Home / US / Rare Kelvin-Helmholtz wave clouds are seen over Smith Mountain Lake, Virginia

Rare Kelvin-Helmholtz wave clouds are seen over Smith Mountain Lake, Virginia

Cryptic clouds in the sky crushed and crashed across Virginia Smith Mountain Lake on Tuesday night, as gigantic breakers in the ocean.

These rare clouds, known as Kelvin-Helmholtz instability waves, were spotted and photographed by Amy Christie Hunter around 8:30 pm

"It was the coolest cloud formation I think I've ever seen!" she wrote on her Facebook page. "It was so amazing."

Hunter's photo has become viral, as shown on local and national broadcasts and websites. Kelvin-Helmholtz instability clouds form variation in air density between adjacent layers and the resulting difference in wind velocities known as shear. These clouds are extremely short-lived and they break in the same way as a wave on the shore – as the bottom layer moves slower than the top layer and the top increases and crashes.

To initiate these wave clouds, you need a disturbance or interference to interfere with the air flow. They usually only last 10 minutes or so before they collapse.

They are most commonly near mountain ranges because of the stratified air above them, but they can form anywhere and display the flowing nature of the atmosphere.

Here are two other textbooks examples of these cloud formations, both from 2015:

from Breckenridge, Colo.

Kelvin-Helmholtz cloud tower over Breckenridge Ski Resort in Colorado, October 28, 2015. (@breckenridgemtn)

From the Galapagos Islands:

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