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Clouds are fascinating because they take on so many different, beautiful shapes and are constantly changing. Cloud-watching from Earth can be endlessly entertaining, but some of the most amazing cloud patterns can only be properly appreciated from space.
Satellites can take in thousands of miles of the Earth’s surface in one shot, revealing complicated and intriguing cloud patterns we could never see from below. We’ve gathered here some of the best cloud formations to see from above.
Click on any of the images in this gallery for a higher-resolution version.
Von Kármán Vortex Street, Selkirk Island
The crazy-looking swirls in the image above may be one of the weirdest cloud formations that can be seen from space. The pattern is known as a von Kármán vortex street, named after Theodore von Kármán. First noticed in the laboratory by fluid dynamicists, it occurs when a more-viscous fluid flows through water and encounters a cylindrical object, which creates vortices in the flow.
Alejandro Selkirk Island, off the Chilean coast, is acting like the cylinder in the image above, taken by the Landsat 7 satellite in September 1999. A beautiful vortex street disrupts a layer of stratocumulus clouds low enough to be affected by the island, which rises a mile above sea level.
More strange and wonderful vortex streets formed by islands can be seen in the images below and in the last slide of this gallery. Below is Guadalupe Island, 21 miles off the coast of Mexico’s Baja California, shot in 2000 by Landsat 7; Rishiri Island in the northern Sea of Japan, photographed by space shuttle astronauts in 2001; and Wrangel Island, above the Arctic Circle northeast of Siberia, flanked by a vortex street created by the smaller Gerald Island, imaged by NASA’s Aqua satellite in August 2008.
Images: 1) Bob Cahalan/NASA, USGS. 2) NASA. 3) NASA. 4) NASA (STS100-710-182).
Weird Clouds Look Even Better From Space