January 28, 2019

Dramatic Display in the Northwest Skies Today: Super Contrails and Hole-Punch Clouds

I got nearly a dozen emails this afternoon with pictures, mainly from folks around Anacortes and north Whidbey Island to Bellingham, of some very strange cloud formations--namely weird holes in a large deck of clouds.   Here are some examples:

 Courtesy of Tony Bigge

 Courtesy of the Stringmans of North Whidbey Is.

Courtesy of Jason Reid of Bellingham

No...these were not alien incursions into WA air space, but the impact of aircraft passing through a cloud deck of supercooled water (liquid water at 32F or below).   The planes climbing or descending through the clouds caused the supercooled water to turn to ice crystals and fall out, living a circular hole.  These features are also known as "punch hole" clouds and often form in mid-level altocumulus cloud decks.

Now what really got me excited is that the new high-resolution GOES-17 weather satellite actually viewed these from space!  Don's believe me?  Then take a look below!  Absolutely amazing.

But the fun today didn't end there.  We had one of the most amazing contrail days, with huge numbers of them filling the skies..... check out these NASA MODIS images from around 1 PM.  See all the little lines?  Those are contrails in a high deck of cirrus clouds.

 The air was at or close to saturation and the addition of moisture and particles from jet engines produced the multitude of cloud lines.

A picture from the Seattle PanoCam at 8:10 AM this morning said it all:  contrails, low clouds, and a wonderful sunrise--with Mt. Rainier in the distance.  What could be better?


  1. What could be better? A sky without contrails!

  2. Amazing, thanks for highlighting this.

  3. I live on N Whidbey and sent a picture to Cliff. Mine wasn't used the ones he has are better. It really was quite amazing. I don't believe I have ever seen this before. And I've been around almost 63 years. I looked up and thought how odd, a round hole. And another, and another (I could see three). Then I though of "the blue hole", the clear spot that often forms over Sequim in the rain shadow. Wondered if that hole had drifted our way for some reason. Nice to hear the proper explanation for what caused them.

  4. Saw these. Your theory holds true as they were situated near Bellingham airport. Two in fact.

  5. Sean.. I agree. The contrails, while interesting, are eyesores in an otherwise beautiful sky.

    There's an interesting story out there about the days immediately after the attacks on 9/11. As you recall, all air traffic over the US was suspended for several days. This left the air completely clear of aircraft, their exhaust, and contrails. Ozone studies were performed on the atmosphere during that very brief period of time when it was clear of the pollution from so many aircraft.

  6. Cliff,does the most recent ECMWF model( 512 MB low over W.Wash next Monday!) have any validity in your opinion? Polar vortex over us???

  7. "No...these were not alien incursions"
    Could you unpack that entire paragraph? How does an airplane flying through super-cooled water turn the water to ice?

  8. The satellite images of those punch clouds are fantastic.

  9. Love those contrails--man on the move!


Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

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