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10 Rare Cloud Formations

Adam Winkles . . . Comments

This is a list of what I believe to be the top 10 rarest cloud formations. And a brief description of each. No particular order in how ‘rare’ they are though.

1. Nacreous Clouds

Nacreous

These rare clouds, sometimes called mother-of-pearl clouds, are 15 – 25km (9 -16 miles) high in the stratosphere and well above tropospheric clouds. They have iridescent colours but are higher and much rarer than ordinary iridescent clouds. They are seen mostly but not exclusively in polar regions and in winter at high latitudes, Scandinavia, Alaska, Northern Canada. Lower level iridescent clouds can be seen anywhere.

Nacreous clouds shine brightly in high altitude sunlight up to two hours after ground level sunset or before dawn. Their unbelievably bright iridescent colours and slow movement relative to any lower clouds make them an unmistakable and unforgettable sight.


2. Mammatus Clouds

02-Mammatus-Clouds-1

Mammatus are pouch-like cloud structures and a rare example of clouds in sinking air. Sometimes very ominous in appearance, mammatus clouds are harmless and do not mean that a tornado is about to form – a commonly held misconception. In fact, mammatus are usually seen after the worst of a thunderstorm has passed.

3. Altocumulus Castelanus

03-Jellyfishcloudsswns 800X483

Also known as jellyfish clouds due to their jellyfish-like appearance. These formed around 17,000 ft due to when the rush of moist air comes from the Gulf Stream and gets trapped between layers of dry air. The top of the cloud rises into a jellyfish shape and long tentacles known as “trailing virga” form from rain drops that have evaporated.


4. Noctilucent Clouds

04-31353478.Nightsky4

Noctilucent Clouds or Polar Mesopheric Clouds: This is an extroadinarily rare cloud formation that occurs out on the verge of space between 82km to 102 km from the earth’s surface. Noctilucent clouds appear to be luminous yet they reflect the sunlight from the other side of the earth at night, giving them a glowing appearance

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5. Mushroom Clouds

05-800Px-Mountredoubteruption

A mushroom cloud is a distinctive mushroom-shaped cloud of smoke, condensed water vapor, or debris resulting from a very large explosion. They are most commonly associated with nuclear explosions, but any sufficiently large blast will produce the same sort of effect. Volcano eruptions and impact events can produce natural mushroom clouds.

Mushroom clouds form as a result of the sudden formation of a large mass of hot low-density gases near the ground creating a Rayleigh-Taylor instability. The mass of gas rises rapidly, resulting in turbulent vortices curling downward around its edges and drawing up a column of additional smoke and debris in the center to form its “stem”. The mass of gas eventually reaches an altitude where it is no longer less dense than the surrounding air and disperses, the debris drawn upward from the ground scattering and drifting back down (see fallout).


6. Cirrus Kelvin-Helmholtz

06A-Wavecloudsduval

Appearing as a slender, horizontal spiral of cloud, cirrus Kelvin-Helmholtz is one of the most distinctive cloud formations. However, it tends to dissipate only a minute or two after forming and, as a result, is rarely observed.

Average height is around 16,500 ft.

7. Lenticular Clouds

07-Ac Len Wanaka Jan98

Lenticular clouds, technically known as altocumulus standing lenticularis, are stationary lens-shaped clouds that form at high altitudes, normally aligned at right-angles to the wind direction.

Where stable moist air flows over a mountain or a range of mountains, a series of large-scale standing waves may form on the downwind side. Lenticular clouds sometimes form at the crests of these waves. Under certain conditions, long strings of lenticular clouds can form, creating a formation known as a wave cloud.


8. Roll Clouds

08-800Px-Roll-Cloud-Racine

A roll cloud is a low, horizontal tube-shaped arcus cloud associated with a thunderstorm gust front, or sometimes a cold front. Roll clouds can also be a sign of possible microburst activity. Cool air sinking air from a storm cloud’s downdraft spreads out across the surface with the leading edge called a gust front. This outflow undercuts warm air being drawn into the storm’s updraft. As the cool air lifts the warm moist air water condenses creating cloud, which often rolls with the different winds above and below (wind shear).

