Unprecedented: Noctilucent Clouds Over The South Pacific

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You don’t see this everyday – or even in 30 years.

Noctilucent clouds (NLCs) have appeared over the South Pacific and were photographed from Macquarie Island on January 4, 2020 by meteorologist Ashleigh Wilson:

noctilucent clouds south pacific, Extremely rare noctilucent clouds appear over the South Pacific,
Extremely rare noctilucent clouds appear over the South Pacific. Picture: Australia Gov / Ashleigh Wilson

According to John French of the Australian Antarctic Division Atmospheric Science Program, the only other photographic recording of NLCs on Macquarie Island was in the mid-1990s.

NLCs are Earth’s highest clouds. Seeded by meteoroids, they float at the edge of space more than 80 km above the planet’s surface.

NLCs appear around the solstices when summertime wisps of water vapor rise up to the edge of space.

Prime time for sightings is June-July in the north, December-January in the south.

How to spot noctilucent clouds, How to spot noctilucent clouds shema, what are noctilucent clouds
How to spot noctilucent clouds?

It was a breathtaking moment when I first realized what I was seeing,” recalls Wilson. “I spent two hours down by the ocean with a camera and tripod, adjusting ISO and lenses, trying to capture the extraordinary event. The clouds were so bright, I could see their reflection in the water.”

Why are noctilucent clouds rare in the South?

In the southern hemisphere, reports of any noctilucent clouds are quite rare.

This is due in part:

  • Because there are fewer people on that side of the world
  • Because southern NLCs are usually weaker than their northern counterparts.

Nevertheless, NLCs were sighted over New Zealand in Dec. 2019 and Macquarie Island in January 2020.

2020: An amazing year for NLCs

Wilson’s sighting caps a remarkable year for noctilucent clouds.

Once confined to Earth’s polar regions, NLCs have recently spread to lower and lower latitudes.

In June 2019, the clouds appeared over Rome, Italy; Las Vegas, Nevada; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Paris, France; and outside Los Angeles, California.

Many of the sightings smashed old records for low-latitude visibility.

noctilucent clouds range and spread towards south
Map shows noctilucent clouds range and spread towards south. NLCs traditional domain is shaded. Black circles denote sightings in 2003-2011. Red circles are for June 2019. Image via JGR Atmospheres

However nobody really understands why NLCs are so revved up.

It could be a result of climate change and/or the solar cycle.

Whatever the reason, get ready for more. The northern hemisphere season for NLCs is about to begin.

Typically, the first electric-blue filaments are sighted in mid- to late-May followed by a sharp intensification in June. So you may even catch the first ones during your quarantine!

Meanwhile an unprecedented ozone hole has formed over the North Pole.

Keep your eyes to the sky. Summer 2020 could be very special indeed. More strange sky phenomena on Strange Sounds and Steve Quayle. [Space Weather Archive]

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