Electric-blue night clouds are invading the U.S.

Reposted from Dr. Roy Spencer’s Blog

I have personally cussed out Dr. Spencer for adding an item to my bucket list which had been almost complete.~ctm

June 11th, 2019 by Roy W. Spencer, Ph. D.

Over the next few weeks, mid-latitude observers might experience the best noctilucent cloud viewing of their lifetimes.


Extremely high-altitude noctilucent (night-shining) clouds viewed from Corvallis, Oregon on June 10, 2019 (Tucker Shannon, Google Pixel phone).

Observers over the northern half of the United States are reporting something they have never seen before — electric-blue noctilucent (night-shining) clouds. They are wispy in appearance, and continuously change shape. They can be seen when the sun is about 6 to 16 deg. below the horizon, so about 1 to 2 hours after sunset or before sunrise. During that time of night the sun is still shining on these clouds, but not on any normal weather-related clouds.

In the late spring every year, people at far northern latitudes have often seen these on clear or partly-cloudy evenings. But solar-minimum conditions, with few if any sunspots, are causing cooling in the extreme upper atmosphere around 80 km (~50 miles) high where the lowest atmospheric temperatures are recorded, approaching -150 deg. F (-100 deg. C). That altitude is above 99.999% of the air in the atmosphere.

Noctilucent clouds observed from the International Space Station on June 13, 2012 (NASA).

Adding to the spectacular electric blue displays is increasing atmospheric methane, which gets converted to water vapor at these altitudes, and increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide, which causes enhanced cooling of the upper atmosphere. The result is that the conditions necessary for NLC formation are extending farther south than ever before.

The wispy and undulating appearance of the clouds is due to upward-propagating gravity (air density) waves that cause temperatures to rise and fall, and the clouds form in the colder portions of those waves. Ice grows on meteor dust particles, creating a (nearly) outer space version of cirrus clouds. Time lapse photography has been used to show how the clouds change shape as the gravity waves well up through the extremely cold upper mesosphere:

2017 NOCTILUCENT CLOUD CHASING SEASON TEASER – 4K (UHD) from Night Lights Films on Vimeo.

If you miss seeing them in the next several weeks, take heart — solar minimum conditions should persist until the next NLC season arrives, making the summer of 2020 a good viewing opportunity, too.

You can see recent NLC photos from around the Northern Hemisphere, updated daily, here.


53 thoughts on “Electric-blue night clouds are invading the U.S.

    • I was going to go outside to view noctilucent clouds this evening.
      But the sound they make is awful!
      Forget it, I am staying in.

  1. 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:

    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.

    The rate of 14C production can be modelled, yielding values of 16,400[12] or 18,800[13] atoms of 14C per second per square meter of the Earth’s surface, which agrees with the global carbon budget that can be used to backtrack,[14] but attempts to measure the production rate directly in situ were not very successful. Production rates vary because of changes to the cosmic ray flux caused by the heliospheric modulation (solar wind and solar magnetic field), and due to variations in the Earth’s magnetic field.

  2. When the large solar eruptions blow away the galactic cosmic rays before they reach Earth they cause a reduction in atmospheric ions of up to about 20 to -30 percent over the course of a week. So if ions affect cloud formation it should be possible to observe a decrease in cloud cover during events when the Sun blows away cosmic rays, and this is precisely what is done in this study.

  3. Ren – yet archaeologists use carbon 14 to “date” organic remains from the ancient world with a certainty that troubles me, even though they allow a margin of error which increases the further back the date gets pushed. While this is not unreasonable,I find myself wondering about the exact degree of certainty that can be ascribed to these proxies, especially as we don’t know all the possible unusual events in Earth history that might have unsettled the usual pattern in the past. Do we know all the excursions or reasons for cosmic ray fluctuations in the recent or distant past. I doubt it.
    A bit like ice and tree proxies I suppose.

      • “Africa dried out, and a lot of the forest turned into savannah. Around this time and afterwards, we started having glaciations — ice ages — over and over again, and it’s not clear why that started to happen,” study co-author Adrian Melott, of the University of Kansas, said in a statement. “It’s controversial, but maybe cosmic rays had something to do with it.”

        Melott and his colleagues — led by Brian Thomas, of Washburn University in Kansas — conducted computer simulations that modeled how supernovas might affect Earth’s climate and biosphere. (Supernovas can occur in two ways: when a star much more massive than the sun runs out of fuel and dies, or when a superdense stellar corpse called a white dwarf steals so much matter from a nearby companion star that it crosses a mass threshold and explodes.)

