Friday, March 1, 2019

Kelvin-Helmholtz Clouds Caused by Wind Shear

The right place, at the right time.
This photo of an amazing Kelvin-Helmholtz cloud was taken on January 26, 2019 by Hannah Martin, one of my freshman Earth Science students at Helena High School. She snapped the photo from the Helena Valley, looking west - Mount Helena can be seen on the left, and the distant horizon marks the Continental Divide. Also known as "fluctus" or "billow" clouds, they were named after Lord Kelvin (1824-1907) and Hermann Von Helmholtz (1821-1894) who identified the type of instability responsible for the unique waves. Such clouds are fairly rare, and may only last for a few minutes.

Like wind across water.
The waves form at the boundary between layers of air that have different densities and wind speeds (wind shear). Air in the layer above the cloud is moving faster than air in the layer containing the cloud. Development of waves on the cloudy layer is similar to what happens when waves form on the ocean as wind blows across the water. In the photo the wavy layer is more dense than the clear air flowing above it - just as water is more dense than air blowing over its surface.

Clouds provide a "visual".
The type of motion that causes the wave pattern is actually not that uncommon in the atmosphere, although we usually don't see it. In order for us to see it, clouds must be present in the lower layer (as they were when the photo was taken). We can't see clear air, but we can see clouds. One of the nice things about clouds is they provide clues about the type of motion currently happening in the atmosphere. Want to know more? - Watch the 4.5-minute video below, which includes a great demo.

Term for students to define: wind shear

1. Article - More about KH Clouds

2. Another good article about KH Clouds


  1. I know exactly where that photo was taken: Helena, Montana, in the southwest parking lot of Ryan Fields Little League Park.

    I was looking at it, and I thought, "That place could easily be in Helena. That warehouse could easily be the one on Warehouse Road. And that could be Mt. Helena in the background... A-HA!"

    I would like to use this photo in a book of poetry I'm publishing. Would that be all right? I'll give the photographer credit in the book, below the illustration and on the credits page at the end.

    You can read the poem this would help illustrate here:

    Cool photo. Good to meet a fellow Helena cloud enthusiast.

    --Adam Laceky

    1. Adam - Go ahead and use the photo. Please credit Hannah Martin. Thanks.

  2. Oops! I was wrong. It is Helena, but it's east of town. The soccer-ball shelter at the soccer fields helps identify the location.

  3. i think the clouds are cool but i wish thy war in billing but we don't see thin so ofin