Ask Ellen: Can you get a lenticular cloud in West Michigan?

Ask Ellen

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Lenticular clouds are show stoppers. They look like flying saucers; smooth and hovering in place.

Often times they can stack on top of one another like pancakes, but these are strictly orographic! Lenticular clouds form due to mountains interacting with the atmospheric conditions.

Lenticular cloud over Mt Shasta in Mt Shasta, California.

Sometimes we can get smooth looking clouds in West Michigan that look like lenticulars, but they are formed in a bit of a different way.

Lenticular clouds happen when warm, moist air is pushed into a mountain and forced to ride the slope upwards. As the clouds reach the peak, water within the cloud condenses and creates a cloud. There are various different clouds that can be produced this way. A lens-like lenticular cloud forms when there is a stable environment and very fast winds above the mountain.

The fast winds at the peak of the mountain stretch the clouds out into flat discs. The different layers of moisture above the mountain can make the “stack” of clouds pretty picturesque.

After the air ascends up the mountain, it is allowed to sink back down in elevation on the leeward side of the peak. When air sinks vertically, it expands and warms. As the air warms, the temperature becomes further from the dewpoint and the cloud-making conditions are stopped. This is why orographic clouds seem to sit like hats on the top of mountains.

WHAT ABOUT IN WEST MICHIGAN?

Lens-like clouds can be spotted in West Michigan. This usually happens when individual cumulus clouds are met with very fast unidirectional winds at cloud level. As the wind moves in, it smooths out the bumps and bulges of typical cumulus clouds and creates smooth saucers with lamination.

It isn’t often conditions like this come together to create smooth, stand-alone disc clouds in our state, but it’s most common in the spring or fall when upper-level winds are most likely to be at their fastest in the year.

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