The 30 strangest weather phenomena in the world & where to see them
Weather is more than just wind and rain
Everybody loves to complain about the weather, whether it’s too cold, too hot, too sunny or too rainy, we’re never completely satisfied. However, most of us should count ourselves lucky for having never experienced the both fascinating and intimidating weather phenomena nature has to offer. From harmless white rainbows to apocalypse-like lightning, we look at some of the strangest weather around the world and where to see them.
Also known as lunar rainbows, moonbows are the work of moonlight rather than sunlight. Only visible at night, a moonbow is quite rare and a lot fainter and smaller than its day-time alternative. Although it has been caught on camera at several locations around the world, particularly near waterfalls in Yosemite National Park, Plitvice Lakes in Croatia and Victoria Falls in Africa, the perfect conditions to see a moonbow are more important than the location. It has to be during a full moon around two to three hours after sunset or before sunrise.
Suspended high in the troposphere, cirrostratus clouds, or halos, are made from ice crystals that reflect sunlight – creating an illusion of a ring around the sun – and can be seen anywhere in the world. Since these high clouds usually appear before unsettled weather, folklore says that a halo warns of a coming rain or snow storm.
Belt of Venus
This beautiful phenomenon that usually appears as a pinkish belt above a blue tinted horizon is actually the Earth’s shadow. Only visible at sunset or sunrise, the pink glow above the dark band of our planet's shadow is caused by the backscatter of red light from the rising or setting sun. You have the best chance of seeing it if you either head up to higher ground, for example a forest viewing platform or a skyscraper, or if there’s nothing in your way to obscure the view of the horizon, like west or east facing beach or a field.
Squeezed between Earth and space about 50 miles above ground, these electric blue clouds are a result of ice crystals reflecting sunlight after sunset, when – due to their height – sunlight can still reach them. Noctilucent clouds only appear at latitudes between 50° and 70° north and south of the equator during local summer months, so from May to August these clouds are best seen in Estonia, Finland and Sweden.
Also known as blood moon, different shades of orange and red can be seen on the moon during a lunar eclipse. Although surrounded by many superstitions and prophecies, this red hue is actually due to red edge of the Earth's shadow reflecting on the moon – as sunlight passes through Earth’s atmosphere, all the other colours of the spectrum are removed. The next blood moon will appear during the lunar eclipse on 31 January 2018 and will be visible almost everywhere in the world, apart from south and west Europe, south and west Africa and southern and eastern areas of South America.
The appearance of these most unusual and distinctive clouds can vary from the classic protruding shape to a more elongated tube hanging off the cloud above. Normally associated with thunderstorms, these peculiar shapes are formed due to turbulence within the storm cloud, creating an uneven cloud base and can appear anywhere in the world.
Although this terrifying tower of flames only lasts a few minutes, it can bring a lot of destruction with it. Caused by forest and bush fires or extreme droughts, these fire tornadoes occur when fire is whipped up by strong, dry air. Wildfires in California, New Zealand and Australia are especially prone to fire whirls.
As a mixture of different gas molecules enter the Earth’s atmosphere, they collide with solar winds, creating tinted lights known as auroras. The lesser-known counterpart to the aurora borealis (northern lights) is the southern lights, or aurora australis, which can be best observed at the southern tip of New Zealand, the Falkland Islands and at the world’s southernmost city Ushuaia in Argentina.
Associated with wildfire or volcanic eruptions, these dense cloud formations usually appear above the source of the heat. Sometimes they produce dry lightning (lightning without rain) and can even extinguish the fire that formed it. Terrifyingly, they often appear as a mushroom-shaped cloud, similar to that left behind by a nuclear bomb. The most spectacular of these clouds have been seen during wildfires in California and Yellowstone National Park.
Typically seen during sunrise or sunset, the vertical shaft of sunlight extending from the sun is actually light reflected on falling ice crystals that are associated with thin high-level clouds. This phenomenon can be best spotted when the sun is low just before sunset, or just after the break of dawn. Sun pillars can be seen anywhere in the world but you’ll have greater luck spotting one if you’re closer to water.
As precipitation falls from a cloud and hits a streak of warm wind below it, it evaporates before hitting the ground, leaving visible streaks in the sky known as virgas. In North America, it’s especially common in the western United States and the Canadian Prairies, however it’s also often seen in the Middle East, Australia and North Africa.
A generic term used for downslope winds, katabatic wind originates at high elevations of mountains, plateaus and hills and then flows down their slopes to the valleys or planes below due to changing pressure. Katabatic winds commonly occur in icy regions like Antarctica, Greenland and the fjords in Norway.
Film fans will recognise this phenomenon from Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, however in reality it’s not quite as spectacular. This optical illusion occurs just before sunset or right after sunrise and appears as a green spot just above the sun for no more than a second or two. Caused by light refracting in the atmosphere, it can be seen anywhere in the world but you’ll need a clear view of a distant horizon on a clear day. It’s important you don’t look at the sun until it’s almost entirely below the horizon, though, otherwise the sunlight will dazzle your eyes and you won’t be able to see the green flash at all.
Found on young sea ice or thin lake ice in cold, calm conditions, these icy flowers form when the underlying water temperature is warmer than the air. Most commonly found in polar regions, some scientists have described Arctic frost flowers as “sea meadows”.
