Lenticular Clouds

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Air normally moves significantly more horizontally than vertically. When moist air is forced upwards over a high geographic feature like a mountain or volcano, lenticular clouds can form as the air cools and water moisture condenses.

A type of wave cloud, the word lenticular originates from the Latin word Lenticularis which means lentil-shaped. Because they appear to cap or hang over mountain tops, these clouds are also often referred to as “cap clouds” or “UFO clouds” (after the cloud’s flying saucer-like shape).

As fast moving horizontal air meets a topographic barrier like a mountain, the air is forced up and over the mountain. The rising air cools at the top of the mountain and condenses water vapor in the air, forming the curved and layer shapes typical of a lenticular cloud.

Lenticular clouds viewed from straight down in Antartica.
Lenticular clouds over the Eisenhower Range of Antarctica’s Transantarctic Mountains. Image: Landsat 8, NASA, public domain.

Using Lenticular Clouds to Study Gravity Waves

As air rushes over mountains, gravity waves can form under the right conditions. Lenticular clouds can form at the crest of the gravity waves if the conditions of cold air and water vapor are present.

Gravity waves are mostly invisible to the naked eye, satellites and climate models, making it a challenge to study them. The presence of lenticular clouds forming over mountains in the presence of gravity waves has allowed researchers to better study this phenomenom.

Layered clouds over rolling hills.
Lenticular clouds above Buffalo Plateau. Photo: Jim Peaco, NPS, November 2014, public domain.

Satellite imagery captured this lenticular cloud forming over the top of Mount Michael, an active stratovolcano in the South Sandwich Islands. Located on Saunders Island, Mount Michael is about 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) from Antarctica and 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) from South America.

A lenticular cloud forming over a volcano as seen on satellite imagery.
A lenticular cloud forms over Mount Michael on Saunders Island. Satellite imager: Landsat 8, NASA, public domain.

Lenticular clouds can be commonly seen around the Rocky Mountains in the United States.

References

Hansen, K. (2021, January 19). Curious clouds in the Transantarctic mountains. NASA Earth Observatory. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/147772/curious-clouds-in-the-transantarctic-mountains

LeFevre, K. (2020, December 28). The case of the missing waves. Earthdata. https://earthdata.nasa.gov/learn/sensing-our-planet/the-case-of-the-missing-waves

Lenticular clouds over a mountain range.
Lenticular cap over a mountain range, Denali National Park & Preserve. Photo: Frank W. Jacob, NPS, public domain.

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