Lightning Paloozafest in the Badlands

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Lightning and dramatic storm clouds - Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Dramatic lightning flashes over the eroded hills of Badlands National Park, South Dakota. The turbulent storm clouds of a passing squall line dominate the upper half of the photo. A portion of a faint rainbow can be seen in the lower-right.

It was two hours away when I first spotted it on radar — a swift squall line south of Rapid City, moving down from the Black Hills and out onto the plains. Hoping it would hold together, I waited near the west end of Badlands National Park. 

As it approached, the squall line assumed an arch shape on radar, with the apex of the arch looking to pass near my position. Such bowing squall lines often bring damaging straight-line winds, strong enough to roll a mobile home or lift a poorly-attached roof. But I was out in the open, with little in the way of debris that could be flung by the wind, so I wasn’t worried.

Radar image of bowing squall line over Badlands National Park

The line was quite impressive as it approached from the west.

Squall line - Badlands National Park, South Dakota
A squall line approaches Badlands National Park, South Dakota. Dramatic turbulent clouds precede the heavy rain of the severe storm.
Whale's mouth cloud - Badlands National Park, South Dakota
An ominous squall line approaches Badlands National Park, South Dakota. The clouds have assumed a dramatic form known as a whale’s mouth, which marks the leading edge of cold air flowing out from the severe storm into the surrounding warm air. The boundary between the warm and cold air is very turbulent, which gives the cloud its gnarled appearance.

When the wind hit, it was vicious. I leaned down on my tripod to keep it in place. The couple in an SUV parked next to me were whooping like they were on a roller coaster. For some inexplicable reason, it’s actually fun to be out in a wind like this.

I do regret not rolling up the windows on my car. I realized my mistake when I found it filled with dirt. Such a mess. But totally worth the experience. 

It’s nearly impossible to keep up with a fast-moving squall line like this, so I didn’t consider chasing it. I thought the show was over, but it most certainly was not — the backside of the storm was alive with lightning. 

For the next two hours, I drove the length of the park, stopping here and there to photograph the lightshow. This was some of the most photogenic lightning I’ve ever seen.

Dramatic lightning - Badlands National Park, South Dakota
In the wake of a squall line, dramatic forked lightning flashes over the eroded hills of Badlands National Park, South Dakota. The lightning gives the sky a magenta hue. This photo was taken with a lightning detection device, which triggers a camera’s shutter when a sudden increase in light level is seen.
Picturesque lightning - Badlands National Park, South Dakota
In the wake of a squall line, picturesque lightning in the shape of a leaping dolphin flashes over the eroded cliffs of Badlands National Park, South Dakota. The lightning gives the sky a magenta hue. This photo was taken with a lightning detection device, which triggers a camera’s shutter when a sudden increase in light level is seen.
Picturesque lightning - Badlands National Park, South Dakota
In the wake of a squall line, picturesque lightning in the shape of a running man flashes over the rolling grassland of Badlands National Park, South Dakota. The lightning gives the sky a magenta hue. This photo was taken with a lightning detection device, which triggers a camera’s shutter when a sudden increase in light level is seen.

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