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: 

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: 

9 PHOTOS
Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds
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Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds
Cities and industrial smoke clouds the sky sunset Kelvin-helmholtz instability Venus planet.
A trio of remnants of Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds at sunset in a glorious orange sky. Norfolk, England, UK.
A rare series of 5 unique images showing the formation of Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds from a base of altocumulus over South-East England in August 2018. The distinctive breaking-wave appearance is caused by upper atmosphere wind shear when cloud develops an abrupt boundary between hot air above and cold air below, allowing differentials in air movement to take place with the upper layer moving more quickly than the lower layer. In extreme cases, such as at the end of a prolonged heatwave as in these rarely captured images, the wind shearing can be severe enough to allow the formation of a series of vortices. An excellent meteorological record.
A rare series of 5 unique images showing the formation of Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds from a base of altocumulus over South-East England in August 2018. The distinctive breaking-wave appearance is caused by upper atmosphere wind shear when cloud develops an abrupt boundary between hot air above and cold air below, allowing differentials in air movement to take place with the upper layer moving more quickly than the lower layer. In extreme cases, such as at the end of a prolonged heatwave as in these rarely captured images, the wind shearing can be severe enough to allow the formation of a series of vortices. An excellent meteorological record.
A rare series of 5 unique images showing the formation of Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds from a base of altocumulus over South-East England in August 2018. The distinctive breaking-wave appearance is caused by upper atmosphere wind shear when cloud develops an abrupt boundary between hot air above and cold air below, allowing differentials in air movement to take place with the upper layer moving more quickly than the lower layer. In extreme cases, such as at the end of a prolonged heatwave as in these rarely captured images, the wind shearing can be severe enough to allow the formation of a series of vortices. An excellent meteorological record.
A rare series of 5 unique images showing the formation of Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds from a base of altocumulus over South-East England in August 2018. The distinctive breaking-wave appearance is caused by upper atmosphere wind shear when cloud develops an abrupt boundary between hot air above and cold air below, allowing differentials in air movement to take place with the upper layer moving more quickly than the lower layer. In extreme cases, such as at the end of a prolonged heatwave as in these rarely captured images, the wind shearing can be severe enough to allow the formation of a series of vortices. An excellent meteorological record.
Kelvin, Helmholtz instability clouds wavy on blue sky, feathery curls Kelvin-Helmholtz
A rare series of 5 unique images showing the formation of Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds from a base of altocumulus over South-East England in August 2018. The distinctive breaking-wave appearance is caused by upper atmosphere wind shear when cloud develops an abrupt boundary between hot air above and cold air below, allowing differentials in air movement to take place with the upper layer moving more quickly than the lower layer. In extreme cases, such as at the end of a prolonged heatwave as in these rarely captured images, the wind shearing can be severe enough to allow the formation of a series of vortices. An excellent meteorological record.
A very rare phenomenon which can be seen in horizontal shear, Kelvin-Helmholtz waves form on an inflow feeder band of this tornadic thunderstorm. These form in instances when two horizontal moving layers of air, one on top of the other, result in waves that look like waves in the ocean
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