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WOW! Scary-looking clouds shared by college students, professors take over internet

By Manuel Crespo Feliciano, Accuweather en Español staff writer
May 16, 2019, 1:54:21 PM EDT

Imagine the following scene: You exit your house, look at the sky and notice something quite different happening. You watch again and get scared as you think that it is a tornado forming.

That was the scene that several residents of Madison, Wisconsin, woke up to on Thursday morning.

Despite the cloud's dramatic appearance, it was simply an unusual type of cloud known as shelf cloud, which is a low, horizontal, wedge-shaped cloud. Shelf clouds often form at the leading edge of a gust front or outflow boundary from a thunderstorm, or strong winds flowing outward from a storm.

The outer part of a shelf cloud is often smoother with a notable rising motion exhibited by a tiered look (hence, the name shelf cloud). Underneath, a turbulent, unsettled appearance is often the case.

Many onlookers, including college students and professors geeking out at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, captured photos of the phenomenon and shared them on social media.

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"Shelf clouds are common in the summer in Wisconsin but rarely as the one that swept over Madison this morning. We did get a few questions about the cloud type but most comments focused on the beauty of the shelf cloud rather than severity of the storm," said to AccuWeather Margaret Mooney, Earth Science Education and Public Outreach specialist at the CIMSS in the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

To the untrained eye, shelf clouds may appear as though a tornado is forming. However, vertical rotation is usually lacking, and thus tornadoes are not a threat from this cloud type.

However, a shelf cloud should be seen as a harbinger of strong winds.

Look at the photo gallery and let yourself be surprised by the spectacular phenomenon:

(Facebook/CIMSS UW-Madison campus)

A view as the storm approached the UW-Madison campus on Thursday, May 16, 2019. The photo was taken by Sarah Griffin from the top of the AOSS building.

(Twitter/Hilary Dugan)

Shelf cloud rolling over Lake Mendota in Madison, Wisconsin, on Thursday, May 16, 2019.

(Twitter/Kyle Nyman)

Kyle Nyman captured this amazing photo at the back of his home in Madison, Wisconsin, Thursday, May 16, 2019.

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