Pilot Photographs Clouds Resembling Breaking Waves Over Missouri

Chris Dolce
Published: November 7, 2018

Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds are seen over southern Missouri in a recent photo.
(Twitter/NWSAWC/Shawn McCauley)

A pilot flying over southern Missouri recently photographed rare clouds that resembled breaking ocean waves in the sky.

The rolling, wave-like cloud formations were taken by Shawn McCauley and are called Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds. Sometimes they are also called billows. They are named for scientists Lord Kelvin and Hermann von Helmholtz, who discovered the process by which they form.

They are the atmospheric equivalent of large breaking waves that are sometimes seen on the ocean.

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These breaking atmospheric waves occur in an environment with a large amount of vertical wind shear – a change in the speed and direction of winds as you go higher in the atmosphere – and stable air.

In this case, winds at the top of the cloud layer are moving faster than the base of that same layer. This causes the top to crash downward in a curling manner after it hits the stable layer above.

The rolling motion created by this type of wind shear also causes aircraft turbulence.

However, the rolling cloud motions are often masked by a large amount of cloud cover. Other times, there are no clouds around to illustrate the wave pattern.

What makes this particular photograph unique is that it was taken from above, providing a three-dimensional view of the cloud's appearance. Most examples we see of this type of cloud formation are looking at the sky from the ground level.

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