Rare 'mother-of-pearl' clouds sighted in Antarctica

Expeditioners at Mawson station have been treated to a display of beautiful and rare 'nacreous' clouds. On 3 June 2009, station doctor, Glenn Browning, took these photos of the clouds, which form in the stratosphere about 20 km above the ground, under very cold conditions. Atmospheric scientist, Dr Andrew Klekociuk, says the clouds only occur at high polar latitudes in winter, at temperatures less than -80ºC. They can only be seen when the sun is just below the horizon. Their iridescent colouring, often described as 'mother-of-pearl', is caused by sunlight passing through ice crystals in the atmosphere. Unfortunately, the clouds promote chemical changes in the atmosphere that destroy ozone.

Nacreous clouds over Mawson on 3 June, 2009. 
 

The clouds, which are also known as 'polar stratospheric clouds', have been observed at Mawson station over the past few years, including a spectacular sighting by meteorologist, Renae Baker, in 2006. 

Nacreous clouds over Mawson Small nacreous cloud with a faint tail. 

The small cloud in the right-hand image above has a faint tail. This small cloud is produced in a cold and localised region of an atmospheric lee wave, where air has been forced to cool in response to flow over mountains in the Mawson region. The tail indicates where the main cloud has seeded further nacreous cloud development downwind of the lee wave, causing the wave to have have a longer-lasting and more widespread effect on the stratosphere. 

MODIS Terra satellite image of the nacreous clouds taken at 0514 Universal Time on 3 June 2009.
MODIS Terra satellite image of nacreous clouds over Mawson taken at 0514 Universal Time on 3 June 2009.
Photo: MODIS with analysis by Andrew Klekociuk
 
MODIS Aqua satellite image of nacreous clouds over Mawson taken at 105UT on 3 June 2009.
MODIS Aqua satellite image of nacreous clouds over Mawson taken at 1050 Universal Time on 3 June 2009.
Photo: MODIS with analysis by Andrew Klekociuk
 
MODIS Terra infrared satellite image of nacreous clouds above Mawson, 0514 UT, 3 June 20009.
MODIS Terra infrared satellite image of nacreous clouds above Mawson, 0514 UT, 3 June 20009.
Photo: MODIS with analysis by Andrew Klekociuk
 

These satellite images of the nacreous clouds were taken by the MODIS sensor on the Terra and Aqua satellites on 3 June 2009. The Terra images were taken at 0514 Universal Time, or 11.14 am Mawson time - about 30 minutes before Dr Glenn Browning took his photos. The Aqua image (centre) was taken at 4.54 pm Mawson time. The streaks running through the images are background noise.

The infrared image (above right) more clearly illustrates the clouds Glenn photographed. The bright clouds north of Mawson correspond to the bright cloud band in Glenn's images. The clouds that appear to the left (west) of Mawson in both the Terra satellite images ,were not as well illuminated by the sun and were not visible from the station.

CALIPSO image showing the nacreous clouds as a bright blob at 22 km up, to the left of the image, near the edge of the Antarctic plateau.

The CALIPSO satellite provides information about the altitude of aerosol layers in the atmosphere and the height of clouds. This image (above) shows the nacreous clouds over Mawson as a bright blob, 22 km up.

Nacreous clouds 22 km above Mawson. Nacreous clouds over Mawson, 3 June 2009. 

Related links:

  • More information about nacreous clouds
  • CALIPSO images of clouds above Mawson
  • This page was last modified on 10 June 2009.