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Outside » Natural World

Nature's Grand Light Show: Capturing the cloud that isn't really a cloud

Every once in a while, Old Mother Nature knocks my socks off. While heading home last Thursday night with a small swarm of bees I

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Every once in a while, Old Mother Nature knocks my socks off. While heading home last Thursday night with a small swarm of bees I gathered out of a water-meter box in Bend, the scene above began to take shape.

At first, I didn't get it, and had no idea it was going to get better, but as the eye of God began to close, and darkness slowly eased across the western sky, those gigantic ice clouds, perhaps 50 miles or more high above the Earth, began to glow with eerie luminescence. By 10pm the light show was absolutely breathtaking. It left me with the feeling that a giant hole had been torn open in our Galaxy, and I was looking into another Universe.

Wanting to photograph the event, but not having my tripod with me was a problem, but I took a chance anyway, I had to capture that moment. I placed my tough old, true-blue, through-and-through Canon Rebel on the roof of the canopy of my Chevy S-10 (the replacement for my elk-killed Westy) and shot away. Not bad for a shaky old codger...


But I can't gloat, way back in 1887 Otto Jesse of Germany beat me to it when he first photographed the phenomena, probably with a tripod, and he seems to have been the one to coin the term "noctilucent cloud," which means "night-shining cloud."

It takes very cold, thin air at the right altitude and just the right amount of moisture to get noctilucent clouds started, (also know as NLC by atmospheric scientists), and one of the sources for all that moisture is rocket exhaust of high-flying missiles.

Back in the 80's when Russia had lots of money, they were blasting rockets into space left and right, leaving NLCs of all shapes and sizes. But they were also doing some pretty scary things, like blowing up a variety of chemicals in space. All that activity left astrophysicists, meteorologists and politicians a little worried. While "oohing" and "ahhhing" over NLCs, they'd see a big explosion. The next day a blue cloud could often be seen drifting through the thin atmosphere, heading our way.

While visible in May and June, the real activity, however, is in July and in early August. During those months our atmosphere experiences temperature minimums low enough (coupled with extremely low pressure) for water vapor to condense into ice clouds at the height of between 47 to 53 miles above the Earth.

This phenomenon is one of those "good news/bad news" things. Noctilucent clouds are very beautiful to witness (and photograph), but they form only under very restrictive atmospheric conditions. Their occurrence, therefore, can be seen as a guide to changes in the upper atmosphere.

Since their relatively recent classification, NLCs appear to be increasing in frequency, brightness and extent. The "bad news" is that this increase is likely connected to climate change, like ice flows melting in polar bear habitat.

Mars also has the distinction of NLCs high above the planet's surface, but they are clouds of carbon dioxide that extend to an altitude of over 62 miles above the surface, and, like the light show on Earth, can only be observed when the Sun is below the horizon.

When will it happen again? Ha! Who knows? That's for all of us to learn, but the month is right. If you're a 6th grader and looking for a science project to ride into college, why don't you get away from the computer games and begin gathering all the NLC data you can. By senior year you'll be an expert on NLCs. (And when your mom tries to get your attention by asking, "What are you doing... have you got your head in the clouds again?" You can answer, "Yes, mom!")

As I went on up the road heading home, having successfully captured the phenomena in my Canon and watching the light show fade into the coming darkness, the last two stanzas of "The World's All Right" by Robert Service came into my mind:

Remember! In Creation's swing

The Race and not the man's the thing.

There's battle, murder, sudden death,

And pestilence, with poisoned breath.

Yet quick forgotten are such woes;

On, the stream of Being flows.

Truth, Beauty, Love up hold their sway

What ho! The World's all right, I say.

The World's all right; serene I sit,

And joy that I'm a part of it;

And put my trust in Nature's plan,

And try to aid her all I can;

Content to pass. If in my place

I've served the uplift of the Race.

Truth! Beauty! Love! O Radiant Day -

What ho! The World's all right, I say.

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