lunes, 20 de agosto de 2012

Chasing Lightning

“Tim Samaras has a storm in his headlights and the world’s fastest high-resolution camera in the trailer behind. Can it catch lightning in the act?

By George Johnson
Photograph by Carsten Peter

It’s a good thing there’s a rumble strip running along the shoulder, because Tim Samaras can’t keep his eyes on the road. It’s summer, and he’s driving a big, black Denali pickup pockmarked by hail and pulling a 16-foot trailer outfitted with high-speed cameras and other electronic gear. A laptop computer is mounted inside the cab to the right of the driver’s seat, and with one hand on the steering wheel and the other on a trackball, Samaras is mousing his way around a weather radar map of the Oklahoma Panhandle. A blob of colors—red in the middle surrounded like an oil slick by orange, yellow, green, and blue—shows a thunderstorm forming northeast of Boise City.
“It’s starting to spit out some pretty good lightning,” he says, looking at the little yellow crosses popping up on the radar. He glances again at the laptop, where another window is tracking our position with GPS. Then comes the buzzing of his tires against the rumble strip, and he calmly steers the rolling laboratory back onto the road.

A cloud-to-ground lightning strike severs the sky near Los Lunas, New Mexico. Tim Samaras and his crew chased the slow-moving storm cell until they ran out of road, and now can only watch as it moves on. New Mexico's sparse road system makes lightning chasing difficult. Far easier to navigate are the tight grids of farm roads crisscrossing the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles.

Guided by the laptop weather map reflected in his window, Tim Samaras rushes to catch up to a dying thunderstorm. He hopes to be the first to photograph the split-second event that triggers a lightning strike.

A rainbow signals the end of another chase.

As he waits for a wave of thunderstorms to form along Colorado's Front Range, Samaras readies the 1,600-pound camera he calls the Kahuna.

The setting sun behind them and a rainbow pinned on the eastern horizon, the crew chases a storm north of Cheyenne, Wyoming. The storm was moving southeast at some 40 miles an hour—too fast to provide an opportunity for the Kahuna.

“Where to aim the camera? This is always the trick,” Samaras says. The Kahuna is too massive to quickly reposition, so he needs to find a place where lightning is striking consistently in the same spot. Here he is aiming his Phantoms—extremely high-speed cameras that are still only a hundredth the speed of the Kahuna.

Pulling into Clayton, New Mexico, Samaras comes to the end of a 75-mile chase. “Whenever you see the rainbow, it's game over,” he says. By sunset another storm had erupted 50 miles to the south, and the crew was on the road until 1 a.m.

Taking aim at a storm with a laser, he waits for the right moment to fire up the camera. Too soon, and the device may overheat waiting for a lightning strike. Too late, and another opportunity is lost.

Horizontal, cloud-to-cloud lightning bolts—called anvil crawlers, for their tendency to “crawl” along the bottom of anvil-shaped storm clouds—light up the sky near Greensburg, Kansas.

A ground fire ignited by a lightning storm near Elephant Butte, New Mexico, paints the horizon with brown smoke. At right, another cloud-to-ground strike flashes through a shaft of rain.

Back on the highway with the Kahuna in tow, Samaras hunts for the elusive shot. This summer he's on the chase again, with new, nimbler equipment.
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