9. Shelf Clouds

09-Rolling-Thunder-Cloud

A shelf cloud is a low, horizontal wedge-shaped arcus cloud, associated with a thunderstorm gust front (or occasionally with a cold front, even in the absence of thunderstorms). Unlike a roll cloud, a shelf cloud is attached to the base of the parent cloud above it (usually a thunderstorm). Rising cloud motion often can be seen in the leading (outer) part of the shelf cloud, while the underside often appears turbulent, boiling, and wind-torn.

10. Stratocumulus Clouds

10-Cloud Streets

According to the Sapporo Meteorological Observatory, these low-altitude stratocumulus clouds were rolled into long, distinctive ribbons after becoming trapped in air currents. While it is not uncommon for wind to form such patterns in stratocumulus clouds, photos that clearly show the clouds rolled into strips are rare, says the observatory.

Contributor: Adam Winkles

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  • dalandzadgad

    beautiful. i’ve always wanted to see the aurora lights phenomenon (which this list reminded me of) with my own eyes, now i have these to add to the list.

  • Sid

    Wow very beautiful

  • Jackie

    cool list jamie!!

  • I actually worked at the weather office for a short time and I didn’t know most of these clouds existed!

  • Angela

    wow, gorgeous

    rolling clouds and shelf clouds are sorta scary!
    I remember seeing lenticular clouds when I was in Colorado for Outward Bound. We were at almost 14,000 feet and in the evening they’d sometimes form :) really pretty

  • Emily

    cool list! love the pics

  • FekketCantenel

    Gorgeous! I wish I could see some of these IRL!

  • Kelsi

    Is lenticular really that rare? Maybe I should look up better pictures, but around where I live anyway I see clouds like that all the time.

  • wowzer

    Kelsi- Same here. The Rocky Mountains foster lenticular clouds all the time, and until I saw this list I didn’t know there was anything at all peculiar about them.

  • Clouds are my all time favorite things in the world to photograph, i have hundreds of them, unfortunately, most of them are average clouds.

    I would love to see all of the cloud formations on this list one day though.

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  • moe

    This reminds me of my favorite elective, severe and unusual weather, where we learned about most of these formations. These pictures are much better.

  • ben

    Those are really cool, i have a picture around here somewhere of less defined mammatus clouds taken from my backyard. Another thing worth looking up in this category is Morning glorys formed off of australia

  • Adam W.

    I read about the morning glory clouds but could not find a picture so i opted to not put in the list… I’ve got some great pictures of the mammatus clouds that appeared here in colorado a few years ago, were all sorts of pink hues…

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  • Hannah

    To me, things like this reaffirm my belief in a God…

  • Dale

    I once observed a dark red sky well after dark in the late 70’s or early 80’s over northern Nebraska. It was centered directly overhead and covered about 1/4 of the total area of sky and actually glowed red brightly enough that it was obvious even with the lights of the nearby town interfering. I think now that perhaps it was Noctilucent Clouds.

  • morgan

    i lov the clouds

  • Diogenes

    hella cool!

    Jesus and Virgin Mary seem to appear in formations to some earthly eyes ………along with clouds of Da Vinci painting a picture in the sky of Jesus and the Virgin Mary made out of clouds.

  • WatAbout

    Simply spectacular. This list and the space pictures have to be my two of the best lists on the site. More than just the awesome, abstract views of nature they show us, they remind me of how insignificant we are in the scope of it all. Hannah, I agree with you completely.

  • WatAbout: Did you check out the space list recently? It was updated to include a brilliant HD image of the moon. It is here

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  • WatAbout

    I hadn’t seen that list yet. Add it to my list of mind-blowing lists though. I was referring to this space list. https://listverse.com/nature/10-incredible-images-of-space/

  • ben
  • Adam W.

