Jaw-Dropping Time-Lapse Video of a Rotating Supercell

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
June 14 2013 11:32 AM

Time-Lapse Video: The Magnificent Power of a Supercell

olbinski_supercell
Shortly after this was taken, the Chitauri came pouring out.

Video screenshot courtesy of Mike Olbinski

Stop whatever you are doing, make this full screen, and prepare to be awed: This time-lapse video of a supercell storm cloud rotating over Texas is far and away the most amazing thing you’ll see today.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

Yes, that’s real.

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A supercell is a rotating thundercloud; the spinning vortex in the middle is called a mesocyclone. Conditions need to be just so to create one. First you need a wind shear, where wind blows faster in one spot than another, so a blanket of air is flowing over another one. This sets up a rolling vortex, a horizontally rotating mass of air like the way a wave breaks when it gets to a beach. An updraft then lifts that vortex, which then spins vertically.

The warmer air in the vortex rises; this is called convection. If there’s a boundary layer of air above it, called a capping layer, it acts like a lid, preventing the vortex air from rising. It builds up power and can suddenly and explosively grow to a huge size. Wikipedia has a good description and diagrams of how this works.

Supercells generally form where there’s a lot of flat land to get that good horizontal flow first. Texas has that in abundance, which is why photographer Mike Olbinski went there in hopes of getting footage like this. (Read his description of his adventure on the Vimeo page for the video; it’s quite good.) Texas, it so happens, is roomy, so it took him four years to be at the right spot at the right time—in this case, June 3. Persistence paid off for him, and because he shared this terrifying beauty, it paid off for all of us. Olbinski has several other incredible storm-chasing photos on his website.

I’m fascinated by weather phenomena, and supercells like this are something I’d love a chance to see from close by … but not too close by. They can create havoc locally, with torrential downpours (that look like alien spaceworms blasting the Earth), severe lightning, and tornadoes. Given that, maybe video like this is satisfying enough for now.

Tip o’ the tornado cellar door to BABloggee Jeremy Huggins.

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