A weird and wild year of Wyoming weather continues. As summer transitions into fall, the skies are filling with clouds full of precipitation, often accompanied by thunder.
And where there’s thunder, there’s lighting.
Noted Wyoming photographer Dave Bell told Cowboy State Daily on Tuesday that he was enjoying a mild, partly sunny day in Sublette County when he noticed a storm brewing on the horizon Sunday evening.
“I saw this cloud coming in and rapidly building. That was the start of the storm. It took about an hour to roll over us, and I thought we were done,” he said.
Bell packed up all his camera equipment and called it a night. But around 9 p.m., he noticed flashes outside.
“I went, ‘Holy crap, we’re not done yet.’ And that’s when it really exploded,” he said.
The intense lightning storm continued for more than an hour. Bell said he got multiple photographs with four or five lightning bolts in one shot, something he’d never seen before.
By 9:45 p.m., there was lightning on every side of Bell’s home. He was particularly impressed by the amount of spider lightning, which are long flashes of lightning that travel horizontally on the underside of the clouds.
“I’d not sure I’ve seen such a display of spider lightning as we saw that night. That teamed with the bolts made it just an incredible evening,” he said.
All Spark But No Fire
Cowboy State Daily meteorologist Don Day said you need a thunderstorm to get lightning. However, it wasn’t just one storm that put on the lightning show.
“What I think put on the display was that it wasn’t an isolated thunderstorm. There were several thunderstorms lined up in a frontal system that were all very active with lightning,” he said.
There have been more thunderstorms this year than in recent years partly because Wyoming is coming out of an intense three-year drought, Day said. Everything’s still fairly wet at a time of year when it's easy for wildfires to spark and grow.
“Lightning starts a lot of wildfires in the West, and then tend to do it as this time of year because you naturally start to trend drier,” he said. “The good news is there was quite a bit of rain with these thunderstorms. And a lot of times that will put out any lightning-started fires.”
Also, most of the lightning strikes that start wildfires come from isolated thunderstorms, which are generally more common in Wyoming.
Bell confirmed that more than an inch of rain accompanied the thunderstorms that night. If anything started, it didn’t spread and was quickly put out.
Safely Enjoy The Show
So long as thunderstorms bring plenty of lightning and precipitation, there’s a much lower chance of wildfires. So, Wyomingites can enjoy watching these spectacles light up the sky as long as they do so safely.
“Lightning injuries and kills more people than anybody really thinks,” Day said. “Where we live, with the open spaces and lack of trees, lightning is definitely a hazard. If there’s a lot of lightning around, you’ll be safer indoors than anywhere else. Seek shelter, stay inside, stay away from fences and the highest point. If you’re on a lake or reservoir, get off the water. Just trying to avoid being the highest point wherever you are.”
If you are at a safe distance to observe a lightning storm, Bell has a few suggestions to capture the moment forever with cameras.
“Open your lens up to the fastest speed possible and be able to shoot long exposures,” he said. “I was shooting 10-, 20-, 30-second exposures. I took roughly 150 pictures. When the picture’s done, you hit the shutter again as quickly as you can and keep shooting.”
With the right setting and equipment, anyone can capture some lightning, but the most essential tool requires a bit of effort.
“The key is patience. It’s that simple,” he said. “Patience, patience, patience.”