Image of the Day: Lee Wave Lenticular Cloud at Sunset

By Tom Yulsman | November 10, 2013 4:40 pm
A possible lee-wave lenticular cloud at sunset, shot from Sawhill Ponds west of Boulder, Colorado, Nov. 9, 2013. (Photo: © Tom Yulsman)

A lee-wave lenticular cloud at sunset, shot from Sawhill Ponds west of Boulder, Colorado, Nov. 9, 2013. (Photo: © Tom Yulsman. All rights reserved.)

Date night with my wife started out in spectacular fashion over the weekend with a walk at sunset. I noted that a beautiful cloud formation had set up over the Front Range Mountains near Boulder, Colorado. So we positioned ourselves at the edge of this pond to watch the fireworks.

The photo above is a fairly accurate representation of what we saw. More about the photographic details in a minute. But first, this is what’s known as a lee-wave lenticular cloud. I wrote about this once before, in my second post at ImaGeo. You can find it here.

Suffice it to say that winds blowing across a chain of mountains can cause standing waves in the atmosphere. These are not all that dissimilar from waves downstream of rocks in a stretch of river rapids.

If conditions are right, a cloud can form at the apex of one of the waves in the lee of the mountains, and persist. The result: a lee-wave lenticular cloud.

Sometimes, lenticular clouds look like flying saucers. But when the wind passes over an elongated range of mountains, the lenticular clouds can be elongated as well.

Here’s an animation of satellite images from the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies showing the formation of these kinds of clouds over Nevada:

Lenticular clouds forming downwind of the Spring Mountains to the northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada on Sept. 14, 2007, as seen in animation of GOES satellite images. (Source: CIMSS)

Lastly, what about the photo itself? If you’re interested in the gory details, here’s a bit of photographic geekery (otherwise known as EXIF data):


I imported the photo into Aperture on my laptop. The original, RAW image was a bit darker than what you see here, with detail lost in both the shadows and the highlights. I used the curves control to adjust the tonal values of the shadows, midtones, and highlights to better approximate the way the eye perceives light in nature.

I think my wife would agree that the photo is now closer to what we saw on the shore of the pond at the start of our night out.

  • tfosorcim


    • Tom Yulsman

      Thank you!

    • Tom Yulsman

      Thank you! But I’ll add that in this case, mother nature was the artist. Having appreciated her work for more than five decades, I just knew enough to put myself at the right place and the right time with the right lens and the right settings on my camera to record what she came up with. (And yes, I did my best in post-processing to do her work justice.)

  • decreator

    Very nice!

  • carolannie

    Lovely photo and great info

    • Tom Yulsman

      Many thanks. I appreciate it.

  • Colleen Kelly

    What I see are chem-clouds. Although beautiful… they make my gt roil!



ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.


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