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 4:21 PM
Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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