Five Puzzling Pieces
Every so often, something happens in the sky that I can’t explain.
Not that I can explain everything that happens with the weather, or even very much of it. But nothing in the course of my amateur studies, or my sky and nature photography, has led me to understand what was happening in these five uniquely baffling events. They remain my favorite special mysteries.
When I stepped outside to get the mail shortly after dawn, the sky was featureless, a few clouds, bright sunshine, calm winds. I came back in, brewed coffee, and went out twenty minutes later for another look.
I got the giddy, disoriented feeling you get when you walk into the wrong movie at the Multiplex. A brand new sky had replaced the old!
Long lines of cloud had suddenly formed, or moved into place, I don’t know which. They hung motionless, barely moving, stretching across the sky in wide parallel rows. To the northwest, the lines abruptly ended and joined into the side of a larger cloud that extended off to the horizon. It was like fingers stretched out from the palm of a giant floating hand, reaching toward the other end of the sky.
I was stunned by their sudden presence. But as I watched the bands of cloud more closely, I was even more amazed by the gyrations going on inside each column of cloud.
Most clouds form from the bottom, mushrooming up and out of a flat cloud base. These looked like they were forming upside-down. I saw that new cloud was forming along an invisible line on the top central ridge of each row, then flowing out and away from the ridge down toward the two edges. I watched the turbulent tufts of cloud flow wetly around and down the sides of these long shapes, as if someone was dumping frosting all along the tops of a batch of Lady Fingers.
The “frosting” — which did indeed look like sloppily poured icing, dripping and gooey — ran from the ridges down towards an abrupt edge on the side of each finger. In between the fingers of cloud, the sky remained crystal clear, with a sharp division between cloud and open sky.
Despite all the turbulence within each long tube, the tubes themselves barely moved. The whole sky slid by majestically toward the southwest, each finger of cloud boiling with turbulence, for about another hour.
Then they gradually dissolved back into the featureless cloudiness of earlier, a little thicker but totally featureless, as if — as if the whole thing had never happened. Was it all just a dream?
This strange apparition, late in the afternoon of a calm cloudy day, almost escaped my notice. I had no reason to think anything unusual was going on and hadn’t paid attention to the sky in hours. The first mistake of sky-watching!
Despite the absence of storms or heavy winds, this huge roll cloud had somehow appeared out of nowhere, and attracted my notice only when the red glow of sunset shone back onto the wall behind me.
At least I think it was a roll cloud, a type of cloud formed in the same way as a smoke ring, but as if the smoker was blowing straight down onto a flat surface. In the case of roll clouds, a downdraft of air falls to earth and flows outward from the center, the cloud rolling as it moves, like a spinning rope, or the movement of a rolling-up pant leg.
But such roll clouds are usually associated with massive weather systems or blowing out in front of intense storms. This one simply hung there placidly, barely moving. As the setting sun sent a sharp wedge of crimson light across the cloud, I could make out wisps of rain or snow spinning off from the rope and caught in the evening glow.
Perhaps this spectacle was simply a milder, localized version of the usual storm roll clouds. Whatever it was, I spent twenty minutes watching it roll on over the land as the sky darkened, murmuring “My Precious…my Precious!”
The sign of Four
If I hadn’t glanced up into the sky at the moment that this — thing — passed over the roof of the house, I would’ve missed it too. A strange filigree like fine lace, inside the cloud, was like the “negative space” in an artist’s drawing, a shape made up of all the areas outside the actual drawing– as if the clouds and the air between the clouds were reversed on a film negative.
But this was just the beginning. For the next couple of hours, these impossible-looking clouds kept forming and reforming, shape-shifting into contorted lacework patterns both strange and silly looking.
Here you see it had formed itself into a spiral shape like an elephant’s tusk, where work had been done on an elaborate scrimshaw carving, the whole tusk hanging embedded in a larger cloud.
Then again this shape rapidly evolved to a new shape, and a new shape, and through a series of the most bizarre clouds I have ever seen.
Cartoon characters, or strangely drawn animated animals. Here, to the right, what is this, some giant bird? A reptile?
The tall ungainly cloud to the left looked like an Ent from The Lord of the Rings … or some weird sand-storm creature from a forgettable B movie with Brendan Fraser.
It wasn’t until near sunset that the sky finally settled down, the clouds slowly going back to what they had been doing, and by nightfall the sky was covered with a uniform even sheet of clouds.
But I thought I sensed a cosmic chuckle, still lingering in the air.
Wrapped in a Ribbon
In the most seriously scientific way I ask, what’s up with this? A completely bland and uneventful day suddenly spawned this strange single snaking line of cloud.
There must have been some boundary between different air masses that was quite invisible before this appears, some difference in moisture or warmth or pressure between two pockets of air. Whatever the cause, the fat, dense ribbon of cloud then began growing clouds straight up along its length, like a theater curtain rising instead of falling.
This single sharp demarcation of the sky divided the local area into Left Kansas City and Right Kansas City for about forty-five minutes. Then gradually the line became more diffuse, the boundary dissolved, the local municipalities took over again and the awed citizens enjoyed the remainder of the day under beautiful fair-weather skies.
The Golden World
Not the strangest but perhaps the most spiritually satisfying event I ever witnessed, this one came at the end of a cold, wet fall day.
The afternoon was miserable. The city had been huddled beneath a gloomy overcast for the previous two days, and it grew steadily colder and darker. I had given up all hope of getting sky pictures, because the sky was a brown-grey dome of muddy cloud, the same tone from horizon to horizon. But I drove to the top of a nearby hill anyway, to try photographing the city itself from above the depressing mist. The distant houses and buildings looked waterlogged, so many pebbles at the bottom of a lake, their lights glowing bravely into the soupy air.
I set up the camera and huddled shivering on the hillside, snapping useless soggy pictures. Nothing worked. What was the point? After an hour or two, I was wet, cold, and miserable, and ready to head home.
Then a few moments before sunset, unexpectedly, a circle of sky began to slowly dissolve. The patch grew thinner, lighter. Then as I watched in amazement, the clouds inside this round opening began rolling themselves into long thin lines, stretching across the entire opening in neatly packed rows. It was as if God had suddenly reached over and opened a window, then adjusted the Venetian blinds for me.
I stared through to the vast distance above. The tall clouds were receiving their last red glow of sunset, hanging contentedly in the sky far above the city, the hillside, the photographer, and the grey and dismal world below.
I realized of course that they’d been there all along. I could only give thanks for their welcome appearance.
I couldn’t help wondering how I might have felt earlier, huddling in the rain, if I had somehow known there was another world hanging there within my reach but temporarily inaccessible, and whether I might have been just a little bit comforted by the knowledge.
But perhaps that’s not the way things work.
If you have any insight into these mysteries, and what meteorological wizardry might have been going on, please comment and let me know. They have baffled me!
“Sky Ribbons” and “The Golden World” are two of the images from my catalog of Sky and Nature Photography.
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