The storm chasers hunting bolts in Australia’s Top End

Our photographer hits the road with seasoned storm chasers in the Northern Territory to track down some of the regions famous lightning storms

The storm chasers hunting bolts in Australia's Top End

Im standing on a dirt track somewhere in the wilds of Australias Northern Territory and in every direction I look the indigo sky is being shredded by bolts of electrical energy. Its unlike anything Ive ever seen before. Ive been hunting a lightning show and boy have I found one.

Suddenly Im very conscious of natures imposing scale and, more importantly right now, my proximity to a bared-wire fence the kind of object thats likely to attract a strike. We should probably get in the car, says Mike ONeill, the veteran Darwin storm chaser who has led me here. Reluctantly, I agree.

The Top End is one of the worlds most active regions for lightning and sees almost daily storms between November and March every year. A single storm can produce more than a thousand bolts in a matter of hours. Intense tropical heat combined with sea breezes and coastal moisture provides the perfect fuel.

Storm chaser Mike ONeill, one of many avid storm photographers in Northern Territory. I probably do up to 1,000km on a chase. Photograph: Jonny Weeks for the Guardian
ONeill is one of a handful of storm chasers photographers and meteorological buffs in the region. Whenever and wherever nature decides to put on a show, one of them will be watching.

I probably do up to 1,000km on a chase, says ONeill. Sometimes you only have to go around the corner to get a decent photo, but sometimes you have to go towards Katherine or even towards Kununurra [in Western Australia] . It just depends where they are and how much time youve got.

I chase every day on my days off. Even before work if theres a storm on the coast, or after work sometimes until five in the morning. I cant live without it.

Signs of a storm

After waiting a week for a thick monsoon rains to clear the region, conditions have eased and tonights predicted storm is one ONeill seems excited about as we begin our journey.

From Darwin we drive south towards Adelaide River, stopping from time to time to assess the cloud formations around us. Other local enthusiasts including Willoughby Owen use radar at every step, honing their understanding of the storms progress as they go. ONeill, who has been chasing for 16 years, is feeling more instinctive.

Radars great but it cant tell you what youve learned from experience, he says. You can tell just visually looking at these clouds theyre a lot healthier out here. Youve got thick towers and where you see it anvil out at the top its actually pushed through the anvil, so its got strong updrafts. Thats the sign of a decent storm. Thatll definitely have lightning in it.

Willoughby Owen checks his radar. Photograph: Jonny Weeks for the Guardian
Storms in this region typically form because the sun heats the land during the day and sea breezes push in during the afternoon, creating boundaries between hot and cool air.

Over here in the Top End weve got easy initiation forced by the Arnhem escarpment, says Owen, whos fortunate that he finishes work about 4pm most days, just as the storms begin bubbling.

The cloud tops reach 45,000 or 50,000 feet, stronger storms 55,000 or 60,000 feet. When youre near tropical lows, when youre near a Madden-Julian Oscillation, you can get tops of 70,000 feet, which is extreme. The lightning can be more intense from those storms, and incredibly loud and violent.

Lightning is made when ice particles inside clouds collide at high speed and become charged the bolt is a sudden and dramatic discharge of that energy, and may be many miles long but around a centimetre wide. The average bolt produces a current of 6,000 to 30,000 amps. Compare that to a radiator that draws about 10 amps and you get a sense of their power. The temperature is also extreme, measuring 30,000C, five times hotter than the surface of the sun. The effect of increasing heat and pressure on the surrounding air is what generates the thunder clap.

Storm chasing is littered with jargon and at times it makes the already complex science seem impenetrable but ONeill and Owen do their best to explain. They tell me many lightning strikes are from cloud to cloud (known as C-to-Cs or crawlers) but some are cloud to ground (C-to-Gs).

Lightning is indiscriminate, ONeill forewarns. The earth has a natural charge. When a thunderstorm is nearby, objects on the ground a cow, telegraph pole, car, tree, anything get invigorated and send upward streamers. When the stepped-leaders come down from the clouds theyll try to make a connection. Thats when you get the bolt.

