Thunderstorms and lightning have returned to northern Arizona

The North American Monsoon (NAM) got off to a slow start across northern Arizona this year despite a few predictions that it would start early and strong. It did in some locations but northern Arizona was not one of them. But after a few false starts, the rainy season is in full swing here. We’ve had a couple of days with substantial rainfall and that has — finally — put an end to the extreme fire danger.

Cloud-to-ground lightning from a distant thunderstorm at twilight.
Cloud-to-ground lightning from a distant thunderstorm at twilight.

And, with all the thunderstorms, comes another chance to photograph lightning. Yesterday (15 July 2012) turned out to be a very good day for lightning. By late afternoon, storms were weakening across northern Arizona but there remained a chance that there would be another round in the evening. And there was. At one point in time, I was observing lightning in all directions — none of it close however.

Thunderstorm lit from within by lightning during twilight hours.
Thunderstorm lit from within by lightning during twilight hours.

I found myself in Wupatki National Monument during the evening. I stopped at one of the many pullouts along the road that afforded me a view in multiple directions and set up to photograph. Initially, the best storms were to my north but since they were moving to the north they eventually were too far away. At the same time, a cluster of storms was moving northward across central Arizona. I could see only the tops of these storms but they still managed to light up the sky. Because they did not fill the sky yet there were plenty of stars visible as well. I was happy with the results: bright stars overhead, distant thunderstorms lit from the inside by lightning, and wonderful colors and light reflecting off the clouds in all directions.

Stars shine overhead as a cluster of distant thunderstorms light up the far horizon.
Stars shine overhead as a cluster of distant thunderstorms light up the far horizon.

It was amazingly quiet in the Monument. Only a few cars drove by at that time of the evening and the storms were distant so that the thunder was inaudible. It was so quiet I could hear the bats flitting around.

An amazing evening.

Sometimes you go to the storm; sometimes the storm comes to you.

I enjoy capturing images of lightning. Most of the time I have to travel to where the storms are and then hope to get some good images. Once in a while, the storms come to me. Today was that kind of day. I set up the tripod and camera looking out the back porch of my house in Flagstaff and began to shoot.

 

Lightning near Flagstaff, Arizona. Settings: 1/4 second, f/8.0, ISO200, 28 mm lens.
Lightning near Flagstaff, Arizona. Settings: 1/4 second, f/8.0, ISO200, 28 mm lens.

 

Lightning near Flagstaff, Arizona. Settings: 1/8 second, f/11, ISO200, 28 mm lens.
Lightning near Flagstaff, Arizona. Settings: 1/8 second, f/11, ISO200, 28 mm lens.

These lightning strokes had many filaments and channels and were exquisitely detailed. Absolutely amazing! I think it is fair to say that these may be the best images I have captured in over 30 years of trying — first on film and now digitally.

Lightning and Mammatus: The beauty of thunderstorms

The North American Monsoon is bringing thunderstorms to the southwest United States including northern Arizona. You would think that with almost daily thunderstorms it would be easy to shoot great images of lightning and thunderstorms. Well, not always…

One of the characteristics of the rainy season in the higher elevations of northern Arizona is that as the storms develop in the late morning or early afternoon it quickly becomes overcast so that it is difficult to see the individual storms. It is equally difficult to photograph lightning because it is often raining over large areas obscuring the view of the lightning.

Lightning in Sunset Crater National Monument.
Lightning in Sunset Crater National Monument.

So I was particularly pleased when we had two days in a row in which I was able to photograph lightning and actually see the thunderstorms. The lightning was photographed in Sunset Crater National MonumentĀ overlooking the Bonito Lava Flow;Ā the mountain that it is striking is O’Leary Peak. There is a fire lookout station at the summit of the peak and I’m certain they get their fair share of close bolts.

Sunset colors on an Arizona thunderstorm.
Sunset colors on an Arizona thunderstorm.

The following day proved equally photogenic. This thunderstorm was photographed in late afternoon and is quite dramatic with mammatus clouds visible from the anvil region of the storm.

If only everyday was as photogenic as these two.

Lightning across the landscape of northern Arizona

The North American Monsoon (NAM) is in full swing across the southwestern states and the daily showers and thunderstorms present many opportunities for dramatic lighting and lightning.

Earlier this week I traveled to the south rim of Grand Canyon National Park hoping to get some sunset images with storm clouds hanging over the canyon. Well, there certainly were clouds — and there wasn’t much of a sunset. The backup plan was to photograph lightning. On this count, the storms didn’t disappoint. There was a storm to the west and I was able to point the camera across the lines of cliffs and rock faces that were already falling into deep shadow in the late twilight. And off in the distance was a great flash of lightning.

 

Lightning over the Grand Canyon.
Lightning over the Grand Canyon.

A few days later I tried once again to capture twilight lightning — this time at Sunset Crater National Monument. A storm developed in early evening and moved to the northeast over the lower terrain of the Painted Desert in the Little Colorado River Valley.

 

Lightning over the Painted Desert of northern Arizona.
Lightning over the Painted Desert of northern Arizona.

 

In the foreground can be seen the Ponderosa Pine trees at the higher elevations in the Monument; in the middle distance are some of the many cinder cones that are a part of theĀ San Francisco Volcanic Field; in the far distance are the lower elevations of the Painted Desert.

 

 

Lightning over the Painted Desert of northern Arizona.
Lightning over the Painted Desert of northern Arizona.

 

With the typical NAM lasting through early September there should be plenty of opportunities for more dramatic lightning photographs.

 

White Sands Reflected in Pools of Water

We recently took a trip to White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. The weather forecast that day called for increasing clouds and a chance of thunderstorms — some possibly severe — by late afternoon. Normally, this would be a deterrent to those wishing to visit this wonderful place but since I enjoy photographing thunderstorms and severe weather this was an opportunity not to be missed.

Rainbow over White Sands National Monument.
Rainbow over White Sands National Monument.

We arrived at WSNM in mid-afternoon and the clouds were beginning to fill the sky. We were soon rewarded with a rainbow stretching across the parabolic dunes on the edge of the dune fields. As that first storm moved away, other storms began to develop back to the west. I set up the camera to take lightning photographs and was rewarded with a couple of pretty good shots.

Late afternoon cloud-to-ground lightning over White Sands National Monument.
Late afternoon cloud-to-ground lightning over White Sands National Monument.

But the really wonderful part came the next morning. Those afternoon thunderstorms continued through the evening and into the night and produced about one and a half inches of rain across the sands. And in the bright blue sky of the following morning we found shallow lakes of up to a few inches deep scattered across the sands as a result of the heavy rainfall. The reflections of the sand dunes and other vegetation in these ephemeral lakes was simply delightful.

Reflections in the shallow lakes produced by heavy rainfall across White Sands National Monument.
Reflections in the shallow lakes produced by heavy rainfall across White Sands National Monument.