collage of rare weather phenomena

Rare weather phenomena captured on camera

Hard to predict, rarely seen or fleeting in appearance, here are some of the more unusual weather images submitted to our annual weather photography competition.


The newest cloud

Asperitas is a relatively rare but distinctive wave-like cloud formation, best described as like looking at a rough sea from below the surface. It has the honour of being the newest cloud type in the skies, and was officially named by the World Meterological Organization in March 2017 following a ten-year campaign for recognition. That made it the first time a new cloud type was added to the International Cloud Atlas in 66 years.


Excitement in the sky © Fedor Lashkov
Excitement in the sky © Fedor Lashkov

Beautiful yet ominous clouds above the mountains of the Khibiny on the Kola Peninsula, in July. 

Asperitas is a supplementary cloud feature characterised by well-defined, wave-like structures in the underside of a cloud, sometimes descending into sharp points. It often has the appearance of a roughened sea surface, as if viewed from below. Asperitas usually occurs in association with stratocumulus and altocumulus clouds. 

In this case, details of the wave-like structures in the underside of the altocumulus clouds are beautifully enhanced by the backlighting and the low elevation angle of the sun.


Pearly skies

Another rare cloud that makes for stunning shots goes by many names, including nacreous, polar stratospheric or mother-of-pearl. These iridescent clouds are rarely spotted in the UK because they need temperatures below -78°C to form. Such extremely cold conditions mainly occur in the polar stratosphere during winter, which is way up higher than our usual clouds.


Polar Stratospheric Cloud © Tania Engbo Dyck-Madsen
Polar Stratospheric Cloud © Tania Engbo Dyck-Madsen

This trippy photo from Espaladen, Norway, reveals the vibrant beauty of an extremely rare, polar stratospheric clouds, also known as nacreous or mother-of-pearl clouds.

Photographer Tania Engbo Dyck-Madsen didn’t think she’d ever get a chance to capture an image like this after she missed her chance two days earlier. But luckily another appeared, and this time she had her camera gear at the ready. 

Most of our weather occurs in the lowest level of the atmosphere, called the troposphere. Just above that lies the stratosphere, beginning some 10 kilometres above the Earth’s surface. Since the stratosphere is extremely dry compared to the lower troposphere, clouds rarely form at these altitudes. Particles in the clouds scatter light, causing interference patterns, and leading to the colourful fringes shown by this photo.


The highest cloud

During the summer months, the extremely rare noctilucent cloud forms even higher up, in a layer of our atmosphere known as the mesosphere. These shimmering silvery-blue cobwebs are very high, wispy clouds made out of ice crystals, which become visible in the night sky at about the same time as the brightest stars, hence the name noctilucent or 'shine at night'.


A Noctilucent Paisley Pattern © Gary Chittick
A Noctilucent Paisley Pattern © Gary Chittick

This photo captures the mind-bogglingly distant pattern of noctilucent, or 'night-shining', clouds, which form far above the weather-producing clouds that we’re used to seeing — some 80 kilometres above Earth’s surface. Noctilucent clouds are composed of ice crystals, which may form on dust from meteorites. 

They can generally only be observed in twilight, when most of the sky is shrouded in darkness, but the sun’s rays can still reach the upper atmosphere to illuminate them from below. This meant that photographer Gary Chittick, a keen noctilucent cloud watcher, had to stay up late to get this unique shot.


Dancing lights

Sticking to the night sky, the aurorae are something many of us would love to photograph. The Northern Lights may be more space weather than our usual earthly phenomena, but you do need the right weather conditions to see them (namely clear skies!). While not necessarily rare, capturing clear and vibrant images of the lights is challenging due to their unpredictability!


In Slow Dance © Andrei Baskevich
In Slow Dance © Andrei Baskevich

Snowfall, ice and clear skies on Volosianaia Sopkain mountain in Paanayarvi National Park, Russia provide spectacular conditions for viewing the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights). 

