Cloud Busting

By Phil Plait | November 3, 2005 9:11 pm

Last week, I was in Palm Springs California for a meeting of the California Science Teachers Association. I don’t teach, but in my day job I develop educational activities for students, and so we go to these meetings to distribute our materials and to learn what others are doing.

Palm Springs is located at the foot of a pretty extensive mountain range east of LA. As we were walking to breakfast one morning, I looked over to the mountains and was pretty surprised to see what looked like a lenticular cloud. These are round, lens-shaped clouds that can form from winds blowing over mountains. For some stupid reason, I didn’t take a picture right away, but a few minutes later I did pull out the camera and took these shots:

By this time it was starting to lose coherence, but you can still see the weird shape. Not surprisingly, these get reported as UFOs. They’re rare, so even people who are used to watching the skies don’t see them very often! This particular cloud was smoother and showed the more usual lenticular shape when I first saw it. Lesson learned: if you have a camera with you, take the shot right away!

It’s funny– just a few days before that I saw another weird cloud, this time outside my office in northern California:

It really looks like the horizontal contrail is pushing against and slicing in half the more vertical one. The effect was even stronger when viewed in real life. I wonder if that was what was really happening– I have no other simple explanation for it, so maybe that is precisely what was going on.

Looking up is fun. You miss so much otherwise!


Comments (18)

  1. Proof positive that astronomers can love clouds.

  2. JSW

    But do clouds love them? Truly it is a tragedy for the ages…

  3. Scott

    Phill, I used to live in Ridgecrest, which is in the area around Palm Springs. Clouds like these are very frequent there, I never would have thought to take pictures of them! They are pretty, aren’t they?

  4. CR

    Neat pics, Phil. I could pick out the lenticular clouds right away, and can imagine how cool they must have looked earlier.
    Most of my relatives think I’m nuts for “wasting” film to take pictures of clouds (although sunsets don’t draw criticism). Also, photo processors don’t seem to understand that my photos are of the sky, not the ground I include for scale and/or compositional considerations… the sky usually looks really washed out (almost white, rather than blue) regardless of my exposure settings on the camera. I guess they try to make sure the ground shows up “pretty” in the prints!

    Even when I’m without a camera, I watch the sky, day or night. I try to get other people to do so, too. “Just look up once in a while,” I say. “It only takes a second or two of your time, and you just may see something interesting or even beautiful.”

    As an aside, a few weeks ago I mentioned on one of the other topic boards how I happened to see the ISS as it passed overhead. It looks like it’s due to pass my region again tomorrow night, so I’ve been telling everyone I work with & live near to look up and try to see the bright moving object–that’ll be the ISS!

  5. Was the horizontal contrail really a contrail? It could have been the edge of a cold-front causing wind-shear to slice the vertical contrail.

    To CR, time to change to digital and you will always get it your way.

  6. pumpkinpie

    In my college Astronomy 101 class, part of our assignment was cloud observing! We had to look at the sky 3-4 days a week and record the % of cloud cover and type of cloud. We’d turn it in and the professor would actually grade it, not just give us credit for writing something down. That means he had to record it every day to make sure his students weren’t faking it! Great way to make people aware of the day sky, too.

  7. Well, you know what they say:

    If you don’t look up, you’ll never see the sky!

    Of course, on the other hand, you’ll never fall in any holes either. :-)

    I got interested in atmospheric physics and effects a number of years ago, and it’s suprising just how often you can spot effects like halos and sundogs (even here in sunny Northern California) when you actually take the time to watch the skies.

  8. Evolving Squid

    We’d turn it in and the professor would actually grade it, not just give us credit for writing something down. That means he had to record it every day to make sure his students weren’t faking it! Great way to make people aware of the day sky, too.

    Of course, the sneakier students could just call the local flight service centre and get the information each day :) Odds are, that’s what the prof did.

    Unless you’ve had pilot training, or someone told you, you probably wouldn’t know about that though.

  9. If you want more cool cloud photos, try EPOD.

  10. Mike

    This time of year I get to drive home from work during sunset on a regular basis. Combined with the cloudy-er weather it’s very pretty. It’s too bad so many people give “the look” when I suggest looking at the sky. (I’ve been keeping track of what I think is Venus ever since you’re posts about the Venus/Juper event a few weeks ago. My girlfriend thinks I’m crazy :-) )

  11. The Galaxy Trio

    I try to get people to look up at the sky, but it’s hard.

    A couple months ago we had a thin layer of high clouds over Southern California, and it was generating a 22 deg halo. I was walking out to my car and someone noticed it and commented on it to me.

    “Oh, that’s just an ice crystal halo.” said I. The other person acted as if it were totally amazing. Even here in So Cal we get them dozens of times a year. It might be the most common of what I call “refractive events” there is.

    We had a nice moon halo a few months back. Those are less common.

    Last year a friend of mine, who is 40, saw a contrail.

    FRIEND: What’s that?

    ME: What?

    FR: That line.

    ME: A contrail.

    FR: A what?

    ME: A contrail.

    FR: What’s a contrail?

    This is a college educated man who owns his own business. The urge to say “It’s a trail of deadly chemicals and biowar agents sprayed byy the government. Just go to to find out more” was very strong, but I resisted.

  12. CR

    Sometimes clouds can be annoying. Like tonight, when they obscured the view of the ISS. Darn. Oh, well, better luck next time.

  13. dude

    Contrails can increase global warming. That’s why sicentists are thinking that planes should fly lower to the ground so fewer contrails are made. However, air resistance is more because the plane would be lower to the ground, so the plane would require more fuel. What a problem that scientists have!

  14. “Utter bollocks dude”, was my first reaction when I saw above comment. But then I had a look at Wikipedia, and there does seems to be theories pointing towards contrail contributing to global warming. However none of the links seem to point toward any major research projects. The whole entry in Wikipedia doesn’t seem that neutral, it does rather look like another plug for global warming.

    Flying lower would not only be a fuel consumption problem. The life span of planes would be seriously degraded as they are not buildt to fly in that air density for any long periods.

  15. Andy

    a little OT, but can anybody here point me to a good chemtrail de-bunking?


    he’s going over to the dark side!!!

    whats this about (god forbid) [i] liking[/i] clouds???

    and that is clearly a chemtrail they are mixing them up to gain control our sheep…

  17. jonesy

    Nah, its the yakuza testing new Russian weather weapons. At least thats what Scott Stevens would have you believe.

    (I’m more embarrased than ever to live in Idaho…)

  18. Tom

    There was a study done of temperature readings in the days after 9/11 and a definite correlation was made to the much clearer skies. IIRC a couple degrees difference. Cooler nights and warmer days.


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