Woman captures chance photo of rare, mesmerizing cloud phenomenon and attracts waves of interest online
By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer
June 25, 2019, 7:31:50 AM EDT
A now-viral photo of a mesmerizing yet rare cloud formation that adorned the sky for mere moments has left millions around the globe in awe. Amy Christie Hunter captured the intriguing image on her iPhone Tuesday, June 18, around 8:30 p.m. at Smith Mountain Lake near Roanoke, Virginia.
Hunter had no clue at the time that the picturesque, ocean wave-like clouds rolling through the atmosphere as she relaxed on her deck that evening were considered a phenomenon, she told AccuWeather — but she realized instantly that they were anything but ordinary.
“I just knew it was very unusual, and I was in awe of it!,” Hunter shared with AccuWeather, adding that the unique cloud formation, known as Kelvin-Helmholtz wave clouds, didn’t last for very long at all — less than a minute, in fact. “I was lucky to see it, and very lucky I had a camera to snap the fleeting moment,” the 59-year-old said.
The captivating image she posted on Facebook, which she also first sent to her local news station, has attracted a wave of interest online, having been shared more than 800 times as well as receiving hundreds of comments from users who had never seen anything like it before. A local meteorologist told Hunter that the formation is “very rare and usually not this defined.”
“I would have thought it was fake if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes,” Hunter wrote on Facebook. “It was the coolest cloud formation I think I’ve ever seen!” The unique occurrence had many wondering — what exactly is it?
Kelvin-Helmholtz waves are named after the two scientists that discovered the instability: Hermann von Helmholtz and William Thomson, who was also known as Lord Kelvin, one of the fathers of modern meteorology as we know it today, according to AccuWeather Meteorologist Brett Rossio.
Although the waves themselves are unstable, AccuWeather Extreme Meteorologist Reed Timmer explained that Kelvin-Helmholtz waves occur in stable environments, like the backsides of storm complexes where rain-cooled air is present. The phenomenon resembles breaking waves on an ocean surface. These clouds can form during or after a storm, even on a partly cloudy day.
“They usually occur as repetitive wave-like features and are driven by vertical wind shear across that stable layer,” Timmer said. They encounter a vertical wind shear, or the change in direction and speed of winds at increasing heights in the atmosphere, which causes breaking waves and little repetitive curlicues on that stable layer. The instability occurs due to turbulent eddies created by very strong wind shear.
They’re sometimes observed at the base of mesocyclones, as well, Timmer said. “That’s because you get vertical wind shear along the edge of the updraft, and then you can also get stable layers near evening, and that’s when you get the sculpted look to that mothership updraft.”
Startling photo shows what appears to be sled dogs walking on water
Beachgoer captures rare, colorful phenomenon decorating the afternoon sky
Strong wind gusts send startling surprise falling from the sky — and right into this woman's windshield
Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds are a type of billow cloud, according to Rossio, which is a cloud that develops with sufficient moisture for condensation to occur as upward motion simultaneously occurs within the developing cloud. The clouds are caused by instability and can be dangerous to pilots, AccuWeather Meteorologist Jesse Ferrell said, even if the cloud does not make the waves visible.
Despite this potential danger, Timmer noted that the waves are largely harmless since they usually occur in stable environments, “Unless of course, they’re ripping along the base of an approaching mesocyclone.”
For those on the ground, the uncommon presence of Kelvin-Helmholtz waves certainly creates a spectacular scene in the sky for photographers and weather enthusiasts alike.
Comments that don't add to the conversation may be automatically or manually removed by Facebook or AccuWeather. Profanity, personal attacks, and spam will not be tolerated.
More Weather News
Weather News - July 16, 2019, 10:08:47 AM EDT
Heavy rainfall has triggered deadly flooding and mudslides across parts of Nepal and northern India in recent days and more rain is on the way.
Weather News - July 16, 2019, 9:58:35 AM EDT
In the wake of Barry's rain and flooding, a broad area of heat and high humidity will take hold over much of the southern and central United States for the balance of this week.
Weather News - July 16, 2019, 9:21:07 AM EDT
Fifty years after Apollo 11 astronauts were first to walk on the moon, the United States and the world are celebrating the historic achievement, while many also lament that moon missions ended decades ago
Tropical Storm Danas to bring flood risk to Philippines, Taiwan; China, South Korea and Japan remain on alert
Weather News - July 16, 2019, 8:02:55 AM EDT
Residents from the northern Philippines to Taiwan are being warned that a new tropical system will threaten the region the next several days.
Weather News - July 16, 2019, 9:18:34 AM EDT
The answer to that question lies with the jet stream and what's circled in red in this water vapor satellite image, AccuWeather Chief Meteorologist Bernie Rayno explains.
Weather News - July 16, 2019, 7:53:03 AM EDT
The world's oldest golf championship returns to Northern Ireland for the first time in 68 years and the weather may be a factor in the outcome.
Weather News - July 16, 2019, 8:26:26 AM EDT
As Barry pushed north across the interior U.S., it weakened into a tropical rainstorm and continued unleashing precipitation. One place racked up more than 23 inches of rain.
Weather News - July 16, 2019, 2:03:32 AM EDT
Aside from downpours and thunderstorms associated with Barry, the only area at risk for periodic severe thunderstorms will be across the northern tier of the central United States through midweek.