Lightning and Thunderstorm Gallery by Susan Strom

Welcome to the photojournalism gallery of Susan Strom.
"My passion is to show the natural, unchanged image. A storm is here for
just a few minutes then gone. Part of the joy of the chase is to observe
how a storm interacts with the terrain and document it accurately on film.
Chasing storms is hard work, covering long distances. Despite the heat,
blowing sand and critter encounters, pulling a lightning bolt out of a storm
and into my camera is a labor of love."

All images and text Copyright Susan Strom, United States of America.
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"American Flag (Wild and Free)"
Fountain Hills, Arizona

After trying for this image for several years, a rare opportunity
to photograph the American Flag accompanied by lightning
presented itself in 2004. Just for a few moments the strikes were in position
while the Flag, lit up by a lamp underneath, was pointed in the right direction.
Sand in the air, blown about by the Sonoran Desert monsoon, cast the wine-colored glow.

"Forest's Edge"
Highway 260 on the Mogollon Rim, Arizona

Like the edge of a giant tableland, the Mogollon Rim is an abrupt escarpment
that runs approximately 200 miles across Arizona. The spectacular 2,100 ft
dropoff traverses a seemingly endless Ponderosa pine forest that spans
between the small mountain towns of Payson and Show Low, Arizona.

"The Rim", as it is known locally, made headlines in 2002 when Arizona's largest
wildfire erupted into a 470,000-acre blaze. Ironically, lightning
was not to blame. The Rodeo-Chediski fire was human-caused.

Electrical storms, however, can be incredibly fierce in the Mogollon Rim country.
Actually, the lightning I have seen on The Rim even exceeds what I personally have
witnessed in Tornado Alley. Up on the promontories there really is no place
to go to get away from the lightning. Forest debris, pine litter and branches
also become airborne during storms. Honestly, there is no such thing as being
overly cautious on the Mogollon Rim. Never feel silly. Even as an experienced
stormchaser, I too have called it quits to seek shelter inside a building, even if
a small roadhouse was all I could find. Nature calls the shots up here,
that is just how it is.

This Rim is the same one that famed western author Zane Gray wrote about
and called home. It is totally untamed, and despite being a tigress in the summertime,
I am drawn to all seasons of The Rim's wilderness.

"Gold Strike"
Goldfield (ghost town), Arizona

Goldfield ghost town, at the base of the imposing Superstition Mountain,
is one of my favorite places to shoot storms. I go there frequently
to shoot the lightning, take in the Old West feeling, and admire the looming
Superstition Mountain, birthplace of the Apache thunder god and site of famous
Lost Dutchman legend and lore.

When you go, drive around to the very back (right), and stop into the Mammoth Saloon
circa 1882. You may hear country music on a Saturday night. Leave room in the
"parking" lot for horses hitched to their posts in front of the wood-plank patio.
The people there are wonderful and also quite frankly serve the best burger in Arizona,
on red checkered tablecloths by western-style lantern light. I enjoy the place
particularly at night, when the ghost town is quiet and the tourists are gone.

If you're lucky, you might catch a storm too, over the headframe of the Mammoth Mine
or the mountain as above. Watch for snakes, watch the stars, and admire Superstition
Mountain in front of you.

Is Goldfield haunted? Actually, this is a question I asked too, as I often
shoot from there at night. I was told yes, by a worker who had some experiences,
on quiet nights near the saloon around closing. is a ghost town,
it wouldn't feel quite right without the extra company ;)

How to find Goldfield: Out of Apache Junction, Arizona, head east on Highway AZ 88,
The Apache Trail. Remember to visit the Lost Dutchman State Park just up the road
as well, it is spectacular. If you have time, drive (carefully) further up Highway 88
about another 12 (curvy) miles and see beautiful Canyon Lake and the rest of the
crazy terrain.

"All Wild"
Fountain Hills, Arizona

A massive ground strike simultaneously connects with two small buttes
in McDowell range near Fountain Hills. I shot this photo from
the Fish Creek Vista Point at Eagle Mountain, overlooking the lights
of Scottsdale and Mesa, Arizona. The crash of thunder was incredible.

