Physics Photo of the Week

November 21, 2008

Flying Figures - Photos by Doug Sudduth, Bakersville, NC
These are lenticular clouds.  Doug Sudduth has a major hobby of collecting photos of fascinating lenticular clouds from his home north of Mt. Mitchell in North Carolina.  Doug photographed this amazing "flying elephant" in mid-February, 2008.  The camera is looking south east at about 3:30 pm. 

Mt. Mitchell in the Black Mountain range is to the right and about 25 km distant - out of view of the photo.  Even though Mt. Mitchell is fairly distant from these clouds, it is believed to contribute
highly to the formation of these clouds that appeared about 25 km northwest of the range.  Lenticular clouds form only on fairly rare days when the air is very stable against thremal convection.  Normally, when clouds form, the heat released by the condensation of water vapor heats up the air in the cloud and gives it buoyancy in the surrounding air.  As a result, most forming clouds rise to give the pillowy cumulus clouds.  However, if the upper air is warmer and less dense than the lower-level air, the condensing cloud doesn't have enough buoyancy to rise, and the cloud material moves horizontally making eerie lens-like shapes - hence the name "lenticular".  Air deflected over mountain ranges often triggers the formation of lenticular clouds as in the drawing at right.

More ghost-like clouds from the same day are shown below.  Doug has named these clouds in memory of his late friend Bruce Ledford who was also an avid lenticular cloud photographer.

Due to Thanksgiving vacation at Warren Wilson College, there will be no Physics Photo of the week on November 28.  The next Physics Photo of the Week will appear on December 5, 2008.

Physics Photo of the Week is published weekly during the academic year on Fridays by the Warren Wilson College Physics Department.  These photos feature an interesting phenomena in the world around us.  Students, faculty, and others are invited to submit digital (or film) photographs for publication and explanation.  Atmospheric phenomena are especially welcome.  Please send any photos to 

All photos and discussions are copyright by Donald Collins or by the person credited for the photo and/or discussion.  These photos and discussions may be used for private individual use or educational use.  Any commercial use without written permission of the photoprovider is forbidden.

Click here to see the Physics Photo of the Week Archive.

Observers are invited to submit digital photos to: