The Sciences

Cloud Busting

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitNov 4, 2005 2:11 AM

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Last week, I was in Palm Springs California for a meeting of the California Science Teachers Association. I don't teach, but in my day job I develop educational activities for students, and so we go to these meetings to distribute our materials and to learn what others are doing. Palm Springs is located at the foot of a pretty extensive mountain range east of LA. As we were walking to breakfast one morning, I looked over to the mountains and was pretty surprised to see what looked like a lenticular cloud. These are round, lens-shaped clouds that can form from winds blowing over mountains. For some stupid reason, I didn't take a picture right away, but a few minutes later I did pull out the camera and took these shots:

By this time it was starting to lose coherence, but you can still see the weird shape. Not surprisingly, these get reported as UFOs. They're rare, so even people who are used to watching the skies don't see them very often! This particular cloud was smoother and showed the more usual lenticular shape when I first saw it. Lesson learned: if you have a camera with you, take the shot right away! It's funny-- just a few days before that I saw another weird cloud, this time outside my office in northern California:

It really looks like the horizontal contrail is pushing against and slicing in half the more vertical one. The effect was even stronger when viewed in real life. I wonder if that was what was really happening-- I have no other simple explanation for it, so maybe that is precisely what was going on. Looking up is fun. You miss so much otherwise!

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