        The researchers were particularly interested in supernovas that occur about 300 light-years from Earth, because scientists think such events flared up twice relatively recently — once 6.5 million to 8.7 million years ago, and again 1.7 million to 3.2 million years ago. (This latter supernova is the one that may be tied to the Pliocene-Pleistocene extinction.)

      • “The big thing turns out to be the cosmic rays,” Melott said. “The really high-energy ones are pretty rare. They get increased by quite a lot here — for a few hundred to thousands of years, by a factor of a few hundred. The high-energy cosmic rays are the ones that can penetrate the atmosphere. They tear up molecules. They can rip electrons off atoms, and that goes on right down to the ground level. Normally, that happens only at high altitude.”

        The end result was likely a tripling of the overall radiation dose at ground level, the researchers found. This may have been enough to increase cancer and mutation rates, “but not enormously,” Melott said. “Still, if you increased the mutation rate, you might speed up evolution.”

        The second explosion 2.5 million years ago could accelerate the evolution of man. Space interferes with evolution on Earth.

      • Abstract
        Multiple lines of evidence point to one or more moderately nearby supernovae, with the strongest signal at ∼2.6 Ma. We build on previous work to argue for the likelihood of cosmic ray ionization of the atmosphere and electron cascades leading to more frequent lightning and therefore an increase in nitrate deposition and wildfires. The potential exists for a large increase in the prehuman nitrate flux onto the surface, which has previously been argued to lead to CO2 drawdown and cooling of the climate. Evidence for increased wildfires exists in an increase in soot and carbon deposits over the relevant period. The wildfires would have contributed to the transition from forest to savanna in northeast Africa, long argued to have been a factor in the evolution of hominin bipedalism.

        • During the periods of galactic radiation increase, one can expect an increase in electric discharges and the increase of fires on Earth.

    • They are perfectly well aware that the C14 production rate has varied considerably over time. There are calibration curves that correct for this. They are fairly reliable as far back as there are good treering chronologies (the C14 in one particular ring is proportional to the C14 in the atmosphere that year). Beyond about 12,000 years ago the uncertainty grows considerably.

      There are a number of other complications and corrections needed for particular materials and environments. All radiocarbon dates are approximations.

      This is known by everybody in the field except climate scientists who happily correlate Antarctic CO2 data with Northern Hemisphere proxies based on radiocarbon dates to “disprove” that CO2 lags temperature.

    • Carbon dating is useful, but its precision can vary a lot depending upon various factors such as total CO2 concentration in the atmosphere at the time the subject creature dies, as well as other effects of various astrophysical properties. The amount of the sample, how long the count is conducted, all affect the precision of the results.

      Carbon dating is useful, but not exact. And it is only good up to around 50 thousand years or so. Dating something to within plus or minus 50 or 100 years might be a typical precision. It cannot be used to determine that a given body died in any particular year or decade.

      • 50-100 years is very optimistic. The uncertainty is greater than that. The figures like +-35 years one sees is only the measurement uncertainty. To this the uncertainty in converting to calendar years must be added as well as other corrections.

    • They calibrate their curves by measuring C-14 levels in items whose dates have been determined using other methods.

      • Preferably treerings, but that only goes back about 12,000 years. Before that speleothems, and annually layered sedimentary deposits which are much more uncertain.

  4. These are gorgeous.
    Last year flying over northern Russia the display at FL33 000 was fantastic, especially during our current white night season.
    What suprises me most, is how few people seem to admire them,- I put this down to infection with “smartphoniasis”, the new disease develops into severe zombieitis.

  5. Summer 2020 will be interesting times.
    US presidential election hysteria from the Left.
    General Alignment of all the planets minus Uranus.
    and now notilucent clouds.

  6. This was very notable in Northern Europe last summer. I’ve never seen so many noctilucent clouds before.

  7. “increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide, which causes enhanced cooling of the upper atmosphere”

    This is worth a comment. CAGW theory predicts cooling in the stratosphere, caused by the direct radiative effect of more CO2, and heating of the upper troposphere caused by water vapor feedback of increasing CO2.

    The first is happening and measurable. The second isn’t.

    • Low solar activity causes the thermosphere to cool dramatically but it also deflates the size of the atmosphere. I have always been suspicious of the thermosphere temperature change being the real forcing factor when it comes to global warming. As the atmosphere bloats out the probability of an outgoing photon hitting a particle and reflecting back in increases. The effect would be subtle but it would be everywhere and might be more than enough to cause the warming we have seen since LIA.

