What do you get when you mix below-freezing air temperatures, frigid northwest winds from Canada, and ocean temperatures hovering around 39 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4 to 5 degrees Celsius)? Paved highways of clouds across the skies of the North Atlantic.
The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite collected this natural-color view of New England, the Canadian Maritimes, and coastal waters at 10:25 a.m. U.S. Eastern Standard Time on January 24, 2011. Lines of clouds stretch from northwest to southeast over the North Atlantic, while the relatively cloudless skies over land afford a peek at the snow that blanketed the Northeast just a few days earlier.
Cloud streets form when cold air blows over warmer waters, while a warmer air layer—or temperature inversion—rests over top of both. The comparatively warm water of the ocean gives up heat and moisture to the cold air mass above, and columns of heated air—thermals—naturally rise through the atmosphere. As they hit the temperature inversion like a lid, the air rolls over like the circulation in a pot of boiling water. The water in the warm air cools and condenses into flat-bottomed, fluffy-topped cumulus clouds that line up parallel to the wind.
Though they are easy to explain in a broad sense, cloud streets have a lot of mysteries on the micro scale. A NASA-funded researcher from the University of Wisconsin recently observed an unusual pattern in cloud streets over the Great Lakes. Cloud droplets that should have picked up moisture from the atmosphere and grown in size were instead shrinking as they moved over Lake Superior. Read more in an interview at What on Earth?