    Sickness. Clouds are awesome. Just imagine what other earth-like planets out there produce. Or any other planet for that matter. *dreams*

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    chemtrails
    lucious weather warming chemtrails!

  • Adam W.: I spent a great deal of time as a kid dreaming about that too – in a way we are very lucky to not have access to those other planets as it gives us something all to think about.

  • mike

    You might want to consider defining some of the terms in there that most people aren’t familiar with, e.g. microburst. Or at least linking to a wikipedia or wiktionary page on the term. Great pics by the way.

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  • Fred the Fourth

    A variant on the roll cloud forms in the Sierra wave. Airflow eastward over the Sierra, especially between Tahoe and Whitney, forms sequences of waves which sometimes roll completely back on themselves. Very dangerous for airplanes, though the World altitude record for sailplanes was set in the Sierra wave.
    I’ve seen the Sierra roll cloud a few times from the top of Heavenly Valley ski area.

  • Jacki

    I remember one time back when I was in elementary school many years back that the clouds in the sky looked like a giant plowed field.

  • I have seen some clouds that are not described here. The best way that I can describe them is as swirling, yet very solid, columns. I was in an airplane descending between two horizontal layers of clouds. Between the two layers, were at least three solid columns of cloud stretching from the bottom layer to the top, connecting them. I cannot find any pictures of column-shaped clouds anywhere. How might these clouds have formed?

  • I would love to see some pictures of column-shaped clouds and learn how they form.

  • Ariel: that is very interesting – I have not seen them myself though I have spent many many hours on planes – maybe Adam (the list author) can shed some light on it. The worst thing is that I once worked for the Meteorological Service and I know zip about clouds!

  • Lenticular clouds are rare in space but frequent in time. You’ll see them quite often certain mountain ranges, for instance, near Mount Washington in New Hampshire. Mount Wildcat is a good place to see them from.

  • Lord Wang (hehehehe)

    these clouds are gay

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  • monica

    The white trails are anything but natural. Ladies and gentlemen, you are watching a prime example of CHEMTRAILS!!!!!

    Watch Aerosol Crimes and WAKE UP!!!!!!

  • satish

    hai im satish i like clouds
    but i want to know if i can put my pics on ur website to

  • michelle

    beautiful!!!!!!!!!^^

  • Steven “The Man With The Plan”

    I googled more images of the Lenticular Clouds because that picture didnt do them justice, they are amazing and look like flying saucers! http://engineering.union.edu/~andersoa/mer331/lenticularlogo.jpg

  • Artie

    AWESOME PICTURES, and nice work

  • shania

    THATS NOT NORMAL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • nathan

    i think its fake

  • lord fake

    so computerised

  • SarahAtTheDisco

    these are so cool.
    i would love to discover a new one and have a clous named after me.

  • Rusty

    That Sailplane height record was beaten by Steve Fossett(RIP)and Enevoldson in the Argentina Andes wave at 50,671 feet (15,447 m), August 29, 2006.
    http://www.chiefengineer.org/content/content_display.cfm/seqnumber_content/1726.htm
    http://www.perlanproject.com/
    They were trying to get to an ultimate height of 100 000 feet in the New Zealand wave formation of which the Taieri Pet is the most famous wave cloud.
    http://www.otagocentralrailtrail.co.nz/rock_pillar.html
    Wave clouds are very spectacular, but not unusual – Jamie will recognize ‘Aotearoa’ as the indigenous name for New Zealand (Land of the Long White Cloud).

  • drewpy

    I hate clouds.

  • drewpy

    they r all fakes!

  • drewpy

    ugly clouds

  • aj

    Wow…In my dream last night I had visions of weird cloud formations and and had to look them up,I was happy to find out that they exist in resemblance of those mammatus clouds,great pictures.
    By the way,I was on vacation once in america and as we were driving through these vast open plains with the beautiful clear blue arizona sky there it was.. it seemingly appeared from nowhere.A small,low floating pure white fluffy cloud almost like a piece of cotton wool.It was also floating along with our direction until it just vanished,it was surreal and was like the cream topping after visiting the balanced rocks that day.
    I have never seen such clouds here in europe so for me they are also rare.
    P.S. later I discovered the tune “little fluffy clouds” from The Orb,…so there you go

  • Hemingway

    I would definitely LOVE to see Mammatus and Roll clouds.

