The stunning video above shows a mighty supercell thunderstorm captured by Phoenix-based photographer Mike Olbinski on June 3. Olbinski has been trying to capture one of these elusive squalls for four years.
“It looked like some UFO or something spinning over the world,” Olbinski said. He was able to capture 870 images in 24 minutes before the rain overtook him. The video is a time-lapse view of those shots.
Supercells are a class of thunderstorm characterized by towering cloud columns and a central mass of rotating air. They also carry the potential to spawn dangerous tornadoes, like the storm that devastated Moore, Oklahoma last month, killing 24 people.
The rotating, barrel-like “wall cloud” that hangs beneath the cloud ceiling is the column through which supercell storms “breathe in” hot, humid air, creating a powerful rotating updraft, says NASA Goddard Space Flight Center atmospheric scientist Anthony Didlake.
“Generally in the Great Plains, you have southerly winds bringing warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico near the surface, and westerly winds bring cooler, drier air off of the Rockies,“ Didlake said. The angle at which these forces collide is what sets off the eddy-like spin of the supercell. As the cloud mothership creeps to the south in the video, it “exhales” heavy rainfall and hail in its wake.
Olbinski and his chase buddy Andy Hoeland pinpointed a probable storm hotspot nearly a week prior, in the panhandle border region of Texas and Oklahoma. This time of year is known for heavy storm activity along “Tornado Alley,” the region of the Plains where warm and unstable Gulf air meets cold northern winds. On the morning of June 3, Olbinski and Hoeland got off a plane in Denver, piled their camera gear into a rental car and sped southeast toward the Texas-Oklahoma border at the limit of what law and good sense would allow.
Their race to get ahead of the clouds took involved several wrong turns, skirting the storm as it rained hail on their (thankfully insured) rental car, even at one point nearly running out of gas. Just after 8 p.m., they found themselves on a narrow dirt road off of Highway 23 a few miles north of Booker, Texas. When he gazed to the west, Olbinski knew he had found what he had been chasing. He chronicles how he maneuvered to capture it on his blog.
This footage was taken just days after veteran storm chaser and scientist Tim Samaras was killed, along with his son and fellow meteorologist Carl Young, while tracking a powerful tornado outside of El Reno, Oklahoma. Roads congested with amateur storm watchers and high-dollar tornado tours have been highlighted as a factor that contributed to their death.
Olbinski watched Samaras religiously on Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers, and cites him as a major influence on his photography and love of big storms. Olbinski said that while some of his friends were hesitant to return to the stormy plains, he was not. “[Samaras] wouldn’t want people to suddenly stop chasing storms because they died.”
At the same time, Olbinski has a four-year-old daughter, and he says that keeps him chasing what he calls “low-risk” storms such as supercell clouds rather than tornadoes.
But Didlake, the atmospheric scientist, said, “this storm looks like it definitely could’ve spawned a tornado.”
Olbinski isn’t deterred, however. “There’s that thing that drives you to keep trying . . . there wasn’t anything that was going to deter me from wanting to go.”