Just how away far can you see a storm?

James K

EF4
Mar 26, 2019
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Colorado
Might be a dumb question, but: How far out can you see a storm??
I know its atleast 25 miles. And I'm assuming probably around 50-ish on the far end - for an average mostly-clear day?
This comes up from a supercell off in the distance that I was watching from home Wednesday. It was pretty cleary visible (attached image is cropped to keep a smaller file & remove the clutter around it but still should geve some idea)
Thing is the only storm I saw or rarar was 74-ish miles away. I'm assuming that's probably too far to see anything much? (radar shot is ~half hour after the pic was taken showing the one storm that shows there)
I also sat out for awhile after dark & watched its lightning-show illuminating the cloud. (always loved doing that, especilly when they're closer)
Watched for ~half-hour, til the point it was pretty far out there, still visible if you looked for its flashes
When I came in, I took another look at radar..the only storm I saw there was just over 100 miles away.

Maybe I'm assuming incorrectly that 50-ish miles is is around the limit, and I remember reading in a book that it was something more under the right conditions - but I simply can't remember the number, or if they mentioned if you could really see any detail in the clouds
So maybe you could sorta see a cloud 74 miles? But clearly see?? Would it even be possible to see something 100+ miles away at night??
 

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Based upon the curvature of the earth, you could theoretically see the top of a very tall thunderstorm (60,000 ft) from 300 miles away. However, light refraction is going minimize that distance slightly (reducing it to around 250 miles).

Realistically though, a little over 100 miles is the max to see any detail.

The photo you included appears to have been taken from around 70 - 80 miles away, based upon my experience. So the fact that the nearest storm you saw on radar was 74 miles away means that most likely the storm you saw on radar and the storm in your photo are the same storm.

As far as the best time to see storms is concerned... This is more dependent upon the moisture in the air than anything else. If it's real hazy, visibility will be greatly reduced (possibly to 5 miles or less). The most extreme example of this is when you have fog, and can barely see a few yards in front of you. That said, on a clear day with no haze or smoke, the best is early morning or late evening when the sun is shining on the clouds and reflecting off of the clouds in color. The color helps contrast the cloud structure and give you a better understanding of what you're looking at. During the day, the blue sky color tends to mix into the white cloud color and blur the contours of the structure at a far distance. And at night, you can't really see anything. Unless you're talking about lightning. That you could see at 100+ miles away, but you would only be seeing cloud to cloud lighting at that distance, since the cloud to ground lighting would be below the horizon.
 
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Dec 8, 2003
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I was outside my house one day and saw one storm to my N and another to the S, so when I went inside I checked the radar. The N storm was near Imperial NE (~160 miles) and the S one was near Stratford TX (~125 miles). I live near Lamar CO.

While flying from Albuquerque to Baltimore I looked out the window and could see Pikes Peak from over Tucumcari. Yeah, of course we were probably at 25,000 feet. Also saw both the Gulf and the Atlantic (at the same time) from a plane while over Florida one time.
 
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Mar 23, 2013
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Denver, CO
I agree with what Bob says. Sometime you can see a storm's anvil 100-200 miles away. Growing up in KC, I'd see storms raging over Salina, KS on the radar and I could step out on the back deck and see the storm tops.
 

James K

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Mar 26, 2019
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Thanks guys..
I know its real hard to judge distance just by looking at something .lol.
That storm seemed closer, probably in part because it was right in the perfect spot, and was a supercell rather than the more common general thunderstorm
(maybe being near sunset helped too...since I was looking northeast - so the sun would be shining right towards it)
It was fully dark by the time this had moved to 100+ miles away, so yep at that point I was just seeing the lightning in the cloudtops

I really had no idea just how far you could see a storm from...looks/sounds like I can in theory see something to the far SE corner of wyoming / SW corner of Nebraska on a clear day..


For me,
I'm fairly close to the mountains, so not all that far to the west that's what I see :). Also seems a good place for CG lightning strikes
South is neighborhood, so limited distance
East is basically completely blocked by houses.
Being that I'm on a small hill...
North would be good, but is mostly blocked by trees in the summer
NE it the one direction I have a long unobstructed view. (happens to work nicely for storms)
Though not uncommon to have some haze - or smog from Denver, since that's also NE of me. (the air has deff been cleaner this spring though with all the Covid shutdowns)

Whoa Bob that's a nice viewing spot..parts of 3 states worth of storms!

That's a cool view as well Hannah!
 
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Dec 8, 2003
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Whoa Bob that's a nice viewing spot..parts of 3 states worth of storms!
Actually it's 5. CO, KS, OK (ph), TX, NE. One other story: One day in the early 2000's I wasn't getting radar for some reason, so from 287 at Memphis TX I turned north to go after a storm only about an hour from sunset, believing I could get there in 45 minutes or so. Nope. My nowcaster called, I asked where the storm was. Woodward. 130 miles. End of chase day.
 
Jan 10, 2014
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A few nights ago I was out watching the stars in central Wyoming and saw a flash to the south. The only thunderstorm was 300 miles away near Pueblo. It was too dim for my camera to pick up.
But I did photograph lightning with the northern lights from 250 miles away last summer. At that distance it looks very orange from the scattering of light through the atmosphere.

