Phenomena

Colorful Kelvin-Helmholtz Clouds

Colorful Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds.

Like breaking waves at the beach, these wavy clouds curl but only for a moment. The photo was captured near sunset on a late August evening in Arlington, MA. This short-lived cloud shape forms due to the Kelvin-Helmholtz instability, which is driven by shear forces between two layers of air moving at different speeds. The situation is a common one in the atmosphere, where air layers at altitude move in different directions and at different speeds. Most of the time we cannot see the curls that form between these air layers because of air’s transparency. But occasionally the mismatch happens right at a cloud layer and the condensation of the cloud gets pulled into these distinctive curls. (Image credit: B. Bray; submitted by Mark S.)

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