Chasing the Desert Lightning

Getting the Picture

by Susan Strom

Once, many years ago, I was driving from Sacramento to Phoenix, from Northern California, where fogs and earthquakes make weather news, to the desert, where a whole new meteorological experience awaited me.

Lightning reachout

Lightning Reachout

It came first near Los Angeles, which had some exciting weather in store; lightning and rain pounded San Bernardino in the wee hours of the night. Passing the windpower fields at Palm Springs, the sky began to get light as dawn approached. Suddenly, I noticed a strange flicker in the pink sky. It was feathering out like a spider over a desert mountain. It was lightning, actual bolts spraying out from a lone, isolated storm. I had never seen lightning like that before. I stared in awe. It looked like jewelry, some kind of tiara, on the mountain. I never knew that 4:00 am could be so beautiful.

After relocating to Arizona, the type of desert lightning I admired came too close on a summer’s night. I did not fully understand yet the violent potential of this thing called “monsoon.” Something big was brewing. I stepped outside and saw a steely gray wall heading up from the south. The clouds were the color of slate. Everything was in motion. Cloud-to-ground lightning was slicing the mass in half. Weather warnings boomed from the TV, claiming that this time, the storm was particularly severe as well as tornadic, which is uncommon in the southwest. I lost power. It was unfamiliar. Alone in the dark, I waited.

Fountain Hills Lake Storm

Fountain Hills Lake Storm

Even to this day, after all the storms I have chased, conveying that spectacular night is a challenge. It was so violent. The lightning was constant, so intense that for a long while, the afterimages of bolts remained when I closed my eyes. I wondered what the lightning had struck, when at one point a deafening boom caused me to hit the floor.

When it was over, I realized a tree touching the roof had been hit. The tree was split in half, now in the mangled shape of a Y, with a scar burned right down the middle. Anything not tied down was in tatters. Large, mature trees were uprooted and lawn furniture rested at the bottom of the pool. Pulverized debris was ankle-deep. I had just weathered a storm that left me amazed, but did not know that it would change my life.

The next year was spent with a stubborn and annoying phobia of the desert’s violent summer nights. Lightning now made me nervous, even when seeing it from a distance. I greeted the monsoon with dread, waking anxiously to the claps of thunder. Having loved exciting storms all my life, I was way out of character and I didn’t like the new skin I was in. Arizona storms come every summer like clockwork. I lived here now. I had to find a remedy.

Since fear comes from the unknown, I set out to make lightning the known. If I educated myself on exactly how lightning works, would I lose the fear forever? I absorbed everything I could get my hands on. Soon, I learned that lightning works in an entirely different way than I had thought. Within a year, my fears were dripping away, quickly becoming replaced with fascination. A desire to watch, observe and experience the storms was rekindled. I actually looked forward to monsoon.

Southeast Arizona Storm

Southeast Arizona Storm

I couldn’t have known what would happen next. One thing that I love about life is surprises. Observing a storm was no longer enough. The problem with lightning is that it happens only for a split second, not enough time to get a good long look. Photography was the answer. I was already a photographer, but had never captured lightning. This would lead me down a rather bizarre path with no end in sight. Mastering the lightning exposure took a couple seasons to perfect. The goal was not just any lightning shot, but clear ones with tack-sharp detail.

My first year chasing it included long drives of four and five hours each night. I would find myself near some dry lakebed in Willcox, Arizona, at 2:00 am, shooting lightning bolts four hours from home. The little town of Safford, Arizona, offered me lightning all night long, if I drove an afternoon up sinuous Highway 60 through old mining towns and vast stretches of open land to the eastern part of the state. Phoenix did not always play out. Lightning nights were fewer, so the miles on my truck ticked by. Tucson, Marana, Casa Grande wherever the lightning went, I was not far behind.

People often ask me if I have ever been close to being struck by lightning. There were two close calls in my novice days.

One happened in Fort Bowie, Arizona, on a primitive road in the southeast corner of the state. I was inspecting a freakishly huge grasshopper and taking his picture. I set him down to compare him to the size of my sunglasses. Thunder crashed close by, reminding me that lightning can look deceptively tame during daylight, but it is no less dangerous.

An unexpected spray of lightning emblazoned skies over me in Marana, Arizona, when once again, I was caught off guard while focusing on something else. I have heard it said by a Tohono O’Odham Indian that when walking in the desert, do not be looking up and around at the scenery watch your feet and where you are walking instead. I adapted that wise advice to a similar rule of my own when chasing storms, do not be distracted by the beautiful scenery; keep eyes on the storm at all times.

It is easy to be comfortable under the desert sky, forgetting all about the lightning when winter comes. Many visitors have never even seen desert lightning. Surprised at what goes on in their absence, winter visitors often find themselves amused by monsoon photographs. “That was here?” they comment while pointing to a lightning bolt in a picture frame. Yes, right down by the lake (the same lake where they picnicked in February and threw Frisbees in March). Aside from a dusting of snow here and there, the desert is a calm place in winter, filled with visitors attending art festivals, horse shows and celebrity golf events.

