Skip to Main Content

Strange Clouds

Pin it

Strange Clouds

The crew of the ISS have been observing electric-blue "noctilucent" clouds hovering on the edge of space.

NASA

Listen to this story via streaming audio, a downloadable file, or get help.

see captionFebruary 19, 2003: They hover on the edge of space. Thin, wispy clouds, glowing electric blue. Some scientists think they're seeded by space dust. Others suspect they're a telltale sign of global warming.

They're called noctilucent or "night-shining" clouds (NLCs). And whatever causes them, they're lovely.

"Over the past few weeks we've been enjoying outstanding views of these clouds above the southern hemisphere," said space station astronaut Don Pettit during a NASA TV broadcast last month. "We routinely see them when we're flying over Australia and the tip of South America."

Right: Electric blue clouds viewed from the ISS. Photo credit: Don Pettit and NASA TV.

Sky watchers on Earth have seen them, too, glowing in the night sky after sunset, although the view from Earth-orbit is better. Pettit estimated the height of the noctilucent clouds he saw at 80 to 100 km ... "literally on the fringes of space."

subscription image
Sign up for EXPRESS SCIENCE NEWS delivery
"Noctilucent clouds are a relatively new phenomenon," says Gary Thomas, a professor at the University of Colorado who studies NLCs. "They were first seen in 1885" about two years after the powerful eruption of Krakatoa hurled plumes of volcanic ash as much as 80 km high in Earth's atmosphere.

Ash from the Indonesian volcano caused such splendid sunsets worldwide that evening sky watching became a popular past time. One sky watcher in particular, a German named T.W. Backhouse who is often credited with the discovery of noctilucent clouds, noticed something odd. He stayed outside after the sun had set and, on some nights, saw wispy filaments glowing electric blue against the black sky. Scientists of the day figured they were some curious manifestation of volcanic ash.

Eventually the ash settled and the vivid sunsets of Krakatoa faded. Yet the noctilucent clouds remained. "It's puzzling," says Thomas. "Noctilucent clouds have not only persisted, but also spread." A century ago the clouds were confined to latitudes above 50o; you had to go to places like Scandinavia, Russia and Britain to see them. In recent years they have been sighted as far south as Utah and Colorado.

see caption

Above: Noctilucent clouds over Finland. The orange hues near the horizon are ordinary sunset colors, notes Gary Thomas. NLCs, on the other hand, are usually "luminous blue-white or sometimes just pale white," he says. Image credit Pekka Parviainen.

Astronaut Don Pettit is a long-time noctilucent cloud-watcher. As a staff scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory between 1984 and 1996, he studied noctilucent clouds seeded by high-flying sounding rockets. "Seeing these kinds of clouds [from space] ... is certainly a joy for us on the ISS," he said on NASA TV.

"Although NLCs look like they're in space," continues Thomas, "they're really inside Earth's atmosphere, in a layer called the mesosphere ranging from 50 to 85 km high." The mesosphere is not only very cold (-125 C), but also very dry--"one hundred million times dryer than air from the Sahara desert." Nevertheless, NLCs are made of water. The clouds consist of tiny ice crystals about the size of particles in cigarette smoke.

How ice crystals form in the arid mesosphere is the essential mystery of noctilucent clouds.

see captionIce crystals in clouds need two things to grow: water molecules and something for those molecules to stick to--dust, for example. Water gathering on dust to form droplets or ice crystals is a process called nucleation. It happens all the time in ordinary clouds.

Left: Another noctilucent cloud seen from the ISS. Earth's horizon has been deliberately overexposed to reveal the faint cloudtops. "That little diaphanous line you see paralleling Earth's horizon is an NLC," said Pettit. Photo credit: Don Pettit and NASA TV.

Ordinary clouds, which are close to Earth, get their dust from sources like desert wind storms. It's hard to waft wind-blown dust all the way up to the mesosphere, however. "Krakatoa may have seeded the mesosphere with dust in 1883, but that doesn't explain the clouds we see now," notes Thomas. "Perhaps the source is space itself," he speculates. Every day Earth sweeps up tons of meteoroids--tiny bits of debris from comets and asteroids. Most are just the right size to seed noctilucent clouds.

