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Posted at 10:13 AM ET, 09/29/2011

Jefferson’s lightning!


Three cloud-to-ground lightning bolts strike behind the Jefferson Memorial at 8:57 p.m. Wednesday night. The gentle waves on the Tidal Basin do a nice job of reflecting the bolts. A larger image can be viewed here. Photo Kevin Ambrose

As I drove home from work at 6 p.m. Wednesday evening in western Fairfax County, I noticed large cumulus clouds building on the eastern horizon near Washington. On the western horizon, towards Chantilly and Front Royal, Va., the sky was mostly clear with high-level cirrus clouds painting the western half of the sky. Showers and thunderstorms were in the forecast for the early evening but the weather hardly appeared threatening.

During my drive, I noticed that the visibility was good. It was now autumn and the atmosphere lacked the hazy, soupy appearance of a typical mid-summer day in Washington. If thunderstorms did form, there was a good chance that the visibility would be good for lightning photography. At least I hoped so.

Read below for more photos and the rest of the story.


Three cloud-to-ground lightning bolts strike behind the Jefferson Memorial at 8:53 PM Wednesday night. Strong breezes at the time created ripples across the surface of the Tidal Basin which were illuminated by the lightning. A larger image can be viewed here. Photo Kevin Ambrose

When I arrived home, I checked the radar. A lone rain shower was moving north through Stafford County. Other than that isolated shower, the radar was mostly clear in the Washington area.

I continued to watch the radar. As the shower in Stafford County moved into Prince William County, lightning was detected. Two bolts hit southern Prince William County, near Dumfries. The shower was maturing into a thunderstorm.

I packed my camera gear and began the drive to D.C. I was not optimistic about the storm chase, but if the storm could hold together, it might make for a few good photos.


A single bolt of cloud-to-ground lightning appears to do a loop in mid-air above the Jefferson Memorial. The loop is caused by placing a three dimensional bolt of lighting into a two dimensional photo. The lightning bolt probably traveled toward the camera, moving up-and-down and left-and-right, which created the appearance of a loop in this two dimensional photo. This photo was taken at 8:45 p.m. A larger image can be viewed here. Photo Kevin Ambrose

On Route 66, I hit blinding rain near Falls Church. The heavy rain was not associated with the thunderstorm that I viewed on radar to the south. That storm was still in eastern Prince William County. A small thunderstorm had just formed overhead, in Fairfax County.

The storm slowed traffic for a few minutes but I felt it was a good sign that the atmosphere was relatively unstable. My chances of photographing a storm were improving, if there were no traffic jams on the road ahead.

The traffic on Route 66 flowed well and I arrived at the Jefferson Memorial about 30-40 minutes after leaving my home.

As I parked near the Potomac River, I noticed that lightning flashed on the western horizon, striking the ground just west and north of Arlington. I could see that the storm was moving north and would miss Washington. This was the storm I just drove through. I took a few photos of the lightning flashes over Rossyln. There were no well-defined bolts, it was just sheet lightning.

Within minutes, a rain shaft appeared on the southern horizon, over the Potomac River near Alexandria. Another storm was heading directly toward Washington. This was probably the storm that I viewed earlier on radar. Thunder became audible.

I took cover inside my car and I waited for the storm to pass. I don’t stand outside to photograph during the middle of a thunderstorm. I always try to stay safe while photographing lightning.


A cloud-to-ground lightning bolt emerges from the rain shaft of a thunderstorm. The column of rain behind the Jefferson Memorial is partially illuminated by the lightning bolt. This photo was taken at 8:55 p.m. Wednesday night. Photo Kevin Ambrose

It rained hard for about 20 minutes. When the storm was over, I almost decided to drive home. It appeared the thunderstorm had fizzled, I did not see any lightning and the storm had moved to the east.

Then, I noticed a flash of lightning on the eastern horizon. There was no thunder, it was distant lightning.

I walked down to the Tidal Basin and setup my tripod. The visibility was good. The next lightning bolt appeared clearly in the sky over the Jefferson Memorial and I captured it with my digital camera, a Sony A580. I am always happy if I can photograph one lightning bolt. Just one.

For the next 30 minutes lighting flashed frequently, sometimes with multiple bolts. I captured most of the lightning strikes with my camera. It was a beautiful sight. The storm chase had worked out after all.

There were too many lightning photos to show in this post but I selected a few that I thought were the best. It was definitely a memorable storm chase, especially for early autumn. Perhaps it will be the last storm chase of the year, which is fine with me. I’m ready to be done with the heat, the humidity, and thunderstorms. On to snowstorms!


Sheet lightning behind the Jefferson Memorial. Lightning is concealed by the storm’s rain shaft. This photo was taken at 8:55 p.m. Wednesday night. Photo Kevin Ambrose


Two distant cloud-to-ground lightning bolts strike at 8:59 p.m. Wednesday night. Photo Kevin Ambrose

Three distant cloud-to-ground lightning bolts strike at 9:02 p.m. Wednesday night. A larger image can be viewed here. Photo Kevin Ambrose



Two distant cloud-to-ground lightning bolts strike at 9:06 p.m. Wednesday night. Photo Kevin Ambrose

A single cloud-to-ground lightning bolt strikes at 9:07 p.m. Wednesday night. Photo Kevin Ambrose

Distant lightning at 9:03 p.m. Photo Kevin Ambrose

The radar at 9 p.m, about the same time the photos were taken. Source wunderground.com.

By  |  10:13 AM ET, 09/29/2011

Categories:  Latest, Photography, Thunderstorms

 
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