The clouds float gently by, their tops fluffy like cotton candy; yet from their undersides hang long, wispy tendrils, giving them the appearance of jellyfish drifting in a sky-blue sea. There’s nothing strange about seeing shapes in clouds – whether animals and plants or magical creatures – but these giant jellyfish are not figments of your imagination; they’re meteorological wonders known as virga.
Image: Wayne Karberg
Here’s proof that not all mushroom clouds are the result of nuclear explosions. This dramatic formation, seen over Laramie Range in Wyoming, looks like it’s had its ‘stem’ neatly sliced off. Of course, this isn’t a real mushroom cloud! The tentacles (virga) are what give formations like these their name, and they’re caused by precipitation evaporating before it hits the Earth.
Image: The Beam Guy
Virga cloud formations come in different forms – from the thick cluster seen just now to these more delicate wisps. The photographer thought that this one looked “like an angel on its way up to heaven.” In reality, not surprisingly, the appearance of virga formations depends on environmental conditions. Wind is capable of bending the virga (also known as fallstreaks), while a lack of air movement can result in the tendrils falling straight down.
Image: Vincent Phillips
In this shot, taken in Liverpool in the UK, the colors of the setting sun have made the virga appear even more spectacular. The wind has blown the streams of precipitation into curved formations, making the clouds look like orange, bell-shaped flowers. Virga are known as “accessory clouds” because of the way they attach to other clouds, such as cumulus, altocumulus and nimbostratus – which make up the “heads” of the jellyfish.
Image: Charles Carstensen
Here, lots of smaller virga crowd together, which makes us think of a group of ascending white phantoms trailing their ghostly vapors behind them. Photographer Charles Carstensen says that when he checked the image, he was surprised to see an airplane to the left of the sun. Look carefully and you can just about make out its jet stream.
Image: Robert Payne
In this photograph, the clouds rise up like a wave towards the Moon. The word “virga” comes from the Latin word for “twig” or “branch.” Interestingly, virga formations have been recorded on other planets, including Jupiter and Venus.
Image: Raymond Shobe
These punk jellyfish sporting Mohawk hairdos look pretty wild as they dash across the bright blue sky with their tentacles drifting out behind them. Some of the virga have been blown back almost horizontally, which suggests that the wind was pretty strong when the shot was taken.
Image: Claudia Hinz
This cluster of virga was spotted in the Bavarian Alps in Germany. The combination of low humidity and high temperatures is thought to be responsible for such lovely formations – which can, however, cause some less than lovely side effects. For example, the cooler air generated by the vaporizing water is able to create swiftly descending pockets of cold air, and these can be dangerous for aircraft. The virga are quite safe to admire from the ground, though!
Image: Krieger Conradt
These rather intimidating clouds were spotted in Tucson, Arizona. Virga are frequently seen in desert climates. These ones give the impression of sinister gray fingers reaching down to touch the lonely highway.
Image: Ben Larhome
Here’s a different view of virga, seen from the sky. It almost looks like a curtain being dragged across the air by an invisible hand. Occasionally, the virga and the clouds above them separate, which leaves ghostly white streaks hanging in the heavens.
Image: Paul Garland
Photographer Paul Garland captured these virga clouds in El Paso, Texas. You can clearly see where the wind has become stronger at a lower altitude, bending the tentacles about halfway down. Like Arizona, El Paso has low humidity, and according to Garland, the precipitation rarely makes it as far as the ground.
Image: Vance Bagwell
These virga cloud formations hover over a highway near Mt. Lemmon in Tucson, Arizona. They resemble flying saucers with stalks, and we wonder how many times similar cloud formations have tricked people into thinking they’ve just seen a UFO?
Image: Maryanne Kirk
Here, the virga trails illuminated by the setting sun look like a line of fire in the sky. The jellyfish heads have moved away, leaving their beautiful, rosy-colored tentacles behind.
Image: Simon A. Eugster
These jellyfish don’t seem to be in much of a hurry as they float over Tyresta in Sweden. Their wispy tendrils resemble brush strokes, and the clouds seem as though they’ve been painted in the sky. Then again, as we know, Mother Nature really is the most amazing artist.
Image: Chema Mancebo
These virga clouds have lined up like a shoal of puffy jellyfish, their tentacles hanging down almost vertically. It’s a gorgeous way to wrap up our look at virga formations. But keep looking up: you never know when you might see an enormous jellyfish float by…