Cloud varieties go way beyond the cumulus, stratus, and cirrus we learn about in elementary school. Check out these wild natural phenomena.
STANDING IN A CORNFIELD IN INDIANA, I once saw a fat roll cloud (like #4 below) float directly over my head. It’s a 12-year-old memory that remains fresh. There was a moment of mild panic just as the cloud reached me — Is this what a tornado looks like right before it hits? I thought. This is some freaky unnatural shit and I do not know how I’m supposed to react.
I imagine a lot of these photographers having similar hesitations as they set up for the shots below. While it was relatively easy to put together this collection due to the huge number of crazy cloud pictures available online (did you know there’s a Cloud Appreciation Society?), many of the phenomena shown here are pretty rare…and potentially panic-inducing.
Lenticular cloud, Mt. Fuji, Japan
Altocumulus lenticularis is one of the more obviously 'bizarre' cloud types -- they don't occur too frequently, so when you see one, you take notice. They often form above or near mountains, as moist air flows rapidly over a rise in elevation. Mt. Fuji makes a pretty sweet base for this one.
Mammatus clouds, Ft. Worth, TX
Another rare and easily recognizable variety, mammatocumulus tend to spill out from the base of massive thunderheads in a characteristic blanket of pouch-like nodules. Generally a good cue to head indoors.
Photo: Lars Plougmann
Asperatus formation, Canterbury, New Zealand
This one's so rare it doesn't even have official classification. "Undulatus asperatus" is its proposed designation, and if accepted as a new form by meteorologists, it'll be the first such addition since 1951. As of now, it's just another example of New Zealand having the coolest freakin' landscapes.
Roll cloud hang glider, Queensland, Australia
A variety of arcus cloud, tube-shaped rollers are completely detached from the cloud bodies around them and appear to roll as they move low across the sky. Here, Red Bull athlete Jonny Durand hang glides Queensland's "Morning Glory."
Photo: Mark Watson
Shelf cloud, North Dakota
Nacreous clouds, McMurdo Station, Antarctica
Some of the highest and rarest clouds on Earth, nacreous clouds form 10+ miles up during winter over polar locations like Antarctica. They are thought to exacerbate the effects of human-caused ozone depletion by producing chlorine, which destroys ozone.
Photo: Alan R. Light
Lenticulars, Mt. Rainier, Washington
These are classic lenticular shapes, often referred to as "UFOs." Going by my Flickr search, they're somewhat more common than average around Rainier.
Photo: Tim Thompson
Cumulonimbus, Nelson, BC
From Matador managing editor Carlo Alcos, friend of the photog: "Taken July 11, 2012 in Nelson. Heavy rain and thunderstorms this summer have caused rivers and lakes to rise to levels not seen in several decades. Numerous evacuation alerts have been issued and a landslide in nearby Johnsons Landing wiped out homes and the only road access to the community. Four people have been missing since, two of them recovered from the debris. Another man died on June 23 in the Slocan Valley when he was swept away by flood waters from a bridge he was standing on."
Photo: Robert Neufeld
Lenticular UFO, Patagonia
Another iconic UFO lenticular cloud, this one spotted over the mountains of Argentinean Patagonia.
Shelf cloud, Cape Cod, MA
Not a great day at the beach when you see this rolling your way. This shot was taken over Race Point in June, 2012.
Photo: Anthony Quintano
Altocumulus from the ISS
Altocumulus formations usually comprise many individual cloudlets and take shape at heights of 6,500 to 23,000 feet. The whorls visible in this altocumulus layer, as seen from the International Space Station, are caused by two regions of ocean air moving at different speeds.
Photo: Cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin and the Russian Space Agency Press Services
When caught in dusk light, any cloud becomes more dramatic -- particularly a rare formation like this mammatus, photographed above New York City in 2009.
Noctilucent clouds over the Tibetan Plateau
Sometimes a little water vapor makes it 50 miles up into the mesospheric layer of the atmosphere and freezes to create noctilucent clouds. Again, the ISS provides a unique perspective from which to photograph these super rare formations, illuminated by an obscured sun.
Photo: NASA Goddard Photo and Video
Morning glories, Queensland, Australia
Another iteration of Australia's famous Morning Glory, this time with multiple roll clouds. The area around Burketown is known for the phenomenon, most likely to appear between September and mid-November.
