America we loved is history, be careful when you travel abroad because the protections we all had in foreign countries due to our US citizenship are now gone, if they were not already gone before.

Posted by: Paul Todd at October 20, 2006 05:12 AM

Michael, when i lived in Phoenix, my room-mate and i did far dumber things than driving out to the middle of storms... we lived in Mesa, and if a storm was heading our way, you'd find us on the roof of the house we rented, with a trash bag over the camera body, mounted on a tripod. We'd huddle under a tarp with one of us clutching the remote shutter release. The camera was on the bulb setting... we got some great lightning shots over the city though. All film. Good times...

Posted by: pril at October 20, 2006 01:14 PM

That was scarier than any post of yours from the Middle East!

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