Lightning and cherry blossoms: rare combo caught in April 3, 2006 storm chase

Lightning flashes behind the Jefferson Memorial during the early evening of April 3, 2006. Thousands of tourists were admiring the cherry blossoms in peak bloom when the thunderstorm hit. The storm sequence photos can be viewed below. (Kevin Ambrose)

Lightning flashes behind the Jefferson Memorial during the early evening of April 3, 2006. Thousands of tourists were admiring the cherry blossoms in peak bloom when the thunderstorm hit. The storm sequence photos can be viewed below. (Kevin Ambrose)

During the afternoon of April 2, 2006, an intensifying storm system tracking northeast across the Midwest toward Illinois produced severe thunderstorms across a wide region.  The next day, a line of thunderstorms associated with the same storm system moved rapidly across the Washington area with gusty winds, briefly heavy rain, and frequent lightning.

The thunderstorms hit Washington during the late afternoon and early evening of April 3.  The cherry trees were in the late stage of peak bloom and thousands of tourists strolled around the Tidal Basin admiring the blossoms.  The storms moved in very fast and there was little time for the crowd along the Tidal Basin to take cover.

On that afternoon, I was at the Tidal Basin with a plan to shoot the storm, not the blossoms.  I had already made three blossom shooting trips to the Tidal Basin on previous days.  I had plenty of blossom photos that year and I was hoping to capture a storm photo.

A visible satellite image taken on the afternoon of April 3, 2006 shows a line of thunderstorms that was rapidly moving east toward Washington, D.C. (UCAR)

A visible satellite image taken on the afternoon of April 3, 2006 shows a line of thunderstorms that was rapidly moving east toward Washington, D.C. (UCAR)

I positioned myself on the east bank of the Tidal Basin to view and photograph the approaching storms.   I shot a sequence of photos as the line of thunderstorms blasted through the area.  My photos are included below.

In this article, I have also included my account of the storm chase which I documented immediately following the chase, on the evening of April 3, 2006, when the events of the day were still fresh in my memory.  My storm account is detailed below in its entirety with the photos.

My storm account from April 3, 2006:

I have recently wondered if I will ever get a chance to storm chase in Washington while the cherry blossoms are in bloom along the Tidal Basin. The window of time when the blossoms are at peak is quite short and it usually occurs before the severe storm season really gets going in the Middle Atlantic region.

That said, I watched the radar on Monday as a line of thunderstorms approached the East Coast. It became clear by late afternoon that we’d have some strong or severe thunderstorms move through the Washington area.  And, yes, the cherry blossoms were still in a late stage of peak bloom.

I quickly packed my camera gear and headed into town for my first cherry blossom storm chase at the Tidal Basin.

Clouds associated with a line of thunderstorms and a gust front appear over the western horizon of the Tidal Basin. This photo was taken at 7:08 pm on April 3, 2006. (Kevin Ambrose)

Clouds associated with a line of thunderstorms and a gust front appear over the western horizon of the Tidal Basin. This photo was taken at 7:08 pm on April 3, 2006. (Kevin Ambrose)

The Tidal Basin was packed, as expected, with tourists, photographers, and joggers. Dark clouds became visible on the western horizon accompanied by distant flashes of lightning as I walked briskly down the east side of the Tidal Basin, darting in and out of the massive crowd to find a position to photograph the storm.

I found a spot on a bridge near the Jefferson Memorial and I began to photograph the distant storm. I quickly attracted a small crowd of photographers who also set up next to me to try their luck at capturing a storm scene with the blossoms. One professional photographer who was just to my right quickly ran out of film and he mumbled how he wished he had brought his digital camera. Others photographers were trying to time their photos with the lightning strikes.  It’s extremely difficult to see a lightning flash, press the camera’s shutter, and capture a lightning image.  They were not having much luck.

I chose to try a timed exposure of 1.6 seconds with a high f-stop and I fired the camera quickly and repetitively.  I actually missed the most impressive flash of the storm that filled the entire sky behind the Tidal Basin because I was in between photos.  That happens a lot.  I did manage to capture a nicely positioned set of bolts behind the Jefferson Memorial, however.  (It’s the first photo in this post).

