Spectacular spiraling cloud formations spotted from space — at night

By Tom Yulsman | August 19, 2019 7:19 pm
Spiraling cloud formations called von Kármán vortices are seen at night in this satellite view.
Spiraling cloud patterns called Von Kármán vortices, spotted at nighttime off the coast of Morocco on July 19, 2019 by the Suomi NPP satellite. (Source: NASA Earth Observatory)

Spiraling cloud formations are often visible in satellite images — but at night, as seen above?

Until recently, that has been rare, at best. But newer technology for sensing and processing light in the shortwave infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum has made it easier for satellites to spot these von Kármán vortices.

These features are just like the spiraling eddies that form in a stream immediately downstream of an obstacle like a rock. In fact, the atmosphere behaves much like a fluid.

The vortices seen above formed as air streamed around the Canary Islands in the North Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Morocco on July 19th. The disturbance to the wind flow caused water vapor to condense into clouds, which formed the spiraling eddy patterns in the wake of the islands.

“This is a spectacular satellite image,” said Paul Beggs, an associate professor at Macquarie University, quoted in a post at NASA’s Earth Observatory (where I first spotted this image). “I don’t recall having seen an image of von Kármán vortices at nighttime previously, so I would consider it rare.”

The Suomi-NPP satellite acquired this image showing spiraling cloud formations, known as von Kármán vortices. downwind of islands off the Moroccan coast on July 19, 2019. (Source: NASA Earth Observatory)
A daytime view of von Kármán vortices downwind of the Canary Islands, also acquired on July 19, 2019 by the Suomi NPP satellite. (Source: NASA Earth Observatory)

Von Kármán vortices are not uncommon downwind of the Canary Islands, as the daytime Suomi NPP satellite view above suggests. And if you use NASA’s interactive Worldview website to sample satellite views of the world for yourself, sooner or later I’m sure you’ll find them in many other areas. (Over the years, I’ve offered a number of examples here at ImaGeo.)

Now, with the newer technology, I hope we’ll be seeing more nighttime views of this phenomenon.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Atmosphere, Ocean, Remote Sensing, select


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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