Tag Archive : Clouds

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Tales of the Unexpected

October 4, 2014 | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

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.
Lady Fingers
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.1996-10-19 = 14.45 = nnwadj 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.
1995-10-19 = 14.49 = nnwadju
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?
The Ring
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 thisIMG_0165 — 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.
IMG_0225adj nmb1adjHere 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.IMG_0209
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. P-13-bg
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.
Go to Skyboy Photos to choose your own greeting cards and prints. Happy Sky Watching!


May 11, 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments

Clouds are great fun to watch.
Sitting under a tree, high on a hill, you gaze up to the sky for a few moments and you daydream. The rest of your life falls away as you watch the clouds slowly, imperceptibly roll across the heavens . Then you sigh again, take a sip of lemonade, and  pick up your book  to read for a while.
When you look up again, barely ten minutes later, the sky is totally different. Some clouds are gone and new ones have taken their place.  A whole new cloud deck is rolling in. How did the sky manage that sleight-of-hand? You look again and watch, and yes, just as before, the clouds are barely moving. Almost motionless. How did they do that so fast?

But when you play the sky’s endless movie at fast-forward,  a whole different story emerges!
The cumulus clouds which had seemed to be simply floating by like cotton balls are seen to be forming and dissolving at the same time, continually flowing through forms, coming and going in random disorder, appearing and disappearing throughout their short lives.
And you can see how the clouds pull themselves up by their own bootstraps: once an area of cloud starts condensing, the condensing moisture releases heat, which warms the air. The air rises. That pulls in more moist air to replace it. That air condenses, warms, rises, pulls in more moisture…the cloud feeds on its own growth in a positive feedback loop, like a microphone held too close to a speaker.
Clouds is Water

Sunlight and Rain
Sunlight and Rain

There is a classification system for clouds, but it’s only moderately helpful in deciphering cloud mysteries. There are too many types of clouds. There are clouds that fit in more than one category, or fit in between categories. Some defy categorization.
But what all clouds have in common is water.  Think of what your cool lemonade glass did once the waiter laid it on your table. The outside of the glass condenses water just like cold air condenses water out of warm, moist air. Then it’s just a matter of how many infinite ways warm moist air can be introduced to colder air, and in what shapes and fashions and situations.
To Make a Cloud
Of all the planets, only Earth (that we know of) has abundant water in all three of its possible phases: solid ice, liquid water, and gas vapor. Mars is too cold, Venus is too hot, but on our world, temperatures are just right. And the sun’s heat makes sure water is changing from one phase to another all the time.
Vapor in the air condenses into droplets that float and we call it a cloud. Droplets bump together and collect to form bigger droplets that sink to earth. We call it anything from a gentle filmy mist to a thundering downpour. Droplets freeze and fall as snow, sleet or hail.
Midwestern Ice Storm
Midwestern Ice Storm

Or vapor directly freezes to frost or rime ice on everything it touches. Or it falls as liquid  rain and freezes instantly when it lands,  pulling down mighty oaks by sheer weight.
Finally, water which has collected in lakes, oceans, soil, and living things (like us), evaporates back into gas, and we have sweltering humidity, dew and fog, and clouds. Moisture has come full circle, and is reunited with the deep blue sky.
Glaciation (Freezing Raindrops)
Glaciation (Freezing Raindrops)

Some of the most dramatic and fascinating displays of weather in the sky are the result of water changing from one phase to another. Nature seems to delight in creating different ways for things to mix and interact. Even a single type of event, like a snowflake or a cloud, is never repeated in exactly the same way twice.
Boundaries, borders and edges
The most interesting things in the sky occur at the boundaries between other things. The point of contact between two continent-sized air masses is where weather occurs. The boundary between earth and sky is the scene for fog, frost and dew, when we get to literally live in the clouds for a while. The boundaries between cold air, warm air, wet air, dry air, dirty, clean, moving or still, high or low, neutral or electrically charged air — all these boundaries produce their own special spectacles.

The border between day and night produces spectacular displays only possible with the low, red light from the sun on the horizon. The low light of dawn and twilight also punches up the contrast of clouds, outlines and defines their shapes more sharply than during the day. Sometimes two, three, four or even more cloud decks are all doing different things at the same time.
Three Cloud Decks at once
Three Cloud Decks at once

But the best way to learn about clouds is to live with them. Watch them. Go back up on the hill and spend some time watching. It’s really great fun!

