Strange events: Earth’s upper atmosphere creating glowing clouds

Via NASA: extra water vapor in the mesosphere is creating more glowing nighttime clouds

This summer, something strange has been happening in the mesosphere. The mesosphere is a layer of the atmosphere so high that it almost touches space.

Layers of the atmosphere: exosphere; thermosphere; mesosphere; stratosphere and troposphere. vertical structure of the earth’s atmosphere. layers drawn to scale, objects within the layers are not to scale

In the rarefied air 83 km above Earth’s surface, summertime wisps of water vapor wrap themselves around specks of meteor smoke. The resulting swarms of ice crystals form noctilucent clouds (NLCs), which can be seen glowing in the night sky at high latitudes.

And, no, that’s not the strange thing.

Northern sky watchers have grown accustomed to seeing these clouds in recent years. They form in May, intensify in June, and ultimately fade in July and August. This year, however, something different happened. Instead of fading in late July, the clouds exploded with unusual luminosity. Kairo Kiitsak observed this outburst on July 26th from Simuna, Estonia:

Taken by Kairo Kiitsak on July 26, 2018 @ Simuna, Estonia

“It was a mind-blowing display,” says Kiitsak. “The clouds were visible for much of the night, rippling brightly for at least 3 hours.”

Other observers saw similar displays in July and then, in August, the clouds persisted. During the first half of August 2018, reports of NLCs to Spaceweather.com have tripled compared to the same period in 2017. The clouds refuse to go away.

Researchers at the University of Colorado may have figured out why. “There has been an unexpected surge of water vapor in the mesosphere,” says Lynn Harvey of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP). This plot, which Harvey prepared using data from NASA’s satellite-based Microwave Limb Sounder (MLS) instrument, shows that the days of late July and August 2018 have been the wettest in the mesosphere for the past 11 years:

“July went out like a lion!” says Harvey.

In addition to being extra wet, the mesosphere has also been a bit colder than usual, according to MLS data. The combination of wet and cold has created favorable conditions for icy noctilucent clouds.

Harvey and her colleagues are still working to understand how the extra water got up there. One possibility involves planetary wave activity in the southern hemisphere which can, ironically, boost the upwelling of water vapor tens of thousands of miles away in the north. The phenomenon could also be linked to solar minimum, now underway. It is notable that the coldest and wettest years in the mesosphere prior to 2018 were 2008-2009–the previous minimum of the 11-year solar cycle.

Source: NASA Spaceweather

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99 thoughts on “Strange events: Earth’s upper atmosphere creating glowing clouds

  1. How does water vapor get into the Mesosphere? Isn’t it more likely that water vapor is entering from outside the atmosphere rather than floating up in unusual quantities into the Mesosphere!!? Why is H2O (water-ice) so abundant on Pluto’s surface? There is likely an outside source. It can’t have been sitting there for 4.5 billion years, can it? http://smallcomets.physics.uiowa.edu/

  2. Maybe it drifted upward following the big release of water vapor during super El Nino of 2015-16.

    Might be instructive to check the years after super El Nino 1998-99.

    Water being lighter than air.

  3. late July and August 2018 have been the wettest in the mesosphere for the past 11 years: In addition to being extra wet, the mesosphere has also been a bit colder than usual, according to MLS data
    =====

    Can someone tell me how or if this has any effect on weather or climate?

    • Latitude: “Can someone tell me how or if this has any effect on weather or climate?”

      Water vapor emits radiation, net space ward at that altitude. Emitting radiation means cooling the local atmosphere: visible. Cooling the local atmosphere must (!) influence climate and weather, even when we don’t know how.

      More on water vapor higher in the atmosphere in my comment above: https://wattsupwiththat.com/2018/08/15/strange-events-earths-upper-atmosphere-creating-glowing-clouds/#comment-2430479

      • Water emits in all directions equally. Just as all other GHGs do.

        Any radiation downwards is more likely to be intercepted by other GHGs than is radiation being emitted upwards.

