As the planet's most powerful type of thunderstorm, a supercell does whatever it wants. Some opt for a mad dash across the landscape, while others prefer the lower-profile life of a homebody. Either way, they fit a lot of drama — and danger — into an existence that typically only lasts two to six hours.
A stationary supercell in South Dakota recently offered a stunning example, letting photographer Nicolaus Wegner capture its growth in a time-lapse video (above) without having to chase it — or vice versa. Its lack of mobility may have made it slightly less dangerous for Wegner, aside from the threat of lightning, but it also gave him a rare opportunity to record a supercell from start to finish.
"I was fortunate enough to have the entire event unfold right in front of me over the course of several hours," Wegner writes on Vimeo, where his video has been viewed 44,000 times in about a week.
Filmed June 1, the video opens with footage of the young storm vacuuming up warm, moist air from below to fuel its growth. While supercells are often nudged along by wind, this one seems anchored in place as its rotating air mass — known as a mesocyclone — mushrooms into a monster. It steadily tightens into more intricate and imposing shapes, and by the 1:00 point it's like a wispy alien spaceship glowing eerily from within. As with most nature videos of this quality, it's best watched in HD and full-screen modes (although feel free to mute the music, which is a bit repetitive).
Aside from its obvious beauty, what makes a supercell super? The rotation starts with wind shear, slicing air into layers and forming a horizontal axis that's then tilted vertically by updrafts. These updrafts exceed 100 mph in some cases, helping supercells and multicells grow 10 to 100 times more energetic than a typical thunderstorm, which can already release as much energy as a 20-kiloton nuclear explosion.
"Analogous to cancer cells in a living organism, supercells differ from ordinary thunderstorms in that the rotation of their updraft enables them to overcome the self-limiting mechanisms that bring demise to regular storms," explains the U.S. Storm Prediction Center (SPC). "Once formed, a supercell may perpetuate itself for an appreciable length of time, even upon encountering an environment that is hostile to the development of new storms."
On top of making storms stronger and hardier, vertical rotation can also help a supercell produce one of the most fearsome weather events on Earth: tornadoes. Most "strong to violent" tornadoes are associated with supercells, the SPC notes, although the conditions have to be just right. Wegner's stationary supercell didn't spawn a tornado, but it made for mesmerizing video nonetheless.
"Truly one of the most beautiful natural weather phenomena I have ever witnessed," Wegner writes.
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