Shooting Heaven and Nature

February 9, 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments

Photographing the sky is probably the laziest type of nature  photography there is. You don’t need to travel to far-off places, book an expensive safari, have adventures or even leave the house. And locating the subject  is pretty easy: the sky is usually right overhead.
The catch? Waiting for something to happen that might be photo worthy can take a long time.
2 Shooting-Heaven-and-Nature-
Most of the time the sky is just, well, the sky. We think of it as featureless and uniform because it so often is. Every cloud looks like every other cloud, or so we think. We take it for granted, and pretty soon stop looking up altogether.
That’s why it pays to pay attention every so often.That’s where the surprises come in.
With the possible exception of sunrise and sunsets, photo-worthy moments of cloud and weather don’t always announce themselves ahead of time. They can happen at any time, and can last for hours or perhaps only a minute or two.  And when they do happen, I have found, it is usually at the most inconvenient times!
Shooting the Heavens
Of course, having a spectacular weather event and a camera does no good if you can’t see the sky. Finding a spot with a view can be hard, especially in cities. I have discovered a few open lots and high spots within a couple  blocks of my Kansas City home that afford a view of sky, at least in one direction or another, and another dozen spots around town, just in case I am out driving. Perhaps there are some spots near where you live that encourage sky gazing.
2 Shooting-Heaven-and-Nature-2
However, you don’t need a spectacular view to get a spectacular picture.  And the presence of trees or houses in the photo can actually give a sense of scale to the image, making the majesty of the sky more evident against the smaller details of the landscape. If you can’t find a better view than right where you’re standing, shoot first and ask questions later!
There are no rules, as far as I know, but the first one would have to be: always carry a camera. These days, if you have a phone, you have a camera, and today’s cellphone cameras can take fairly good picturesBut a camera that gives you a little bit more control over the settings can be helpful. Here are some of the fancy things you can do.
Focus is usually the easiest part: the whole sky is focused at infinity, by definition, so you could just focus your camera manually to infinity.  But using the auto-focus can be easier and more accurate. Be careful, though: uniform, featureless areas of sky or cloud will drive the auto-focus mechanism bonkers.  (Sorry for the techno-speak.) In that case, focus on areas of sharp contrast or detail in the clouds, or toward a distant landscape,  then keep the focus set as you move to shoot the actual subject. Shooting at the highest f/stop (with the smallest aperture) that you can get away with will also increase the sharpness of the image.
Metering photos
On most bright sunny or cloudy days,  you’ll need to “fool” the light meter by intentionally taking a picture that is darker that the camera thinks is correct, by as much as two or even three f/stops (or smaller shutter speed). I don’t know why this is, but most cameras bleach out sky and cloud at the regular settings. Darker tones seem to bring out the fine contrast in very bright subjects.
At night, of course, the opposite problem presents itself: not enough light. Use a tripod if you need to,  or just hold the camera steady for long exposures one. Digital cameras are much more forgiving of low light conditions, and you can always increase sensitivity on the camera without the photo becoming overly grainy. Exposures more than about a half-second will show cloud movement, depending how fast clouds are moving, so it is sometimes worth it.
Telephoto or zoom lenses are helpful in getting small or faraway events, but look for a telephoto that has a wide view when open, as well.  Even then, it may take four or five pictures to encompass a spectacular sunset or a storm front as wide as Wyoming. So, take the pictures! Hold the camera relatively level as you sweep side-to-side snapping a shot every second. Then go home and download a free software program (or your camera’s software) to “stitch” the photos into a panorama.
Crazy Weather
Sun dogs, arcs, iridescence and halos can be challenging to capture because they usually occur close to the sun. You can used a tree or signpost or just your fingers to block the sun’s disc, but try photographing without them, too, because most digital cameras can capture the detail without the sun washing out the entire picture. Aim the camera directly at the sun if you can, to minimize lens flare and reflections.
Photos of the land and the sky together, of course, give you two natures for the price of one. When the land is present, you get a true sense of the scale and majesty of the sky.  But usually, when you take a picture of the sky, the land appears black in the image. When you “shoot” for the landscape, the sky is to bright to see any detail.
The trick to capturing both, is to “bracket”, or take a series of photos at different exposures, from too dark to too bright. In the darkest, the sky will be perfectly exposed, and in the lightest, the land. You can then combine the two halves to display the best features of both, using digital imaging programs on the computer or that came with your digital camera.
There is no lazier, simpler and more accessible way to explore nature than to just lie back and gaze in wonder at the vast ocean of sky.  To be able to capture images from the gazing, well, that’s stealing fire from heaven!