Watching A Thunderstorm Live
A stationary supercell in South Dakota recently offered a stunning example, letting photographer Nicolaus Wegner capture its growth in a time-lapse video (above) without having to chase it — or vice versa. Its lack of mobility may have made it slightly less dangerous for Wegner, aside from the threat of lightning, but it also gave him a rare opportunity to record a supercell from start to finish.
Filmed June 1, the video opens with footage of the young storm vacuuming up warm, moist air from below to fuel its growth. While supercells are often nudged along by wind, this one seems anchored in place as its rotating air mass — known as a mesocyclone — mushrooms into a monster. It steadily tightens into more intricate and imposing shapes, and by the 1:00 point it’s like a wispy alien spaceship glowing eerily from within. As with most nature videos of this quality, it’s best watched in HD and full-screen modes with the music turned up full.
Aside from its obvious beauty, what makes a supercell super? The rotation starts with wind shear, slicing air into layers and forming a horizontal axis that’s then tilted vertically by updrafts. These updrafts exceed 100 mph in some cases, helping supercells and multicells grow 10 to 100 times more energetic than a typical thunderstorm, which can already release as much energy as a 20-kiloton nuclear explosion.