.: Chasing Hints :.

Chasing in the Top End is indeed a different experience to that of chasing in the mid latitudes,  or even other tropical areas, in fact some locals would argue there is almost no need to chase as the storms ‘find you’.  Although this is the easy and slack way out, there is some truth to the tale.  The majority of decent thunderstorm events come from the ‘storm breeding grounds’ just to the E and SE of the city, and since the predominant storm steering winds are from this direction, a lot of the activity will generally pass directly over the greater Darwin area, including Mandorah to the West. 

Don’t let that make you complacent though!  The smallest shift in steering winds, or even sea breeze interaction of an afternoon can force storms much further west or North, and cause you to miss out on what could be an ethereal Top End storm, this is enough to drive anyone crazy, enduring a day of excessive heat and humidity; seeing huge storm towers building inland, only to watch it all move right past! 

Establishing what it is you’re ‘craving’ will better clarify where to go, and when to be there…

For the lightning Junkies
Gust Fronts, Cloud formation Junkies
Severe Storm Junkies – Show me the goods!
Pub/Wharf/Nightclub chasing




For the Lightning Junkies :  

The bottom line is, almost anywhere is going to be great for lightning, it’s almost as simple as choosing your background, ocean/wetlands/outback or city.  As normal pulse storms and NE/SW oriented squall lines  pass over the city and head out to sea, they often increase 10 fold in flash intensity, this is most likely a result of the warm air sitting in the coastal basin for the cells to consume.  Places like Fanny Bay, Nightcliff Jetty, Casuarina Beach are great places to get lightning shots over water.  Be sure to exercise caution as the region is well known for its positive lightning strikes, these are strikes that often jump well clear from the top of a thunderstorm, and can land 30km clear of the storm..  There have been many instances out chasing when a storm has been long gone in terms of distance, and has still managed to take out a tree nearby, stay safe! 

If experiencing the close strikes or “flangs” (Flash/Bangs) is what you crave, your options depend on the conditions.  If storms appear to be slow moving of a daytime, or low level cloud can be seen as barely moving, your best bet is to find a decent sized Cumulus or towering Cumulus inland.  Humpty Doo, Middle Point, Howard Springs, Noonamah, Berry Springs and that general vicinity is an unreal place to park under a quickly developing pulse storm.   

Obviously do NOT leave the car, and ensure you exercise absolute caution rather than contempt for the beast above you.  Parking yourself just to the North-West of the rain curtain usually delivers the best results.  The portion of the storm that is well placed under the bulk of the storm, above the main updrafts, but not experiencing excessive precipitation tends to be the best charged and least weakened by the discharging effects of rainfall.  

Expect VERY close strikes and aim cameras at trees or power lines.  The latter is a given, the lines in these areas all have a special ‘Top Line’ earth conductor at the top to protect the current lines from lightning strikes, and being earthed every 5 or so poles makes it quite a lightning magnet! 

Lightning in these areas during the average pulse storms tends not to be excessively photogenic.  The above chase would be more of a ‘close strike thrill’ than a effort to get great photos (video cameras might help capture the buzz of a spark fest) .  If you’ve chosen this option, you’d probably find yourself under a messy storm base wondering when the first strikes will start, and how intense it will get.  Luck has it, as it’s still an enigma predicting the intensity of lightning events. 

Personally I’ve seen cells that have been exploding exponentially with all the right conditions to spark away rapidly, and they’ve not done so.  But I’ve seen cells that look almost too small to meet the icing requirements of lightning, drop so many close strikes that I felt uncomfortable, sometimes over a strike per second dropping within a few kilometres.  Enough to perturb even the hardiest!


Gust Fronts, Cloud formation Junkies : 

Generally the best place to be for great storm front photographs is within 50km of the coast, reason being is the higher moisture levels at the coast.  Whilst inland monsters tend to be quite raggedy, they usually develop clean, crisp and mean looking shelf clouds and outflow features upon hitting the coastal plain.  As the crisp cool outflow air pumps out of the storm cells along a squall line, it lowers the theoretical ‘cloud base height’ in a smaller area, creating some spectacular lowering reminiscent of the movie ‘independence  day’ and the like. 

That cold air rushing ahead of the storm instantly condenses the moisture brought in of an afternoon from the sea breeze front and the result is awe inspiring.  Amazing gust fronts reaching as far as the eye can see ahead of the squall line.  If the storm is rolling in from the South-East during an afternoon and the Sea breeze is still flowing strongly, not only will the gust fronts hold a solid shape (as they represent a significant air mass boundary between the NW and SE winds) but rotation can often be seen at various levels.

There is time lapse of this SE/NW interaction occurring ***HERE*** .  Solid South-Easterly shear combined with a slightly deeper than usual sea breeze often causes rotation and often a lot of ‘symmetrical’ looking storm clouds that appear to be moving rapidly but getting almost no closer, this is a fairly unusual occurrence for a tropical area, but naturally given a few environmental factors, Darwin doesn’t fit the average tropical profile.


 Severe Storm Junkies – Show me the goods! : 

In terms of severe storms, Darwin’s main phenomena is severe wind gusts.  And they are quite common indeed.  The BOM estimates in the Darwin severe storm warning area (within 60km of the CBD) there are 50 severe storms of this type per season.  Impressive figures and usually the result of squall lines or isolated pulse updraft cells.  Waiting for the latter to produce severe winds is a bit of a long shot.  Knowing the moisture profile of the atmosphere helps tremendously.  If the mid troposphere is particularly dry, but the rest of the atmosphere is primed with moisture and reasonable lapse rates, the Darwin BOM usually include a high wind prediction with storms. 

The coastal forecast is a quick way to establish if this is the case.  If the forecast says “Gusts to 30 knots with storms” you can fairly safely assume the atmosphere is either too moist, or upper level winds are weak. When the BOM issues “Gusts to 50 knots with storms” they usually also include “Damaging wind gusts” in the actual forecast as well.  From this you could assume that either the moisture profile of the atmosphere is favourable with significant dry areas in the atmosphere, or that wind shear is strong.


Pub/Wharf/Nightclub chasing :

Part of visiting Darwin, or living in Darwin is enjoying the incredible nightlife.  Designed to cater for backpackers and tourists from around the world, the main street of any night in the week, will have at least 15 pubs and clubs open for your patronage, even on a Monday night town can be stupidly busy.. So why not head to the pub for a chase?  There is usually a reasonable chance that the storms will pass overhead later into the night, and often ‘Gulf Lines’ and ‘Kakadu Squalls’ will come rolling in when you least expect. 

The best indicator of an incoming storm when you’re inside a pub/club/restaurant is surging power or power loss.  It’s a very frequent thing in the Top End, a dip of about 30% in a second then back again usually means storms are affecting the suburbs well to the south of the city, dips of 50% or more usually mean storms have passed over the power station (channel Island just SW of the CBD) or the suburbs between yourself and the station.. Complete power failure alas is very common also and is usually short lived.  As soon as the storms pass the local power authority quickly restores electricity and fixes the  lightning fried power lines.




All Content to Darwin Storms Team or respective contributors unless otherwise stated.