NASA satellite captures photo of bizarre circle of clouds

Sometimes, nature just gives us the weird.

While clouds are an important topic of research for climatologists and meteorologists, sometimes the atmosphere churns up peculiar-looking cloud formations that are as notable for aesthetic reasons as they are for scientific ones.

That was the case in May when this circular swirl of clouds drifted over Lake Balkhash in eastern Kazakhstan. In fact, as a nearly perfect circle, it could serve as a worthy alternate “O” in our Reading the ABCs from Space image gallery.

download large image (9 MB, JPEG, 9479×9729)

The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite acquired the image at roughly 12:05 local time (06:05 Universal Time) on May 22, 2018, and the MODIS on Aqua acquired a similar image roughly two hours later.

Cyclonic wind flow drew the clouds into the circular pattern, which had a radius of roughly 200 kilometers (100 miles)—small enough that meteorologists would classify it as a mesoscale feature. In contrast, synoptic scale features have horizontal lengths greater than 1,000 kilometers, while microscale features have widths less than 1 kilometer.

While the MODIS sensors are affixed to polar-orbiting satellites and take an image of each part of Earth once per day, the Indian Space Research Organization operates a geostationary satellite—INSAT-3DR—that keeps its gaze fixed on this part of the world and captures new images every 26 minutes. Imagery from INSAT-3DR helps fill in the gaps before, after, and between the two MODIS images. The INSAT-3DR imagerysuggests that a few hours before Terra MODIS acquired the image, the circular feature was linked to an area of convection to the southwest over the western Tien Shan mountains.

via NASA Earth Observatory


29 thoughts on “NASA satellite captures photo of bizarre circle of clouds

  1. Somebody’s blowing smoke rings in Kazakhstan, it seems! That’s a mighty big puff! : ]

  2. Local water transport into the atmosphere.

    Surface water evaporates, rises, and circles the source under a cut-off low. Trapped by the mountains to the south.

  3. A wider satellite imaging would have revealed a cloud formation to the distant left in the shape of a giant “C” and to the distant right a swirl of cloud with a little “2” – so now we know where all that extra “carbon” is lurking.
    Clearly we are all doomed when even the atmosphere is sending us a message blah blah blah…

  4. By the way, not all the white in that photograph is clouds. At the bottom left, bottom right, and due right, the fractal edges of whiteness are clearly snow on mountains indented by valleys. That doesn’t change the beauty of the cloud circle though.


    • To much of that circle is snow on top of mountains. Unsure what we are really seeing.

  5. It looks like a crater. There is even a puff of cloud in the middle that looks like a central rise.

  6. The clouds appear to have counter-clockwise rotation and in the Northern Hemisphere with the wind at your back the low pressure is to your left, so the rotation is around a low-pressure center. Or Stonhenge II writ large.

    • All right, Barbera, there was no alien. The flash of light you saw in the sky was not a UFO. Swamp gas from a weather balloon was trapped in a thermal pocket and reflected the light from Venus.
      – K Men in Black

  7. Given that synoptic scale starts at 1000 km, mesoscale at 200 km, and microscale at a few km, it’s interesting that the clouds, dust devils, and thunderstorms that play such a large part in regulating the temperature are all down at the micro end of the scale …


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