The source of water vapor is less controversial. "Upwelling winds in the summertime carry water vapor from the moist lower atmosphere toward the mesosphere," says Thomas. This is why NLCs appear during summer.

One reason for the recent spread of noctilucent clouds might be global warming. "Extreme cold is required to form ice in a dry environment like the mesosphere," says Thomas. Ironically, global warming helps. While greenhouse gases warm Earth's surface, they actually lower temperatures in the high atmosphere. Thomas notes that noctilucent clouds were first spotted during the Industrial Revolution--a time of rising greenhouse gas production.

see caption
Above: The optimum viewing geometry for noctilucent clouds. Sunlight scattered by tiny ice crystals in NLCs is what gives the clouds their characteristic blue color. [more]

Are NLCs a thermometer for climate change? A telltale sign of meteoroids? Or both? "So much about these clouds is speculative," says Thomas.

A NASA spacecraft scheduled for launch in 2006 will provide some answers. The Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere satellite, or AIM for short, will orbit Earth at an altitude of 550 km. Although it's a small satellite, says Thomas, there are many sensors on board. AIM will take wide angle photos of NLCs, measure their temperatures and chemical abundances, monitor dusty aerosols, and count meteoroids raining down on Earth. "For the first time we'll be able to monitor all the crucial factors at once."

Meanwhile, all we can do is wait ... and watch. There's never been a better time to see noctilucent clouds. "During the summer months, look west perhaps 30 minutes to an hour after sunset when the Sun has dipped 6o to 16o below the horizon," advises Thomas. If you see luminous blue-white tendrils spreading across the sky, you've probably spotted an NLC. Observing sites north of 40o latitude are favored.

One more thing: don't forget your camera. According to astronaut Don Pettit, "you can never have too many pictures of noctilucent clouds."

Editor's note: Astronaut Don Pettit's remarks and his pictures of NLCs that appear in this story were first broadcast on NASA TV in January 2003.

Credits & Contacts
Author: Dr. Tony Phillips
Responsible NASA official: John M. Horack
Production Editor: Dr. Tony Phillips
Curator: Bryan Walls
Media Relations: Steve Roy
The Science and Technology Directorate at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center sponsors the Science@NASA web sites. The mission of Science@NASA is to help the public understand how exciting NASA research is and to help NASA scientists fulfill their outreach responsibilities.
more information

The eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 threw enormous plumes of ash as much as 80 km high into Earth's atmosphere and caused spectacular sunsets for years. It was not long after the eruption that noctilucent clouds were first observed.

How can you promote NLCs? Feed grass to a cow. Methane (CH4), a greenhouse gas produced by coal mining and by cows directly boosts the water content of the mesosphere. Methane is a light gas that rises to high altitudes where it's broken apart by solar ultraviolet radiation. Hydrogen from methane reacts with atmospheric oxygen to form the water vapor required by NLCs. [more]

Dr. Donald R. Pettit -- NASA astronaut. Don is a member of the ISS Expedition 6 crew.

Noctilucent cloud links: Observing Noctilucent Clouds (Dr. Colin Steel); What are Noctilucent Clouds? (NLC Observer's Group); Noctilucent Cloud FAQ (NLC Observer's Group); Noctilucent Clouds (APOD); Temperature of Earth's Highest Polar Clouds Measured for the First Time (AGU)

Noctilucent clouds are also known as Polar Mesopheric Clouds.

Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere -- (Hampton University) Prof. James Russell of Hampton University (HU) is the principal investigator of this Explorer-class NASA mission. Onboard instruments are being built by groups at Hampton University, the Naval Research Laboratory, the University of Colorado and Utah State University. Once in orbit, AIM will be controlled from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado.


Join our growing list of subscribers - sign up for our express news deliveryand you will receive a mail message every time we post a new story!!!

Moresays &aposHeadlines

THE END