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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 01/10/2008

What Caused this Cloud Formation?

By Kevin Ambrose

Sunset over Fairfax, January 8.

At 5:15pm on Tuesday I noticed an odd cloud formation in the sky. I took a photograph and have posted it above. Can anyone explain this cloud formation and what may have caused its shape? Please comment. Steve will publish some of the best and/or creative answers in "News and Notes" later on today. He'll also offer the Capital Weather Gang's assessment.

By Kevin Ambrose  | January 10, 2008; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Photography  
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Posted by: anon | January 10, 2008 11:02 AM | Report abuse

Zorro's gone galactic!

Posted by: jmbethesda | January 10, 2008 11:04 AM | Report abuse


Posted by: EricB | January 10, 2008 11:13 AM | Report abuse

Harry Potter is in town???? I did notice in the past few days more contrails than usual. They seemed to be everywhere. So I may be way off base, as I am no expert, but could these be those and winds aloft reshaped them?? Just a thought.

Posted by: Sara in Oakton | January 10, 2008 11:16 AM | Report abuse

Jet conttrails bent by upper-level winds?

Posted by: EricB | January 10, 2008 11:22 AM | Report abuse

Hello from Whistler, Canada, where it hasn't stopped snowing since I arrived last Tuesday! We had about 4 inches yesterday, 5 inches overnight--they seem to have given up on clearing the roads--and should get another 4 inches today. In total, Whistler has had some 70 inches of snow in the past week. Oh, and the skiing's good, too!

I'll try compiling a video and sending it over later on.

Posted by: mcleaNed | January 10, 2008 11:36 AM | Report abuse

looks like ZZ top is doing a little overhead promoting. ;-)

(However, I agree it is probably contrails distorted by upper-level winds...LOL)

Posted by: Kim in Manassas | January 10, 2008 11:43 AM | Report abuse

One more - and I promise I'm done: Smoke trails from the setting/melting sun.

Posted by: EricB | January 10, 2008 11:45 AM | Report abuse

Santa blowing off some post-Christmas steam?

Posted by: 16th and Irving | January 10, 2008 12:02 PM | Report abuse

I think it is neo-Nazis trying to form an "SS" sign in the sky.

Posted by: Megamet | January 10, 2008 12:10 PM | Report abuse

I agree with EricB. Bent contrails due to winds aloft.

Posted by: jtf | January 10, 2008 12:17 PM | Report abuse

Twin contrails. Upper level winds blowing at slightly different speeds causing the ice crystals to move at different speeds.

Posted by: Curmidgeon | January 10, 2008 12:32 PM | Report abuse

FYI, check out the photo in Josh's post. It is the same sunset, but from a different location and with a wider view.

Posted by: Kevin | January 10, 2008 12:39 PM | Report abuse

Kevin, looks like we saw the same sunset and had similar thoughts! Though, I must give credit to someone in my office who pointed it out to me..

I think the contrails answer is correct. Throughout the day they were quite long lasting in the upper levels and the twisting/zig zag pattern seems to be them getting pushed along by the jet stream configuration.

Posted by: Ian, Capital Weather Gang | January 10, 2008 12:39 PM | Report abuse

Where's Contrail Ken when you need him?

Posted by: ? | January 10, 2008 1:11 PM | Report abuse

Sorry, you're all wrong. It's Jerry Garcia announcing his second coming.

I guess contrails are another possibility though.

Posted by: Parker | January 10, 2008 1:15 PM | Report abuse

Folks that's the universal signal for a pending KISS concert. It works similarly to the mechanism the Commissioner used to summon Batman and Robin with his kleig light in Gotham City.

Or, it's a chemtrail. :)

Posted by: Curtis | January 10, 2008 1:23 PM | Report abuse

please help is there any way to get the old radar style up on the screen thanks deve. btw i'm not liking this new site and it has to do with the (twpc)

Posted by: deve madison va | January 10, 2008 1:25 PM | Report abuse

that is a very pretty cloud...

congrats again on the move!

Posted by: madison | January 10, 2008 1:38 PM | Report abuse

The tricky part is describing what caused the shape, and how.

Posted by: Kevin | January 10, 2008 1:52 PM | Report abuse

Chemtrails, duh! :D

Posted by: Ashburn Dave | January 10, 2008 2:57 PM | Report abuse

Two sperate contrails from two seperate planes that flew one after another following the same jet way. Then wind sheer in the upper levels distorted it?

Posted by: Nader | January 10, 2008 4:49 PM | Report abuse

The fact that the long axis of the contrails is unchanged suggests there is no directional shear; however...the displaced segments indicate there is speed shear.

A rawindsonde flight launched from IAD two hours after the picture was taken. The data show 1) a relative speed maxima of 49KTS @ ~18K', 2) a relative speed minima of 32KTS @ ~21K', and 3) an increase in speed to 49KTS @ ~24K'.

An aircraft ascending or descending through that layer would likely have its contrail distorted as shown in the picture.

Posted by: TQ | January 10, 2008 6:31 PM | Report abuse

harry potter's broomstick stopped working and he fel out of the sky

Posted by: sam | January 10, 2008 7:18 PM | Report abuse

I think it looks like the remains of a turn-of-the-century coca-cola bottle that was sucked up by a reverse vortex which could have been caused by an earthly mini-black hole. This phenomenon is theoretical although some believe they have proved that earthly black holes do in fact exist. It may be an omen that our first major snow storm of the year will happen this Sunday night. In any case, it made for a very colorful photo.

Posted by: Steve on the Mountain | January 10, 2008 7:51 PM | Report abuse

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