Photo: Mick Petroff
Lenticular funnel, Palm Springs, CA
This fat lenticular cloud took shape over Southern California in April of 2010. It was described by the photographer as feeling "like it was alive."
Fog bow, Sydney, Australia
A similar phenomenon to a rainbow, the fog bow features much smaller droplets of moisture and because of this lacks all but faint color. Usually they appear white, as in this shot taken outside Sydney.
Photo: Nina Matthews Photography
Shelf cloud, Wagga Wagga, Australia
It's pretty obvious from the photo above that shelf clouds are associated with thunderstorm outflow. Get ready.
Waterspout, Balearic Islands, Spain
A waterspout is basically a tornado that's not associated with a supercell and occurs over water. Coincidentally, the Balearics are also where you can find some of the clearest water in the world.
Mammatus storm, Norman, OK
Some intense mammatocumulus showing they are indeed tied to storm activity. The photographer notes this was taken with a 1-second shutter speed.
Photo: Angelyn Hobson
Altocumulus, Layton, NJ
There's a lot of diversity in the altocumulus family. Lenticulars belong to the category, and you can see a few faint ones in this shot.
Mammatus, Salem, OR
The photographer has labelled these as mammatus clouds, though I'm not that's what's going on. Can anyone confirm / refute?
Lenticular arcs, Seattle
Even within a subcategory such as "lenticular," you get variety. Compare these formations to the mountaintop UFOs above.
Roll cloud, Punta del Este, Uruguay
In January of 2009, this roll cloud was seen over the beach resort town of Punta del Este. Roll clouds most often appear in coastal areas -- the circulation of sea winds plays a part in their creation.
Photo: Jeff McNeill
"God in the Clouds," Mt. Baker, Washington
The quote comes from the photographer, who picked out some distinct facial features in this formation over Mt. Baker in northern Washington in August of 2008.
Photo: Jeff Pang
Cloud iridescence, Arizona
Iridescence in clouds is produced by the diffraction of sunlight by small ice crystals. Colors are typically pastel and faint, though on occasion they can become more brilliant, as above.
Mammatus, Colorado Springs, CO
A 2005 storm over the United States Air Force Academy campus involved some pretty mean looking mammatus clouds.
Lenticular clouds, France
These lenticulars appear to be composed of multiple oval-shaped layers, and their whipped tails give them a unique look.
Photo: Marc Veraart
Shelf cloud, Miami, FL
December 4, 2010, does not seem like it was a good day to be on the ocean or at the beach in Miami.
Stratus clouds, Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica
Low-forming stratus clouds are commonly known as fog -- also mist, like the stuff enshrouding Costa Rica's Arenal Volcano in the photo above.
Cumulonimbus, Ft. Worth, TX
More powerful storm activity over Ft. Worth. This is a detailed look at part of a massive cumulonimbus formation from May of 2011, which appears to have some supercell updraft potential.
Lenticular ribbon, Tarurua Range, New Zealand
I'm not sure if conditions for crazy lenticular action are riper in New Zealand than elsewhere, but I'd definitely believe it based on this photo collection. The formation above seems like another candidate for the proposed "undulatus asperatus" classification.
Photo: Chris Picking
Noctilucent clouds, Viljandimaa, Estonia
Here's another example of the highest-forming cloud type (as much as 50 miles up in the atmosphere). In the foreground is Kuresoo bog, in southern Estonia, which provides a pretty amazing reflection scenario.
Photo: Martin Koitmäe
Wall cloud, Kansas
If I were this lady, I'd put the camera down and book it for shelter.
Photo: Pe Tor
Glories and vortices, Baja
The intended subjects of this NASA satellite image are the very faint north-south-running lines of color, known as "glories," visible to the west of Guadalupe Island. I included it here because I like the more apparent von karman vortices, the swirls trailing off to the island's south.
Photo: NASA Goddard Photo and Video
Mammatus, Brooklyn Park, MN
Looking at these mammatus pictures never gets old for me, maybe because I don't think I've ever seen any in person.