"Water & Fire"
Fountain Hills, Arizona

Starting in early July, a wind shift brings moisture from Mexico into Arizona.
Daytime summer temperatures in the deserts can reach 110-115 F or higher.
Mountain ranges, monsoon moisture and daytime heating aid thunderstorm development,
leading to light shows like this one over Fountain Hills Lake, Arizona.

"Call of the Desert"
Central Deserts of Arizona

A remote desert range beckons me to come closer. The roads worsen and torrential
rains begin to pound, but the lightning interacting with this mysterious
dreamscape creates a scene I can't resist. Oddly, the more I drive, the further
the mountain seems to appear. Vast desert landscapes definitely play with
a person's sense of scale. I found myself chasing a storm and a mountain at the same time.
Strangely, during winter months when I visit similar desert ranges to hike,
the peaks look so navigable from a distance. Only upon approaching does their
titanic size become apparent. Once inside, the sweeping vistas are
simply staggering. In this type of backcountry, the soaring cliffs
can make a person feel mind-numbingly small, and daily minutia that people
often think is so important tends to float away with the wind.

"Chance Meeting"
Arizona Desert

I had been trying for lightning with the Moon in the picture for over 7 years.
In early September of 2006, in disbelief I saw it starting to line up
in the Arizona Desert so I moved faster than ever to get into position.
I had only fired two or three shots and the window of opportunity
was gone just like that, but not before I was able to capture
the ephemeral beauty of the Moon's brief appearance during a lightning storm.

Lower Verde Valley, Arizona

How do Sonoran Desert monsoon rains fall? Typically, rain bursts forth
in an isolated or scattered deluge, like this one in the open desert
of the Lower Verde River Valley in 2007. Desert monsoon rains do not
fall as drizzle from stratiform clouds for days, but rather in a torrential
fashion in short bursts from convective systems.

"Flash Flood!"
Between Fountain Hills and Rio Verde, AZ

Part of the desert experience is the flash flood, like this one on Sept 9, 2006.
An inch of rain can fall from a desert storm in 15 minutes. Where does all that
water go? It rushes down the arroyos (desert washes) and over roadways in a torrent!
Crossing flash floodwaters is extremely hazardous and ill-advised. Every monsoon season,
drivers tempt fate and get their vehicles stalled out, stuck, or worse, start
floating away, resulting in the need for a swift water rescue (Google Arizona's
"Stupid Motorist's Law" sometime).

Flash flooding brings multiple dangers like water's weight and pressure on a vehicle,
floating debris such as logs, prickly cactus, snakes, pieces of barbed wire
ranch fence (see the milkshake in the picture). Water's speed and its ability
to morph into a raging river within minutes presents another hazard. Fortunately,
when drivers wait it out, waters can recede quickly. Just turn around, go get
a cup of coffee, and wait for the waters to subside. A much better choice!

"Sky Summit"
Usery Mountains, Arizona

Convection takes place, forming thunderstorm towers over the Usery Mountains
in Arizona. The tower looks like a mountain all its own, temporary and ephemeral,
but at least there for a few minutes for me to take a photograph.

"Lucky Tree"
Fountain Hills, Arizona

Trees are often favorite targets of lightning strikes, therefore
under a tree is no place to stand during a thunderstorm.
At midnight on a summer night, this lucky tree avoided that fate.

"Lace Tree"
Mazatzal Range/Fountain Hills, Arizona

A manicured palo verde tree creates a black lacy silhouette
in front of the approaching storm.

Chandler, Arizona (left)
Gila River Indian Community, Arizona (right two)

Sand/dust storms, which are built from the outflow boundaries of collapsing
thunderstorms, occur in the Southwest United States and also in the Middle East.
It is called haboob, a word derived from the Arabic habb meaning "wind".
Standing at the edge, I look up at the sand walls and just let them pass over me.
I cover my face and eyes. Inside there is thick sand and dust, hot wind and blowing debris.
Driving can be treacherous; some wisely choose to wait until visibility improves.
There can be lightning nearby as well.

I do enjoy desert sandstorms. I think they are fascinating and what comes next
is almost always thunder, lightning and rain.

Fountain Hills, Arizona

A thunderbolt strikes the open desert east of Fountain Hills at approximately 1am.
In Phoenix, located in South Central Arizona USA, the Monsoon officially
begins when the local average dewpoint temperature reaches 55 degrees
for three days in a row. This typically happens in early to mid July.

