What's Going On in This Pilot's Spectacular Storm Photo?
This thunderstorm bubbling over the Pacific Ocean was captured in an image by a pilot. Image credit: Santiago Borja via Twitter
The weather gives us some pretty spectacular sights from the ground, but it’s breathtaking when you get to experience the best scenes nature can produce when you’re flying among the clouds. An airline pilot recently caught a beautiful photograph of a thunderstorm illuminating the nighttime sky over the Pacific Ocean. Not only is it visually stunning, but it gives us a textbook view of an intense thunderstorm.
As he described to the Washington Post's deputy weather editor Angela Fritz, Santiago Borja was first officer on a flight to South America when he snapped the photograph from the cockpit of his LATAM Ecuador Airlines Boeing 767-300 as it swerved to avoid flying through the storm pulsing over the ocean off the coast of Panama. He tweeted the image on June 16 with the phrase, "CB anyone?"
Borja knows his clouds. "CB" stands for cumulonimbus clouds, which in the photo tower high above the deck of clouds that blankets the sky closer to the ocean surface. Thunderstorms are common over the ocean at night, especially within a few dozen miles of shore when the land breeze (where the wind blows out toward the ocean—the opposite of a sea breeze) starts to take hold. Borja's photo gives us an excellent profile view of an intense thunderstorm, showing us features that are sometimes hard to see from the ground.
A thunderstorm’s updraft starts when a pocket of air becomes warmer and less buoyant than the surrounding air, so it begins to rise. The updraft will blow faster the more unstable the air becomes, often reaching highway speeds in the most intense storms. The air in an updraft continues to rise until it reaches the level of the atmosphere where the rising air is finally cooler and more stable than the air around it. This point, known as the equilibrium level, is where a thunderstorm’s anvil forms. An anvil is the thin layer of clouds that spreads out from the thunderstorm as the updraft reaches the equilibrium level, which acts like a ceiling. The anvil, which gets its name by resembling a blacksmith’s steel forging tool, is clearly visible in Borja’s photograph, stretching the entire width of the image at roughly flight level.
As is the case with Borja’s thunderstorm, the updraft doesn’t always stop at the equilibrium level. The violent nature of severe thunderstorms can allow the updraft to literally blow past this point of neutral buoyancy, allowing the top of the thunderstorm to bubble up and over the anvil. This is known as an overshooting top, and it's a common feature of storms strong enough to cause destructive wind and hail.
You wouldn’t want to be in a boat beneath that thunderstorm. Given what we can see in the photo—the anvil, the overshooting top, the beefy cumulonimbus clouds, and the sharp bursts of lightning within—we can surmise that the seas were pretty rough in the torrent. Not only would they have encountered frequent lightning and blinding rainfall, but severe wind gusts may have occurred as well. Hail wasn’t likely in this case due to lack of necessary cold air at the latitude at which the thunderstorm formed. As you can imagine, it’s a good thing that Borja’s flight avoided the storm—flying through thunderstorms that intense can compromise even the largest aircraft.