Cloudy With A Chance Of Horror: The Scientific Explanations For Frightening Weather Phenomena

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If your only exposure to the weather is, well, exposure to the weather, we’ll forgive you for assuming that meteorology is all about memorizing different types of cloud formations and studying radar readouts. In reality, nothing’s quite as dangerous or unpredictable as Mother Nature.

The next time you look up and see a weird-looking sky, remember: The weather is basically trying to destroy you, and it has plenty of ways to get the job done. Well, it’s not trying to destroy you, but it sure can. It can also drop fish on you.

1. Fish (and tadpole) storms apparently exist.

In June 2009, The Guardian reported “tadpole rain” in Japan’s Ishikawa Prefecture. Residents found hundreds of dead tadpoles littering the ground, prompting confusion and plenty of lame “at least it’s not raining cats and dogs” jokes. While some scientists theorized that crows were vomiting the tadpoles during flight (eww), the phenomenon seemed far too location-specific to satisfy that explanation. Apparently, birds would have vomited over a much wider area.

Pink Tentacle

This wasn’t the first such incident. In 2014, about 110 pounds of fish rained down on a Sri Lankan village, per the BBC (which, for some strange reason, described the fish as “edible” in their lead). Look through enough history books, and you’ll find plenty of other reports, including one report of hunks of meat falling from the sky (we wrote about that bizarre incident here).

According to the Library of Congress, the prevailing scientific explanation for “animal rain” is tornadic waterspouts. Basically, a waterspout picks up aquatic animals from the ocean, then passes them up to a cloud, which dumps them out somewhere else, sometimes hundreds of miles inland.

The big problem with that explanation: Nobody’s ever seen a waterspout pick up animals and deposit them elsewhere. Besides, in many cases, the animal rain seemed to consist of a single species—not the wide variety of ocean life you’d expect.

It’s possible that people only notice certain types of animals. After all, if you see catfish and minnows raining from the sky, you’d probably focus on the catfish when telling the story to your friends. Besides, animals of similar size would probably be discharged from the clouds at around the same time.

Still, until scientists are able to actually document the waterspout hypothesis, we’re going to chalk this one up to the icy rage of Poseidon.

2. Lightning is much weirder than you think.

If you don’t get a charge (sorry) out of lightning, it’s probably because you don’t spend much time thinking about it. A typical bolt of lightning carries an astounding one billion volts of electricity and is capable of heating the air around it to a temperature five times hotter than the surface of the sun.

Not impressive enough for you? Take a look at some upside-down lightning.

Twitter via SIA Magazin

Yes, lightning can travel from the ground to sky, given the right conditions. Lightning occurs due to an electrical imbalance when ice, dirt, and other materials bounce around in clouds, creating a massive charge of negative ions that needs to be equalized. Typically, that manifests as a lightning bolt between the cloud and an object on the ground. The negative ions head towards the ground, while positive ions rush up. They meet in the middle, shake hands, and bring white-hot fright to anyone in their path.

However, a tall, slender structure can cause the positive ions to rush upwards at a faster rate, creating the awesome-looking lightning seen in this video.

A 2015 study found that wind turbines are more likely to be hit by ground-up lightning than sky-down lightning, so this isn’t an unusual phenomenon.

Much rarer is ball lightning, which is both extremely dangerous and completely mysterious. People lucky (or unlucky) enough to see ball lightning describe it as a small orb of light that floats near the ground, sometimes seeming to disregard the laws of gravity. Typically, it only lasts for a few seconds before dissipating.

Joe Thomissen (via Smithsonian)

Some scientists believe that ball lightning consists of temporarily stable plasma. Magnetic forces temporarily surround the plasma from a lightning bolt, allowing it to float around for a short period of time. Really, though, that’s just a guess; we’re going to chalk this one up to the terrifying rage of Zeus.

3. Catatumbo lightning is awesome—but horrifying.

While we’re on the subject of lightning, we’d like to introduce you to the most lightning-plagued spot on Earth.

The Catatumbo River empties into Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela, and for some reason, that spot is prone to incredible light shows. During peak seasons, visitors to Lake Maracaibo see an average of 28 lightning flashes each minute, per the BBC. For 260 nights in every year, lightning rages for about 10 hours each night.

