Thunderstorm seen from Woodbridge, Va., May 18, 2017. (Hillary Esquina via Twitter)

Hordes of storm chasers swarmed Oklahoma and Kansas on Thursday due to the high risk of severe weather. But perhaps the most striking storm scenes were found more than 1,000 miles away in Washington’s western suburbs.

A super-tall thunderstorm erupted in Northern Virginia on Thursday, its cloud top rising nearly 60,000 feet into the atmosphere.

The storm took on the appearance of a massive UFO, sometimes called a “mothership” because of its resemblance of a giant flying saucer streaking across the sky. We often see “mothership” photos from storm chasers in the Plains, but not so much in Fairfax, Va.

The storm unleashed damaging wind gusts that downed trees and produced hail up to one inch in diameter.

How did it develop?

To get storm clouds this high, what’s needed is a vigorous cloud updraft or multiple updrafts, which are fed by highly buoyant air from near the surface. With Thursday’s sun-baked temperatures in the low 90s and copious humidity, the atmosphere became quite unstable and was amenable to “overturning” through a very deep layer. There was plentiful buoyant energy stored up and then released in the atmosphere — about 40 to 50 percent more than what we typically experience on “ordinary” thunderstorm days.

The problem with a small, isolated storm cell is that relatively drier and cooler air from mid-levels of the atmosphere can mix in from the sides, diluting some of that buoyancy that tries to make the cloud rise so high (we meteorologists call this process “entrainment”). But the enormous thunderstorm complex that developed over Northern Virginia was effectively a giant cylinder of moisture-laden air that shielded its core updrafts from buoyancy-robbing, drier air. Those interior updrafts pushed cloud tops to limits not often seen in this area.

Below see amazing views of the storm from all across the region:


Thunderstorm seen from Interstate 95, May 18, 2017. (Jenn Wurz via Twitter)


A strong thunderstorm moves toward Fairfax, Va., Thursday evening. (Jason Maturo)

Thunderstorm seen from Gainesville, Va., May 18, 2017. (Jed Kane via Facebook)

Thunderstorm seen from Woodbridge, May 18, 2017. (Adriana Lloyd via Facebook)

Thunderstorm seen from Fairfax, May 18, 2017. (Katherine Winters via Facebook)

Thunderstorm seen from Woodbridge, May 18, 2017. (Leigh Fitzgerald via Facebook)

Thunderstorm, May 18, 2017. (Edward McPike Jr. via Facebook)

(Kevin Ambrose contributed to this post.)