Weird weather and strange atmospheric phenomena have fascinated me since I read the book It’s Raining Frogs and Fishes in 1992. In the years since then, I’ve sought out and “collected” as many unusual, rare, and wondrous meteorological occurrences as I can find.
I’ve even been lucky enough to personally experience the occasional odd event. (As detailed below.)
Basically, I turned weird weather watching into a hobby, and I’ve been indulging in that hobby for decades.
Just lately, though, weather has been even more on my mind than usual. (What with the west coast catching fire, and the east coast getting battered by multiple hurricanes, and the middle ground getting clobbered by historic snowstorms in April.) My anxious soul can’t help but note the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather worldwide. For the record, I believe we are experiencing the consequences of climate change. I also believe that human activity is causing, intensifying, or accelerating this change.
This post is not about our new normal of intensifying extreme weather. This post is about mysterious little anomalies that have been puzzling witnesses for a long time, even — in some cases — for centuries.
I guess I just thought it was time to remind myself that weather watching can be fun.
10 11 WEIRD WEATHER WONDERS
(an incomplete list, in no particular order)
- heat bursts
- apocalyptic clouds
- rains of dead birds / rains of animals
- ball lightning
- red rain / blood rain & watermelon snow
- frost quakes & other mystery booms
- star jelly
- luminous tornadoes
~ HEAT BURSTS (INCLUDING “SATAN’S STORM”) ~
A heat burst is characterized by a dramatic, almost instantaneous, rise in temperature and fall in dew point temperature. Most, but not all, heat bursts are also accompanied by a drop in surface pressure, little to no precipitation, and gusty, rapidly shifting winds. [Interjected note: Most descriptions I’ve read indicate that these winds are caused by a powerful downdraft that descends through a dry, disintegrating thunderstorm. When the downdraft hits the ground, it spreads out like a drop of water, causing high speed winds in all directions.] Heat bursts are typically a late spring and summer, as well as a late evening and nighttime, phenomenon. … Most heat bursts are detected in the Plains states, but heat bursts have also been recorded overseas, including the United Kingdom and Yemen. — Reference for definition: NOAA.GOV
I have not personally experienced a heat burst, but the phenomenon came to my attention when some of my westerly neighbors in MN did.
To understand this event fully, you may want to have the following reference points fresh in your mind:
On July 17th, 2006, at 10:15 p.m., the temperature in Canby, MN was 90° F. The dewpoint was 70° F. In general, it was a warm, sultry night in the wake of thunderstorms.
By 11:15 p.m., that same night, the temperature had risen to 100° F. Ten degrees is a pretty perceptible spike, particularly when it happens in the middle of the night. The truly amazing thing, though, is that — in the same timeframe — the dewpoint fell to 30° F. In essence, all the sticky humidity was sucked out of the air within the space of one hour. This change was accompanied by hot gusts of winds measuring up to 63 mph.
Several other western Minnesota town experienced heat bursts that same evening. (To see the details of those events, read the report from the National Weather Service here.)
Another dramatic heat burst occurred at the Kansas City airport in June of 2011: At 12.22 a.m., the temperature was 85° F. At 12.44 a.m., the temperature spiked to 102° F. (That’s 17 degrees in 22 minutes.) Again, hot winds of 60+ mph occurred.
For the granddaddy of all heat bursts, though, we have to go back to June 15th, 1960, to an event the townspeople of Kopperl, TX would dub ‘Satan’s Storm’.
Residents of Kopperl — having gone to bed when the outdoor temperature was about 70° F. — awakened in the middle of the night to the sound of howling winds. (These winds were reported to be up to 75 mph. A store lost its roof. Trees were blown down.) It was suddenly so hot that some folks thought their homes were on fire. Outside, the temperature had risen to over 100° F.* Those who fled their houses found the outdoor air difficult to breath. (Due to its extreme dryness.) When daylight came, farmers reported that corn which had been green and growing the day before now stood brown and dead in the fields.
