What Do You See?

2012-08-31 16:42:20.000 – Ryan Knapp,  Weather Observer/Meteorologist

A ‘whale’ sized lenticular.

Is the cup half full or half empty or something else altogether? A question that has plagued people for centuries and depending on how you answer, it can define certain aspects of your personality, supposedly. If only given the first two options, I am usually a glass half full kind of guy. But, when I can provide an option outside of those two options, the scientific part of me usually thinks of the cup as completely full; the bottom half with a liquid, the top half with air. And in meteorological terms, this makes perfect sense to me as air shares lot of the same properties, rules, and laws as you would find in fluid dynamics. So, when the glass is tilted, what is governing the movement of the liquid within the cup is similarly governing the movement of the air in the cup. So, the scientific side of me sees it as always ‘full’, what these means at a psychological level is beyond me – maybe I’m just overly optimistic.

But, the thought of ‘air as a liquid’ doesn’t just apply to me looking at cups of water, I think this way every time I look at the world around me, especially the sky above me. This was especially true this morning when the sky ‘exploded’ with lenticular clouds to our east. As the air moves over the surface of the earth, it encounters masses (i.e. mountains, buildings, etc) similar to how water flowing down a river would encounter rocks or branches. As the air flows up, over, down, and around these masses, the air currents become turbulent, generating ripples, eddies, and other disrupted flows like you would see in a river. And depending on the amount of disruption generated, the moisture present and the temperature profiles in the atmosphere, the turbulent flow generated by disrupted air flow around a mass can generate clouds, manifesting a visible representation of air as a liquid.

In the case of this morning, air was flowing along the surface and encountering the mass of the White Mountains. While it may not be a large mass as compared to the Rockies or Sierra Nevada’s, it is still a large enough mass to disrupt the flow of air around it. So as this air flowed up and over the summits this morning, the stable flow of air became disrupted, generating ripples in the air flow to our east. To illustrate this better, think of back to when you threw a rock into a lake, the ripples propagating away from the splash point had peaks and valleys, taking on a shape of something like a sine wave. Think of the summit as that rock, and the waves propagating and rippling away from it opposite of where the air was flowing from. As these ripples moved up in the atmosphere, they cooled until the parcel of air reached its dew point, condensing into a cloud. As the parcel of air condensing into a cloud reaches its crest, it then starts to sink. As the air sinks, it warms, and the moisture beings to turn back into a gas. On the bottom side, the opposite effect is occurring to some extent, usually providing a lens type shape in the peaks of the ripples in the air flow. Hopefully this all makes sense in this brief summary, but if not, here are three references you can turn to for more information and some illustrations as to what I mean: Page 1, Page 2, Page 3

The lenticular clouds this morning showed how air behaves like a liquid as several layers of lenticulars from our northeast to our south popped up. These clouds, while relatively stationary, are like any other type of cloud, bending and morphing into various shapes over time, allowing our imagination to run wild. Most of the time, these clouds look like a stereotypical UFO, but occasionally you get even more unique shapes taking on much more elaborate shapes. In the case of this morning, the lenticulars that formed took on took on several unique shapes across the sky. In the thumbnail picture to this comment, I saw what looked like two whales, but others have seen the shape of a dolphin, a manatee, a shark or even more elaborate shapes. If the shape is seen like a sea creature, it just further reinforces the notion that the air is like a liquid as it made the sky look like a giant ocean this morning with us looking up from the bed below. But, that’s just me; maybe you’re viewing the picture and just seeing it all as a cloudy sky. But, that starts returning to my original question about the glass of water, only in this case, its what you see in the skys around you; a fanciful world of exotic creatures, a dreary overcast day, or something else altogether? And that, my friends, is completely up to you.


Ryan Knapp,  Weather Observer/Meteorologist

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