Winter is pure bliss, but it is summer that stirs the soul. The same mountains that fold up so serenely during the winter are whipped up into frenzy during monsoon. Heat, fires, torrential rains, brilliant lightning, and flash floods seem to move the earth itself. In July, the mountains are awake. Preparations for stormchasing are made in springtime. The month of May’s white crowns of giant saguaro cactus flowers mean that hot temperatures have arrived. There is no escaping it. In a strange twist, just as the desert creatures seem hot and hungry, with the calendar advancing into June, the red saguaro fruits open like a living grocery store for birds and animals. Higher-based, pulse-type thunderstorms dominate during this time, touching off wildfires. The month of July heralds the onset of monsoon when the dewpoint reaches 55 degrees F or higher for three days in a row (in Phoenix). Real storms with some staying power roll into the deserts, crashing and booming, well into the night. Cloud-to-ground strikes begin their assault as torrential rains flood the desert washes, called “arroyos” by the locals. Wind gusts can be extreme, some recorded in excess of 100 mph in the desert, converting any pastoral scene to a sandblast of dust and debris. One night while chasing storms near the town of Apache Junction, Arizona, I narrowly missed an airborne kiddie-pool.

Scottsdale, Arizona strike

Scottsdale, Arizona strike

Spectacular walls of dust, called “haboobs,” dominate the sky, overtaking entire sections of the city. I have learned that a haboob holds the promise of photogenic storms soon to come. Something out there is alive and kicking. I let the dust overtake me and drive through the brown muck to find the culprit—a thunderstorm whose cold middle just dropped out, fanning up a sand wall in all directions. As reliably as a watch, the fully formed thunderstorm churns behind the dust. It is time to get into position, find a spot and set up cameras. If I’m lucky, I will see new storms being born out of the ones that collapsed. These “flanking lines” will mean a long night in the desert for me, often photographing until 3:00 am. A storm photographer does not stay in one place for long, but moves around constantly as the sky changes. Dewpoints, and spirits, are high.

Monsoon storms of considerable violence bring isolated but seemingly impenetrable curtains of precipitation while lightning explodes overhead. Trees succumb to microbursts, power lines are characteristically uprooted and tossed upside-down into canals, and flash floods lead the evening news. Seasoned stormchasers, including myself, will not cross flash floods no matter how tempting. Ten years ago I did so—only once. Darkness prevented my seeing the water. A log awaited in the fast-flowing sludge. I was able to maneuver off, but escaped only by luck.

Desert flash floods contain an impressive amount of solids. Logs, wood, sand, snakes, scorpions, cactus and barbed-wire ranch fence make up a good portion of what’s coming downstream with milkshake consistency. Pavement can also be scoured. The uninformed do cross, and often have to be rescued (and foot the bill themselves under Arizona law). Ironically, raging flash floodwaters can subside quickly. It is no effort to just turn around, get a cup of coffee, wait awhile, and let the flood pass, saving lives and property.

Flash flood in Arizona

Flash Flood in Arizona

I have come to anticipate the unexpected not as a maybe, but as a fact, laying money on the table that something surprising will happen when chasing storms. Lightning’s capricious nature makes it one of the most dangerous types of weather to chase. I once witnessed a lightning bolt shoot out from the Mazatzal range all the way to the south side of Fountain Hills, a desert community in Arizona. The total distance of this wayward channel had to be around 15 miles or more. Cell phone towers enticed one stray bolt near Mesa, Arizona, 10 miles from the cloud that spawned it. I have seen loops over Safford, feathers over Carefree, and something akin to a daddy longlegs over the mountains near Gila Bend, Arizona.

A year-round local, I couldn’t be happier to stay for the hottest and wildest time of year. To me it is the highlight. I drive thousands of miles each year in search of lightning to photograph, and have chased it into 10 states. I must confess, even the supercell thunderstorms of the Great Plains do not seem to produce the photogenic lightning splendor found in the desert southwest. Here, the cloud bases are higher, making the lightning more visible. Monsoon storms are framed with dramatic mesas, cactus-covered ridges, and mountains serrated like a hunting knife. I find the potential photographs irresistible.

Rio Verde Storm

One of the most enjoyable aspects of lightning photography is to be able to look at a photograph and study a lightning bolt for longer than the split second that we are granted in nature. Distinct and unusual features are surprising. Developing a unique collection of quality images requires patience, immense persistence, and hundreds of chase hours logged. Some images take years to achieve. Each lightning image evokes the memory of a unique chase and the things that happened that day. I can share the lightning with others. Many people love a good storm.

The exposure itself can be made with fairly primitive equipment. I use a manual camera body and slow speed (50 to100 ISO) transparency (slide) film to produce journalistic photos (no changes are made in Photoshop). It is most important to me that the images are real and unretouched, true to what I saw.

A tripod and cable release are also required. I recommend a heavy tripod so it will withstand high winds. Remember, though, that tripods are pointed metal objects, which can attract lightning. The danger in photographing lightning, again, lies in the unexpected. I will not understate the potential hazards of chasing storms. I recommend education as a first step.

Satisfaction, for me, comes when the bolt is preserved on film. It is worth the driving, heat, critters, and long hours. The summer monsoon is short, lasting from July through September in the desert southwest. Therefore, I make the most of my chances. The monsoon brings anticipation, beauty and excitement. There is nothing more pleasant that being awakened by thunder. Another day of chasing is in store. I keep a small necklace for good luck. One of the beads is a piece of that old burned tree.

Susan Strom is known as the “Lightning Lady” in the desert southwest. She specializes in photographing lightning of the desert monsoon. Strom’s background is in magazines, design and photography. Strom also advises in the design department at a local college and has a BA in graphic design from CSU Sacramento. After a brush with a severe storm in 1994, she started photographing lightning in 1996 in Arizona and the Plains, and has continued the pursuit ever since. Strom is internationally published and runs the website, dedicated to lightning of the desert southwest. She also holds shows in support of local wilderness areas of the desert.

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