*There are reports that suggest the temperature actually peaked much higher than 100 degrees, a least for a brief time. Evidence offered to support this includes: cotton plants in the fields that were burnt black; a thermometer (calibrated to read up to 140° F.) that exploded; radiators on parked cars that boiled over; and paint on houses that blistered.
In 1960, the heat burst phenomenon was as yet unknown to science.
No wonder Kopperl’s citizens called it Satan’s Storm.
While relatively rare anywhere, thundersnow is more common with lake-effect snow in the Great Lakes area of the United States and Canada, the midwestern United States, and the Great Salt Lake. Thundersnow produces heavy snowfall rates in the range of 2-4 inches per hour. There is a greater likelihood that thundersnow lightning will have a positive polarity which has greater destructive potential than negatively charged (typical) lightning. — Reference for definition: wikipedia.org
As a former Minnesotan, this is one phenomena that I have experienced on multiple occasions. (Perhaps four or five times in the 4+ decades that I lived there.) Don’t think, though, that the experience of such a relatively common event isn’t awe-inspiring.
Especially at night, heavily falling snow is so peaceful, and insulated, and cozy, that it’s otherworldly. There is luminosity to the night, because the snow reflects and magnifies every bit of available light, but it’s a soft glow. When lightning flashes as the snow comes down around you, however, it suddenly seems as if you are somehow inside a strobe light.
The sound of snow thunder is striking too. A snowstorm is a normally a very hushed beast. (Unless there’s howling wind, but that’s a blizzard, not a snowstorm.) In a seasonally appropriate electrical storm, the sound of thunder can be heard for many miles. In a thunder-snowstorm, sound is muffled by the falling flakes and absorbed by the snowpack that already blankets the world. Under these conditions, thunder can only be heard in a 2–3-mile radius of the lightning bolt. Hearing it a weirdly personal experience, and magical.
Also, it’s exciting:
This countdown video will give you a nice overview of eighteen unusual or rare cloud formations. Before you watch, though, scroll down to learn a little about the three most foreboding of them.
# 10 — noctilucent — These clouds were first noted in 1885, after the volcano Krakatoa erupted and hurled plumes of volcanic ash miles into the Earth’s atmosphere. Noctilucent clouds develop only in the summer, and they are best viewed during twilight, after the sun has dropped below the horizon. To attempt to spot them, look for luminous blue-white tendrils in the west, 30-60 minutes after sunset, when the sun has dipped 6° to 16° below the horizon. — Reference for definition: weather.com
# 15 — pyrocumulus — Translation: fire cloud. These form when there is extreme heat rising from the surface of the earth. We see them over volcanic eruptions and wildfires. Also, of course, this is the nuclear “mushroom cloud”. — Reference for definition: me
# 17 — undulatus asperatus (or asperitas) — The World Meteorological Organization recently added undulatus asperitas to the International Cloud Atlas. They’re the first new addition to the Atlas in over half a century. “Although they appear dark and storm-like, they almost always dissipate without a storm forming. The ominous-looking clouds have been particularly common in the Plains states of the United States, often during the morning or midday hours following convective thunderstorm activity.” — Reference for definition: wikipedia.org
I need to give you an additional video of this one, because the still photographs in the collection doesn’t do it justice. (According to the photographer, there has been time lapse applied to the following video, and a slight tweak to the contrast.)
~RAINING DEAD BIRDS / RAINING ANIMALS~
Raining animals is a rare meteorological phenomenon in which flightless animals fall from the sky. Such occurrences have been reported in many countries throughout history. One hypothesis is that tornadic waterspouts sometimes pick up creatures such as fish or frogs, and carry them for up to several miles. However, this aspect of the phenomenon has never been witnessed by scientists. —Reference for definition: wikipedia
My first exposure to this horrifying possibility was in the It’s Raining Frogs and Fishes book I mentioned above. I remember thinking at the time (with quite some relief) that the examples cited in the text were so old, and from such exotic locations, that their veracity was questionable.
Then, in 2011, dead birds started falling out of the sky in Arkansas.
(Yes, I realize the above definition of “raining animals” suggests only flightless animals count, but it seems close enough to me.)
Note, the following video shows dead birds. They do not have any gruesome injuries. I felt it was important to show the video because without it, it’s difficult to understand the scale of the event.
Several months after this Hitchcockian episode, a meteorologist found the likeliest explanation for the catastrophe. He was able to confirm that there was an intense temperature inversion in the atmosphere, which probably amplified the sounds of a New Year’s Eve fireworks show. His theory is that the exceptionally loud noises from the town that night caused the birds to panic, sending the huge, densely roosting flock aloft all at once, where a fraction of them collided with one another and/or crashed into stationary objects, resulting in blunt force trauma and death. National Geographic reported, in early 2011, that ornithologists are not surprised by mass bird falls, and attribute nearly all of them to blunt force trauma caused by collisions with man-made objects or by being buffeted by storms.
I was not able to find any recent well-documented cases of rains of flightless animals, unless you count ballooning spiders. Most historical instances of this phenomenon involve fish and amphibians, which is an argument in favor of the theory that tornadic waterspouts are the cause. (A normal water spout is not capable of lifting even small animals; only a tornadic water spout — one that forms over land then passes over water — could do it.) It is noteworthy that most anecdotal accounts of other animals falls have been based on sightings of a unusually large number of out-of-place animals that are already on the ground, not actually falling from the sky.
When sea ice forms in polar regions, salt is forced out of it, and saline-saturated streams of water make their way down through cracks in the ice. This briny solution is denser than the seawater around it and consequently it has a lower freezing point. The transformed, ultra-cold sea water cannot freeze and begins to sink. As it descends, it freezes the warmer water it passes through, creating a tube of ice. This tube is the brinicle. Once the brinicle reaches the seafloor, it spreads out, where it can freeze slow-moving animals like starfish and sea urchins. — Reference for definition: Me, after reading a lot of jargon and deciding to spare you.
Now that I’ve tried to condense the science for you, allow me to share the hypnotic video that caught my attention when it made the rounds on social media a few years ago.
If you have even a passing interest is weird weather, you already know about ball lightning. For weather watchers, this is probably the holy grail of atmospheric phenomena.
Anecdotally, this phenomenon has been described (for hundreds of years) as a floating ball of light, ranging from pea-sized to room-filling (or even larger). The ball lingers much longer than a lightning bolt, and moves relatively slowly along a straight, curved, or erratic path, sometimes bouncing or zig zagging, and sometimes appearing to roll along surfaces. Some reports suggest that it can pass through walls; that it pops or explodes as it disappears; and/or that it leaves the smell of sulfur or burning electricity in its wake. — Reference for definition: me again, after combing through dozens of sources.
Until recently no one had ever captured scientific proof of the existence of ball lightning, even though there have been many credible modern sightings. In January of 2014, however, scientists from Northwest Normal University in Lanzhou, China, changed that by publishing a recording which documents ball lightning. The recording was made in 2012, when the scientists were studying ordinary cloud – ground lightning on the Tibetan Plateau.
From a distance of 900 meters (more than half a mile) the researchers witnessed naturally occurring ball lightning. They estimated its visible (to-the-naked-eye) glow to be 5 meters (approximately 16. 5 feet) across, though the ball itself was probably much smaller. The glow burned white, then red, for a second, then disappeared. The scientists were able to record the spectrum of light given off by the phenomenon.
Before you get too excited about the following video, please understand that the recording is not as dramatic as you’d hope. In fact, it may be the most visually anticlimactic clip you’ve ever seen. As boring as it looks, though, and as brief as it is, it proves that ball lightning is a real thing. I encourage you to read the article at physics.aps.org which summarizes the scientific findings of the published report. It’s very accessible, and it explains the significance of the video much better than I ever could.