Lenticular ribbon, Las Vegas, NV
Kelvin–Helmholtz instability clouds, Seattle
These clouds are the visible manifestation of an otherwise invisible process; Wikipedia explains: "The Kelvin–Helmholtz instability (after Lord Kelvin and Hermann von Helmholtz) can occur when there is velocity shear in a single continuous fluid, or where there is a velocity difference across the interface between two fluids."
Photo: Clint Tseng
HDR Mammatus, NYC
Somehow fitting that this shot was taken in Hells Kitchen.
Pileus cloud, Chitlapakkam, India
Referred to as a "cloud accessory," pileus formations are extremely short-lived. They form in similar fashion to lenticulars, only over clouds in place of mountains. As shown above, they're thin enough to pick up some color from the setting sun.
Arcus layers, Australia
A nicely captured lightning strike provides some backlighting for these arcus clouds, which probably signal the arrival of a storm front.
Fallstreak hole, Linz, Austria
Also known as hole punch clouds, these formations occur as the moisture in a layer of cirrocumulus or altocumulus starts to freeze and fall to earth. Alternatively, they may signify an isolated pocket of evaporation.
Photo: H. Raab
Lenticular UFO, Kananaskis Country, Alberta
Wave clouds, Tadrart region, Algeria
As air travels over a raised land feature, it sometimes forms an atmospheric wave on the opposite side of the feature. Air then essentially surfs the wave, and when moisture conditions are right, these characteristic cloud bands are the result.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Shelf cloud, Kearney, NE
From the photographer: "I was out Weather Spotting for Buffalo County.... Just a beautiful shelf cloud and perfect conditions for this storm. Had to drive like a banshee to get back in front of the storm once it got too close. By far my best of 2009."
Wall cloud, South Dakota
Wall clouds form beneath the underside of cumulonimbus clouds, typically within the zone where rain is not produced. Wall clouds that demonstrate rotation could indicate that a massive tornado is imminent.
Photo: Michael Carlson - Photography
Cirrocumulus cloud, Chilbridge, England
Made up of tiny ice crystals, cirrocumulus are high-forming clouds and are usually fleeting. I included this shot because it reminds me of ripples on water.
Cumulonimbus, Beverley, England
This one certainly has the look of a violent supercell storm, but it's hard to tell from this distance -- what makes the difference is whether there's a persistent rotating updraft within the formation.
Lenticular roll cloud?, Lake Tahoe, NV
It seems to combine features of both, running a crazy ribbon down the sky.
Arcus clouds, Wellington, New Zealand
More giant arcus layers, this time catching some color from sunset.
Mammatus, Saylorsburg, PA
Mammatus clouds tagged along with a thunderstorm in eastern Pennsylvania, March of 2009. I love how smudgy they look in contrast to the fractal sharpness of the trees.
Cirrostratus nebulosus, Santa Catarina, Brazil
This species of cirrostratus cloud is so light it's often invisible unless illuminated from a certain angle by the sun, which produces a halo effect.
The best specimens of cloud iridescence occur in clouds that are optically thin, with the light hitting individual droplets of moisture.
Photo: Brocken Inaglory
Lenticular clouds, France
A gathering of lenticular UFOs over the French countryside.
Photo: Marc Veraart
"The Cloud of Darkness," Silver City, NM
This is the name the photographer gave to the massive thunderhead pictured above, which formed over southwestern New Mexico in August of 2007.
Lenticular blanket, Lebanon, MO
From the photographer: "I took this in 2002 in Lebanon, Missouri. I saw the clouds roll in and knew I had a few minute window to get a possible picture. I high tailed it from my place (about 3/4 mile) to get a nice view."
Wave cloud, Amsterdam Island
This is an awesome perspective on the wave cloud phenomenon, captured by a NASA satellite above the far southern Indian Ocean.
Cumulonimbus, Melbourne, Australia
Shelf cloud, Hampton, MN
A ragged shelf cloud portends an ominous few hours for this little suburb in Minnesota.
Vortex cloud, Wallops Island, VA
The photo above is from a NASA study on the wake vortices of aircraft. Here, the vortex phenomenon is made observable with the use of colored smoke. The formation occurs naturally in many diverse scenarios -- tornadoes, hurricanes, and cyclones being obvious cloud-related examples.
Photo: NASA Langley Research Center (NASA-LaRC)
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