What are Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds? Rare formation spotted over Virginia mountain looks like something out of a painting

A curious cloud photographed over Smith Mountain in Virginia this week looks more like something out of a fairytale or painting than it does in real life — and the science behind the formation is utterly fascinating.

Amy Christie Hunter shared a stunning photo of the phenomenon Tuesday evening in the Smith Mountain Lake Picture Group, a page dedicated to photos of people's "adventures" and explorations in the region.

"Cloud formation over Smith Mountain this evening looked very much like waves," she wrote alongside the photo, which has since received over 700 likes and 200 shares.

Photo: Amy Hunter/Facebook

The rare and mesmerizing formation featured in Hunter's photo is actually known as a Kelvin-Helmholtz cloud, a name derived from Lord Kelvin and Hermann von Helmholtz, the two scientists who studied the physics behind the atmospheric instability that led to the type of pattern found in Hunter's recent image, according to Earthsky.org.

The website states:

A Kelvin-Helmholtz instability forms where there's a velocity difference across the interface between two fluids: for example, wind blowing over water. You’ll often see the characteristic wave structure in this type of cloud when two different layers of air in our atmosphere are moving at different speeds. The upper layers of air are moving at higher speeds and will often scoop the top of the cloud layer into these wave-like rolling structures.

The clouds often form on windy days, when there’s a difference in densities of the air, for example, during a temperature inversion. They’re often good indicators of atmospheric instability and the presence of turbulence for aircraft.

It is believed that Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds — sometimes called billow clouds — inspired the iconic patterns featured in Vincent van Gogh's "Starry Night."

Photos of Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds:

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