There’s a rolling boom of thunder. Dark clouds gather overhead and begin to rotate slowly in a strange, ominous fashion. If it were a movie, this is the point where the giant UFO would break through the clouds; or perhaps an all-powerful supernatural being would emerge and wreak havoc on the puny humans below. Yet while nothing quite that exciting really happens during a supercell storm, these immense thunderstorms certainly create enough drama for most people.
Supercell storms are just that: super – but not always in a good way. Supercells are among the biggest, strongest and sometimes most destructive kinds of storms imaginable, and their effects can be felt up to 20 miles (32 kilometers) away. If the conditions are right, they can occur almost anywhere, but they’re most commonly found in “Tornado Alley” in the United States, where most of these photographs were taken.
Storm chaser Mike Hollingshead, of website Extreme Instability, took these incredible photographs of supercells at various locations. However, one quality the storms share is that each one is truly breathtaking – and they’re often a tribute to the photographer’s bravery. Hollingshead has been chasing storms since 1999 and started shooting them professionally in 2004.
The storm shown here was photographed near Alma, Nebraska. This particular supercell has some heavy precipitation falling in a column at its center. Supercells can be accompanied by a great deal of rain or hail, and high precipitation (HP) supercell storms are sometimes responsible for flooding.
This kind of formation at the bottom of a supercell is known as a wall cloud. In the photo, the dark wall cloud creates a stark contrast with the bright sunset. According to Hollingshead, a tornado warning accompanied this storm – which appeared in Aberdeen, South Dakota – but the twister didn’t materialize. In the end, all the supercell created was, in Hollingshead’s words, “a cool looking sunset.”
Lightning flashes on the right-hand side of this stunning supercell. The storm is so dramatic that it looks like one half of the mushroom cloud from a nuclear explosion, or some kind of giant wave surging through the sky. The protruding top of a supercell like this is called the anvil. It’s caused when the updraft meets the lowest reaches of the atmosphere and can’t go any higher. This storm is a continuation of that pictured in the first photo of this article, and it occurred in McCook, Nebraska.
This shot of a huge supercell over a truck stop in York, Nebraska resembles a scene from an epic disaster movie. Hollingshead captured the storm at twilight, and the deep purples and blues of the sky combine with the massive cloud and lightning to make a truly dramatic image.
This storm in Vivian, South Dakota occurred on July 23, 2010 and broke a world record by producing the biggest hailstones ever documented. One of the supercell’s lumps of ice was a whopping eight inches in diameter. The hailstone was collected by a man named Lee Scott, who preserved it in a freezer before handing it over to the National Weather Service – although not before he entertained the idea of using it to make daiquiris.
Hollingshead caught up with this low-topped supercell near Lindsay, Nebraska. In the photo, rain is falling below the storm cloud. The rain-free area beneath is known as the “precipitation-free base.” This usually marks the beginning of the updraft and is the point where the air is sucked inwards. Low-topped supercells used to be described as mini-supercells and are the smallest of these storms.
Here, the whole right side of the photograph is lit up by lightning, which contrasts dramatically with the orange sunset on the left. A couple of stars are visible in the top-left corner of the photo, which indicates that that part of the sky is clear. The resulting image looks like a beautiful abstract painting. This shot was taken on March 30, 2008 in Fort Cobb, Oklahoma.
The setting sun has added amazing colors and textures to the dark gray funnel at the bottom of this supercell. The cloud formation was photographed in Falls City, Nebraska, and we think it looks both sinister and beautiful at the same time.
Here’s another look at the same Falls City storm. Hollingshead notes that in this photograph you can see the funnel beginning to form around the updraft. The storm didn’t turn into a tornado, though; instead, it moved further up into the atmosphere where it dissipated.
Hollingshead caught this HP supercell on his way to Alma, Nebraska. While he was taking these photographs, a tornado warning was announced, but in the end the cyclone didn’t appear. HP supercells are considered particularly dangerous, as the falling rain can conceal tornadoes.
The cloud beneath this supercell in South Dakota looks like the storm’s giant mouth, ready to suck up anything that gets in its way. Wall clouds are formed when cool air from the downdraft is lifted by the updraft, becomes heavy and saturated, and appears to descend. Wall clouds that last for over 10 minutes or move around violently can indicate that it’s time to take cover – as a tornado could be in the making.
Here’s another supercell shot in Nebraska, this time in Crofton. The puffy mammatus clouds look like insect pods in the sky. These plump clouds are formed as cold air flows down from the anvil into the warmer air underneath. This type of cloud can also appear without the presence of a supercell. (For some more amazing cloud formations, check out this photographs of lenticular clouds.)
In the bottom left of the image, another brave photographer can be seen snapping away at this fantastic supercell in Grand Island, Nebraska. The sun has just gone down, and the lighting provides a beautiful backdrop for the storm and its precipitation. This storm later moved east and turned into the supercell seen in the second image of this article.
Here’s another incredible view of a supercell wall cloud. This one hangs so low that it almost looks as though you could reach up and touch it. The textures are quite amazing, as is the light shining through the storm from above. Hollingshead took this shot in Iowa.
This is the same Iowa supercell just pictured. The rotation of the storm has become more obvious, and the clouds are swirling around in a corkscrew formation. About 30 percent of supercells result in tornadoes, which probably isn’t a very comforting statistic for those who happen to encounter one – unless, of course, you’re a storm chaser like Hollingshead.
“Steve had called earlier, before I could see much of it and was saying he’s not sure he’s ever seen anything like it,” says Hollingshead, describing this storm in Alvo, Nebraska. “I was like, dang, because Steve usually downplays stuff. Well when I started to see it, I could see he was right.” Looking at this image, we can see why Hollingshead and his friend Steve were both so impressed.
The rain looks heavy in the center of this supercell near Ord, Nebraska. On one side, the sky is given an orange hue by the setting sun, while on the other it’s still bright daylight. Like all of Mike Hollingshead’s supercell photographs, it’s another incredible illustration of the beauty and power of these incredible storms. We thank him for sharing so many of his breathtaking photos with us.