Wow—the upper low south of L.A. on Thursday had enough ooomph to trigger high-based thunderstorms near the Palos Verdes Peninsula around midnight. These intensified and moved northwest over the Santa Monica Bay, and provided a spectacular late night lightning display for a couple of hours! And, I was extremely fortunate to be scheduled as weather observer at LAX from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. Thursday night/Friday morning! I had a front row seat from the observation deck of the control tower, and I had my tripod and camera with me, thank goodness. Here are the best of the bunch —- the detailed account is below!
I have worked part-time as a certified weather observer for about four years at Van Nuys Airport (VNY) and Los Angeles International AP (LAX). Typically, I am scheduled only one or two shifts per month at LAX, and that shift is usually a daytime shift. But, on August 14th, I had to be at LAX at 11 p.m. for the midnight shift. Usually, the weather here in summer is extremely benign, and all one has to be concerned with as a weather observer is the low cloudiness that tends to cling to the coastline. But, an upper circulation was approaching Southern California from the south, bringing with it some mid-level moisture and some unstable air, so there was an outside chance of some high-based thunderstorms overnight. It seems like 98 times out of 100 that nothing interesting happens when there is a slight chance of thunderstorms for our coastal sections. In fact, in my four years as an observer, I had yet to actually observe a lightning flash while on duty! And, I can probably count on one hand the number of times that I have witnessed a spectacular nighttime/summertime lightning display locally in the past 20 years. Nevertheless, a photographer must be prepared for the unexpected! I worked at Albertsons 1 to 10 p.m. on Thursday, went home to grab my camera bags and tripod, and headed to LAX.
It was a little humid, but there were only a few piddly altocumulus around on my 40-minute drive from Westlake Village to LAX. As I approached LAX, a scattered to broken deck of low clouds materialized…same old story, it seemed. I issued a “SPECI” (special) observation shortly after 11 p.m. as the low cloud deck was a little below 1000 feet. I watched the local TV news and weather, and, yes, there was still that outside chance for thunderstorms overnight, but nothing was developing yet. That was at 11:20 p.m. My camera bag and tripod were on the floor, and I didn’t think there would be much to shoot on this shift.
I went down from the weather office (on the 19th floor of the control tower) to the 16th floor observation deck at 11:45 p.m. The low cloud deck remained broken, with about 5/8 coverage. Above that was some mid-level cloudiness, but is was difficult to see. As I turned to go back inside the tower, I caught a flash to the south, towards Palos Verdes—–YES!! A thunderstorm had developed! I rushed into the office and noted in the remarks of the hourly observation that there was lightning to the distant south of the station. (“Distant” implies that the activity is more than ten miles away). I checked the radar scan, and the Santa Ana Mountains radar showed a small, young cell quite close to Palos Verdes, and moving northwest. I called my friend Curt Kaplan of the NWS in Oxnard to let him know about the lightning, and then called my co-worker “John” at Van Nuys Airport. He was watching the activity to his south, too, though it was farther away. He didn’t have the low clouds intervening, though, and he said that the lightning was becoming increasingly active! I rushed back down the stairs to the observation deck at 11:57 p.m. I took a look to the south and southwest, and there was indeed plenty of lightning in the clouds above the marine layer stratus. Fortunately, the stratus was breaking up some, too. Then, a brilliant CG crashed to the earth maybe five miles to the south, towards Redondo Beach! That was not distant! I rushed back up the stairs and issued a SPECI observation which said that LAX was now experiencing a thunderstorm, with frequent lightning south and southwest. I grabbed my camera and tripod and blasted back down the stairs, and set up on the 16th-floor platform. Very nice cloud-to-ground lightning strikes were occurring about one or two every minute to my southwest and west now, approximately four to eight miles away. The thunder was loud enough to hear over the continuous and normal airport roar. There was still some low cloudiness, and these clouds blocked part of the bolts on their way to the ocean. That was a little irritating, but the low clouds added somewhat of a cool dimension and color to the shots.
Two or three thunderstorm cells developed near Palos Verdes and moved northwest over Santa Monica Bay, towards Oxnard. My view from LAX was excellent, and there was only brief light rain and no wind. All I had to do was to get the focus and composition and exposure settings right, and to click away! The foreground was relatively bright what with all of the airport lights. With my ISO at 100 and aperture around f7 to f8, I could take exposures of about 6 to 12 seconds duration. The nice CGs occurred frequently enough so that I was able to catch a good one every minute or two. At 12:45 a.m. I had to take another observation —- not much had changed since the SPECI, with a thunderstorm at the AP and frequent lightning to the southwest and west, moving northwest. From 1 a.m. to 1:40 a.m. I continued to shoot, as the cells grew a little more distant. The low clouds cleared nicely, too, but around 1:40 a.m. the close CGs seemed to cease. There were still some distant CGs to the WNW, towards Oxnard.
I continued the thunderstorm at LAX for the 1:50 a.m. observation, and then took it out in a special about ten minutes later. There was still some lightning, but it was all distant west and northwest now, and the radar showed a pronounced weakening trend. The show was over, and it was time to check out my shots and to post them on Stormbruiser!