April 26, 1994

Lightning from a tornadic supercell thunderstorm near Hillsboro, Texas

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Al Moller and I intercepted and photographed the Gainesville, Texas tornado on April 26, 1994, then drove south over 100 miles to intercept another tornadic supercell west of Hillsboro, Texas. We arrived in the area just before sunset to find a highly electrified storm. We drove from north to south along the eastern flank, passing through the northeastern edge of the precipitation area. As we emerged from the rain and small hail, the primary supercell updraft became visible to our southwest. We turned east and drove through several miles of light "anvil precipitation" until we found a dry location with a nice view to the west. We then set up our cameras and shot lightning for the next half-hour, consuming several rolls of film as the storm slowly approached.

The storm produced prolific quantities of "anvil zits" (a chaser term coined by Gene Rhoden for short rapid cloud to cloud lightning that jumps relatively short distances (when compared to anvil crawlers) from the top of the supercell updraft along the underside of the anvil), like the ones in the first image below. Anvil zits are produced by supercell thunderstorms during the peak of their strength. Extreme supercells produce anvil zits at an unbelievable rate, sometimes several per second, producing an awesome flickering or strobe effect.

Another signature of a strong supercell is anvil cloud to ground (CG) lightning strikes.  Anvil CGs are ranked among most powerful and brilliant lightning.

When photographing lightning, I usually set up my camera equipment a few miles ahead of the ground strike points. When the lightning gets too close for comfort or when light rain begins, I immediately move farther away.

Remember, you do not have to be struck directly by lightning to be killed or seriously injured. Fatal voltages can be created in the ground as the current and energy flow away from and toward the strike point.  You are at greatest risk of electrocution when your feet happen to be oriented along an imaginary radial line that extends from the strike point. The farther apart your feet, the higher the voltage potential between them as a result of a lightning strike.    An intense voltage gradient exists around the strike point, with the highest voltages existing near the strike point.  

Lightning also creates other risks. A close strike can produce temporary blindness, similar to a flash bulb, but much more intense, especially at night.  And, the thunder can be deafening and could cause permanent hearing loss.  A direct or very close strike can kill you.  Lightning photography is a dangerous and unpredictable activity.

Enjoy the images, but understand the risks if you decide to photograph lightning yourself.

Copyright 1995 - Samuel D. Barricklow - All rights reserved.

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