Photo kicks up vi­ral storm

Weather pho­tog­ra­pher cap­tures rare shot of su­per­cell, twin tor­na­does

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Ryan Parker ryan.parker@la­times.com

Hail as big as golf balls slammed into him as drench­ing rain fell, but none of that mat­tered. Weather pho­tog­ra­pher Kelly De­Lay sensed this was his mo­ment to cap­ture the kind of rare nat­u­ral phe­nom­e­non that fu­els the adren­a­line of a storm chaser.

And at 7:04 p.m. on June 4, De­Lay snapped the pic­ture.

“I called my wife and mother im­me­di­ately to tell them, ‘I got it,’ ” De­Lay said.

In me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal storm par­lance, what De­Lay got was a mas­sive su­per­cell for­ma­tion, an ex­tra­or­di­nary struc­ture so de­tailed that he was stunned when he stud­ied the photo two days later. One click on so­cial me­dia and a new storm erupted over how he cap­tured the im­age.

De­Lay, who built a box cam­era in sev­enth grade to take pic­tures of weather, has cap­tured stunning images of Mother Na­ture through the years, in­clud­ing one near Philip, S.D., in June 2012. That photo fea­tured a bright or­ange sky, il­lu­mi­nated by el­e­ments car­ried by winds from wild­fires in Colorado, with a storm above and a bolt of light­ning shoot­ing to­ward the cam­era.

But this shot was dif­fer­ent.

De­Lay called it his “uni­corn” shot. He had been seek­ing the elu­sive weather struc­ture since he started his ca­reer as a storm chaser six years ago.

“It’s a once-in-a-life­time im­age for me,” said De­Lay, 46.

The photo was taken on a Thurs­day, near Simla, Colo. The day be­fore, De­Lay said, he broke away from a group of storm-chaser friends in Wy­oming af­ter the se­vere weather failed to pro­duce good pic­tures.

Plan­ning his trip back home to his wife and daugh­ters in Dal­las, De­Lay de­cided to travel through Colorado, where weather mod­els showed a storm build­ing later in the day around Li­mon, about 90 miles east of Den­ver.

Com­puter-gen­er­ated data are a fan­tas­tic tool to track storms, but know­ing how to read the clouds is key to suc­cess, De­Lay said.

“Ex­pe­ri­ence is im­por­tant when you’re chas­ing,” he said.

A com­bi­na­tion of ex­pe­ri­ence and tech­nol­ogy led him to eastern Colorado, where an up­draft was oc­cur­ring.

A su­per­cell is a thun­der­storm with a deep, per­sis­tent ro­tat­ing up­draft.

Pho­tograph­ing the gi­gan­tic weather struc­ture would have been enough of a re­ward — un­til a tor­nado dropped from the formed su­per­cell.

Wear­ing a hel­met and rain gear, De­Lay rushed as fast as he could to get into a bet­ter po­si­tion to cap­ture his uni­corn.

And that’s when it hap­pened. A sec­ond tor­nado dropped from the su­per­cell. He snapped a shot.

“It was a highly stress­ful sit­u­a­tion,” De­Lay said with a chuckle.

The cone tor­nado on the right of the photo dropped first, De­Lay said. He guessed the su­per­cell was a mile wide at the time the pic­ture was taken.

Although De­Lay knew im­me­di­ately that he got the pic­ture, he didn’t know just how well it turned out.

“I didn’t start look­ing at them on a com­puter un­til Satur­day morn­ing,” he said. Then he saw it.

To bet­ter ex­plain his ex­u­ber­ance, De­Lay em­pha­sized that pho­tograph­ing a tor­nado alone is ex­tremely dif­fi­cult. Cap­tur­ing a su­per­cell sprout­ing two tor­na­does is a daz­zling feat.

“I drove 19,000 miles last year and didn’t get a pho­to­genic tor­nado,” he said.

But in his Colorado im­age, De­Lay said, ev­ery nu­ance of the struc­ture is clear and beau­ti­ful.

So, like any­one proud of a pic­ture th­ese days, De­Lay shared it on so­cial me­dia. He is still jug­gling the vi­ral out­burst.

“I’m over­whelmed in a lot of ways, but I’m en­joy­ing it,” De­Lay said of do­ing count­less in­ter­views with peo­ple from around the world, re­spond­ing to us­age re­quests and sell­ing prints.

De­spite the joy and fame brought by his dou­ble-tor­nado shot, De­Lay said, it is only his sec­ond-fa­vorite pic­ture of all he has taken.

The top spot goes to a fam­ily por­trait — storm­chaser style.

In June of last year, De­Lay, his wife, Stephanie, and their two daugh­ters, ages 8 and 11, took a fam­ily photo in Guy­mon, Okla., with a storm and a light­ning strike in the back­ground.

The im­age was cap­tured with a tri­pod setup, the cam­era set on three-sec­ond in­ter­vals, De­Lay said. Although the storm looks close, De­Lay said there was no dan­ger at the time.

More than an in­ti­mate fam­ily mo­ment, the pic­ture also rep­re­sents the end of his “Clouds 365 Project,” an ex­per­i­ment De­Lay started in June 2009, shoot­ing clouds ev­ery day for 1,825 days.

“I got chills up and down my spine when I saw it,” De­Lay said of the photo. “It felt like Mother Na­ture blessed us with that mo­ment.”

Pho­tog raphs by Kelly De­Lay

SIS­TER TOR­NA­DOES form be­neath a mas­sive su­per­cell in Simla, Colo., on June 4. Storm chaser Kelly De­Lay en­dured hail and rain to cap­ture the rare phe­nom­e­non, call­ing it a “once-in-a-life­time im­age.”

DE­LAY shot his fa­vorite photo, a fam­ily por­trait with his wife and daugh­ters, in Ok­la­homa last year.

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