Striped Clouds

Living near the Rocky Mountains, it’s not unusual to look up and find the sky striped with lines of clouds. Such wave clouds are often formed on the lee side of mountains and other topography. But even in the flattest plains, you can find clouds like these at times. That’s because the internal waves necessary to create the clouds can be generated by weather fronts, too.

Imagine a bit of atmosphere sitting between a low-pressure zone and a high-pressure zone. This will be an area of convergence, where winds flow inward and squeeze the fluid parcel in one direction before turning 90 degrees and stretching it in the perpendicular direction. The result is a sharpening of any temperature gradient along the interface. This is the weather front that moves in and causes massive and sudden shifts in temperature. 

On one side of the front, warm air rises. Then, as it loses heat and cools, it sinks down the cold side of the front. The sharper the temperature differences become, the stronger this circulation gets. If the air is vertically displaced quickly enough, it will spontaneously generate waves in the atmosphere. With the right moisture conditions, those waves create visible clouds at their crests, as seen here. For more on the process, check out this article over at Physics Today. (Image credit: W. Velasquez; via Physics Today)

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