Fighter Pilot, Satellites Spy Swirling Vortex of Clouds off of Southern California

By Tom Yulsman | February 4, 2018 10:54 am

Satellite view of a von Kármán vortex near San Clemente Island off Southern California on Feb. 1, 2018. (Source: NASA Worldview)

Check out this image captured Thursday by NASA’s Aqua satellite. See that swirling vortex, complete with a clear eye? It has formed just off the coast of San Clemente Island to the west of San Diego.

Here’s what it looked like to an F-18 fighter pilot flying directly over the feature:

This is a classic von Kármán vortex, a cyclonic swirl of clouds that can develop when winds are diverted around a big obstacle such an island. The vortices form quite commonly off California as winds interact with coastal topography and the Channel Islands — in this case, San Clemente Island.

I’ve written about von Kármán vortices before, most recently this past July, when a batch of them developed off the Southern California coast:

Satellite imagery shows hurricane-like whirlpools swirling in the atmosphere along the California coast

Here’s a view of the entire life cycle of last week’s vortex, from the GOES-East weather satellite:

A von Kármán vortex swirls of the coast of Southern California, as seen by the GOES-East weather satellite on Feb. 1, 2017. Click the screenshot to play the animation. (Source: RAMMB/CIRA)

Click the screenshot to play the animation. (Source: RAMMB/CIRA)

And here’s a more closeup view, also from GOES-East:

When you watch these animations, I think you can get a visceral sense that the atmosphere is much like a liquid. In fact, from the perspective of physics, both the ocean and atmosphere have fluid properties. And we have a common word for the constantly changing fluid properties of the atmosphere: weather!

  • The Cloud Guy

    Me likey.

    • Tom Yulsman

      Me too!



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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