Often when I tell people that I am a sky and weather photography fanatic, they want to know if I fly up in airplanes to take panoramic pictures. Or they wonder if I fling myself madly across the Central Plains in an outfitted vehicle for days at a time seeking super-cell thunderstorms.
Neither one. The truth is, I have found that by being patient and observant, and keeping a camera handy, the weather will eventually get around to coming to me.
It doesn’t hurt a bit that I live in the heart of “Tornado Alley”, in Kansas City, Missouri, home to some of the wildest and most changeable weather on Earth.
My first, last and only tornado
2001, Crystal Beach, Texas
But the sky holds plenty of wonders for the alert observer pretty much everywhere. As proof, here is the one and only tornado I ever saw, on Bolivar Island off the Gulf Coast, near Galveston, Texas .
There are some tricks to finding the most interesting weather, though, and here are a few that I have gleaned.
Remember, there is a sky.
For many years, I spent my days never looking more than ten degrees above the horizon. You could have replaced the great bowl of the sky over my head with a hundred-mile-wide bowl of oatmeal, and unless it happened to be raining oatmeal, I’d never have noticed. I was busy most of the time with my earthly occupations.
It wasn’t entirely my own fault. Nine times out of ten, a glance into the sky reveals nothing noteworthy. Whether a clear sky or cloudy, it can and often does look pretty uniform and monotonous, like the backdrop that “disappears” when seen at a larger scale. All the clouds look the same, and the eye soon loses interest.
My epiphany occurred in the garden one lazy Sunday afternoon. I happened to glance upward for some reason and found that a surprise cloud had suddenly appeared over the rooftop where there had been clear sky. I ran for the camera.
Since then I have discovered that such breathtaking scenes are happening all the time. I just hadn’t been paying attention. So the first trick is to keep an eye skyward whenever you can.
One of the best times to harvest remarkable scenes and unexpected visions are the transitions between day and night.
The low angle of light does the same thing for the sky that a silhouette does for a person’s portrait, increasing the contrast between light and dark, showing the contours and structure of the face much more clearly than direct light. In the sky, lighting clouds from the side with the sun near the horizon outlines their shape and defines distances in a way not possible in full daytime sunshine .
Add in the colors, as they evolve from blue-yellow through orange to the reds and crimson of a mature sunset, and as our mother star approaches the horizon from either direction, it can often make quite a stupendous show.
Just as often, it’s a bust.
The best displays at both times of day are usually when clear sky exists beyond the horizon. At sunrise, if clouds are approaching from the west, the sun has a clear shot to bathe them in crimson light as it rises up through a clear eastern sky. Same thing at sunset: a cloud layer drifts off to the east, exposing the setting sun, where it will shine on the underside of the clouds even when it is far below our horizon.
This is why Hawaii has such great sunsets, as the clouds usually form only over the mountainous islands, leaving clear skies all around.
Checking local cloud radar on TV or internet can help. Look for a morning with clear skies to the east, or an evening where clear skies are to the west or, as sometimes happens, a cloud deck is drifting off to the east after a storm just as the sun is setting. Perfect!
When a weather system starts to move in after days of clear skies, the first faints signs are often high thin clouds called Cirrus.
Cirrus clouds, also called “Mare’s Tails”
The name is from the Latin cirrus,
meaning a curl, tuft,
or filament, like a tuft of hair —
and they often look like flowing hair or filaments of delicate thread.
I like to watch the very first clouds that develop, as they often create the most complicated patterns and mixtures, drifting across the sky sometimes for hours before yielding to the heavier, lower clouds that follow.
As the clouds begin to thicken, watch the boundaries between the Cirrus clouds and the mid-level Altocumulus layer that moves in. And then the boundary between Altocumulus and the next layer or type of cloud that appears, and the next, and the next.
As they move and mix, these different layers of clouds can yield beautiful scenes of art, painterly masterpieces, cloud art if you will. The most creative part of nature is in the borders. The boundaries between any two different air masses are usually where all the interesting stuff is happening.
Multiple Cloud Layers
In fact, it might be a general principle of weather watching: watch the boundaries between things. When weather systems, clouds, air masses or any two things collide, interesting things happen in the areas where they meet and first display their individual personalities..
Expect the Unexpected
And sometimes there is a boundary there in the middle of the air that is totally invisible, some difference in moisture or temperature or speed or altitude, all of which appear to us as the same plain, clear sky. Suddenly an expected cloud is born out of nowhere, creating breathtaking and sometimes bizarre displays –literally — out of thin air.
Something very strange appears over the city!
The lesson? Keep those peepers peeled!
Optical events includes the familiar rainbows, but those are just one of dozens of types of colorful displays. Many of them escape our notice because they appear in parts of the sky where nothing is going on and we are least expecting them. They love to appear directly overhead, often close to the sun, and might only last for a few minutes before disappearing again like Leprechauns.
Most are formed from sunlight passing through ice crystals that make up the thinnest Cirrus clouds. Because of the six-sided shape of the crystals, optical events often are found in a ring around the sun, at about the distance between your thumb and extended little finger held at arm’s length.
Sometimes an entire halo forms, but more often only part of the sky will have the right clouds to bend the sun’s light, and the display is in parts and pieces. At dusk, look 22 degrees to the left and right of the sun, for “Sun Dogs” on either side of the halo circle .
And sometimes whole areas of sky will display iridescence, like this.
You can read more about optical events in my previous post, “Weather Imps”
Storms? Who needs them?
Storms and bad weather, of course, can make great scenery. But in most areas of the country, they can just as often be invisible above thick, uniform layers of cloud that mask the towering thunderstorms from view. If you really want to see storms from a distance, move to the American Southwest, where they’re more isolated.
On second thought: stay right where you are, and let the weather come to you!
The sky is like a cat. It may be one moment stealthily stalking you from inside your just-opened sock drawer and the next moment snoozing in the corner. It’s never where you think it will be, or doing what you think it should be doing. It’s often annoying, sometimes contrary, always entertaining and almost everything it does is a surprise.
But for the sky, as with the cat, that’s the most wonderful part of all.