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Rare Wave-Like Clouds Over Virginia Mountain Look Like Van Gogh's Famous 'Starry Night'

The phenomenon's known as Kelvin-Helmholtz waves, wherein specific atmospheric conditions create clouds that appear in wave-like patterns in the sky.

It was indeed a starry, starry night for Virginia photographer Amy Hunter, who managed to capture the nighttime celestial phenomenon known as Kelvin-Helmholtz waves, wherein specific atmospheric conditions create clouds that appear in wave-like patterns in the sky.

Hunter’s photograph was taken over Smith Mountain in the southwestern region of Virginia on Tuesday. She sent the photograph on to her local news affiliate, which immediately responded that the sight is indeed “very rare.”

Kelvin-Helmholtz waves occur when the higher layer of air moves at a faster speed than the lower-level air. Accordingly, the higher layer “scoops” the top of a lower cloud layer, thereby creating the wave-like shapes that appear similar to the crests of ocean waves. Their appearance often signals turbulent air, which can be a hurdle for aircraft in the area.

KDKA meteorologist Ray Petelin explained that Kelvin-Helmholtz waves form when two layers of air are moving against one another a different speeds, which results in the crest-like clouds called a “shear,” which occurs most often during windy conditions such as those that topped Smith Mountain Wednesday.

“Velocity shear occurs when winds are traveling at different speeds at different heights in the atmosphere,” he said earlier this summer. “In the case of these cloud patterns, the winds are moving faster at the top of the cloud than the winds at the bottom of the cloud, just like how waves are created on water.”

The phenomenon is named for 19th century meteorologists Lord Kelvin and Hermann von Helmholtz, who explained the physics behind the cloud formations as part of their research into vortex dynamics.

The unusual weather occurrence has rarely been captured on film, but perhaps its most famous representation in any medium was in the 1889 painting “Starry Night” by Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh painted the post-impressionist image while committed to the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum near Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in the South of France. Continuing to generate art during his commitment was thought to initially help with Van Gogh’s fits and depression, but he soon relapsed, and the work took on another darker dimension, with the color blue taking over the color palette as his mental state deteriorated.

“Starry Night” hangs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. According to MoMa, at that late stage in his life, Van Gogh’s style had been informed by other artists he met in France, including pointillist Georges Seurat, as the Impressionism period came to its end. “Post-Impressionism,” MoMa says, came to define a period in which artists used “bold colors and expressive, often symbolic images,” such as those wave-like clouds Van Gogh captured on “Starry Night,” arguably his most famous canvas.

Van Gogh died on July 29, 1890, barely a year after completing the work.

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