DSC_5478.jpg
radar-screenshot.png
 
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James K

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Mar 26, 2019
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@Bob Schafer:
5 states, even better!
And 130 miles...yep that'd be just a bit tough to do in 45 minutes. LOL

@kevin-palmer
Beautiful photo. I'd love to see the northern lights.
Orange lightning, cool! So basically the same reason sunsets are orange?

@Dean Baron
Cool.

----
This all does make me wonder if I could see atleast the top of a large supercell well over 100 miles away.
 

James K

EF4
Mar 26, 2019
305
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6
Colorado
@Tony Laubach:
Nice pic! Just curious...is that using zoom, or simply as you see would it?
I plan to stay a good safe distance away from storms (not sure what that distance is yet - close enough that I can atleast see something, but far enough that there's little risk of getting hit by the tornado or hail. Have a feeling the distance will be better determinable once I've actually been out. Plus based on the roads & storm conditions itself.)


-------------------
I went out on the roof late night a few nights ago, to see if I could zoom the camera in & see anything with it on the stuff that was going on down in Denver. (couldn't I'm simply too far from the city to see any small details like that)
But while up there I could clearly see lightning in the clouds (no camera needed) way off in the distance. Checked radar when I came in, there were 2 storms in the general direction I was looking, one 114 miles away, the other 124 miles. Pretty sure it was the closer one but its possible I saw both. So even though it wasn't what I originally went to look for(didn't even know there were any storms running) I pretty much proved to myself that I can see atleast the cloudtops from over 100 miles. I'll have to keep that in mind when seeing night storms off in that direction on radar...
I'm actually kinda curious now on just how far my limit is

Plus I hope to one day see some sprites, but I'm not sure what that takes..
 
Mar 2, 2004
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@Tony Laubach:
Nice pic! Just curious...is that using zoom, or simply as you see would it?
The picture is at full zoom, but we could clearly see it as we were driving westbound. In fact, it took us a moment or two to actually decide whether it was a tornado or not because we were looking at our position on the radar verses where that storm was and had to convince ourselves that we could indeed see it that far away.
 

Mark Egan

EF0
Jul 13, 2017
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Frisco
The first picture is a storm about 70 miles away, taken with my IPhone 5s back in 2018. I was at or near full zoom.

The second image is a cropped and edited (mainly for contrast) version of the same photo, showing the rainbow that I could clearly see from that distance.

If I had one of my better cameras with me, I would have a better photo.
 

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Randy Jennings

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May 18, 2013
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The answer to your question depends on the storm, the environment around you, and what you want to see. I have seen updraft towers from over 100 miles away. I've also not been able to see updraft towers the same height from much closer (even under 20 miles away) because of other clouds between me and the storm of interest. The pics Tony posted are special. On many storms you will not be able to see the rain free base from 47 miles away, let alone the bottom of a wall cloud and a tornado extending to the ground. In many places you will have tress or other obstructions blocking the view. In an HP storm you would might have to almost be in the circulation to see a tornado (not a good idea). So the answer is ... it depends. But if I had to give you a number, I would say most of the tornadoes I have seen have been less than 10 miles (and usually much less than 10 miles) away. Wall clouds can often been seen further from that.
 
Sep 7, 2013
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Strasburg, CO
I have a couple screen shot of what may or may not have been a tornado at super long distance. I'll have to hunt down the actual files, but from the storm reports, it would have been somewhere between Woodrow and Arickaree...so thats 40-60 miles from where I was shooting.

Crappy screen shot of a screen#1: full image
1593469048005.png

Crappy zoomed in on the camera screen shot of the screen:
1593469094262.png
 
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James K

EF4
Mar 26, 2019
305
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6
Colorado
@Mark Egan:
Considering that's a phone picture from 70 miles, it turned out pretty good!

@Jeff Duda:
That was kinda the thought - to have an idea of how far you could see a storm under 'good conditions'

@Randy Jennings:
Good points to make there!
I went out a few nights ago figuring I could see lightning in storms northeast of me (at a distance closer than others I've seen...but nope! There was a band of clouds between me & the storms, so nothing seen. .lol. )

I saw my first wall cloud last Friday..approxametly 20 miles away! (wasn't even out chasing, just saw a dark storm on my way home from a store with my mother & looked closely at iw when there was an open section between shops & trees/houses a bit farther along)
Now I wish I woulda had her stop in a nearby park so I coulda tried to get a few pictures (how clearly visible it was, might have turned out fairly well using zoom).


@Marc R. O'Leary:
Great lightning shot! Looking at where that is in your radar grab (and assuming it was a totally clear night), I would have been able to see flashes in the clouds from that storm...from 90+ miles away.
Pretty cool on the possible tornado. look forward to seeing the actual photo if you find the files..
 

Warren Faidley

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I remember Marty Feely telling me he could see the top of my Miami, TX "Twister" supercell back in May of 1994 from between LBB and MAF. Using the measuring tool on Radar Scope, that would be about 210 miles. I also remember chasers in OKC saying they could see the storm, which would be about 160 miles away. I believe the storm topped out at over 55k at one point.

I find Marty's sighting quite amazing because he could see the storm even with the anvil spreading away from his line of sight. You could have a storm many miles away and if the anvil is spreading out towards your location, then it skews the actual distance you are "seeing the storm."