Riders on the Storm

July 20, 2022  •  Leave a Comment

Leading EdgeLeading EdgeA monsoonal storm advances into Jackson Hole

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Powerful. Dramatic. Imposing. Sometimes threatening. Always unique. 

Storms make compelling subject matter. 

Photograph them as they're forming, when they're fully developed, as they're dissipating, as they're departing - or catch the aftermath. Who doesn't like an expansive double rainbow?

Though the Four Corners region is the epicenter for the North American monsoon, the pattern makes its way up here to Teton Country, too. Intensity fluctuates from one summer to the next; though it's been relatively weak in recent years, 2021 still managed to produce some The Neglected Fence IIIThe Neglected Fence IIIBonneville County, Idaho impressive surges of moisture. 

Monsoonal energy has been moving into the area lately so I've been keeping an eye on both the forecast and the sky for opportunities.

Back in New Hampshire you'd often find me capturing departing Nor'easters on their way out to sea, but I didn't spend too much time chasing turbulent summertime weather. Since relocating to the Intermountain West I've found myself drawn to stormy conditions. Maybe it's because "big skies" make it hard to miss these displays.

The irony of this attraction is not lost on me; some of the forbidding skies I've been out shooting would've once had me running the other way. In the Midwest of my youth I'd have been heading for the basement to take cover. 

My change of attitude can likely be attributed to the fact that tornadoes are much rarer in this part of the country and those that do form are typically weak. 

Monsoonal energy can produce some really showy storms. Plentiful, too, if you're lucky. Head to the Grand Canyon in August for reliable action; during a good "burst" period thunderstorms will be an every-afternoon occurrence. [Note: I highly recommend the North Rim. Even during the height of tourist season you'll encounter far fewer people there than if you were to work from the other side, and it's equally pretty.]

Though we don't usually experience that kind of burst frequency here, when monsoonal storms do materialize they're just as compelling as their Arizona cousins. The thunderheads form, climb higher and higher in the sky, and then darken, creating impressive cloudscapes. Toss the Tetons into the mix and the compositional possibilities get even better. The mountains also provide good scale.

Buckle UpBuckle UpHeavy weather moves through Jackson Hole on an early summer afternoon.

Bridger-Teton National Forest, Wyoming
Occasionally these storms sneak up on you. Strictly speaking, that's a misnomer - if you're in an area where you can see enough of the sky of course you won't miss that activity. But when nothing like that has been forecast, and especially if the conditions are changing rapidly, it's a bit confounding. 

Storms can be unpredictable in other ways, too. Sometimes they move more quickly than expected, or are closer than they appeared. They can go through multiple strengthening and weakening stages.

One accepts whatever Mother Nature decides to put on the menu. There's bound to be a photograph there somewhere. 

A dramatic cloudscape isn't the only draw; of course there's lightning, or the times when the rain itself is beautifully dramatic, creating a curtain as the heavy precipitation moves across the mountains. 

And the Rain Came Teton Peaks from Driggs IdahoAnd the Rain CameSheets of rain darken the sky above this old, abandoned homestead standing in a field of wheat.

Alta, Wyoming
Some storms come with surprises: you might think you're photographing one thing (i.e. that curtain of rain moving across the landscape) only to discover when pulling the images off the card that you got much, much more.

The image below of the T.A. Moulton Barn during a fierce storm illustrates that phenomenon. The winds were so violent I had to fight just to hang on to the tripod - let alone keep it steady. The fact that I was trying to create a panoramic made it that much more difficult. Little did I know what was going on more immediately overhead. The camera could see what I couldn't. 

Moulton Barn Grand Teton National ParkTurmoil AloftA strong storm creates stunning, turbulent skies and brings with it powerful winds. As it passes, the mountains are rendered as shadows by heavy rain.

T.A. Moulton Barn
Grand Teton National Park Wyoming
If, like me, you're captivated by stormy skies, make sure to treat lightning with respect. It can travel more than 10 miles from a thunderstorm. Since you generally can't hear thunder if it's further away than 10 miles, when you do hear it it's probably time to seek shelter. At the very least get off the mountain and/or out of the open.

Safety first. 

Fury Grand Teton National ParkFuryA powerful storm brings with it fierce winds and creates an ominous sky.

Mormon Row
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Local Park News

The entire Beartooth Highway re-opens to two-way traffic between Cooke City and Red Lodge tomorrow at 5pm - ahead of schedule. It was damaged in six places on the Montana side following the widespread flooding in early June. The Wyoming side of the highway partially re-opened on June 28th. Beartooth has had an unorthodox 2022 thus far: it officially opened for the season on the morning of May 27th only to be forced to close due to winter weather conditions later that same day. Following extensive plowing it re-opened on June 9th. Flood damage forced its closure once again just a few days later on June 13th. 

Third time's bound to be a charm, yes?  (Be advised there are still daily closures for construction on the Wyoming side from 7am-7pm Monday thru Thursday.)

Last week I mentioned Grand Teton National Park seems to be not-so-busy. Turns out that's more than just my casual observation. Occupancy in Jackson is running 22% behind last summer. (Room rates, on the other hand, are up 18%.) I haven't seen official June visitation numbers for either GTNP or Yellowstone published yet. Even before last month's flooding Yellowstone's numbers were down. Some of that could be attributed to the cold spring. It's not too hard to figure out what's behind the rest.

Both parks were slammed last year. One of the bright sides regarding the drop in attendance is that, for the time being, the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem is a little less stressed.


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