Phenomena

Kelvin-Helmholtz Clouds

When differing layers of fluid move past one another, friction between them causes shear. This shear quickly transforms a simple flat interface between fluid layers into a wavy unstable boundary that resembles a series of breaking ocean waves. This effect is known as the Kelvin-Helmholtz (KH) instability. In the atmosphere, this instability causes air layers with differing temperatures and moisture content to form wave-like clouds where the two layers meet. Other examples of the effect are widespread. On earth, many ocean waves are generated by wind shearing the water; elsewhere in our solar system, the cloud bands of Jupiter are lined with spinning eddies from the KH instability. (Photo credit: H. Bondo)

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