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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Stunningly beautiful time-lapse storm video: Mike Olbinksi's 'Reverent'

By Phil Plait
A frame from the time-lapse storm video, "Reverent". Credit: Mike Olbinski

Regular readers have heard the name Mike Olbinski, oh, so many times here on the blog. But that's because he's an extraordinarily gifted photographer who takes ridiculously stunning time-lapse videos of storms. I've featured them many times on the blog, including "Vorticity," "Vorticity 2," "Monsoon II," "Monsoon III," "Monsoon 4," "Monsoon 5," "Undulatus Asperatus Sunset" (seriously, wow), "Pulse," and "Breathe."

Those last two are special, because he chose to make them grayscale (what some people rather erroneously call "black and white"). It's funny that removing something — in this case, color — can make the gathering storm clouds and their fierce eruptions even more dramatic, but it's true (I talk a lot more about this, and how grayscale works, in the "Pulse" article). The colors of storms can be staggeringly beautiful, but remove them and we're left with a heightened sense of tension and furor.

Olbinski's newest video continues in that milieu: "Reverent," a gorgeous time-lapse of magnificent and terrifying storms. Note: This is in 8k, if you can display it. I strongly urge you to make it full screen and set the resolution to the highest your monitor allows. Because wow.

[Warning: Some strobing effects are shown during the lightning storm sequences, so if that bothers you have a care.]

Yeah. Wow. [Note: Some of the footage here is from "Vorticity 2," but the rest is new footage from summer 2019 in Arizona]

Reverent means showing solemn respect, which is certainly the overwhelming feeling conveyed. The music actually helps with that too; the track ("The Way You Do" by Bullet and Cass) is a love song of sorts, and at one point has the line, "Nothing can pull me off this Earth the way you do." I had to laugh; the whole point of a storm is that warm air rises, feeding the storm energy.

You can see this over and again in the video. The mesocyclones — rotating vortices that can be several kilometers wide — roll and rise as the warm air is drawn in. In many cases, the water vapor in the cloud cools, condenses as rain, and falls catastrophically as well, creating either a downpour (like at 00:14) or, as in the segments at 00:47 and at 1:20 (and really many other times in the video), a downdraft. This is a huge blast of cool water and air that hits the ground and then expands in a circle, the leading circular edge pushing rapidly away from the center with the air it slams into curling up and over it.

One thing that strikes me over and again watching these videos is how these storm systems seem alive. They grow, they change, they take in energy and release it, they breathe.

And sometimes, they're angry.

Certainly the many lightning scenes in the video convey that, but to me the more viscerally threatening parts are where the cyclones are dumping rain down out of their centers, like some methodical alien blasting the ground beneath it with an energy weapon disgorging from its gullet.

It reminds me of the opening of H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds:

Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.


But I suppose the genre that's most fitting for this isn't science fiction — it's fact, after all — but western. Certainly the music fits, and Olbinski filmed this in Texas, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, and Arizona. As I watched the video for the first time, I thought that even the name, "Reverent," had an old-timey western feel to it. I asked him why he chose that name, and he of course said he feels that way when he watches the storms, but he also wanted something that sounded western! I had to laugh at that. Great minds, etc.

Still… as I write this, we haven't had a drop of precipitation here in my area of Colorado since Thanksgiving. That's three months of nothing.

If a storm were to make its way here, I think I'd be reverent, too.

You can follow Olbinksi on Twitter, Instagram, and Vimeo.