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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Breathtaking storm time-lapse video: Monsoon V

By Phil Plait
Monsoon V, a time-lapse video of epic storms in Arizona. Credit: Mike Olbinski

So, it’s been quite a week, hasn’t it?

On Twitter I’ve been torn between telling everyone about the incredible astronomy stories that have come out this week (seriously; the BA landing page has link after link to them) and shouting my political outrage to the sky. It’s been… difficult.

Sometimes, after a period of stress like that, you need a palate cleanser, an amuse-bouche, something to clear your mind and refresh you to start anew. Boing Boing calls these unicorn chasers, a term that I quite like.

My love of meteorology and weather is clear to anyone who is even passingly familiar with my stuff, especially when it comes to time-lapse videos. One of the best out there in this realm is photographer Mike Olbinski. He’s a wedding photographer by trade, but his storm videos are the stuff of dreams.

He has a series of four time-lapse videos taken in the American Southwest, which he calls “Monsoon” (so, for example, Monsoon, Monsoon II, Monsoon III, and Monsoon IV).

It is my pleasure to present Monsoon V, shot over the summer of 2018, which can serve as a unicorn and storm chaser.

Ahhhhhhh, that's better. Stuff like this is why I splurged and got myself a high-res monitor when my last computer died — set the video resolution to 4k for amazing results.

I think the most impressive parts of the video are — not to oversimplify — downdrafts. You can see explosive torrents of rain erupting from cloud bases, going from nothing to huge downward winds in just a few (objective minutes). Several of them look like microbursts, which are much more violent, though I can’t quite tell from the video. Either way, you get a strong wind blowing toward the ground, sometimes accompanied by a lot of rain.

When it hits the ground it is deflected horizontally, spreading outward in a circle. Friction with the ground slows the wind, but the air just above it still moves rapidly, causing the curl at the edge and a lot of turbulence (though I see more complex motion at the leading edge of the foot, which is interesting; sometimes the material moves upward in a way I’m not sure I understand, though that may be related to warmer material rising as well as the usual curling you see when one fluid is pushed into another).

In Arizona, where this footage was shot, it gets a mite dry and dusty. That becomes apparent starting around 1:45 into the video. The downdraft and expanding footprint picks up that dust, blasting it outward, where it piles up like a wall moving across the landscape. These are haboobs, and watching them in the video I found myself involuntarily flinching as they approached and blew over! Watching traffic driving into the haboobs made me wonder about the grasp on reality of those drivers.

I asked Mike about that. How often does he have to clean out his cameras? He says pretty much daily, though his cameras do a good job of keeping the dust out. As an old hand at amateur astronomy, seeing that dust blow over gives me the heebie-jeebies. Cleaning the optics on a telescope is a massive pain. I’m glad it’s easier with cameras.

Later there are lots of mesocyclones — those spiraling doorway-into-another-dimension-looking vortices — and deeply green clouds, which may be due to the presence of hail in the clouds, thought the exact cause is still unknown. The lightning interlude in the middle is as mesmerizing as it is terrifying.

And, as always, when I watch time-lapse videos like this, I am struck that we think of air as a gas (which it is, of course) but forget that it’s also a fluid: Literally, something that flows. Liquids are fluids too, but that’s more obvious. When you look up at the sky the motion usually slow and subtle, but when you amplify the speed in a time lapse, that fluid property is just as obvious as it is when you spill a glass full of water.

Videos like this are more than just awe-inspiring. They show us something all around us that would be obvious were we not fixed experiencing time at the plodding rate of one second per second. Tweak that just a bit and suddenly the entire world looks astonishingly different, and our perspective explodes outward.

I don’t mind a change in perspective every now and again. It helps me see things better. After a week like this last one, that helps a lot.