"The Edge Complex"
Tonto National Forest, Arizona

The 71,635-acre Edge Complex fire began July 15, 2005. It was borne of a monsoon
lightning strike 23 miles south of Payson, Arizona. The untamed wildfire roared
up the canyons with the aid of the hot, dry wind.

"Storm Highway"
Apache Junction, Arizona

A mountaintop strike lights up thunderclouds produced by the Arizona Monsoon.
Storms fired this night over Highway 60 leading off into the Superstition Mountains
east of Apache Junction and Gold Canyon in southcentral Arizona.

"Blue Motion"
Emporia, Kansas

Twice in my life have I ever seen a sky so blue. The first time was in Idaho.
The second time was on this springtime afternoon in Kansas. The unspoiled air
churned into severe storms, spun over the prairie, and finally eluded me
somewhere outside Kansas City.

"Thunder's Edge"
Goodland, Kansas

Kansas is home to some of the best stormchasing on Earth. It is one of my favorite
states because it is green, full of wildlife and the views go on forever.
I like the people in Kansas too. I was once even greeted in person by Dorothy!
(True! "Dorothy's House", a tribute to the Wizard of Oz, is located in Liberal, Kansas.)

"CG meets Factory"
Casa Grande/Stanfield, Arizona

A massive cloud-to-ground strike completely overshadows
and industrial fertilizer plant near Casa Grande/Stanfield
in the Central Deserts of Arizona, giving what is actually
quite a large factory a sense of scale. A cloud-to-ground strike
is simply called "CG" in stormchaser lingo.

"Cloud Castle"
Globe, Arizona

A thunderhead builds over 700-year-old Salado Culture archeological site
Besh-Ba-Gowah near Globe, Arizona. The stone structure is beautiful by sun, moon,
or rain. I was informed by the Apache that the name Besh-Ba-Gowah
refers to "metal camp" or "house of steel". Treasured cultural artifacts
and rooms on display give insight into the way the Salado people lived.

"Western Skylights"
Benson, Arizona

The Arizona western sky displays town lights, sunset and lightning.

"Tesla's Dream"
Casa Grande, Arizona (center)
Carefree, Arizona (l and r)

Ever wonder what Nikola Tesla, inventor, electrical engineer and scientist
dreamed about? Perhaps it looked something like this raw electricity taking place
near Casa Grande and Carefree, Arizona.

"Coming Over"
Great Plains of the United States

A shelf cloud quickly comes over the prairies on a day of strong storms
in Kansas and Nebraska.

Fountain Hills, Arizona

A classic "CG" (cloud-to-ground bolt) strikes the desert during the overnight.

"Twist of Lime"
Woodward, Oklahoma

A rotating mesocyclone hovers over a vehicle yard in the Oklahoma panhandle.
The owner of the lot was working in his shed, as I approached to ask if
I could drive to the back of his property to photograph what was overhead.
Curiously, he said, "Photograph what?" I pointed up as he realized the meso,
warned on as tornadic, was crossing right over his property while he was working.
Producing large hail, this storm took on the characteristic green sky
of severe storms in the Plains. I call them "margaritas with a twist".

Mazatzal Range, Arizona

Mountains assist in the formation of thunderstorms. Mountains
naturally lift the air, which aids in cloud development. Clear examples
of "orographic convection" are seen in the Desert Southwest,
a land that presents dramatic fluctuation from valley to range.

Usery Pass and Superstition Range, Arizona

A jagged red mesa invites a lightning strike as the Superstition Mountains
loom in the background. The 160,000-acre behemoth Superstition Range is one of
the world's most mysterious places. In 1891, Jacob Waltz, known as "The Dutchman",
supposedly took the location of a rich gold cache to his grave. Some say it is
lying in the shadow of Weaver's Needle, a jutting spire visible from some points
in the range. Others say the stash doesn't exist at all, or that the fortune in gold
was brought there from somewhere else and within the mountain it remains.
What do you believe?