        However, if there were no water vapor in the mesosphere, we would be making the exact same statement about GHGs in the layer below the mesosphere. So the net impact is none.
        To put it another way, water vapor in the mesosphere means that radiation from the lower layers is more likely to be intercepted and radiated back downwards.

        • MarkW: “To put it another way, water vapor in the mesosphere means that radiation from the lower layers is more likely to be intercepted and radiated back downwards.”

          WR: The air at that altitude is that thin that the chance of interception is very low. But there will be a lot of collisions of water vapor with other molecules (N2, O2) that result in emission. Just a very small part of those emissions is downward, most is sideward and upward. What rests is the cooling effect after spaceward emission: the mesosphere layer (also N2, O2) cools and that will have a weather/climate effect.

          • In thin air, the chance of collisions goes down as well. The molecule of water molecule is as likely to give energy to the N2 or O2 molecule as receive energy from it.

          • It is far above the Effective Emission Height. There will be a high net emission direction space which for the part of ‘collissional to H2O transmitted energy’ would not have happened without the presence of those water vapor molecules. O2, N2 don’t emit, H2O does do. For that there is a cooling effect by H2O at that height.

          • According to my calculations, once you are up that high the earth is like a little marble below you, so even when emissions are downwards they are likely to miss the planet.

            Of course, my calculations could be wrong…

          • Your calculations might be wrong but your geometry is spot on. Rays from a point any height above a sphere are more likely to miss than hit the sphere, more and more likely with more and more height.

  4. Let me be the first to claim that this is further proof of CAGW, its worse than we thought (even though we did not think of this phenomenon being affected by CAGW) and climate scientists should be given more money to study it /sarc

    • Wikipedia suggests there is a connection between the increase of noctilucent clouds and climate change. NASA suggests it follows the 11-year solar cycle. What is one to believe? After all, Wikipedia is at the top of the search results /s

    • Like the insignificant correlation with CO2. Do you have any statistics to back up the “insignificant correlation with the Solar Cycle” claim?

  5. Enjoy the phenomenon and phenomenal thought before some bastard comes along and blames it on global warming.

  6. Don’t we get more clouds when the neutron flux increases?

    Wouldn’t we get more luminosity as the Earth’s magnetic field weakens?

    Not my area, but these are two immediate thoughts.

  7. Would this water (ice) at 85 km have risen as ice for 70km? It really isn’t water vapor if its ice is it?

    • Can water vapour be below freezing and still be vapour? Or does a water molecule have to be above freezing to be vapour.

      • The boiling and freezing points of water of course depend upon altitude.

        Atmospheric pressure is very wispy at 85 km.

        • At the pressures in the Mesosphere the temperature needs to be below 150K for ice to form, can be a bit higher when there’s some NO2 around such as in the polar stratosphere. The water could come from the troposphere but another source is methane reacting with OH radicals. The coldest temperatures occur in the mesosphere around the summer solstice, the meteor showers that have just finished will give a lot of condensation nuclei.

      • Ice is a crystalline form of water. Individual molecules of water are just that H2O, absent other molecules to bond to, the concept of liquid water or ice just doesn’t make sense.

  8. ren had some very interesting comments on this topic a few days back but I can’t seem to find the article he had those comments appended to….

  9. So are the clouds creating light or simply reflecting the sun’s light much later into the night as they are much higher than regular stratospheric clouds ?

    • The latter. Incidentally I have also noticed that there has been an unusual amount of noctilucent clouds around in northern Europe this summer.

  10. I never gets to see da noctilucent clouds. They’re always some place else. Not fair!

    (Digs toe in dirt, sniffles.)

  11. What is the big deal?

    The graph indicates the amount of water has increased from a maximum of 5.75 parts/million to 6.1 ppm, & it stayed higher for a few extra weeks. That is an increase of less than 5%.

