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The Majestic Beauty of Supercell Thunderstorms in Slow Motion

Growing up on the Great Plains of North Dakota, my neighbors and I would watch huge thunderstorms stride across the sky as if they were moving in slow motion. I would stand transfixed, awaiting the moment when the clear blue heavens would be wrapped in black and, for several perpetual minutes, the atmosphere would turn into a vacuum, a sanctuary void of sound. In that silence, the presence of everything.

Shortly thereafter, the squalls of wind would come — sometimes a funnel cloud or a tornado would form — followed by a downpouring of rain. Then the sun would pickle the sky with warm, rich shades of gold and hues of deep tangerine sometimes sprinkled with lavenders and cerulean blues.

Those are the essential moments when the land permeates your very being, compelling you to stop, to pay attention. The grandeur is intoxicating.

Chad Cowan captures this sense of nature’s wonder in his timelapse film, FractalChasing supercell thunderstorms and severe weather in June is best, he writes, because they are “more photogenic and slow moving” than in any other time of the year. He would know. Over the span of six years, he’s driven 100,000 miles across the United States — from my home state of North Dakota to Texas — documenting their full lifecycles on film:

“The project started out as wanting to be able to see the lifecycles of these storms, just for my own enjoyment and to increase my understanding of them. Over time, it morphed into an obsession with wanting to document as many photogenic supercells as I could, in as high a resolution as possible, as to be able to share with those who couldn’t see first-hand the majestic beauty that comes alive in the skies above America’s Great Plains every Spring.”

But might witnessing extreme weather also be an instruction on the imbalances in our own lives, and an invitation to acknowledge the dark beauty of our own natures?

“Supercell thunderstorms are a manifestation of nature’s attempt to correct an extreme imbalance. The ever ongoing effort to reach equilibrium, or entropy, is what drives all of our weather, and the force with which the atmosphere tries to correct this imbalance is proportional to the gradient. In other words, the more extreme the imbalance, the more extreme the storm.”

(h/t Gillian Gonda)

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