Lovely, frigid ripples

By Phil Plait | February 20, 2011 7:00 am

The weather here in Boulder has been pretty warm lately, and most of the snow is gone. I know that this can change at any moment (and in fact we’re due for more snow in a day or so), and NASA has provided a chilling but ethereally lovely reminder that this winter has been one to remember:

This image was taken by the Terra satellite on January 24, and shows what happens when there is a confluence of three conditions. The first is extremely frigid arctic air blowing down from the north west. The second is warmer waters in the Atlantic; the air above the water gets humid and rises into the colder air, condensing to form clouds. But the third is what’s needed to make this amazing rippling effect: a layer of warm air above the cold layer, called a temperature inversion. This acts like a ceiling for the rising, condensing air below. The clouds that form can’t rise any higher, so they roll east with the moving air, forming these "streets".

I think the effect of this image is heightened by the lack of clouds over land; it’s the ocean water that creates the clouds, so the skies were clear over the Atlantic seaboard, allowing us to see the snow-covered landscape. I like to think of how much meteorologists and climate scientists can learn from images like this, and of course that’s why we launch satellites like Terra into orbit. But I also don’t have too much of a problem just sitting back and admiring the beauty and artistry of our planet from space, either.

Image credit: NASA, Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team, Goddard Space Flight Center. Addition credit to my old pal Michael Carlowicz.


Related posts:

The cloudy, warming Earth
Plume and ash
Ephemeral snow and ancient rock
Snowpocalypse 2011

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Pretty pictures
MORE ABOUT: clouds, Terra

Comments (29)

  1. Jason Dick

    I like how the borders of the states show up so clearly! That just demonstrates that these borders aren’t just human-painted lines, but have real significance!

    (note: facetiousness is often difficult to notice online)

  2. Hey, I can see my house from there!

  3. John C

    I’m currently in college in Bangor, Maine.
    It was a s frigid here as that looks yesterday, mainly due to the windchill.

    A lot of people don’t realize it, but although we may typically be a bit warmer than places to the west on the Canadian border, we have much more humid colds which cut through clothing to cool you down much faster. With a dry cold you can just throw on a jacket and be fine, when it’s a humid cold you need 3-4 layers to keep your skin from freezing.

    It has been fairly warm here lately, it actually hit 40 degrees this last week! Today it’s a comfortable 25, t shirt weather, haha.

  4. Grand Lunar

    Chilly photo there, Phil!

    Wasn’t until got the book “Beyond” that I became aware of the Terra sattellite.
    It sure gives some great views of our home planet.

  5. Gary Ansorge

    I lived in Montana for several years in the early/mid ’70s. It was fun to see the Chinook winds come blowing thru, melting all our snow and raising temperatures 60 degree F in a few hours. On the DOWN side, in the winter of 1975, I parked my car one night facing the south side of our house. It was plus 65 degrees F when I went to bed. When I awoke in the morning, an Arctic air mass had blown thru, dropped the temp. to -45 degrees F with a wind chill of minus 65. That’s when I learned; cars won’t start when the battery is frozen,,,

    Ah, Montana, with its eleven months of winter interrupted by one month of summer. Spring? Fall? What’s THAT?

    I understand Colorado actually has four seasons,,,you know; spring, fall, winter and summer? We have something similar here in Georgia, though with global warming, we now have spring temps in February, instead of March. Maybe this year, we’ll have a snow storm in July,,,

    Pretty pictures, Phil. How’s the skiing this year?

    Gary 7

  6. Bob Strause

    COMPLETELY off track here, but I’d be sure you’d be blogging about it if you read Doonesbury today. SPOILER ALERT – You’re gonna love it!

  7. Pascal

    Amazing picture.

    I don’t think the date this occurred was Nov. 24 of 2010. I think the date is day 24 of 2011, or Jan. 24, 2011. See the name of the picture “uscloudstreet_tmo_2011024_lrg.jpg”.

  8. Arthur Maruyama

    Pascal is right: this picture was taken on January 24, 2011. This info is from the Earth Observatory Image of the Day for February 15:
    http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=49254

    Funny thing: even though I’ve seen this picture at the above site, when I saw it here for some reason I saw an odd alien landscape where there was a plateau on the left with a field of dunes on the right, all strongly lit from above and to the left so the space between the coast and the clouds became the plateau’s shadow.