I can tell you what I have found at various times within the Superstitions.
Patience during a sunset might reward a photographer with intense moments of color
like this one in 2001, if the photographer acts fast. Arizona provides the color,
and on a different night in 2003, put on a good lightning show too.
The intensity of the changing rocks is only outdone by some of the foliage...
the blooms of the fiery magenta hedgehog cactus, found growing on the alluvial
fans in the springtime. Stunning and worth the work to get there as well, are rock art
petroglyphs, carved into the vertical interior cliff walls by ancient peoples.
(Never disturb rock art or artifacts...very bad luck). One day in March 2005, there was
very good luck in the Superstition Range. A party of hikers miscalculated the scale
of the desert (easy to do) and ran out of water. One was already red-faced
and fatigued, the situation was bad. Very fortunately, I was able to purify 3 gallons of
water from a small, clear perennial stream (lucky that was there!) and water
purification tablets I always keep with me in my backpack's emergency kit.
That day, what could have been serious turned out just about as lucky
as finding the Dutch guy's gold.

"Royal Blue"
Fountain Hills, Arizona

A desert foothills thunderstorm produces cloud-to-ground activity.
The lightning photographer follows the storms as they build and dissipate throughout
the night. During the desert monsoon, this process happens so quickly that the
photographer moves about to several vantage points over the course of an evening.
When one storm dies out, adjacent storms on "flanking lines" often begin to take shape.
Observation will eventually teach the chaser what kind of lightning bolts to likely
expect at the different stages in the life cycle. Although nothing
is predictable, there are patterns.

"When Thor Plays"
Mazatzal Mountains, Arizona

Strikes cover the mountains in the Mazatzal range, a rugged wilderness
that lies between Fountain Hills and Payson, Arizona.
Thor is the thunder god of Norsk mythology. When his hammer came down
a crash of thunder was heard. Thor was a defender, showing particular
wrath towards liars. The word "Mazatzal" (pronounced by local Arizonans
"Mad-as-zal") is a Mexican Indian word meaning "land of deer".

Oklahoma Panhandle

A tail cloud forms from a mesocyclone in the Oklahoma Panhandle at sunset.
Tail clouds are part of supercell structure, along with other lowerings such
as wall clouds and scud clouds.

Fountain Hills, Arizona

A thunderstorm tries to steal the show during a Fourth of July fireworks
celebration over Fountain Hills Lake. After the finale, the storms didn't
waste any time coming into town with full intensity.

"Electric Blue"
Rio Verde, Arizona

A lone thunderstorm skirts through the Rio Verde, a desert foothills town
on the Verde River in southcentral Arizona.

McDowell Mountains, Arizona

Lightning "feathers" crawl across the sky over the McDowell Mountains
near Scottsdale. Lightning can take on many shapes, including single cloud-to-ground
strikes, multiple branches, curved loops, sailor-knots and long, crawling veins that
spread out through the sky. There are other forms even more rare, such as
ribbon lightning or the elusive ball lighting.
Just before taking this picture, some kind of large flying critter
landed on my arm. Before I could think, I grabbed it and tossed it
back into the air, and off he went! The critter factor in desert chasing
is definitely to be expected.

"Desert Rainbow"
Scottsdale, Arizona

This rainbow in Scottsdale was so close to me, it almost looked touchable.

"Snowbow; Snow Veils"
Four Peaks Wilderness, Arizona

It was a long, freezing wait in the Four Peaks Wilderness, but my snowclouds
finally got the light they needed to produce these colors and a snowbow too.
I'm not sure if "snowbow" is a technical term or not, but that is what I named it.
The image at right shows the delicate veils of snow that lightly touch
the Giant Saguaro cacti reaching skyward.

Scottsdale, Arizona

A cloud-to-ground (CG) bolt strikes over high tension wires during a severe
monsoon storm.

Benson, Arizona

The naked eye often sees a fuzzy, split second flash of light. Only when photographed
do lightning bolts reveal the labyrinth of details.

Scottsdale, Arizona

Lightning dwarfs the roads and intersections.

"Metro Lights"
Phoenix, Arizona; Scottsdale Airpark, Arizona

Lightning strikes over downtown Phoenix, just west of Sky Harbor
International Airport's glowing matrix of city lights.
At the Scottsdale Airport NE of Phoenix, a storm visits the lighted runway.

