The all-night storm chase of July 26th and 27th

Saturday night and Sunday morning were so amazing, I wanted to do a little write-up of the events that unfolded so that I don’t forget them plus I wanted to share some of the crazy photos I took.

Everything started out down in southern AZ. I made it to near Wilcox and that dry lake bed around sunset and time-lapsed some clouds and a few cells trying to build, but it wasn’t anything spectacular. In fact the night was supposed to be pretty meager, but I was desperate for any kind of lightning that I went for it anyways.

Lightning started firing out of a weak looking cell over the Chiricahua Mountains to my southeast. I found a high point overlooking the dry lake bed and waited. The storm intensified. I was surprised actually. And then right in front of me it went severe. I danced. The lightning was grand, I was getting all kinds of shots.

But suddenly at one point, a huge flash lit up the sky and I saw what you see in the photo below. A perfectly rounded mesocyclone. In Arizona. Holy crap.

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I of course get excited when I see something out of the ordinary like this…so the adrenaline was rushing and in my haste to set up my second camera with the wide angle, I messed up the focus a bit.

But I wanted to capture the whole structure, so I upped my ISO to around 4000 and kept the exposure under 15 seconds to avoid too much movement in the clouds. The next best picture was the one below. Look at how the rain is falling on the north side of the storm and being pulled back into the updraft area. Incredibly just like a supercell on the plains. And you can see how it’s still somewhat rounded, plus you have more striations as you go higher in the updraft.

Utterly amazing.

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That was the first part of my night. I probably could have gotten another one of these meso’s if I had been able to chase south to Douglas, because another mean looking, severe warned storm popped up and has the exact same characteristics.

But as the evening went on, a trough or low pressure area began to pick up steam across southern Arizona. I was on a severe storm approaching Benson when it died out. I headed east back to more lightning but as I did, suddenly the dead storm sprung back to life along with a line of new cells all the way to the border.  I raced back west as soon as I could, but I was far behind.

The storms merged after Tucson and formed an MCS that began to race northwest across the desert. Essentially it was heading right for Gila Bend. I blew through Tucson and was flying up I-10 as fast as I could. Lightning was going nuts to my west. I stopped a few times, but after a bit I became resolved to NOT STOP until I was ahead of this thing.

I finally got to I-8 and as I made it 10 miles west I was for the most part right alongside it at this point. My first stop were the next two photos.

The below is the base of the MCS’ northernmost cell approaching I-8. The dark stuff underneath is a wall of dust.

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This next photo shows it a bit more clearly. The storms were moving so incredibly fast that the dust was just sitting right under it, trying to keep up with the amazing speed of the MCS.

I would experience it shortly.

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I continued to race west and stop here and there for shots, but it wasn’t until the below photo that I really saw what was coming. Suddenly from the constant flashes of lightning I saw this sideways triangle hovering over the desert.

There is something spooky and ominous about seeing stuff like this after dark. It was a shelf cloud. Which during the day is awesome, but not something that freaks you out really. But this is Arizona. We don’t see this too often. And it was night, I was alone on I-8 with my truck rocking in the wind and tumbleweeds blowing across the road.

I kinda freaked out. In a good way. It was exciting. I jumped out with the camera set at a high ISO once more, but this time I had to kneel down and hold the tripod down as hard as I could in order to keep it from blowing over. The winds were incredible.

I look at the back of my camera and see this amazing shelf cloud just flying over the desert, very low to the ground.

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I aim a bit more to the west and you can see how fast it was moving.

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Another shot of it.

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The winds were so strong that a bit later I tried to get out for another picture and the door to my truck almost flew off the hinges. It was all I could do to hold on and not let it snap off. At least it felt like that in my head. And then I tried to close the door and I couldn’t. The wind was so strong, it was about 10 seconds before it died down enough for me to be able to pull it closed.

That was kind of harrowing.

Later on I hit Gila Bend and blasted north and after about 10 miles I stopped and got yet another shelf cloud approaching this mountain range to the west of me.

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It was an incredible night.  And morning. I left at 3pm and got home around 5:30am. The sunrise was beautiful. I was on an adrenaline high the rest of the day. Channel 3 had me on to briefly show these photos and talk about the amazing weather we had overnight. Somehow I made it there AND church before I finally crashed for a two hour nap.

And while I was chasing all that, Phoenix had one of its most epic nights of lightning in years. A dust storm hit town around 11pm and the MCS I chased through the night ended up sending a second dust storm into Phoenix around 4-5am.  It’s super rare to have a dust storm hit town at those early hours of the morning.

What a night. One that I wont soon forget.

  • http://www.diamondwillowphoto.com davo

    I love the commentary, Mike.