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June 2016

June 2016

Time for Some Night Cloudspotting

Noctilucent clouds are extremely high clouds, which are only visible at night. Their name means ‘night-shining’ in Latin, and they shine out against the dark sky as eerie, bluish ripples. At altitudes of around 50 miles (80 km), they are by far the highest clouds in the sky. All the way up there, they still catch the light long after the sun has dipped below the horizon and the lower parts of the atmosphere are in shadow.

Also known as ‘polar mesospheric clouds’, these formations can be seen from the higher latitudes (between 50 and 70 degrees from the equator) during the two months in the middle of summer. For the Northern Hemisphere, around early June is the start of noctilucent-cloud-spotting season. If you are at a latitude higher than 50 degrees, look for these beautiful and mysterious clouds an hour or so after sunset or before sunrise. Of course, the lower sky needs to be clear for you to be able to see them.

Noctilucent clouds form in the ‘mesosphere’, which is a very cold and dry part of our atmosphere. Above the stratosphere, the mesosphere is too high for weather balloons to reach and to low for orbiting craft like the Space Shuttle and so it is a region we know relatively little about. As a result, noctilucent clouds are a bit of a mystery. No one knows for sure how their ice crystals form up there, where the air is one hundred million times dryer than that over the Sahara desert.

Photographed over Hoogeveen, the Netherlands, by AJ Hidding (Member 23,847)

1 Comment
  • kevan


    June 2, 2016 at 9:07 pm

    Would these be the types of clouds which for in Mars arid atmosphere I wonder?some where spotted very high,about 200km,above the surface last year. Speaking of clouds on other worlds can anyone explain why earths magnetosphere protects our atmosphere from being blown away by the solar wind yet Venus has no magnetic field yet a very thick atmosphere. Venus is also a lot closer to the sun and the solar wind even stronger.very strange as Mars, with a patchy magnetosphere, seems to be losing it’s atmosphere to the solar wind.

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