NASA Marshall Space Flight (via Intrepid)

We’re not really sure why Lake Maracaibo sees so much lightning. Some researchers believe that methane from the oilfields below the lake increases the conductivity of the water’s surface. It’s also a fairly humid area, and water is a great conductor. Oh, and the bedrock has sizable uranium deposits. That makes for a perfect storm (sorry) of storm-inducing conditions.

In any case, the frequent thunderstorms make Lake Maracaibo a major tourist attraction. In 2010, a severe drought temporarily stopped the storms, prompting some panic. You’d think that being able to say, “Hey, our lake isn’t constantly being struck by lightning” would be a good thing, but locals were worried that climate change would eliminate Catatumbo lightning permanently.

Fortunately, the thunderstorms eventually resumed (which is very strange to say). This one can probably just be attributed to the electrifying rage of Thor.

4. Fire tornadoes are exactly what they sound like.

Okay, if you want to be pedantic, they’re not really tornadoes, since they’re not formed in the upper atmosphere. As Live Science explains, fire twisters form when hot air rises from the ground, creating a twirling column of air that oh crap there’s fire in it.

The good news is that a fire whirl—also known as a firenado, fire twister, or, most appropriately, fire devil—only lasts for a few minutes. The bad news is that “only a few minutes” isn’t too comforting when you’re facing a rapidly moving column of flame with temperatures of up to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Fire whirls are incredibly dangerous, and because they’re so volatile, they’re difficult to study. Recently, however, researchers from the University of Maryland created a new type of “blue whirl” fire twister in a laboratory.

“A fire tornado has long been seen as this incredibly scary, destructive thing,” said co-author Michael Gollner. “But, like electricity, can you harness it for good? If we can understand it, then maybe we can control and use it.”

Chris Tangey via Youtube

Apparently, Gollner has never seen a natural disaster movie. If he had, he’d realize that he’d just delivered the perfect quote for the trailer.

Oh, and remember when we said that fire tornadoes aren’t really tornadoes? Sometimes they are. In 2003, bushfires in Canberra, Australia actually caused a tornado to form, according to researchers from Australia’s ACT Emergency Services Agency.

“Pyro-tornadogenesis is the technical term used to refer to the ability of a large fire to produce a genuine tornado,” said lead researcher Rick McRae in a press release. McRae neglected to mention that “pyro-tornadogenesis” is an awesome band name.

“Researchers had speculated about the ability of a fire to produce a tornado, but this is the first documentation of the creation of a true tornado by the convection column of a large fire.”

We’ll just have to chalk this up to the fiery rage of…look, there’s no god of fire tornadoes. If you see one, just pray to whatever power you believe in.

5. Roll clouds look like something out of a science fiction movie.

You remember that scene from Independence Day where the alien ships roll into view? This is sort of like that, but without the aliens, Jeff Goldblum, or the conspicuous product placement for Apple Powerbooks.

Roll clouds seem to roll in from the horizon (whoever named them wasn’t exactly creative). They’re a type of arcus cloud, and they’re usually bad news; they typically form at the leading edge of thunderstorms as chilled air from the storm’s downdraft disperses, meeting warm, moist air at the front of the cloud. The warm air condenses, and the cloud forms a shelf that seems to roll forward.

While roll clouds look dangerous, they’re not directly associated with tornadoes, and they’re more of a warning sign of a serious storm than an actual threat. With that said, they’re pretty frightening in person; we had to look for quite a while to find an amateur video that wasn’t full of profanity.

If that’s not scary enough for you, check out mammatus clouds, which look like the last thing you’d see before the end of the world.

Derrich/Wikimedia Commons

Mammatus clouds often accompany severe weather, but they can also accompany non-severe storms, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. While researchers have attempted to explain the clouds’ formation mechanisms, there’s plenty of debate on that topic. The dozens of proposed theories include complex concepts like subcloud evaporation and gravity waves. Personally, we believe that they’re egg sacs filled with alien insects, but we can’t find anyone willing to fund our research.

Regardless, they’re a good example of how the weather can be mysterious and terrifying—even when it’s not actually dangerous.

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