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    VIP Seating to Wonders of Weather, Earth

    November 19, 2012, 6:04:30 AM EST

    Window seating can offer some spectacular insights into the workings of weather. Likewise, it can afford opportunities to see the Earth from a perspective only available from thousands of feet in the air.

    When I fly, I insist on getting a window with hopes of seeing something unusual, even things that I have never seen before.

    Hitherto, I flew only over the U.S., straying once as far as Hawaii. However, during the last few years, I have expanded my range, having flown cross-Atlantic a few times. This has allowed me to see new and diverse sights.

    My latest such trip took place during the present month of November. This was "post Sandy," and I found that the "smoke" of this devastating storm's aviation impact had not yet cleared. There were still delayed or canceled flights, disappointed passengers.

    Luckily, I suffered no adverse fallout on my way from Pennsylvania to Paris, by way of Detroit.

    The flight out of State College took me above the clouds, so there wasn't much land to see. But I did get a good glimpse of a "glory."

    A glory is a target-like series of rings of colored light, seen opposite the sun, when the light is striking fog or water-droplet clouds.


    Example of a glory (with Brocken), taken by helicopter near Mauna Loa, Hawaii. (Wikipedia/Mbz1)

    The observer's shadow may be present at the "bull's eye." In the present example, it was the plane's shadow that was right in the middle of the glory.

    The flight from Detroit to Paris offered me no chance to watch sky, land or sea, as I was far from any window.

    Next, a flight from Paris to Tunis took me above rain clouds, then into the clear over southern France and the Mediterranean Sea. The Rhone River was clearly visible to the west, and one of the outlying peaks of the southern Alps was capped with some early season snow.

    At the French Riviera coast, careful observation showed a thoroughly aroused Mediterranean. White water rimmed the rocky shore, and waves were obvious, even from more than six miles up.

    Little specks of white undoubtedly marked whitecaps. Streaky lines, roughly at right angles to the waves, were likely tell-tailing the wind direction, which was likely from the southwest. I believe that such streaks form only in fairly strong winds.

    I do recall that November began stormy over western Europe, broad low pressure being centered somewhere in or near the Bright Archipelago.

    Landing in calmer, much warmer Tunis revealed a much greener landscape than the one I had seen amid the heat of early July. What a difference the first big rains of the season had already made!

    While on the ground in Tunis, I had a chance to witness something new in the weather.

    A major storm began in the western and northern Mediterranean region after the 10th of the month, a weekend. The storm led to flooding rain in Italy (also tidal flooding in Venice) as well as parts of Morocco and Algeria.

    The storm apparently formed a "cut-off" low over northern Algeria, where it was cold enough for mountain snow. TV in Tunis showed snow-clad landscapes, even snowplows clearing roads.

    Meanwhile, for me in warm Tunis, snow was the last thing in mind, weather wise. Rather, it was rain and thunderstorms. However, there was rather little of either in the city at first.

    The turn in the weather came slowly at first, with late-day lightning flashing overhead one day early the following week, continuing most of the night. But rainfall wasn't much.

    Midweek brought change. Heavy clouds and rolling thunder ushered in steady rain that became heavy. For an hour or two, it poured down, with bright flashes and hard peels of thunder. At the height of the storm, I heard pinging, like something hard striking exposed metal objects. Curiosity led me to poke my hand into the downpour, only to catch small hailstones!

    I do not know how much rain soaked the city, but I do know that it left puddles this size of small lakes in open lots.

    Back in the air, I left for home, backtracking from Tunis to Paris. My east-facing window afforded glimpses of rugged Corsica, then fine vistas of the snow-capped western and central Alps. I could seen ranges reaching away to the horizon in Italy and Switzerland.

    It wasn't the first time I saw the Alps from the air, but it was the first time I clearly saw its highest top, that of Mount Blanc, the aptly named "White Mountain."

    A sea of low clouds spread over France poked fingers into Alpine valleys. The flight eventually had to penetrate these smooth-topped clouds for a landing in Paris, where the ceiling was barely above the ground.

    For the trans-Atlantic flight home, there was a bit of a delay, as the low clouds and fog had backed up takeoffs and landings somewhat.

    As the plane neared takeoff, I witnessed thick "smoke" nearly hide the top of the wing. This continued a short time as the plane went nose-up and left the ground.

    Well, its not smoke at all, but cloud forming instantaneously in the air rushing past the top of the wing surfaces. The condensation would seem to be happening in the dynamic low pressure caused by airflow past the wing. The instantaneous pressure drop would temporarily cool the air, thereby causing the condensation.

    Importantly, the pressure differential between top and bottom of the wing is also what literally lifts the plane against gravity.

    I am curious to know how much the vacuum can be above the wing surface of a commercial jet.

    Again, it is amazing to me that the formation and dissipation of cloud droplets in the pressure low over the wings happens instantaneously. I have also witnessed this effect amid flight, as the plane passes through moist air in and near clouds.

    Watching the seat-back flight monitor, I witness the temperature quickly soar from about 4 degrees C, at the ground, to 14 degrees C as the plane passed from the gloom to bright sunshine. A strong temperature inversion clearly capped the low stratus layer.

    The warm capping layer was fairly thick, as it took some time to rise above it. There must have been plenty of high pressure aloft at the time of the flight.

    The flight monitor shows the flight path and the position of the plane, updated often. At times, it shows close-ups of the map area, even archive satellite images of land areas.

    The flight is shown to veer well northward, seeming curving out of its way. But this is deceptive, a product of map projection. A path having the shortest distance, a great circle, necessarily implies a significant northward departure for a cross-Atlantic flight.

    As the flight left the British Archipelago, it did so on a northwesterly bearing, more so than I recall from earlier experience.

    Awaking from a doze south of Iceland, I looked at the monitor, which showed Greenland looming to the north and west. The plane was on path to cross the world's largest island!

    How lucky for me that the seemingly ever-present north Atlantic clouds parted as the flight closed on land.

    As I looked out and down, I spotted bright specks. Not whitecaps. Neither ships or other planes (as I have sometimes seen). These were icebergs!

    This dawning was quickly followed by land coming into view, ahead of the plain and to the north. White land contrasted strongly with dark open water, having scattered bergs.

    Drawing nearer to the coast, I could see that small patches of sea ice had already formed in some coves and fjords. The land itself, obviously rugged and rocky, was heavily clad in snow, which showed evidence of drifting (imagine the size of drifts visible from 7 miles up!).


    Photos.com/Andre Maslennikov

    The transition from rock to permanent ice was hidden by the fresh snow cover, with mountains eventually becoming drowned in a sea of glacial ice.

    As the flight headed west, the southern end of the vast Greenland ice sheet became fully evident, stretching away in all visible directions to the horizon, much like the tops of that stratus, back in France! If I didn't know better, I might have confused the former for the latter!

    Leaving southwest Greenland for the Labrador Sea, I witnessed a much wider stretch of open (albeit snow-covered) land between the ice edge and the sea. Interestingly, the many lakes here were mostly open and ice-free, standing out boldly against the dusting of snow.

    One valley glacier terminus came into plain sight.

    Having had the rare treat of spotting Greenland, the rest of the flight was post-climactic, with vast stretches of pre-winter Canadian lakes and forest, yielding to cloud tops.

    Next time I fly, I will reconsider not having some kind of camera on hand as I take up my watch from the window seat. It seems rather a waste to witness such wondrous sights without the means of preserving anything beyond memories.

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