Spectacular thunderstorm!

Time: 2:30 pm - 9:30 pm

Location: Canterbury, New Zealand

  • Thunderstorm
  • ,
  • Lightning
  • ,
  • Hail

This chase was awesome and I have my first decent go at getting lightning on camera!

Things looked promising in the morning with sun plus a good temperature (18 C) and a dewpoint of 11C with a light southwesterly wind. I had a feeling the southwesterly would die down to hopefully let in a northeasterly before the southerly arrived later in the afternoon/evening. This did happen but as the northeasterly came in it got quite strong and cooled things off more than I would’ve liked it to, low cloud was also covering the plains which wasn’t the best situation so thoughts of thunderstorms with the change would dwindle.  A line formed over Christchurch with some Cu as the northeasterly came in, interesting but it didn’t get anywhere. I think it must’ve been a small convergence between it and the dying southwesterly. What also looked like a very week Cb popped up on the plains west of me but collapsed very quickly.

The tracker had been picking up strikes off the Otago / South Canterbury Coast for quite a bit from around midday and thunderstorms developed around Dunedin at 2:30pm and 5:10pm so that held a bit more promise. It was getting late in the day and I was beginning to wonder if storms would happen, it was now 6:50pm and the temperature was slowly going down to 14C which would soon be 12C and cloud cover from the northeast was beginning to cover Christchurch. I wasn’t thinking happy thoughts. But, a break in the low cloud over Christchurch revealed something. Big Cu congests was building over Bank’s Peninsula which gave me a good surprise! The tracker was also beginning to pick up strikes over Banks Peninsula so ever faithful Steve turned up and said we better get a move on as storms looked like brewing!! Quickly I gathered my camera gear and we were off! We weren’t too sure about where we were heading, so as storms looked like they would move up the coast then offshore we headed southwest to first of all get out of Christchurch then thought we’d head east.

To my surprise again as we got inland a bit it started to clear and most inland areas were now basking in late afternoon sunlight. We also saw nice huge Cb’s off the coast going down southwards but they were a little too far off the coast at that point so we couldn’t really do much except take photo’s.

We got nearish Templeton thinking something would spring up on the plains but there was nothing at that point so while we were in the area we called past Steven Graham’s as this would provide tracker info and no doubt was a good time to say hello! Steven was home so we talked and looked at various info including the tracker and saw strikes out on the Peninsula and also coming up the coast. There was no point in traveling all the way out to the end of the Peninsula as storms would’ve moved off by then. Ben Tichbourne who frequents Akaroa though was there at the time and noted on the NZ weather forum at around 7:20pm:

“Clouded over early afternoon around Akaroa; low cloud and some drizzle at times for most of afternoon…BUT as I write, proper rain is starting to fall, and I can hear frequent THUNDER.”Ben also got heavy hail around 5mm in diameter around that time aswell.

Down went the temperature as early evening came upon us, it began to stabilise at a not so wonderful 12 degrees. As we were talking to Steven G we noted Cu building to the east not far away on his web camera that looks outside from his computer. It was around 8:30/9pm so we decided to then leave and thanked Steven for having us and went to investigate what was happening to the east of us. Over the Tai Tapu area there was a Cb with an ok but high base that looked quite thundery but didn’t manage to pop out any lightning. From what I could see I didn’t think it would do much except produce some heavy rain so we went eastwards towards Lake Ellesmere. In the low light it did look quite awesome and I hoped it would begin to spit out lightning bolts but unfortunately it didn’t.
What was that I caught out of the corner of my eye? Yep, Steve confirmed….it was lightning going off in the clouds just offshore to our east. It seemed the obvious choice as to where we would go now, but to go south or north of Lake Ellesmere which is a pretty big lake. We started to head SE but I said to Steve we should head North seen as the storms were moving north we would want to be closer to them as they moved up the coast. So we backtracked a little and then we were off to Birdlings Flat!

The closer we got lightning would go off more and more, the darker it got lightning got brighter and closer! When we arrived at the Birdlings Flat beach I franticly set up my Digital camera on my tripod and it was dark enough to take lightning photo’s. In the distance I could see dark bases slightly lit from behind in the twilight which had swung around onshore which marked the oncoming southerly front I believe. I say I believe because I’m not totally sure, it was totally dark when the southerly arrived so I’m presuming the Cb’s coming ashore to the south could’ve been it.