  • Hemingway

    aj: And they are not fakes.

  • Jake

    I’ve seen #’s 2,3, and 7 for sure. saw #2 yesturday

  • Pushner

    Great research. Wonderful piccies. I am now retired but spent I 10yrs at sea and several holidays sailing in the Med. I have seen lenticular shaped clouds with the iridescence of Nacreous clouds three times in my life. They all hung in the sky for about 40 mins or so. Once in Singapore in about 1963 next in Corsica in about 1996 and then in Somerset England (for USA readers) in about 1998. All were in late afternoon early evening and were captivatingly awe inspiring in the full spectrum of colours refledted on the edges an parts of the cloud. I suppose I have been very lucky. Also seen other remarkable cloud formations but non had the beautiful magic of these.

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  • M.J

    number 4 is absolutely breath taking, it kind of looks water..like the ocean.. great pics..didn’t know so many clouds had names….some are scary looking haha but cool.

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  • Ed

    Just saw Mammatus clouds and a Roll cloud today during a storm! I must admit I DID think a Tornado was about to form, so I’m glad I read this as it’s put my mind at rest!! Amazing to see. Very unusual looking.

  • Malc

    My friends and I saw a Mammatus cloud formation yesterday evening whilst out cycling in the Chiltern Hills, England. There had been recent heavy rain (well what do you expect for August in the UK!). The clouds were not quite as dramatic as those in the photo but still quite eye catching, and just a little unnerving – make you feel like running for cover!

  • Ingram

    I live in north Hampshire and on Thursday 14 August 2008 I noticed a very strange cloud formation that I have never seen before. In seeking to find out what it was and how it was formed I searched out this web site. What I had seen turned out to be Mammatus. It was something of a relief to discover that it is a real phenomena and was not some quirk of my eyesight.

  • Gecko

    Oh, wow. Numbers two and four are so cool! Saddly, I’ve never seen any of these. I wish I could.

  • you know who

    I think I may have found a picture of a morning glory cloud.

    http://www.surfersvillage.com/gal/pictures/glory1.jpg

    This was the best one I could find.

  • ‘H’

    I have been very lucky to witness Kelvin Helmholtz waves and is very impressive. Cloud watching and ID is such a fantastic pastime,

  • Sepideh

    Wow!! Wonderful, amazing and beautiful

  • Cam

    Nice. These are cool clouds! Some great rare clouds also on this website:
    http://www.collthings.co.uk/2008/06/10-very-rare-clouds.html

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  • Black-Indian Girl

    These are beautiful pictures. By the way, did anyone know that the Morning Glory cloud seen in Australia is a type of roll cloud? They, like other roll clouds, are a result of the gust fronts that comes from storms out in the Sea of Carpentaria. Similar phenomena occasianally occur in Germany, Mexico, and Canada.
    Also, mammatus clouds are usually observed after the worst storm activity has passed, but because of the way they form, they ARE associated with a higher risk of severe weather, since it’s a sign that the air is very unstable. Instability in the atmosphere encourages strong thunderstorms to develop. Therefore, if storms has just passed, and you saw mammatus clouds, AND you know someone who lives in the direction the storms are heading, it might be a good idea to call them on the phone or email them, and tell them to keep an eye on the sky, just in case.

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  • Dwight

    I teach firefighter classes in Riverton, WY on the 2nd week in Jan. each year. I have had the pleasure of witnessing the formation and disolve of Curris Kelvin-Helmholtz cloud formations. This year, Jan. 11, 2009, I was ready and got several pictures of the formation and disolve of these beautiful formations West of RIverton.

