Phantasm of the Antarctic Atmosphere

By Tom Yulsman | December 11, 2013 8:53 pm

Image of the Day

Lenticular cloud pressure ridge Mt. Discovery Antarctica

A lenticular cloud hovers above pressure ridges in the sea ice near Mount Discovery in Antarctica. (Photograph: Courtesy Michael Studinger/NASA)

If you’ve followed ImaGeo much, you’ve probably noticed that I’m obsessed with clouds, and particularly a kind of cloud that often takes on a phantasmagorical appearance.

It’s a called a lenticular cloud, and I’ve posted a number of images of them since I launched this blog. (Here and here, for example.) So I was planning on taking a break from lenticulars for awhile, but then I found the photo above and felt that it was so spectacular that I just had to share it.

This lenticular cloud hovers above the sea ice near Antarctica’s Mt. Discovery. In the middle distance is a jumble of jagged ice — a pressure ridge shoved up by the ever shifting sea ice.

The scene was photographed in November by Michael Studinger, head of NASA’s Operation IceBridge. As part of the multi-year mission, Studinger and his colleagues are monitoring conditions in Antarctica and the Arctic until a new ice-monitoring satellite, ICESat-2, launches in 2016. (You can find more his photos from the mission here.)

Antarctic Lenticular Cloud Landsat Minna Bluff

What appears to be a lenticular cloud hovers downwind of a rocky promontory near Mt. Discovery in Antarctica, as seen from orbit in this Landsat image captured in late Novermber, 2013.

I thought I might get lucky and find a Landsat image of the same exact area on the very same day that Studinger shot his photo. My idea was to do a kind of upstairs/downstairs treatment — a photo from the ground complemented by one of the very same cloud from space.

I wasn’t quite so lucky. But I did find the Landsat image above of a rocky promontory called Minna Bluff, which juts out into the Ross Ice Shelf near Mt. Discovery. Although Landsat didn’t capture the image on the same day that Studinger took his photo, it is from late November — and sure enough, it shows what appears to be a lenticular cloud. (It’s the partially glowing feature in the lower right half of the image.)

These fantastic features form when the wind blows across a topographic barrier, pushing the air upward. If conditions are right, standing waves can form in the atmosphere, which are not all that dissimilar from waves downstream of rocks in a stretch of river rapids. The air cools at the crest of such a wave, causing water vapor to condense into cloud.

Lenticular cloud Boulder night

A lenticular cloud above Boulder, Colorado on the evening of Dec. 10, 2013. (Photo: © Tom Yulsman)

I was already planning this post yesterday when, on my way home from work at the University of Colorado in Boulder, I spotted a flying-saucer-like lenticular cloud illuminated from below by the lights of the city. At the time, winds were gusting over 50 mph. I did the best I could to steady myself, propped the camera on a railing, cranked up the ISO to 1600, gingerly pressed the shutter release, and hoped that the long shutter speed wouldn’t blur the details.

With a little post-processing (including converting the RAW image to black and white), the result is the photo above. I think it came out okay, considering.



  • Mike Mangan

    That lenticular is worth ten points if you’re cloud hunting for sport. Great shot, Tom!

    • Mike Shefler

      Hmm. Wondering what gauge shotgun I should use to hunt lenticulars.



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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