Home Articles Facts Games Poems & Quotes
Weird Weather

The weather can sometimes throw spectacular and very weird displays which often leave scientists baffled.

by Paul Simons

If you thought the weather was just sunshine and showers what do you make of balls of glowing light, showers of frogs, giant lumps of ice that fall from the heavens, ships floating in the sky, and many other weird sights? Weather can behave in very bizarre ways, and scientists have to scratch their heads when they try to explain some of these unusual phenomena.

Weird Lights

In June 1996 a sphere of light the size of a tennis ball flew into a printing factory in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire. A dozen workers looked up in astonishment as the blue and white ball whizzed round inside, spinning along girders, hitting print machinery, sending sparks flying. Finally it hit a window and exploded with an orange flash and a tremendous bang, knocking out the telephone switchboard. "The whole place was lit up," said Simon Pocock, one of the staff. "The sparks were unbelievable - it was like a horror movie." Three people received electric shocks, one lady was hit in the shoulder.

Thousands of people all over the world have reported seeing mysterious glowing balls of light gliding inside their homes and even inside aircraft. They vary in size from a golfball to a football, in a variety of iridescent colours, with little noise, no smell and generally disappear by hitting television sets or other electrical fittings with a pop. In the most violent cases, glowing balls have exploded into flames and set houses ablaze. It's a phenomenon called "ball lightning". It usually come during thunderstorms, but no one knows what it is except that it's an electrical freak of nature. Ball lightning might even help explain "Foo Fighters". In World War II many pilots reported glowing balls of light flying alongside their aircraft. They thought it was some sort of secret enemy weapon, but German and Allied pilots both experienced the same phenomenon. To this day the lights remain a complete mystery.

Ball Lightning
Great Balls of Fire -woodcut of Ball lightning

From L'Atmosphère by Camille Flammarion

We know that thunderstorms can put on some other very weird light displays. In olden days mariners often saw the tops of their ship masts glow as thunderstorms developed. They called it "St Elmo's fire", and its eerie light comes from the intense static electricity streaming up tall objects and discharging as a glowing corona. One of the most fantastic displays in recent times was in 1976 when many of the players at a school football match in Dover, England found their heads glowing and understandably abandoned their game! In itself St Elmo's isn't dangerous but it often appears just before a lightning strike, so if you do experience it, it might be wise to get out of the area as soon as possible.

Strange Showers

One overcast day in 1939 a thunderstorm broke out in Trowbidge in Wiltshire, but this was no ordinary shower. As the heavens opened up, people at the town's open air swimming pool were astonished to see hundreds of small frogs falling down from the sky. "It was a job to walk on the path without treading on them", according to one woman reported in The Times.

Raining cats and dogs?...

Photo - PhotosToGo

Over the years all sorts of animals and plants have showered down during thunderstorms, possibly sucked up from rivers and lakes by tornadoes (or their watery equivalents - waterspouts) into thunderclouds and then dumped miles away in heavy rain. Another sort of shower of wildlife might be easier to explain. Dozens of dead birds have occasionally been seen plummeting out of the sky, sometimes partly frozen. These poor animals were probably swept up high in the powerful updrafts of a thundercloud, then frozen like hailstones before gravity took over.Giant pieces of ice have also been reported crashing to earth, and these are often blamed on ice falling from aircraft. But the largest recorded ice fall was 20 feet long and fell on Scotland in 1849 - long before aircraft were invented! They might be hailstones which have somehow joined into a massive lump of ice but nobody really knows.

...No. Frogs!

Photo -PhotosToGo

But most common of all are rains of blood which have been reported all over the world ever since biblical times. An important clue to their cause came in July 1968 in southern England, when a shower coated everything in red gritty dust. It was fine sand blown up from the Sahara and carried over a thousand miles inside a massive high pressure systems before falling in a rainshower.

Weird Sights in the Sky

An almost clear blue sky can put on some remarkable displays of magic - and can even help change the course of history. In 1461 Edward IV was about to fight a Lancastrian force at Mortimer's Cross in Herefordshire when his army saw a fantastic vision - three suns were lined up in a row in the sky. His men panicked but Edward took the sight as a good omen and rallied the troops to victory.