If you’ve ever witnessed ball lightning, PLEASE comment below and tell us everything about it!!
A megacryometeor is a very large chunk of ice which, despite sharing many textural, hydro-chemical and isotopic features detected in large hailstones, is formed under unusual atmospheric conditions which clearly differ from those of the cumulonimbus cloud scenario (i.e. clear-sky conditions). — Reference for definition: wikipedia
Seeking additional information about this phenomenon turned out to be depressing as hell, because the topic seems to be a lightning rod for arguments between climate change believers and deniers. I got sucked into reading far too many comment threads than is good for my psyche. In the end, I’ve decided to simply share some links to articles about megacryometeors. If you’re wiser than me, you’ll avoid the comments.
- The Peculiar Phenomena of Megacryometeors / damninteresting.com
- What Causes Megacryometeors? / weatherquestions.com
As to my personal opinion about the source of these giant ice balls, I lean toward the theory that dangerously large chunks of ice are forming on the exterior of aircraft, then falling from the sky. For most of the reports, that explanation makes the most sense. I don’t know what to tell you about the 400 pound, fridge sized block of ice that reportedly fell on the Brazilian Mercedes Benz factory … except that I couldn’t find any reference to the event outside of it being cited in all the megacryometeor articles.
~BLOOD RAIN AND WATERMELON SNOW~
BLOOD RAIN or red rain is a phenomenon in which blood is perceived to fall from the sky in the form of rain. Instances of blood rain usually cover small areas. The duration can vary, sometimes lasting only a short time, others several days. … Today, the dominant theories are that the rain is caused by red dust suspended in the water, or by the presence of micro-organisms, such as aerial spores of the micro-algae Trentepohlia annulata. — Reference for definition: wikipedia
Recent incidents of blood rain attributed to micro-algae have been reported in Western India (2001), Sri Lanka (2012), and Spain (2014). Most blood rain events in Europe (including other rains in Spain) are caused by dust that is lifted from the northern part of Africa and carried northward. According to an article at the website of the American Meteorological Society, there have been at least 510 such events across Europe, since 1900.
WATERMELON SNOW, (also called pink snow, red snow, or blood snow) is Chlamydomonas nivalis, a species of algae. Unlike most species of fresh-water algae, it is cryophilic (cold-loving) and thrives in freezing water. This type of snow is common during the summer in alpine and coastal polar regions worldwide, such as the Sierra Nevada of California. — Reference for definition: wikipedia
~FROST QUAKES (AND SINGING LAKES)~
“Frost quakes,” also known as cryoseisms, are a natural phenomenon that occurs when extremely cold temperatures lead to sudden deep freezing of the ground, after it has been saturated with water. The Vermont Geological Survey defines a cryoseism as, “[a] major frost cracking of the top few feet of the ground, occurring during sub-zero cold snaps, which generates localized ground shaking and is often mistaken for an earthquake.” Expansion that results during the process of freezing can lead to the buildup of explosive stress, which may result in fractures within the earth. Small cracks may be visible on the surface near where a cryoseism has occurred, and in some cases, shaking vibrations may also be felt within the vicinity of the frost quake, along with loud booms that sound similar to gunfire. — Reference for definition: FROSTQUAKE.ORG
The following video is labeled as an example of a frost quake, but it appears to me that the person is actually recording the sounds of lake ice fracturing. There are deep, heavy sounding booms, but I don’t know if this comes close to capturing the intensity of an earth-based boom. (As far as I know, I’ve never experienced a frost quake.)
I can tell you that I have heard lake ice “grumbling” and “singing” as it freezes and as it breaks up. Here are two videos that beautifully exemplify those sounds, if you have the patience to watch and wait. (It’s much easier to do while you’re sitting at a computer than it is when you’re standing out in the frigid air.)
If you’re only a little patient, the second one is more dramatic.
Here’s an extra heads-up: If you watch this next video, help me figure out what the hell happens at the 33 second mark! What am I seeing swimming behind the ice ridge? A dog?