  9. Joseph

    Did anyone else read the title at first glance at lovely frigid Nipples

  10. OtherRob

    Pretty…

    Jason, @1:

    (note: facetiousness is often difficult to notice online)

    There have been times when I’ve gotten into some much trouble because of that. ;)

  11. D’oh! I knew it was January but for reasons known only to my fingers put in November. It’s fixed; thanks.

  12. @ Bob Strause (#6), thanks! It was worth the read! :D
    @ Joseph (#9), glad I wasn’t the only one! ;)

  13. WJM

    Funny thing: even though I’ve seen this picture at the above site, when I saw it here for some reason I saw an odd alien landscape where there was a plateau on the left with a field of dunes on the right, all strongly lit from above and to the left so the space between the coast and the clouds became the plateau’s shadow.

    Me too! It wasn’t until I started reading that the image stopped being of Mars!

  14. QuietDesperation

    Ah, Montana, with its eleven months of winter interrupted by one month of summer. Spring? Fall? What’s THAT?

    As we say in So Cal, winter? Huh? Oh, that thing that happens up in the mountains so we can ski. :-)

  15. Gee, Uncle Al always thought the unstable interface between two fluid layers of different densities leads to Kelvin-Helmholtz waves. Maybe organikers do it differently.

  16. Uncle AL (15): KH waves would be along the streets of clouds, not transverse to them. In other words, the long streams themselves are not KH instabilities. Or did you have some other agenda in mind when you posted that comment?

  17. Messier Tidy Upper

    Interesting weather pattern / climate video here :

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M_lYbp2zxVg&p=029130BFDC78FA33

    Pre-emptive strike : No, cold weather (locally) does NOT mean we’re not (globally) experiencing Global Warming.

    Also veering a little off topic, this time even more but on a far happier note see :

    http://www.npr.org/2011/02/20/133914639/tuning-in-space-noise-for-sounds-of-life?sc=tw&cc=share

    for a new exoplanet hunting tactic. :-)

  18. George Lowry

    “Lovely, frigid ripples”

    Sure… Just _try_ saying that fast three times.

  19. Harold

    @ Jason Dick (#1): Obviously the Founding Fathers had such foresight to know that we would develop satellite imaging that they carved the shapes of the states directly into the rock.

  20. Snowshoe the Canuck

    “Did anyone else read the title at first glance at lovely frigid Nipples”

    Glad I’m not the only one who misread that at first. For a moment, I thought I was at the wrong url.

    @19. And they knew where the boundaries between the Canadian provinces would be, even before Her Majesty’s Colonial Office! Wow, those guys were good!

  21. marsjunkiegirl

    @1, 19, and 20: Not to burst your bubble, but the state boundaries are probs an Arcmap layer.

  22. Cindy

    How many other people noticed that while the big lakes in NH (Winnepesauke and Squam), the Quabbin Reservoir in MA, and many big lakes in Maine are frozen, but Sebago Lake in Maine isn’t? It doesn’t surprise me that Champlain isn’t totally frozen.

  23. Cindy is correct. Sebago Lake in southern Maine is not frozen and appears as a black spot on the photo. The reason is Sebago’s extreme depth (315 feet) and very high average depth (125′). Sebago Lake contains one trillion gallons of water, which take so long to cool in the winter that often the lake only partly freezes. Sebago is a glacial anomaly in the U.S. There’s no other large natural lake that even closely resembles it.

    http://www.friendsofsebago.org

  24. davidlpf

    Why is it when pictures of ice and snow are needed they go for my neck of the woods, oh yeah it is Canada.

  25. lnik

    Really, Mr. Bad Astronomer? The “artistry” of our planet. What artist? I know, this was meant just as colorful anthropomorphism. But religious people will still read that and chuckle to themselves. Their hearts will be warmed by the thought that even the big Bad Astronomer deep inside believes the Earth has a creator, and he glories in His divine artistry.

  26. Oh, “Ripples.” I thought it was… never mind.

  27. Joseph G

    Cool! And humid!
    I’ve always found meteorology to be absolutely fascinating and I always find it sad that so many folks consider “talking about the weather” to be the last resort of forced small-talk. I could talk weather all damn day

    @#9 Joseph: Hah! Great Josephs think alike :P

  28. Joseph G

    Oh, and interesting how COLD it’s been lately when we’re supposed to have all this GLOBAL WARMING. Phtphftblt!

    @#17: Oh, hi MTU. Didn’t see you there. Rats!!! Foiled again :D

  29. Matt B.

    @5. Gary, Colorado actually has only two seasons: winter and road construction. :D

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