Yahoo! My first shot of lightning on camera that I knew 100% was lightning. A few flashes had gone off before but I had set the aperture too closed and the lightning didn’t register on the camera at first but once corrected it showed up nicely. No fancy bolts but it was something! That’s one thing about digital camera’s is you can check the shots to see if you got them or not and make corrections if need be. One of the annoying disadvantages is the noise reduction process the (mine anyway) camera does after each photo has been taken due to a long exposure whereas with a film camera you could keep flicking shots off and not have that problem, but then you can’t check your shots strait away either. So there’s advantages and disadvantages to both in this situation.

The lightning continued and got closer as the night went on, the line to the south was also becoming active and moving up the coast. At times I would miss shots due to bad timing but I managed to get some shots. The wind began to pick up all of a sudden and got very strong from the south, it was hard to stand still and you could almost lean into the wind and let it hold you there. I can’t remember what time this was but it was dark. It also began to rain and then hail the size of peas started to fall to, my eyes were watering and rain was getting on my lens so I wouldn’t be able to take photo’s anymore. I had to get in the car, not to mention the lightning as I didn’t want to get struck. We saw some awesome big cg’s and cc’s quite close just off the beach before we left in the car, what a bugger I couldn’t get them on camera because of the rain. We managed to stay out there for quite a bit but I have no idea of the time this was, at a guess it was probably an hour. Steve also had his video camera which he used but he forgot to charge the batteries the night before for it so he only got about 7 minutes footage and we got no in car footage which I’ll explain about later! I’ll let the lightning photo’s talk for themselves now.

Not the best but ok for my first really good shot at it! The middle one in the 3 above would’ve been a great shot but the three cg’s coming down made things over exposed. I got quite a few others but the ones above are the better of them.

As this hail and rain started to pour down we wondered what we would do. If we could find shelter there was still a great chance to do some lightning photography but we didn’t know where to look as it was dark and there was no one either of us knew around Birdlings Flat. I said to Steve we should leave and head West, as we did it really began to pour and hail was falling up to 1cm in diameter pinging off the car, it was really cool! Lightning was also now going off overhead turning night literally into day with incredible blasts of light and then awesome thunder! Going down the highway Steve spotted a turnoff to the left going to some golf club (we didn’t have any maps!) so we turned down there hoping for shelter to do some photography, no luck. Lightning was now getting more frequent overhead and hail was falling everywhere, marvelous cg’s to our right and left were coming down….just awesome! I said we should turn back as the shingle road we were on wasn’t going anywhere. The storm seemed to be heading NNE at this point so a trip was in order back around the Port Hills and through town and then to New Brighton. As we got onto the highway flashes weren’t as frequent but were still great when they went off, some pulsating and lighting up cloud structure for a few seconds at a time, and some lighting up the surrounding area turning it into day. One particular strike was so close and bright my eye’s couldn’t adjust and all I could see was white for a few seconds after the lightning had happened.

Just before we arrived in Tai Tapu the roads were white from hail apart form the tracks of cars going through them, it wasn’t hugely deep and the hail wouldn’t of gone past 1cm in size but I hadn’t seen anything like it before. The lightning had piratically stopped by this point as it was going off just over Christchurch and off the coast where we couldn’t see it because of the Port Hills. As we got closer to Christchurch lightning began to make it’s presence felt again lighting up the skies just east of the city on the coast. A quick fuel up was in order then off to New Brighton! The Cb’s were offshore when we got there and I quickly set up my camera on the tripod while Steve stood there with his digital camera using it’s movie mode. I managed to get two ok shots from New Brighton of lightning, although there was some annoying low cloud in frame as you’ll see below! There were other awesome strikes that went off but bad timing meant my camera was doing noise reduction from a previous frame. Neither Steve or me heard any loud thunder from the beach but some was able to be heard as the storm moved northwards.

Then all of a sudden it was over. I waited and did 5 more exposures but nothing was happening and nothing continued to, our night was over. My last photo I left the shutter open for a while to show the Cb’s faintly lit up by the moonlight (actually I’m not sure if the moon was up that night) or the light that was there as they moved up the coast. You can sort of make them out in the photo below.

Steve and me quickly reviewed the video from Steve’s DV camera back at my place and looked at the pics I had taken. Not bad I thought for my first go at getting lightning on camera. The video was dam funny, with my going sh#t every time a lightning bolt went off or if I missed a shot. One particular scene on the video has me going “Holly Sh#t” while Steve says the the “F” word while I say “Sh#t”, it sounds really funny and we cracked up laughing when we saw it! Well, to be honest I’m not sure if Steve says the “F” word as such, it more or less sounds like “Holly Fa!”. You’ll see what I mean when you watch it! It’s a bugger the DV camera ran out of power during the time we were just coming out of Birdlings Flat and going around that area and then as we came into Tai Tapu, there was some awesome action around that time.

Weather Maps

0600z 29/11/2004
1200z 29/11/2004