Taking its name from the Latin word for dawn, aurora is the natural phenomenon of visible light being emitted in the high atmosphere, caused when charged particles emitted by the sun are deflected by the Earth’s permanent magnetic field and interact with the upper atmosphere. They light up the night sky with slowly evolving rays of fantastic colour.


Night sprites

Another difficult phenomena to capture are sprites. These large-scale electrical discharges occur far above an active thunderstorm, usually triggered by powerful cloud to ground lightning strikes. The elusive sprites are rarely photographed as they only last a few milliseconds and occur way up in the mesosphere. They may be fleeting, but red sprites can reach up to 30 miles high and usually form clusters that resemble jellyfish or carrots.


Sprite Fireworks © Nathan Myhrvold
Sprite Fireworks © Nathan Myhrvold

On 9 June 2021, Nathan Myhrvold was on the hunt to photograph sprites near Lake DeSmet in Wyoming (USA) and was lucky enough to capture these magnificent red jellyfish sprites. 

Nathan used an extremely fast telephoto lens, aimed blindly at a spot in the sky where he hoped a sprite might occur and took a repeated series of images. The images were stacked to reduce background noise, and this dramatic picture of luminous reddish-orange flashes dancing in the night sky is the end result. 


Fire rainbows

Rainbows may be commonplace but what about a 'fire rainbow'? More properly called a circumhorizontal arc, this optical phenomenon is formed by the refraction of sunlight through ice crystals in high-altitude cirrus clouds, creating vivid rainbow-like colours.


Rainbow Clouds in Tibet © Gesang Jimei
Rainbow Clouds in Tibet © Gesang Jimei

Gesang noticed this colourful cloud when it appeared in the sky over the Sanding Temple in the south of the mountains of Tibet. The beautiful colours lasted for more than 20 minutes and reminded him of a phoenix. This optical phenomenon is officially called a circumhorizontal arc, which extends parallel to the horizon. 

To see a circumhorizontal arc the sun needs to be more than 58° high in the sky, and cirrus clouds must be present. The hexagonal, plate-shaped ice crystals inside the cirrus clouds also need to be aligned horizontally, so that the light entering through the vertical side of the crystals refracts (bends) and exits through the horizontal bottom. This disperses the light into the seven colours of the spectrum, similar to what we see in a rainbow. In countries north and south of 56°, circumhorizontal arcs can never be seen because the sun is always lower than 58°.


Spectres and glories

A 'Brocken Spectre' is a bizarre and rarely seen optical phenomenon, which is a magnified shadow of the photographer cast onto distant fog, so-named because of frequent sightings on the Brocken, the highest peak of Germany's Harz Mountains.

A coloured ring called a 'glory' is often seen surrounding the shadow, and this combination can only be seen from the perspective of the witness. Sometimes seen from planes, with the plane’s shadow as the Brocken Spectre, the glories travel along with the plane as it flies.


Emili Vilamala Benito - Ghost Under the Cliff
Emili Vilamala Benito - Ghost Under the Cliff

A Brocken Spectre is a large shadow of a hill-top observer cast onto the cloud, mist or fog below them, such as this one captured by Emil on the cliff of Tavertet in Barcelona. A coloured ring called a glory often surrounds the shadow, which appears gigantic and far away due to an optical illusion. The shadow can also fall onto water droplets of varying distances, which distorts the perception and can make the shadow appear to move as the clouds alter and shift. 

The phenomenon may be behind sightings of Bigfoot and other Yeti-like creatures.


Weather Photographer of the Year 2024

Hopefully these amazing images of rare and elusive weather phenomena have inspired you to capture a winning weather or climate photograph.

You have until 18th June 2024 to enter this year's Standard Chartered Weather Photographer of the Year competition. The competition is open to photographers from around the world, of all age and abilities, and is FREE to enter.  




Categories: In the Spotlight Weather
Tags: Clouds Extreme Weather Lightning Observations Optical Phenomena Polar Climate Weather WorldWeather WPotY

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