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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

'Breathe' - A time-lapse video that will leave you unable to

By Phil Plait
A frame from the magnificent video "Breathe". Credit: Mike Olbinski

I've written about photographer Mike Olbinski's incredible time-lapse storm chasing videos many times. Like, oh, say here and here and here.

I've praised his work a lot, because it's so good; his sense of timing, scale, contrast, and even the music he picks for them is wonderful.

So, having said that, when I say that his latest work, "Breathe", is the best he's done so far, well then. But you don't have to trust me. See it for yourself:

Holy. WOW.

First, and most obviously his choice of doing this in black-and-white (technically, grayscale), was a good one. I actually talk about this in detail in a post about another one of his videos. This style choice increases the tension and also the beauty of the storms.

As I watched the video my eyes were bulging. Several times I got chills down my back too, such was the intensity of what I was seeing. Every new scene in "Breathe" escalates the drama, and had me gaping at what these storms were doing.

There are just a few parts I want to highlight…

At 0:44, a huge field of mammatus clouds sweeps by, each individual bulb descending like a living thing. These formations aren't terribly well understood, and are very eerie to see. I was fortunate to have an enormous wave of them blow over my house a couple of years back. I stood under them, slack-jawed, as they slowly rolled overhead, changing and morphing shape as they did. It was one of the most impressive and just plain odd things I have ever seen.

At 0:55 the mammatus are replaced by a vast anvil-shaped cumulonimbus cloud, what we used to call thunderheads when I was a kid. These towering clouds are flung upward by convection, and flatten out at their tops due to wind shear or inversions. I stood under the brim of one of these as it swept past my house a couple of years back as well. It occupied half the sky, and having just the edge of it skirt over us felt like dodging the end of the world.

But then, oh my, but then at 1:40 in the video I actually exclaimed out loud. Those two back-to-back scenes showing a massive rotating storm cell lit only by lightning are jaw-dropping. You can see internal lightning (called cloud-to-cloud or CC) and cloud to ground (CG) bolts snapping off like flashbulbs at a concert*. The clouds in the storm take on a sort-of reverse look, like a photographic negative. It's just stunning.

I have to add that Olbinski's choice of music is great. The song is called "Breath" — after hearing it he decided to use it (more or less) for the title of the video — and it's by Ex Makina, a husband-and-wife team out of the UK. The best word I can use for their music is atmospheric, appropriately enough. On their Soundcloud page, Ex Makina musician Iain Campbell describes "Breath", saying, "The song is about anchoring life in the present moment when everything in the world seems to be in chaos."

How perfect is that for the video?

Watching all of this made me think of the raw power that creates these storms. The energy in a typical storm cloud is staggering; it can easily release contain more energy than an atomic bomb.

And all that energy comes from sunlight. Just sunlight, hitting the ground to the tune of about a kilowatt per square meter. That may not sound like much, just the equivalent of ten bright light bulbs shining down. But that's per square meter, and there are a lot of square meters out there in the middle of America. A square kilometer all by itself is a million square meters, so right away that means there's a vast amount of energy available for a storm to use. The way a storm forms is complicated with a lot of important details, but the raw energy source for it is still just plain old sunlight.

It's incredible to see it unleashed in a storm. It's easy to take them for granted, but when you see them like this, when you understand the sheer power of them, their beauty and danger is revealed even more clearly. Knowing a bit of the science behind gives me even more of a thrill when I watch a storm hammering the land; there is no escaping their overwhelming force, and the forces of nature behind them.

* I'm old, OK?

Again, see previous footnote.