      • I am not sure that the absolute mass of the atmosphere increases when it warms and expands, just its volume. If there were more molecules there, they would flow down and away from that spot until the pressure stabilized again. We do have high and low pressure centers closer to the earth, with enough pressure difference to be observable. The atmosphere is so thin up there in the first place (about 0.001% of the pressure at sea level) that I wouldn’t think that this would be significant. Basically, the cross section to radiate to space from there is vacuum.

    • and heating of the upper troposphere caused by water vapor feedback of increasing CO2

      Is that the non-existent tropospheric hotspot?

  8. People have only never seen noctilucent clouds before because they didn’t know the phenomenon had a name or was something to look at.

    • Most likely didn’t know what they were seeing. I’ve seen something akin to this well after the sun goes down. I have a compulsion when it comes to sunsets. When something else shows up later that lights up the sky and I’ve abandoned the camera, it drives me nuts that didn’t get a pic. Also drives me nuts that a sunset can last around 3 hours now, lol.

    • They’re actually a cold-bluish white, in general. Just saw a bunch a couple of nights ago (2nd time in my life of 60 years), and they persisted for about 1.5 hours. By the end the light show had faded to a dark blue-white skyscape of wisps. Quite striking.

      • So I live in Central Florida. I just went outside to look at the intriguing things. After dark you have to be aware of various critters (snakes, alligators, mosquitos…).

        I wandered down to the middle of my driveway, looked up, and saw… a perfectly clear night (this would not happen with a SpaceX launch).


        Now I have to do it all over again tomorrow.

  9. So, what you and Dr. Spencer are telling is that Earth’s albedo is increasing dramatically in the upper atmosphere?

    Less of that solar energy reaching the surface.

  10. Water Vapor in the mesosphere? 50 miles above earth’s surface? How does it get there?

    • re: “Water Vapor in the mesosphere? 50 miles above earth’s surface? How does it get there?”

      It’s in the article: Adding to the spectacular electric blue displays is increasing atmospheric methane, which gets converted to water vapor at these altitudes,

      Now, ask the next obvious question …

  11. ” about 1 to 2 hours after sunset or before sunrise. During that time of night the sun is still shining on these clouds”

    There’s the admission that the amount of the Sun’s energy impacting Earth’s nightside is greater than zero.

  12. 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.

  13. I’ve been seeing noctilucent clouds every year for the last 40+ years whilst ambling back from the pub with my drinking companion on a Sunday night. Particularly in September for some reason. He, being a (retired) electrical engineer, always comments on the electric blue colour. Very beautiful and well worth staying up for if you normally go to bed early. We have already seen them on a couple of occasions this year slightly earlier than normally.

  14. Methane is converted to water vapor due to altitude?
    This is amazing!
    Transmutation is now a reality!

      • Methane is oxidized to form water vapor. It’s unlikely that chemists who work on such things their whole careers are just “making it up”.

        • And if it said that I would not have commented, because it is obviously correct.
          It was the phrasing.
          The comment was not meant to be serious, it was just pointing out sloppy language.
          People that do not have chemistry degrees (I do) might think methane is converted to water when it gets way up in the air.
          Because it says that.
          It did not say that a chain of reactions occur in which methane oxidizes to wv and CO2.

  15. The problem of galactic cosmic rays (GCR) effects on the lower stratosphere and its composition becomes increasingly important in the scientific research. It has grea-test importance in the i nvesti gation of the ozone O3 state. During the 60s and 70s some authors as analyze this problem from the point of view of ozone des-truction by GCR. For the investigation of these processes the formation of nitrogen oxydes and their role in the O3 destruction have been taken into account. The processes are describ ed in details in P . A great interest presents also the ozone formation under the influence of GCR. It is well known that the unique source of charged par-ticles i n the lower stratosphere are the GCR, which consist from protons, a-particles and heavier nuclei (Z>3) with energy >1—2 GeV/nucI. The GCR depose their energy mainly at a height of 10-20 km, where the maximum of the air ionization (maximum of Pfotzer) is. This ionization takes place In the lower stratosphere, where the photo-dissociation rate decr eases ess entially and becomes comparable, even less than the CR ionization rate. At the same time the charged particles are already able for reactions in the atmosphere, whose constant reactions rate is greater with one or two orders than the respective value of free radical processes . The GCR are a source of ozone formation in the lower stratosphere, because of radiol ysis in the oxygen mole-cules. In this way two mechanisms of ozone formation from GCR are observed: first, the radiolysis of the oxygen molecules; second, a participation of ions in the ion -molecular processes in the stratosphere.

  16. Gravity waves – wow, heavy metals:

    for astronomers, elements higher, heavier than hydrogen and helium are “metals”!

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