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Image: Rahuu

NY mammatus formations

Like portents of doom, mammatus clouds loom overhead, a globular blanket that might seem suffocating if we didn’t know of genuinely noxious gases released into the ether by human activity. Yet mammatus clouds are as exquisite as they ominous. As their name implies, they are a thing of feminine beauty, and with sunlight percolating down through them, it could seem as if heaven itself is unlocking its gates.


Image: Steve took it

South Dakota/Nebraska mammatus clouds

The name mammatus comes from the Latin mamma, meaning udder or breast, in reference to the clouds’ shape and the female physiological features they can be seen to resemble. Their texture also recalls hot wax dripping or thick smoke on the ceiling of a burning room – but in reality they are a cellular pattern of pouches hanging beneath the base of a cloud composed of ice or a mixture of ice and water. (And for some similarly stupendous meteorological phenomena, check out our article on lenticular clouds.)

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Image: bruinshorty

San Diego, CA

When occurring in tall, dense cumulonimbus clouds – or the anvil cloud stretching from them – mammatus often signal the onset of fierce storms and may warn of tornadoes. Tending to form in warmer months over the Midwest and eastern areas of the US, mammatus are nonetheless found elsewhere, as our chase across the States to track this singular meteorological phenomenon will reveal.

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