NASA Video: Electric Blue Clouds Reflect Light in Polar Regions

In July, a giant balloon was launched from Esrange, Sweden. For five days it floated through the atmosphere, sweeping through the chilled air across the Arctic until it landed in Western Nunavut, Canada. Along the way, technology onboard the balloon captured images of rare, glowing clouds — ice-crystal phenomena that NASA believes can, with further analysis, teach scientists how to improve weather forecasting.

The agency released images of the clouds, called polar mesospheric clouds (PMCs), on Friday. PMCs are only visible during twilight and form above Earth’s polar regions, in the upper reaches of the atmosphere. In the summer, they sit approximately 50 miles above the poles. Their brilliant blue is due to their composition: PMCs are made of ice crystals, which glow cerulean or white when hit with sunlight.

Cameras aboard the balloon captured 6 million high-resolution images of PMCs.


These clouds are affected by atmospheric gravity waves. Disturbances to air flow, created by anything ranging from thunderstorms to mountains, lift the atmosphere, creating waves. In turn, the atmospheric waves play a role in transferring energy from the lower atmosphere to the mesosphere. It’s the first time NASA has been able to visualize this flow of energy in the form of PMCs.

“At these altitudes you can literally see the gravity waves breaking — like ocean waves on the beach — and cascading to turbulence,” principal investigator Dave Fritts, Ph.D., announced Thursday. “From what we’ve seen so far, we expect to have a really spectacular dataset from this mission.”

They were captured by no ordinary balloon: The PMC Turbo balloon is equipped with seven specially designed imaging systems, as well a laser radar that measures the altitudes of clouds and the temperature fluctuations of gravity waves. Over the course of its mission, the high-resolution cameras onboard took 6 million high-resolution images and filled up 120 terabytes of data storage.

Now that scientists have begun to analyze images from the mission, they suspect that PMCs can help us better understand how turbulence affects the atmosphere and other environmental elements, like the ocean. The goal is to use this data to improve weather forecast models — which is something we can all get behind.

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