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Indian Ocean. Orographic clouds in the sky. How were they created?

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Orographic clouds with a characteristic structure reminiscent of sea waves were captured from the International Space Station. As the scientists explain, their formation is related to the turbulence caused by the contact of air masses with high terrain obstacles.

An astronaut photographed a cloud formation over the Crozet Islands from the International Space Station (ISS). The archipelago is located in the southern part of the Indian Ocean and is part of the French Southern Territories. The image shows orographic clouds that undulate across the sky like on the surface of the ocean.

Air vs mountains

Orographic clouds captured in a satellite image are atmospheric waves visible to the naked eye. Their formation can be related to the terrain – for example, when a mass of air is forced over an obstacle such as a mountain ridge, iceberg, island or volcano. In the case of the Crozet Islands, they are formed by stable air masses from the Indian Ocean that collide with the mountainous terrain of the islands.

When in contact with a high obstacle, masses of stable air rise along the windward side, cooling and causing water vapor to condense – this is how clouds are formed. As the air passes over the obstacle, it is pulled down by gravity on the leeward side, causing it to warm up.

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Orographic clouds are formed when warm air on the leeward side is pushed back up – then the moisture in the air condenses again, forming more clouds before being pushed down and evaporated again. This cycle repeats itself, and its effect is a characteristic pattern resembling sea waves.

Orographic clouds over the Crozet IslandsNASA-JSC

Crozet Islands

The Crozet Islands are not permanently inhabited, but they are a base for scientists studying geology, meteorology, zoology and ecology. One of them is the Alfred-Faure research station on Possession Island, where scientists specialize in studying the large population of king penguins that inhabit it (Aptenodytes patagonicus) and other valuable species of birds and mammals.


Main photo source: NASA-JSC

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