alt text
Omen of Victory? Sundogs on either side of the real sun

Photo - NOAA

What they had seen were 'sundogs', created by microscopic ice crystals in high wispy cirrus clouds, bending sunlight like glass prisms so that a pair of 'ghost' images of the sun appeared alongside the real sun. It's more common than you'd think - watch out for a veil of cirrus cloud over the sun on a bright day. Small wonder that these sorts of optical phenomena can easily be taken as religious signs. One memorable case was the tragic mountaineering expedition led by Edward Whymper on the first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865. They mountaineers reached the peak but on their descent tragedy struck when four of the men fell down a precipice to their deaths. Later that evening Whymper saw an amazing vision: a circle of light with three crosses in the sky. "The ghostly apparitions of light hung motionless; it was a strange and awesome sight, unique to me and indescribably imposing at such a moment." Whymper had seen sunlight split by a veil of thin cloud into a large bow, part of a horizontal circle with vertical pillars of light crossing it. A similar sort of horizontal band can also be seen when you look at a light through a window smeared with grease in one direction or reflected by finely ribbed glass; the band of light is always seen at right angles to the ripples. Mountaineers also see ghosts! Huge shadowy spectres called Brocken Spectres, after the Brocken peak in Germany, are created by the shadows of mountaineers projected onto low clouds and reflected back by the tiny water droplets in the mist. Probably the commonest light show in the sky are mirages. They can bend light over the horizon so that people as far as Hastings have clearly seen the French coast across the English Channel, and sailors in Dublin Bay have claimed to see Mount Snowdon a 100 miles away.

alt text
Mirage of ice towers in Antarctica

Photo - NOAA

These mirages are created by calm, warm air sitting on top of cold air - a temperature inversion - bending light from over the horizon like a glass prism, creating amazing images and revealing places hidden over the horizon. On rare occasions a temperature inversion turns into an even weirder light show. In 1957 passengers on the cruiser Edinburgh Castle sailing up the English Channel saw a line of ships upside down on the horizon - but they were upside down, some on top of each other, funnel to funnel and elongated. The images were ships projected from below the skyline. With this sort of optical trickery it's not surprising that mirages can explain quite a few UFO sightings. Long before flying saucers were ever heard of, sailors reported seeing ships sailing in the sky. This might explain the legend of the Flying Dutchman, a ghostly ship that haunted the seas around South Africa's Cape of Good Hope in stormy weather, luring ships to their destruction.

Wave Cloud
UFO? A Wavecloud

Photo - NOAA

Another remarkable example of a weird mirage appeared over Edinburgh in 1986, when two eyewitnesses saw what looked like a cigar-shaped UFO flying close by. The only known aircraft at the time was a Boeing 757 landing at nearby Edinburgh's Logan Airport - the 'alien craft' was probably an upside down mirage of the aircraft alongside the normal image, creating the appearance of a flying cylinder.

Weird Colours in the Sky

"Once in a blue moon" goes the saying, and it's a rare thing indeed, but the moon really can change blue. It happened in 1950, when a massive forest fire raging in Alberta, Canada, poured gigantic clouds of fine, sooty droplets that weeks later reached Europe, 4 miles high in the sky. These droplets were just the right size to scatter moonlight and make the moon appear blue. Probably the most fantastic coloured moons - and suns - were seen all over the world following the eruption of Krakatau in 1883. Tremendous quantities of extremely fine volcanic dust were shot up into the upper atmosphere and stayed afloat for years, creating stupendous sunrises and sunsets as the dust scattered red light strongly when the sun was low in the sky.  The dust from Krakatoa also created beautiful rings of blue, brown and white around the sun and moon. This stunning phenomenon might explain a later sighting in 1917, when three children claimed they saw the Virgin Mary in the sky near the village of Fatima in Portugal. Their vision eventually attracted 100,000 pilgrims who watched in amazement as veils of silver, blue and yellow played in ethereal dances over the sun. But it was probably caused by a volcanic eruption in Costa Rica in Central America.

Sea Monster? A Waterspout

Photo - NOAA

Whirlwinds and Vortices

The Loch Ness Monster and his other cousins dotted around deep lakes all over the world might be explained by an interesting sort of weather. They could be all mistaken for water devils - small whirlwinds forming over warm waters. They spin up a funnel of water which darts around and looks just like the neck and a head of a dinosaur, often pausing 'for breath', and sometimes hissing and bubbling like a frantic animal. No wonder eyewitnesses have been often been scared witless as they've faced one of these 'beasts' of the water.

The same goes for much larger waterspouts over the sea. These are huge vortices of seawater spiralling up into stormy clouds above, and you can see why ancient mariners talked about monsters from the deep. Who knows, they might even explain the mystery of the Marie Celeste's vanished crew, perhaps so terrified by the sight of a sea monster they jumped overboard.

Waterspout in the Bahamas

Photo - NOAA

Today, we're more intrigued by crop circles and although most of these are clearly hoaxes, some may be caused by freak weather. One theory is that small, gently spinning vortices can form in the lee of hills and it's quite possible that when they break down they could make flatten crops into circles, particularly on sloping fields. In fact, old woodcuts show crop circles formed by the devil, so these aren't a modern phenomenon by any means.


Seriously Weird Weather

In short, the weather is a lot more weird than we give it credit for. And if we took these fabulous displays more seriously we might get a deeper insight into many other mysteries of the world.


Paul Simons is a science writer, broadcaster and television producer. His book 'Weird Weather' is now in paperback (Warner Books).

If you live in fear of those blue and white balls you can get some life insurance quotes here. Or else for more information on the weather try TORRO - the Tornado Research Organisation

Copyright (c) FirstScience.com

Home   l  Biology   l  Physics   l  Planetary Science   l  Technology   l  Space

First Science 2014