    Have we reached another tipping point caused by human activities? (nudge, nudge, wink, wink)

  12. It is called Negative Feedback.
    We live on a water planet.
    The 4+ Gyr climate system is attempting to limit energy loss to space.
    But with solar min approaching, we are headed in for a cold spell.

  13. Could someone tell me exactly ‘what’ is being measured at at temperature of 1500˚C in the thermosphere?

    • The water vapor is making is way to the Mesosphere, not the thermosphere.
      In the thermosphere, H2O gets dissociated to atomic oxygen and atomic hydrogen.

      Why it is there (in the upper mesosphere) in increased abundance is likely due to some mechanism whereby ozone production (from oxygen) has decreased due to lower EUV/UV. We are approaching solar min where UV/EUV flux is bottomed out.

        • Joel
          You include CFC destruction of ozone in that statement?. Then why have they never forecast the size and duration of the ozone hole even at a very late date of late July. They have had a.ost 40 years of data and experience.
          Regards

          • Carbon-14 is produced in the upper layers of the troposphere and the stratosphere by thermal neutrons absorbed by nitrogen atoms. When cosmic rays enter the atmosphere, they undergo various transformations, including the production of neutrons. The resulting neutrons (1n) participate in the following reaction:

            n + 14/7N→ 14/6C + p
            The highest rate of carbon-14 production takes place at altitudes of 9 to 15 km (30,000 to 49,000 ft) and at high geomagnetic latitudes.

        • “Implies lower ozone and/or lower UV”

          Not at all. It is more likely to be due to more CO2. Increased GHG above the tropopause increases the total radiation to space and has a net cooling effect.

        • The trend line is misleading. If you plot the trends starting at various times you find that there is a “knee” about 1994 where the trend drops to under -.1 K/decade. By 2005 the trend has dropped to essentially zero. So for over ten years there has been no appreciable cooling.

        • By the way it looks like a decline up to about 1998 and “pause” since then. Is there any theory as to what is driving the temperature in the lower stratosphere, or are there any other observations that are well coorelated to the above?

    • Charles Nelson: No one seems to have answered your question. Temperature is measured according to the mean kinetic energy of the molecules residing there.

      • In the Thermosphere, you can freeze to death while surrounded by a 1500 degree plasma.
        The reason why is your body is radiating heat faster than the plasma can replace it, due to how thin the plasma is.

  14. Influence of geomagnetic activity on mesopause temperature over Yakutia
    Galina Gavrilyeva and Petr Ammosov
    Yu. G. Shafer Institute for Cosmophysical Research and Aeronomy SB RAS, 677098, Yakutsk, Russian Federation
    Received: 13 Jun 2017 – Discussion started: 04 Oct 2017 – Revised: 29 Jan 2018 – Accepted: 31 Jan 2018 – Published: 08 Mar 2018
    Abstract. The long-term temperature changes of the mesopause region at the hydroxyl molecule OH (6-2) nighttime height and its connection with the geomagnetic activity during the 23rd and beginning of the 24th solar cycles are presented. Measurements were conducted with an infrared digital spectrograph at the Maimaga station (63°N, 129.5°E). The hydroxyl rotational temperature (TOH) is assumed to be equal to the neutral atmosphere temperature at the altitude of ∼ 87km. The average temperatures obtained for the period 1999 to 2015 are considered. The season of observations starts at the beginning of August and lasts until the middle of May. The maximum of the seasonally averaged temperatures is delayed by 2 years relative to the maximum of the solar radio emission flux (wavelength of 10.7cm), and correlates with a change in geomagnetic activity (Ap index). Temperature grouping in accordance with the geomagnetic activity level showed that in years with high activity (Ap>8), the mesopause temperature from October to February is about 10K higher than in years with low activity (Ap<=8). Cross-correlation analysis showed no temporal shift between geomagnetic activity and temperature. The correlation coefficient is equal to 0.51 at the 95% level.
    https://www.atmos-chem-phys.net/18/3363/2018/

    • So the Ruskies have the the Maimaga station (63°N, 129.5°E) and the USA has just the Maga.
      Geoff.

  15. Noctilucent clouds form when summertime wisps of water vapor rise to the top of the atmosphere and wrap themselves around specks of meteor smoke. Mesospheric winds assemble the resulting ice crystals into NLCs. In 2017 a heat wave in the mesosphere melted those crystals, causing a brief “noctilucent blackout.” Could something similar, but opposite, be happening now? Perhaps a cold spell in the mesosphere is extending the season. Another possibility is the solar cycle. Previous studies have shown that NLCs sometimes intensify during solar minimum. Solar minimum conditions are in effect now as the sun has been without spots for 30 of the past 31 days.
    http://www.spaceweather.com/archive.php?view=1&day=28&month=07&year=2018

    • Nedoluha, G., R. M. Gomez, B. C. Hicks, J. E. Wrotny, C. Boone, and A. Lambert (2009), Water vapor measurements in the mesosphere from Mauna Loa over solar cycle 23, J. Geophys. Res., 114, D23303, doi:10.1029/2009JD012504.
      Abstract:
      The Water Vapor Millimeter-wave Spectrometer (WVMS) system has been making measurements from the Network for the Detection of Atmospheric Composition Change site at Mauna Loa, Hawaii (19.5°N, 204.4°E), since 1996, covering nearly the complete period of solar cycle 23. The WVMS measurements are compared with Halogen Occultation Experiment (HALOE) (1992–2005), Microwave Limb Sounder (MLS) (2004 to present), and Atmospheric Chemistry Experiment (ACE) Fourier transform spectrometer (2004 to present) measurements in the mesosphere. In the upper mesosphere Lyman a radiation photodissociates water vapor; hence, water vapor in the upper mesosphere varies with the solar cycle. We calculate fits to the WVMS and HALOE water vapor data in this region using the Lasp Interactive Solar Irradiance Datacenter Lyman a data set. This is, to our knowledge, the only published validation of the sensitivity of HALOE water vapor measurements to the solar cycle, and the HALOE and WVMS water vapor measurements show a very similar sensitivity to the solar cycle. Once the solar cycle variations are taken into account, the primary water vapor variations at all of these altitudes from 1992 to the present are an increase from 1992 to 1996, a maximum in water vapor in 1996, and small changes from 1997 to the present.
      https://airbornescience.nasa.gov/content/Water_vapor_measurements_in_the_mesosphere_from_Mauna_Loa_over_solar_cycle_23

  16. I recollect that the thing that would have concerned those who thought we were imminently heading back into an Ice Age in the 70s was that “diamond dust” ice grains would start accumulating in the upper atmosphere increasing reflectivity and setting off catastrophic cooling. Still a more plausible threat -whether right or wrong – than anything conjured up by the CO2 is Satan brigade.

  17. Did this launch help to amp-up the process ???

    Parker Solar Probe
    Spacecraft
    Parker Solar Probe is a NASA robotic spacecraft en route to probe the outer corona of the Sun. It will approach to within 8.86 solar radii from the “surface” of the Sun and will travel, at closest approach, as fast as 700,000 km/h. Wikipedia
    Launch date: 12 August 2018
    Manufacturer: Applied Physics Laboratory
    Reference system: Heliocentric orbit
    Operators: NASA, Applied Physics Laboratory
    Did you know: In May 2017, the spacecraft was renamed Parker Solar Probe in honor of astrophysicist Eugene Parker. wikipedia.org

    Dr. Michael H. Stevens, the paper’s lead author and a research physicist at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, reports that exhaust from the shuttle and other launch vehicles may help explain how some of these mysterious clouds are formed. The paper appeared on Saturday (May 31) in Geophysical Research Letters.

    Noctilucent clouds, sometimes called polar mesospheric clouds when observed from space, are too thin to be seen by the naked eye in broad daylight. However, they shine at night when the Sun’s rays hit them from below the horizon while the lower atmosphere is bathed in darkness. They typically form in the cold, summer polar mesosphere and are made of water ice particles.
    https://www.nasa.gov/centers/goddard/news/topstory/2003/0522shuttleshine.html

    • The water vapor in the mesosphere forms ice crystals around the dust that remains after the meteoroids are burnt.

    • “Stevens and colleagues also include observations from a ground-based experiment in Norway measuring water vapor moving toward the Arctic Circle. These observations reveal the passage of a large plume of water vapor overhead a little over a day after the same (STS-85) shuttle launch, confirming the plume trajectory inferred from the MAHRSI measurements.

      As the water vapor moves to the Arctic it falls from the warmer thermosphere down to colder areas in the mesosphere. Over the North Pole in the summer mesospheric temperatures can plummet below minus 220 Fahrenheit (minus 140 Celsius), the lowest found in the Earth’s atmosphere. At these temperatures, water vapor condenses into ice particles and clouds form.

      “The amount of water found here is tiny compared to the amount in the lower atmosphere,” Stevens said. “But the long term effects in the upper atmosphere have yet to be studied.”

      The Office of Naval Research and NASA’s Office of Space Science funded the study.”

    • Satellites and probes are being launched all the time. I don’t see how one more would make much difference.

  18. There has been an unusual upward blip in Arctic sea ice area trend over the last few weeks. Its too shorter period to mean too much yet, but worth watching I feel.

    M

  19. Reviews of Geophysics banner
    Free Access
    Powerful electromagnetic waves for active environmental research in geospace
    T. B. Leyser A. Y. Wong
    First published: 15 January 2009 https://doi.org/10.1029/2007RG000235 Cited by: 12

    8.4. Effects of Broadcast Transmitters
    [70] Broadcast transmitters continuously heat the overhead ionosphere and modulate ionospheric currents. The first report of such anthropogenic effects was the Luxembourg effect (section 1) explained by the fact that the powerful wave is absorbed in the lower ionosphere, which heats the electron gas and hence increases the electron collision frequency [Bailey and Martyn, 1934]. When a different weaker wave then propagates through the heated region, the modulated collision frequency modulates the damping of the wave, so that the modulation on the powerful wave is transferred to the weaker wave. In addition to simply modulating the electron temperature in the quiet ionosphere, broadcast transmitters also modulate the auroral electrojet current. Such a modulated current then acts as a giant antenna that emits the demodulated signals [Turunen et al., 1980; Cannon, 1982]. ELF/VLF signals in the form of time pips at 1 kHz and snatches of music broadcasts were recorded in northern Scandinavia that had been produced by waves from powerful Russian LF and MF transmitters heating the lower ionosphere and thereby being demodulated.
    https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2007RG000235

    • Inverse square law is applicable to radio waves emanating from antennas. The energy intercepted by these atmospheric layers therefore will be *much* weaker at distance from the transmitting site than that experienced a few miles from such sites.Physics on this level is still applicable.

  20. Earth is a beautiful place. Clouds are probably one of the most overlooked aspects of earth’s many phenomenons. And the best part is the ever changing dynamics and energy levels contained within. Clouds can be eye candy or terror, kind of simple or awe inspiring, non-visible allowing you to burn and then flood you a couple of hours later, sprinkle life giving water across the land or dump five feet of snow and ice, shade you from the hot sun or blow your house away, provide pretty lightening flashes in the night time sky or fry you on your feet in a single moment, etc. They come in many different flavors from white to black, red, yellow, orange, blue or even rainbows. They can be flat or bumpy, rolling up or across, offer distant vista views or make it hard to see the ground in front of you. Clouds are really neat!

    The technological age we live in allows pictures and views to be shared of their many forms from across the entire world! Sites like WUWT bring these to our attention and give insight to their complexity and try to explain it to those of us curious enough to want to know. The atmosphere without clouds would be a pretty boring place.

    And the best part comes when you try to understand them! And even better is if or when you do!

    https://www.bing.com/images/search?q=noctilucent+clouds&qpvt=noctilucent+clouds&FORM=IARRSM

    • I should also note that the mother of all clouds is water! And the father’s contribution would likely be combustion. Hell, you could write a really big book about clouds.

      • eyesonu:

        Yes. I am currently having a go at a book on clouds. The main problem I have is how to make it interesting for the average guy without glazing his/her eyes over with the technical bits, which for me are the source of great fascinating. Am now on my Mark 4 effort, with loads of scrap digits cluttering up my computer.
        As a result I have concluded (to my satisfaction!) that so long as my kettle in the kitchen boils at 100C and stays at that; there is no possibility of a “Hothouse Earth”, in the absence of a major distaster leading to a change in gravity or the sun’s current behaviour etc. The Atmospheric Rankine Cycle explains that
        The other thing is my observation that sea surface temperatures (SST) never seem to go much above 30C except in some specific areas. So far the explanation for this escapes me; but I am sure it has something to do with the rather odd thermodynamic behaviour of water indicated by the clouds.
        Any ideas, anyone?

        • Alastair
          Willis E Produced some very interesting charts and observations on WUWT not too long ago regarding water vapor release temps. Do a search. His charts would look great in your book.
          Regards

  21. Factors governing the strength and frequency of stratospheric ozone intrusions over the Pacific‐North American region are considered for their role in modulating tropospheric ozone on interannual timescales. The strength of the association between two major modes of climate variability—the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and the Northern Annular Mode (NAM)—and the amount of ozone contained in stratospheric intrusions are tested in the context of two mechanisms that modulate stratosphere‐to‐troposphere transport (STT) of ozone: (StratVarO3) the winter season buildup of ozone abundances in the lowermost stratosphere (LMS) and (JetVar) Pacific jet and wave breaking variability during spring. In essence, StratVarO3 corresponds to variability in the amount of ozone per intrusion, while JetVar governs the frequency of intrusions. The resulting analysis, based on two different reanalysis products, suggests that StratVarO3 is more important than JetVar for driving interannual variations in STT of ozone over the Pacific‐North American region. In particular, the abundance of ozone in the LMS at the end of winter is shown to be a robust indicator of the amount of ozone that will be contained in stratospheric intrusions during the ensuing spring. Additionally, it is shown that the overall strength of the winter season stratospheric NAM is a useful predictor of ozone intrusion strength. The results also suggest a nuanced relationship between the phase of ENSO and STT of ozone. While ENSO‐related jet variability is associated with STT variability, it is wave breaking frequency rather than typical ENSO teleconnection patterns that is responsible for the ENSO‐STT relationship.
    https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/2017JD026890

  22. Here is a pedant in full flight, re Anthony’s comment “The mesosphere is a layer of the atmosphere so high that it almost touches space”
    Logically, everything almost touches space. If it touched space, it would no longer be space.
    Cheers Anthony Geoff.

  23. man that is a beautiful sight. sadly not seeing much here in maine, sunsets been pretty good but nothing light that.

  24. Or it could have a very simple explanation. This summer has been exceptionally warm and dry in northern Europe. Skies have been exceptionally clear (normally July and August are the wettest months). A completely clear night sky like in the photo from Estonia is normally decidedly uncommon at this time of year.

    So noctilucent clouds have been unusually easy to see this year.

  25. A mechanism linking the lonevity of the clouds to solar mínima was mentioned in The Times (London) today:

    “ Previous work found that noctilucent clouds can grow stronger at solar minimum because the sun’s ultraviolet rays (UV) grow dimmer. Usually the UV can tear water molecules apart, but when the UV dims, the water vapour in the atmosphere is protected and the noctilucent clouds last longer.”

    I have absolutely no idea whether this is credible but if it is, it explains a lot.

  26. The western United States have lately had an exceptional number of forest fires by recent standards, the main products of which are hot and heavy CO2 and hot and light H2O. Some of that water vapor might find its way to the mesosphere. –AGF

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