I recently finished reading The Cloudspotter’s Guide (see review), and have concluded that it is one of my all-time favourite books. I have made skywatching a hobby for as long as I can remember, but the book has raised my awareness of the skies above us to new heights. As it happens, this has coincided with some absolutely pheomenal skywatching weather in Edinburgh, warm seas and sunshine feeding vast Cumulus clouds, weather fronts dropping stunning Cirrus squirls from the heavens, fascinating layers on layers of different clouds.
I’ll return to the book later; for now I just wanted to share the results of just two day’s skywatching…
The first of those days found me sitting in Holyrood Park one fine, sunny-cloudy afternoon after work, with my camera and a copy of The Cloudspotter’s Guide, with nothing to do but read about, watch and record the sky. The weather was as good as perfect for it – strange ice clouds high above, brooding storm clouds just far enough away not to alarm, and enough sunshine to keep us warm and illuminate the early-autumnal haze with lovely crepuscular rays.
With the help of the Guide I was able to identify this unusual net-like formation with some confidence as a Cirrocumulus lacunosus undulatus – that is, a collection of high, icy cloudlets forming a layer punctuated by holes – lacunas, if you like. Granted, that doesn’t tell us much of any real use, but still, it’s always nice to be able to put a name to something that’s been puzzling you.
The banks of Cumulus congestus dwarfed the Salisbury Crags, which in turn dwarfed the people climbing them. I knew that it would rain on us sooner or later, but I had time to capture a series of pictures to turn into a highly amateur time-lapse film, so that I could watch those beautiful convection cells in action later. There’s a small version of this here, but if your computer can take it I recommend the full 2-megabyte version. I could have saved myself a lot of work later if I’d had a tripod with me – and a timer would help – but I didn’t have anything fancy to hand, so I just balanced the camera on my knees and took a picture every few seconds for a couple of minutes – compressed here into a couple of seconds.
A few weeks later the skies around Edinburgh were dominated by vast, looming, ever-growing Cumulus congestus and Cumulonimbus: puffy, dramatic and often deceptively solid-looking rain clouds, pouring down their loads even as they burgeon with freshly condensed droplets, up-wellings of warm, moist air racing to refresh them before they rain themselves out. I was staggered to end up avoiding the rains entirely, though it can’t have been more than a mile or two away at any point in the afternoon.
That day’s convection clouds came accompanied by a smattering of Cirrus clouds streaming out of a subtle Cirrostratus, showing that the air was moist right up to the highest reaches of the troposphere – to the tropopause, where the weather stops. Their ice crystals refracted the sunlight in a stunning range of displays; I have been watching out for such things for years, but had never seen such a range of ice halo phenomena in one day.
There were striking sun dogs (also known as parhelia, or mock suns) – the most obvious of the halo phenomena, these appear more than once a week in northern Europe, but most people still fail to notice them. They are created by horizontally-aligned plate-like ice crystals; the sunlight passes through one side of these transparent hexagons and out of another, making a bright, coloured patch of sky 22° or so away from the sun – about the distance from thumb to little figure of an outstretched hand at arm’s length. The colours are not always obvious, but when they are you can see that the sun dog is reddish towards the sun, and bluish on the other side – sometimes with a long, not entirely un-doglike tail.
The exact same kind of ice crystals produce the circumzenith arc, a ‘sky smile’ in vivid rainbow colours, going part-way around the top of the sky, above the sun. As on that day, these are therefore likely to be seen at the same time – although they are not seen as often as sun dogs, partly because they only appear when the sun is quite low in the sky. In their case, the bright colours – which at their best can out-do any common-or-garden rainbow – are the result of light entering the top of the ice-plates and leaving through the sides.
Accompanying these, less spectacular but undeniably still pretty, I was unsurprised by the appearance of a 22° halo, the most common halo effect produced by Cirrostratus; these are made by columnar ice crystals, like tiny pencils, which are randomly oriented, and they appear almost one day in three. When these crystals have smooth, flat ends (which they rarely do) they can also produce a 46° halo, much fainter and much larger than their cousin. When the columnar crystals are roughly horizontal, they can also produce a tangent arc, somewhat resembling a giant dove made of pure light. If my judgement is on, I was privileged to see both that afternoon.