In the Movie “Back to the Future”, when Doc Brown tells Marty McFly that the only way to get him home from 1955 is to harness the power of lightning in order to charge up the flux capacitor in the Delorean it would have been a much easier endeavor had they been in Tucson. Tucson, AZ is considered to be one of the top places in the U.S. for seeing amazing lightning.
In fact we literally “catch” lightning here; statistically speaking anyway.
The National Lightning Detection Network is Headquartered in Tucson, AZ. The sytem consists of over one hundred remote sensing stations across the United States that instantly detect the electromagnetic signals of lightning strikes. The NLDN is able to send the data collected from these sensors to the Network Control Center operated by Vaisala Inc. here in Tucson. The Network Control Center is then able to process the data from the sensors and communicate the lightning strike’s location, time, and polarity to users of the network all over the world.
Of course there are plenty of folks who will argue that Florida is the lightning capital of America, and it is true that Florida receives a greater number of “Cloud-to-Ground” Flashes (Weather-ese for what we think of as a traditional lightning strike) but the Sonoran desert has a particular atmosphere conducive to being able to easily see lightning, as well as photograph its phenomenal presence. These conditions include the fact that Tucson is surrounded on all sides by substantial mountain ranges.
When the storm clouds hit the mountains they are slowed down and the mountains also cause the cloud banks to sit higher,they also allow a photographer to sit higher and capture a wider swath of sky. In addition, because of how the storm plays out in ‘pockets’ it is easier for a photographer to know where to aim in order to get a good shot.
Another factor in Tucson’s impressive lightning is the amount of precipitation found in the valley during the storm. Because the valley is a depression it holds moisture exceedingly well and this can cause lightning to gain a different color than the white or blue it would normally take on. One of the most commonly seen alternate colors is Pink. Pink Lightning is a particular favorite of “Lightning Chasers” (folks who travel around in attempt to capture lightning strikes on camera), as it looks especially dramatic in pictures.
Couple all of these elements for creating lightning with the Sonoran Desert’s unique backdrop of Saguaro Cacti, Bluffs, Ocotillo, and Famous Sunsets and you have a photographers recipe for the Perfect Storm.
Photographers like Adam Hartnett, who has been taking full advantage of this year’s active monsoon season.
We asked Adam a few questions about his experience with Tucson’s Lightning.
How long have you been doing photography?
“I have been doing it one way or another since I was a young. I took a photography class my freshman year of high school, back when we still developed film in a dark room, and have been actively taking photos ever since. I do it mostly as a hobby, but have sold a few prints here and there.”
Did you start taking an interest in lightning as a subject right away or did that come later? What first ‘sparked’ your interest in trying to capture lightning in photos?
“The way I got into lightning was more about my interest in our sunsets. Tucson is famous for its sunsets, as you know, and I happened to be out trying to photograph a particularly great sunset with the monsoon clouds and as it set, the clouds grew pretty quickly, as they do here, and the lightning started. The storm was still a bit distant from where I was and so I stuck around and started shooting the lightning. I had never done it before and didn’t really get a lot of great pictures, but a few of them came out surprisingly well and I was pretty much hooked. I don’t follow it around per say, but I’m always ready with a camera during the [monsoon] Season.”
What do you think makes lightning a fascinating subject and what is unique about photographing it in and around Tucson?
“I think lightning has always held a certain fascination for people. I mean it is this huge jolt of electrical energy that is both beautiful and terrifying. It can cause a lot of damage, it’s so powerful. I think that is one of the reasons you see it in ancient mythologies so much. You have this giant phenomenon in the sky and don’t really know quite what to make of it. There is something very spiritual about the force behind lightning and it’s place in nature. In Tucson, I think, that with the monsoons, we are just so fortunate to have the right kind of conditions to get some really large strikes, and lots of them. Even if you don’t get every shot you have a lot of opportunity of trial and error. As I’ve gotten more experienced with it I have an easier time of getting what I want out of a shot, but Tucson is a great place for hobbyists and beginners to try their hand at it.”
Have you had any particularly ‘Striking’ experience with photographing lightning? Any close calls with being hit by it?
“No, luckily I can usually get the types of photos I take while the storms are still relatively far enough away from me that I don’t feel much danger. I did have an experience once where I had gone up towards Sabino Canyon and was pulled of this shoulder for quite some time taking photos. It hadn’t been raining particularly hard, but it had been pretty steady. When I was ready to leave I encountered a pretty flooded area and had to sit in my car for a while until the water died down, the wash that ran across the road had become a raging river.”
If you were to give advice to fellow aspiring lightning photographers what would it be?
“I would say to not get discouraged. Lightning is a tough subject because of the conditions and obviously because of it’s speed. Play around with it and have fun. Try different exposure settings and remember that you aren’t going to necessarily get amazing shots the first few times you try it, but you could, and that’s part of the fun too, the unpredictability of lightning. Again, in Tucson, it’s great because you have a lot more opportunity that a lot of other places.”
If You would like to see one of nature’s most amazing light shows then don’t shy away from Tucson during the summer. While it can get hot, the monsoons definitely cool it down, and provide for one of the most ‘electrifying’ experiences in America.
For information on where to stay during your visit or for more information and photos of Tucson’s Monsoons and spectacular lightning click on the links below.