Clouds That Resemble Ocean Waves

Kelvin-Helmholtz wave clouds.

Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds look like waves breaking in the ocean. (Image: Brocken Inaglory via Wikimedia Commons)

Cloud formations can sometimes share a resemblance to some objects in the world. Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds are one such type of cloud — they look like ocean waves. These are named after two 19th-century scientists who devoted their time to learning about them.

Wave clouds

The two scientists, Hermann von Helmholtz and Lord Kelvin, studied how a small disturbance introduced at the boundary of two fluids of varying densities would affect the dynamics between them. This phenomenon is not just applicable to clouds, but also to the Sun’s corona, Jupiter’s red spot, Saturn’s rings, and so on.

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In the sky, the phenomenon ends up generating shapes that look like waves breaking in the ocean. “These clouds are formed between two layers of air with different densities and travel at different speeds. If a warm, less dense layer of air exists over a layer of colder, denser air, and the wind shear across the two layers is strong enough, eddies will develop along the boundary. Evaporation and condensation of the eddies render them visible as wave-shaped clouds,” according to Amusing Planet.

Clouds that look like waves.
They are formed between two layers of air with different densities and travel at different speeds. (Image: Noel Feans via Flickr)

These are more likely to appear in the presence of windy conditions since there will be variance among the densities of air. They are seen as an excellent indicator of atmospheric instability. For aircraft, these are early warning signs about turbulence.

The atmospheric environment created by Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds has inspired artists throughout human history. The best example would be Vincent van Gogh who is believed to have painted his masterpiece The Starry Night after being inspired by them.

Interesting cloud formations

Mackerel sky

This type of cloud pattern is so named because of its resemblance to the mackerel’s striped scale pattern. Made up of cirrus clouds, they are formed rather high in the sky. They often indicate the presence of warm winds flowing out from a faraway thunderstorm. The ripple-like appearance occurs due to the cool air resisting the motion of the humid air trying to get past it.

Roll Clouds

These are one of the rarest cloud types that you will ever see. Technically, they are known as “arcus” clouds and are often linked to thunderstorms. Their rolling appearance comes about due to the horizontal vorticity of the air masses as well as the shearing effects.

Lenticular clouds

You will mostly find these near mountains where the air moves from the ground upwards and ends up being condensed. They kind of look like pancakes and continue to remain in a single place for several hours. Some people tend to mistake these for UFOs.

A lenticular cloud covers Mayon Volcano in the Philippines.
Some people tend to mistake lenticular clouds for UFOs. (Image: Patryk Reba via Wikimedia Commons)

Asperitas clouds

This is a rather new type of cloud classification, only officially recognized in 2015. These cloud formations look like chaotic, dark waves that swirl in a disorderly manner in the sky. They are mostly found in the North American plains, closely following thunderstorms.

Shelf clouds

These tend to form at the front edges of intense thunderstorms. The moist air from the storm collides with the warm humid air mass, triggering condensation to occur in a slanted, upward slope.

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