If someone in the vicinity of a storm notices their hair standing on end, thats a foreboding sign. And, according to the 30-30 rule, if the time between the visible lightning bolt and the subsequent clap of thunder is less than 30 seconds, youre within range of a strike.

Secret spots

Asked what makes a good storm photo, ONeill, who began taking pictures after reading a coffee table book by the renowned storm chaser Peter Jarver, says he has changed his approach over the years.

I used to be mad keen on just getting the lightning bolt in the centre of the frame but everyone does that now, he says. A lot of people go to the same spots and theyll all stand next to each other and get the same shots.

Im more of a composition man now. If I see people standing in a location, Ill go back 20 or 30 metres and get them in the photo. I just want a different aspect rather than a cloud with a bolt coming out. If theres a storm and theres power lines, Ill keep them in there, because its like manmade electricity and natural electricity, so its contrasting subjects. I just want to get away from the norm.

In any case, ONeill prefers to find fresh, unknown vantage points and spends hours hunting for them: We all have our secret spots, he says.

Mike ONeill sets up his camera beside a dirt road overlooking a range of ant hills. Photograph: Jonny Weeks for the Guardian
Having pulled on to the dirt road with the storm brewing around us, ONeill sets up his camera with his cars headlamps illuminating the ant hills in the foreground. He tells me Ill need a shutter speed of 10 seconds (longer as the sky darkens) and a low ISO setting, as well as my tripod and remote trigger.

But ONeill has an extra bit of kit a special lightning trigger which automatically senses when a bolt is being emitted and takes a photo. He used to think it was cheating but now relishes the images. Meanwhile, Im activating my shutter manually, hoping to get lucky. As the sky darkens and the storm erupts, I realise luck is already on my side.

Its going off, mate! ONeill says as were enveloped, bolts jumping out of the sky around us. I dont know which way to direct my camera.

ONeill soon gets back into the car. The metal body of the car makes it safer to be in its like a Faraday cage, he explains. Its good to be standing out there, but right now, nah. I value my life more than a photo.

Monster doggies

Willoughby Owen using a 70mm-200mm lens. Photograph: Jonny Weeks for the Guardian
During my first time storm chasing with Owen, he brings along his friend Jacci Ingham. The two often go out together, unlike ONeill who is steadfastly a solo chaser.

We dont see much activity but Ingham relays the magic of a potent storm in infectious fashion. MCSs [mesoscale convective systems] are great, particularly if you get around the back of them, she says. They produce massive, squiggly scrawlers that fill the sky like spaghetti. Theyre my favourite.

Over dinner on the way home I discover Ingham is YouTube famous. Shes had 27 million views, Owen says. I presume hes joking but he takes out his phone and shows me a viral video of Ingham storm chasing in Darwin in 2010 as a lightning bolt comes crashing down just metres away.

Both Owen and Ingham have been to the US to chase tornadoes. Its almost an annual pilgrimage for Owen, who has been eight times. And he says he only moved from his native New Zealand to Darwin for the meteorology.

I just love weather, he says. I love seeing its raw and powerful beauty, how it all forms, how it all plays out, the modelling, making a forecast theres a lot of chaos involved in making a forecast. I love how rapidly it can change and when you think you know whats going to happen, it does something slightly different or even the opposite. Youre always, always learning.

10 December 2009 was a memorable night. There was a massive amount of lightning over Darwin. There were bombs going off everywhere. The wind was savage, it was just going ballistic. You could read a book under it.

18 February 2015 was another. It was like a storm in Oklahoma, rotating, twisting massively, you could see the whole structure move. It was just a beautiful storm.

Willoughby Owen and Jacci Ingham spot bolts in the distance. Photograph: Jonny Weeks for the Guardian
On my final night in the NT, Owen and I find a picturesque storm cloud building at sunset. He has driven us to a secluded spot in Adelaide River a telegraph hill with panoramic views and the distant cell is firing out dog-leg bolts from the base of a vast cloud formation. We eventually turn around and realise more action is developing behind us.

Fuck me dead! he yells. Big, massive, monster doggies its going off tap! Owen is broadcasting the the scene to his Facebook Live followers and his tearaway enthusiasm belies his otherwise mild nature.

Read more: