Mammatus Clouds

Beautiful Disasters

Mammatus Clouds

Robert Krulwich, NPR Science Friday correspondent and RadioLab contributor, recently shared a blog post about the phenomenon of ice crystals forming in the shape of flowers in the arctic waters. As he says, “the sea, literally, blossoms.” Aside from the clear metaphorical and poetic implications, these frigid flowers indicate a much broader theme of the elegance of earth science: the capacity of something magnificent and unique to arise from an inherently destructive process.

The public eye is certainly no stranger to global warming, as environmentalists, scientists, and politicians alike are constantly scrutinizing its causes and effects. Over time, however, it seems the discussion has shifted more towards what we can do to reduce our carbon footprint, and away from the effects on the arctic. Apparently the connection between this controversial crusade and these unexpected creations is quite clear. As the water in the poles gets warmer, and becomes more thermally different from the air, more of these intricate crystals will appear. The air is so dry, it robs the sea of some of its moisture and becomes humid, but only for a moment. The water vapor, at this point, is denser than it would like to be, so it releases some of its moisture, which turns back into crystals – resulting in these beautiful formations.

2012 certainly proved to be a year of complex meteorological disturbances (thankfully not including the Mayan Apocalypse). Looking to the destructive rampage of Hurricane Sandy on the east coast of the United States, the scars left by Typhoon Bopha in the Philippines, and a series of wildfires across the western United States, there is certainly something to be said for the destructiveness of Mother Nature – no questions asked. However, once we accept the cyclic nature of so many natural processes that we can hardly begin to control or even anticipate, it may be worth looking to the often-beautiful aftermath of geographic carnage. It cannot begin to make up for lives and homes that are lost, but at the very least, it makes the earth seem a little more forgiving.

A final bizarre weather tale for your consideration: The citizens of Saskatchewan province in Canada were hit with some of the most severe tornado attacks they had ever experienced in June 2012, yielding a fair amount of flipped houses, and dead wicked witches. However, after the disruption subsided, the skies cleared to reveal clouds unlike any they, or any one else, had ever seen before. Rare, bubble-shaped, cotton ball tufts identified as Mammatus clouds decorated the vast expanse of Canadian sky. People walked out of their homes, some in better shape than others, and simply stood in awe at what was above them.

It is a moment like this that reminds us that there are two sides to the coin of natural disasters. So readers, I implore that next time you are stranded in a monsoon, snowstorm, or classic Arizona haboob, well, first seek shelter! But after the storm subsides, step outside and see if the sun does not look a little softer and more majestic in the dusty haze.

Image courtesy of julie patterson, used under Creative Commons license. Thanks julie!