(Edit: the person who posted the video says there is no animal, only a piece of ice breaking away. Hmm.)
Star jelly (also called astromyxin, astral jelly) is a gelatinous substance sometimes found on grass or even on branches of trees. According to folklore, it is deposited on the Earth during meteor showers. Star jelly is described as a translucent or grayish-white gelatin that tends to evaporate shortly after having “fallen.” Explanations have ranged from the materials being the remains of frogs, toads, or worms, to the byproducts of cyanobacteria, to the paranormal. Reports of the substance date back to the 14th century and have continued to the present day. — Reference for definition: wikipedia
Star jelly is a relatively common phenomenon, that has been reported world-wild. To be clear, there is not a scientific consensus about the source of star jelly, though it has often been collected and analyzed. Some instances are obviously related to the activities of amphibians, but not all of them, nor even most. Star jelly has been linked in some reports to sightings of will-o-the-wisp type lights and/or UFO sightings. In some areas, where an outdoor location is reputed to be haunted, it has been associated with ghostly activity.
I have to admit that I didn’t realize this was “a thing” when I saw similar blobs while out prowling the semi-wild woods and swamps of Minnesota. Frankly, I just assumed that it was expectorated by some person or excreted by some animal that had passed by before me. I didn’t look closely, and I didn’t search for additional blobs in the surrounding area. And there’s no way in hell I ever touched it, not even with a stick. In my defense, It didn’t seem particularly striking to me after seeing, then researching, the telial horns of Cedar Apple Rust disease in my own backyard:
Now THAT’S disgusting. But it’s not weather per se. Read more at backyardnature.net.
Tornadoes and lightning often go together, but this phenomenon is NOT about lightning bolts illuminating a funnel. Rather, this is about reportage of an otherworldly blue glow emanating from the exterior of the funnel itself, while its interior–it’s throat–glows with fire-like hues of red and orange. Some accounts say that balls of this fiery internal light can and do appear to emerge from the narrow end of the funnel. (Ball lightning?) This lightshow is only visible in tornadoes occurring at night. — Reference for definition: Me again. It’s what I do: research information then condense and clarify.
Most reports of this phenomenon originate from the infamous 1965 Palm Sunday Tornado Outbreak. (Over the course of approximately eleven hours, on April 11th and 12th, at least 47 serious tornadoes were spawned along a 450 mile stretch of the Midwest; twenty-one of them were deadly.)
In a 1966 article in the journal Science, a witness — recorded only as Mrs. Highiet — is quoted as saying:
“We were shaken up and our trailer along with others was dented badly from hail the size of baseballs. The beautiful electric blue light that was around the tornado was something to see, and balls of orange and lightning came from the cone point of the tornado. The cone or tail of the tornado reminded me of an elephant trunk. It would dip down as if to get food then rise again as if the trunk of an elephant put food in his mouth. My son and I watched the orange balls of fire roll down the Racy Way Park then it lifted and the roof came off one of the horse barns.” (Toledo, OH)
The following photograph was taken by James R. Wyer, near Toledo, OH, on the night of April 11th, 1965. It may show two luminescent funnels.
This same storm system was known to have birthed at least one other pair of twin tornadoes. The following shot was taken earlier on April 11th, in Dunlap, IN:
WHAT ELSE YOU GOT?
I don’t for a minute think that this post is DONE. But I’ve been hanging onto it — occasionally adding bits and pieces here and there — for months. It’s time to hit the publish button and let it make its way to the search engines.
If you’re interested in a particular weather-related phenomenon that I haven’t mentioned here, drop a comment below.
I’ll add it to my list of things to research and write about.
In the future, I’ll likely post about one kind of weird weather at a time, and this page will become a sort of index to additional articles.
So, what’s the weirdest weather you’ve ever witnessed? What weather event would you most like to see … or, conversely, which would you prefer to avoid at all costs?