Regularly confused with UFOs, these lens-shaped clouds, that appear singular or stacked like pancakes, are very different from any other type of cloud because they don’t move and can appear anywhere in the world. Commonly found in mountainous regions, lenticular clouds are avoided by airplane pilots due to the heavy turbulence they can cause.
Also known as a dirty thunderstorm or thunder volcano, this terrifying looking phenomenon is lightning produced inside a cloud of volcanic ash. It has been observed during most volcanic eruptions, including that of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull and Mount Etna in Sicily.
Essentially a water tornado, these intense vortexes often appear weaker than their land counterparts, however stronger versions can occur. Mostly seen in the tropics and subtropical areas, waterspouts are often accompanied by high winds, large hail and dangerous lightning. Obviously, you would have to be on or quite close to water to see this phenomenon and if you’re curious, the Florida Keys is the top waterspout hot spot in the world.
Unique to Venezuela, this type of lightning can only be observed over the mouth of the Catatumbo River where it empties into Lake Maracaibo. It occurs approximately 260 nights a year, 10 hours per day and up to 280 times per hour, however in 2010 it ceased from January to March due to a drought, leaving many in fear that the famous lightning might be extinguished permanently.
Similar to a rainbow, a white rainbow or a fog bow, appears in a fog rather than rain. Because of the tiny size of the droplets, a fog bow has very weak colours and therefore appears white. They can be spotted over lava flows in Hawaii, at the base of Yosemite Falls in spring as the snow melts and in the cloud forests of Costa Rica from late December to early February.
This snow formation that resembles thin blades can be found only at high altitudes. Formed of hardened snow and ice during a complicated climatic process, penitentes can most commonly be spotted in the high altitudes of South America, like the Atacama Desert, Central Andes and Chajnantor plain in Chile.
Morning Glory clouds
This weather occurrence, almost unique to Australia, resembles a row of giant rolling pins. Each cloud can be more than 300 feet wide and stretch just over 400 miles – from one side of the Gulf of Carpentaria to the other. It is the only known location in the world where these clouds can be predicted and observed on a more-or-less regular basis.
The mother of all storms, supercells are terrifying to encounter and highly dangerous. These massive thunderstorms contain a strong, persistent updraft called a mesocyclone, and although they can occur anywhere in the world, the Great Plains area in the USA – known as Tornado Alley – is particularly prone to supercells.
Despite the fact that reports of spherical lightning bolts have been recorded since 17th century, it wasn’t until 2012, when a video of ball lightning in nature was captured, that the existence of the phenomenon was proved. However, due to inconsistencies and lack of reliable data, the cause of ball lightning still remains unknown and it’s impossible to predict where it could appear.
As rain falls down to a surface where temperatures are below freezing, the droplets start to freeze, creating a glaze-like ice cover. Freezing rain is notorious for causing travel problems on roadways, breaking tree limbs and downing power lines due to the weight of ice. It’s also considered an extreme hazard to an aircraft as the ice can reshape its aerofoils, reducing lift and increasing drag. Cold winters in Canada are the best time to see freezing rain in action.
This natural phenomenon occasionally transforms the open sea and ocean shorelines into foam that resembles the milk froth on your morning latte. The foam consists of water impurities – mainly salts, chemicals, decomposed fish and dead plants – and is formed when powerful currents mix them up. It’s most likely to happen along rocky coastlines next to stormy seas or oceans, like the coast of San Francisco or the North Sea.
Just like the steam coming off a hot bath, sea smoke is the rising warmth from the water below colder air. Often seen in the Arctic and Antarctic, sea smoke is usually quite low and ships can easily see over it, however columns between 65 to 100 feet have been recorded in the past.
This isn't the newest flavour in Krispy Kremes, but a very rare meteorological spectacle that only occurs under very specific and precise weather conditions in mountainous areas. Unlike snowballs, snow rollers, or snow doughnuts, have a cylindrical shape, after the weaker and thinner inner layers are blown away by wind. These inedible doughnuts can be found in any snow-covered mountain terrain, from Rocky Mountains to the Giant Mountains in Czech Republic.
Commonly referred to as a "hole-punch", these formations occur when the water droplet part of the cloud freezes into ice crystals. While it’s understandable why heavier ice crystals fall below the cloud level, creating a hole, it’s still unclear why the freezing starts only in one particular area of a cloud. Luckily for us, it’s harmless and can appear in the sky anywhere in the world.
Frostwork or ice flowers
Often associated with the work of Jack Frost and fairy tales, frostwork appears on windows and smooth glass surfaces like car windows. The intricate flower-like patterns are formed when a glass surface is exposed to very cold air on the outside and moist, warmer air on the inside. You’ll have the best chance of seeing this nature’s work of art anywhere in the north during freezing winters with little precipitation, like Scandinavia, Russia and northern Canada.
Scientifically known as a circumhorizontal arc, this phenomenon is extremely rare because it takes the right type of cloud, the sun shining at a certain angle and ice crystals aligned in a certain position for it to form. You’ll have the best chance of seeing this colourful ball in the United States, especially Los Angeles, where sun is shining at the right angle for 670 hours between late March and late September.