  • oouchan

    I am traveling this summer to KS, IA, MS, TX and NE to chase storms. I have been following a storm chasers website and he has taken the most awesome pictures. He has tornadoes, Mammatus Clouds and Shelf clouds. Because of this I plan on traveling down Route 66 and then going where the wind takes me. I hope to see some Mammatus Clouds in action. That is what I am aiming for. I have already been through 2 tornadoes so that’s not a thrill anymore… :)

  • loulou

    I was having a flying lesson yesterday and was amazed by the cloud formation I saw. I have, thanks, to this site found that it was Altocumulus Castelanus – really awesome.

    It was forming as I flew over Aylesbury, England and was disapating about an hour later as I drove home to Hemel Hempstead, England

  • kat

    My husband and I were seated at an outdoor cafe in NYC last night following a thunderstorm. We, along with the other outdoor diners, were treated to a massive Mammatus cloud formation. No one before had ever seen these spectacular clouds, everyone was taking pictures. The formation became even more spectacular as it absorbed the sunset lighting. It was an amazing event.

  • stace

    A couple years ago when I lived in Oklahoma I saw Mammatus clouds, the whole sky looked like the bottom of an egg carton, and it was orange. Then there was a huge tornado.

  • Zhee

    Altocumulus Castelanus – My husband and I were on our way home from Columbus OH headed to Erie,PA and I spotted a massive amount of these jellyfish in the sky. Felt like we were in a sc-fi movie. We always carry our cameras so.. Needless to say we have photos of them in color and infared! They look fantastic! I cannot wait to get these printed and posted on line.

  • Lk

    Cute pictures! I wish I could physically see one of those clouds floating above my head (aside from Cumulus, Stratus, Nimbus and Cirrus). . :)

  • Mandy

    Mammatus clouds’ height?
    Anyone know it?
    I’ve been trying to find out how high up they are…

  • jfslal;

    interesting

  • Cj

    Wow, these clouds looks great…how interesting!

  • skin2win

    JF, we get those roll clouds, which we call pigtails, here in southern Alberta, Canada

  • Jasper

    my favourite ones would fit here:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Undulatus_asperatus

  • Kep!

    Three years too late, but as an Air force weather forecaster I feel the need to correct #1. Those are not Stratocumulus which are reasonably common (by definition a low layer of stratus with vertical development)rather they are “Cloud Streets”, a rare variation of stratocumulus typically associated with cold air over large bodies of warmer water…in Chicago i have seen them as far as, but not further than, 30 miles south of Lake Michigan.

  • David Langley

    About 3 weeks ago I was in the Coning NY area shooting pictures (I'm a retired commercial photographer) and I noticed a strange cloud formation. I took a picture of it and was wondering If someone could explain it to me.

  • kickass

    #2 is very interesting. Mammatus clouds look like a million hard nipples stickin out of the sky.
    maybe the angels in heaven are horny.
    ;)

  • Gerry

    Incredible. Noctilucent clouds are a breathtaking sight, as well as their great height.

  • Great list these look amazing.

  • 23redleader

    I just felt like commenting here…this list was something that i stumbled upon in my junior year in high school. It was this list that first brought me to Listverse and i have been a member ever since. Viva Listverse! (by the way, i love what the site has become since that day!)

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  • Karen Frampton

    Tonight I took some photos of a shelf cloud coming over my house. I crossed the sky in the East right over to the west. It wasn’t as stunning as the image here but it was quite amazing to watch it travel from the south to the north. There was a very stormy wind with which stopped once the cloud was gone. It is now raining.

  • lisa

    Saw a very unusual cloud in the sky in the shape of a rainbow a complete arc, never seen anything like it before, has remained in the sky for over ten mins!!!!! Does anyone know the name of this type of cloud formation???

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  • neil marston

    i love it can you get some more clouds on this website

  • Darren McManus

    Last night it was raining and after the clouds seem to be dispersing there was a total perfect circle f clear sky as I looked up at the moon, I have see this several times, I am in a place called, Nong Weng, Buriram, Thailand, anyone can explain

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