Clouds associated with a thunderstorm's gust front approach the Tidal Basin.  A tiny cloud-to-cloud lightning bolt is visible in the sky.  This photo was taken at 7:13 pm on April 3, 2006. (Kevin Ambrose)

Clouds associated with a thunderstorm’s gust front approach the Tidal Basin.  A tiny cloud-to-cloud lightning bolt is visible in the sky.  This photo was taken at 7:13 pm on April 3, 2006. (Kevin Ambrose)

As the storm moved closer, the sky rapidly darkened.  Suddenly, a low, white cloud along the ground rushed towards us, moving rapidly across the Tidal Basin with the storm’s gust front. One tourist exclaimed, “Here comes the rain.”

Within seconds, the gust front hit us but it wasn’t rain filled with rain, as expected.  Instead, a blast of cherry blossom petals and dust slammed into us.  We were covered in petals.  Our clothes, our hair, and our cameras were all plastered with cherry blossom petals.  They were everywhere!

The rain soon arrived which made the petals a little more sticky to clothing.  I later found a blossom petal in my ear.

Lightning flashes behind the Jefferson Memorial as a line of thunderstorms push rapidly east toward Washington, D.C. This photo was taken at 7:15 pm on April 3, 2006. (Kevin Ambrose)

Lightning flashes behind the Jefferson Memorial as a line of thunderstorms push rapidly east toward Washington, D.C. This photo was taken at 7:15 pm on April 3, 2006. (Kevin Ambrose)

I took cover from the storm in the Jefferson Memorial and continued to shoot photos. Many tourists had the same idea and a few groups relocated their picnics under the large columns of the Memorial.

With every lightning strike from the storm, dozens of kids inside the Jefferson Memorial would scream in unison. It became a game for the kids to see who could scream the loudest after a lightning flash.

I have noticed, particularly with school field trips to the Lincoln and the Jefferson, kids love to scream after lightning flashes.  It’s actually quite amusing to witness.  I only join in with the screaming when I successfully photograph a lightning bolt.  Not really, I rarely scream during my storm chases.

During this particular storm chase, a crowd of kids gathered behind my tripod inside the Jefferson Memorial.  I missed capturing a few good lightning bolts with my camera and the kids were quite vocal with their disapproval as I scanned through my photos hoping to see a vivid bolt on my camera’s display.   When I successfully captured a nice display of cloud-to-cloud lightning, however, the kids celebrated with shouts of approval.  (The cloud-to-cloud lightning image is displayed below in this article).

Rain with gusty winds rapidly push across the Tidal Basin.  This photo was taken at 7:17 pm on April 3, 2006.  (Kevin Ambrose)

Rain with gusty winds rapidly push across the Tidal Basin.  This photo was taken at 7:17 pm on April 3, 2006.  (Kevin Ambrose)

One note about thunderstorms during cherry blossom season (and this also applies to the Fourth of July):  There are too many people outside for everyone to find safe cover when storms move into the area quickly.  Hundreds if not thousands of people weathered this storm outside.  I was only able to get into the Jefferson as the crowd inside the Memorial dispersed when the rain ended.

In the years that have followed this storm chase, I have not seen another time when we have had strong thunderstorms occur during the cherry blossom bloom.  April 3, 2006 has been my only cherry blossom storm chase.  That’s obviously a good thing for both the tourists and the blossoms. 

The setting sun is visible as the thunderstorm moves east.  Several raindrops on the lens of the camera are visible in the photo.  This photo was taken at 7:21 pm on April 3, 2006.  (Kevin Ambrose)

The setting sun is visible as the thunderstorm moves east.  Several raindrops on the lens of the camera are visible in the photo.  This photo was taken at 7:21 pm on April 3, 2006.  (Kevin Ambrose)

Lightning is visible in the sky over the Washington Monument.  This photo was taken at 7:45 pm on April 3, 2006.  (Kevin Ambrose)

Lightning is visible in the sky over the Washington Monument.  This photo was taken at 7:45 pm on April 3, 2006.  (Kevin Ambrose)

The cherry blossoms reached peak bloom on March 30, 2006. (Kevin Ambrose)

The cherry blossoms reached peak bloom on March 30, 2006. (Kevin Ambrose)

There was good blossom viewing weather on March 31, 2006.  This photo shows cherry blossoms in full bloom framed around the Jefferson Memorial. (Kevin Ambrose)

There was good blossom viewing weather on March 31, 2006.  This photo shows cherry blossoms in full bloom framed around the Jefferson Memorial. (Kevin Ambrose)

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