FEATURE: Revealing the physics behind ‘hole-punch’ clouds

These weird cloud formations have baffled science enthusiasts and amateur photographers for ages.

Looks as if Manny Pacquiao’s signature right hook or Mike Tyson’s feared uppercut have punched through the clouds, right?

Hole-punch clouds were first reported in the 1940s. Laypeople had been trying to find an explanation for ages, and some even claimed that the holes could have been formed due to supernatural causes. But a few scientists started to track the rare occurrence and suggested that they were probably linked to rocket launches–and their guess was pretty close to the actual cause.

The ‘giant’ holes that seem to disrupt otherwise continuous layers of clouds are often made by airplanes.

Imagine a layer of clouds with water droplets at subfreezing temperatures below–15 degrees Celsius–these layers are known as altocumulus. Now, picture an aircraft going through it, punching the clouds with its nose and making the hole ‘bigger’. This happens thanks to the propeller and/or wings, which alter the temperature of the clouds by cooling the air and forming ice crystals that then fall to the earth below, leaving a void behind.

Also known as Fallstreak holes, they can also produce rain or snow. Andrew Heymsfield, a scientist with the US National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), explained in a press release back in 2011:

“Any time aircraft fly through these specific conditions, they are altering the clouds in a way that can result in enhanced precipitation nearby. Just by flying an airplane through these clouds, you could produce as much precipitation as with seeding materials along the same path in the cloud.”

This is literally pretty cool, right?

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