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We just can’t stop talking about the weather. Although we routinely enthuse about sunshine and grumble about rain, sometimes it’s the more unusual weather occurrences that capture our attention. If you’re interested in the natural world, here’s where you should go to witness some unusual weather phenomena.
Firefall (Yosemite National Park, California)
Despite its fiery appearance, there are no actual flames at Yosemite National Park’s “firefall.” Instead, for a few precious minutes each February, the Sun’s rays illuminate Horsetail Fall, which tumbles down the eastern rock face to spectacular effect. You’ll need a bit of luck to see it for yourself: the sky to the west must be clear and temperatures need to have fallen sufficiently for the snow on El Capitan to melt and create a waterfall. But if the conditions are right, your reward is one of the most incredible natural spectacles in the U.S.
Noctilucent Clouds (Scandinavia)
Noctilucent means “night shining,” which is an apt description of these unusual cloud formations. These very special clouds usually appear blue or silver in color and consist of ice crystals, which are able to reflect any sunlight that still remains at that late hour. Noctilucent clouds are rare, occupying a part of the atmosphere known as the mesosphere, and require water vapor and dust, both of which are in short supply so high up. You’ll only find noctilucent clouds at mid to high latitudes, typically from 45 degrees to 80 degrees north or south of the Equator. This means you’ll have a pretty good chance of spotting them late in the evening during summer in Sweden, Norway, or Finland in the Northern Hemisphere.
Catatumbo Lightning (Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela)
Lightning over Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela is so consistent and prolific that it’s earned its own name: Catatumbo lightning. On average, 650 flashes per square mile illuminate the sky annually, with storms occurring as many as 300 days every year. The landscape creates ideal conditions for this phenomenon. Mountains surround three sides of the lake. On the northern side, warm water from the Caribbean heats up the air that blows towards the moist, cooler mountain air inland. When the two bodies of air collide, there’s nowhere to go but up. Huge cumulonimbus clouds form and static charges build up, leading to a massive lightning display. Scientists estimate that the electrical energy created would be enough to power 100 million light bulbs.
The Green Flash (Hawaii and California)
To see the Sun’s “green flash,” you’ll need to watch a sunset (or a sunrise) from a place where the Sun lands right on the horizon. Places along the coast, such as beaches in Hawaii and California, afford the best chance of witnessing the phenomenon. Just before the Sun slips away, a sliver of it will appear green rather than orange. You’ll need perfect conditions, as the merest hint of haze or clouds will block your view. The green flash is caused by the refraction of sunlight. As light passes through the atmosphere, it bends and separates into different colors. Blue and violet light are scattered; yellow, orange, and red light are absorbed. For a few spectacular seconds, that only leaves green light.
White Rainbow (Romania and Antarctica)
Although typically colorful and bright, white rainbows are also called fog bows. They form in the same way as regular rainbows, but because the water droplets that create fog are much smaller, the colors are bleached and appear white to the naked human eye. To see this unusual phenomenon, you’ll need the Sun behind you and a bank of fog in front of you.
White rainbows can occur anywhere in the world so long as these conditions are met. However, the spectacle commonly occurs in Romania and Antarctica. Moonbows, also known as lunar rainbows, look similar to white rainbows although in this case the colors are present, just very hard to see. The unique rainbows often occur over waterfalls such as at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe when the full moon casts light over the cascade.
Ice Tsunami (American Midwest)
There’s nothing unusual about seeing ice build up on and at the edge of lakes during prolonged periods of cold weather. However, in 2019, Lake Erie made global headlines when strong winds pushed huge blocks of ice onto lakeshore properties in what the press dubbed an “ice tsunami.” In places, the wall of ice was 30 feet tall, thanks to winds that gusted over 70 miles per hour. It wasn’t a one-off, however. In 2013, the Midwest experienced a similar weather phenomenon when ice blew onshore from Lake Mille Lacs in Minnesota.
Dust Devils (Australia, Africa, and South America)
Sometimes, a patch of ground heats up more than the area around it. Hot air rises — sometimes quickly enough to begin to spin. When these conditions occur over loose dirt or sand, a dust devil forms. Dust devils have an average height of around 650 feet and can measure up to 100 feet across. Clear skies enable the surface to absorb plenty of solar energy while calm conditions keep them spinning. Wind actually has a destabilizing effect, making dust devils common in deserts in Australia, Africa, and South America. You’ll also encounter them in the U.S., in states with a desert climate like Arizona and New Mexico. Dust devils are usually short-lived and as a result, they rarely cause destruction.
Volcanic Lightning (Iceland, Chile, and Alaska)
When the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull blasted ash into the sky in 2010, the world sat up and took notice, not least because it grounded flights from North America to Europe. The eruption also produced something called volcanic lightning when ash particles collided to create static electricity. The phenomenon is not unique to Iceland. In fact, the earliest recorded mention of it was by Pliny the Younger when he saw the lightning over Mount Vesuvius in Italy during the volcano’s major eruption in 79 CE. Volcanic lightning has also been spotted in Chile and over Mount Augustine in Alaska.
Lenticular Clouds (Mount Rainier, Washington)
If you spot lenticular clouds in the sky, you might do a double take, for these distinctive weather formations resemble (and are sometimes mistaken for) flying saucers. These lens-shaped clouds often form over mountains, and one of the best places in the U.S. to spot the unusual cloud formations is over Mount Rainier in Washington. Sometimes, air downstream can be forced into a series of standing waves (think of them like ripples in water). Water vapor in the air coupled with the rising motion of the wave leads to condensation, and in turn, these uniquely-shaped clouds form.
Snow Doughnuts (Canada and the Northern United States)
You might know snow doughnuts as snow rollers or snow bales, but whatever you call them, these windblown snowballs are way cooler than anything you could roll by yourself. This weather phenomenon is occasionally spotted in parts of Canada and the northern U.S. and forms when wind creates hollow, traveling cylinders from recent snowfalls. The snow has to be just damp enough to be able to stick to itself yet be able to detach from the ground; a layer of ice helps. A wind gust of about 30 miles per hour gets the ball rolling, and thanks to gravity, a slight hill keeps it going. Of course, the temperature needs to stay close enough to freezing so that the snow doesn’t melt completely.
Silhouette of the Chicago Skyline in the Sunset (Lake Michigan)
Whenever you travel to the shores of Lake Michigan, the sunsets are pretty spectacular, but if you time your visit to Indiana Dunes National Park in Indiana or Warren Dunes State Park in Michigan for mid-May or late July, you’re in for a real treat. If atmospheric conditions are right and skies are clear, you will see the silhouette of the Chicago skyline appear in the sunset — even though the city is roughly 50 miles away across the lake. Normally, at ground level, the distance and curvature of the Earth combine to make it impossible to see this extraordinary view. But if your visit coincides with a rare temperature inversion, where warmer air above colder air causes the light to refract and bend, you’ll witness the unusual phenomenon.