"Sign of Rain"
Fountain Hills, Arizona

A lunar halo, like this one in Arizona, often signals coming rain.

"Amethyst Cloud"
Fountain Hills Lake, Arizona

Nighttime brings an amethyst-colored cloud sparkling with lightning
over Fountain Hills Lake. The color reminds me of a special stone
found in Arizona called Four Peaks amethyst.

"Desert Traveler"
over Mesa, Arizona

A strike reaches out an extended branch as it cascades over the desert
between Fountain Hills and Mesa, Arizona.

"Dark Beauty"
Sawtooth Mountains, Central Deserts of Arizona

Nightfall and a summer storm create a bewitching scene over the Sawtooth Mountains,
a jagged range in the Central Deserts of Arizona. I go back to the Sawtooths
again and again, intrigued by their shape and moods.

"Blue Flame"
Benson, Arizona

Clouds swirl in southeast Arizona.

"Fire Ridge"
McDowell Mountains, Arizona

A late June storm, early for the season, kicked off multiple ground strikes
in the McDowell range.

Gila Bend, Arizona

The Central Deserts, an arid region between Phoenix, Tucson, and Yuma
see a share of rain during the summer monsoon. This air strike occurred
over a remote mountain range outside Gila Bend.

"Following the Rain"
North Scottsdale, Arizona

Although lightning can strike anywhere, I have learned that lightning
often occurs near the raincore of a storm as well. For this reason, when I
feel a drop of rain during a thunderstorm, I move immediately.
Does that sound funny...a cautious stormchaser who seeks protection?
Not at all! Stormchasers, particularly the experienced, can be some of the
most respectful of Nature's power.

"Bolts from the Blue"
Fountain Hills, Arizona

These wayward bolts were obviously drawn to something outside the main strike area.
Lightning can extend even 10 miles from the cloud that spawned it. Sometimes
the only guarantee in nature is the unexpected.

"The Right Direction"
Ulysses, Kansas

What every stormchaser hopes to see...a nice, clean road leading to a storm.

"Hot Dates"
Maricopa, Arizona

One of my favorite desert trees is the Date Palm, originally from the Middle East.
There are thousands of the trees doing well in the Arizona and California deserts.
The date palms provide a beautiful shape as well as luscious dates
when they're cultivated. I have been trying for lightning with the date palms
and in August 2008 was able to capture them together in the town of Maricopa, Arizona
in the Central Deserts. This grove was planted for ornamentation so were lit
from beneath. There was an intense electrical storm lighting up the sky
just behind the grove.

P.S. If you have never tried dates before, I encourage you to taste them.
Medjool dates are extra special, the kind to put out for guests. There are
many other wonderful kinds, also grown in Arizona and California. Learning
about them and tasting them is a nice desert experience.

"Misty Mountain"
Fountain Hills, Arizona

A huge, branching flash illuminates a saguaro cactus-covered ridge.
The 40 to 50 ft. Giant Saguaro, a protected desert plant, is an icon
of the Desert Southwest. It is also sometimes called "Sentinel of the Desert"
as it sometimes takes lightning strikes on behalf of everything else.

"Classic HP"
Royal, Nebraska

The American prairie is home to some of the most severe storms
on Earth. This classic HP (high-precipitation) supercell thunderstorm
spun like a top over northeast Nebraska as the NOAA weather radio
crackled with tornado warnings...the sound of May/June in the Plains.

"September Moon"
Fountain Hills, Arizona

This is one of the reasons I photograph lightning. This late September bolt
produced an absolute flurry of electricity, which the naked eye couldn't see
or enjoy for very long. To my eye, just a fuzzy flash occurred. My camera
tells the real truth, as the Moon tries to peek from behind the clouds too.

"High Energy"
Scottsdale, Arizona

Lightning bolts volley around buildings and date palms in Scottsdale.
Early September storms can be impressive, throwing down CG strikes like these
accompanied by torrential rainfall that cleans the air. It was a beautiful storm
just prior to autumn.

"Wild Red Mountain"
Southcentral Arizona

Like a giant sparkler, a dramatic strike bursts on the scene over Red Mountain,
a desert formation northeast of Phoenix, Arizona along Hwy 87.

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