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Observations of 'Luminous Clouds' from Anglesey, Wales, UK During 2013 February 19 and 20

John Rowlands A layer, presumed as a working hypothesis to be related to the 2013 February 14 Chelyabinsk meteoroid entry, was initially observed at approximately 20 minutes after local sunset on Anglesey, North Wales UK (53.4N 4.4W), with a solar depression angle (assuming point source and no refraction) of 3 degrees. Gravity wave structures were seen extensively in the putative layer, and from ca. 18:15UT, the layer took on a luminosity very similar to mesospheric noctilucent cloud normally restricted to the summer months of late May to early June (at UK latitudes.) In June, i.e. southern hemisphere midwinter of 1987, Griffiths captured images of noctilucent clouds from the Argentine Islands (65 degrees S, 64 degrees W.) Griffiths was careful to have his images examined by a wide audience, who appear to have concluded that the images were indeed of NLC. The mechanism of formation for out-of-season NLC has variously been attributed to an injection of water due to meteoroid or artificial satellite entry into the atmosphere, and also to unexplained disturbances leading to dramatic cooling in the winter mesosphere. All can fairly be said to be poorly understood mechanisms. An exchange on social media about this event hi lighted a potentially serious problem with the use of the term 'noctilucent cloud' in that there was a belief, even amongst professionals in the area, that the term necessarily refers to mesospheric clouds. Whilst by convention, NLC is taken to mean a mesospheric phenomena, the term itself is not so specific; it merely means clouds that are 'night shining'. Therefore, any cloud that reflects sunlight to the observer when that observer is in twilight or darkness can, at least as far as the term itself goes, be justifiably termed an NLC. This may be of increasing importance for rare events such as those now under discussion. The clear western sky of early evening of 2013 February 19 was noticed at 17:56UT to have pronounced streaks superficially similar to very thin cirrus or dust occasionally seen following volcanic events or large-scale drought-induced fires. Very similar dust layers have previously been observed from the same site a few days following the Sarychev volcano eruption in Kamchatka (2009), the Ejafjallajokull eruption of 2010 and also during the large scale drought-induced fires in western Russia of the same year.

Fine, short-wavelength gravity waves in aerosols arising after the Russian drought fires of 2010.

Images were taken between 17:56UT and 18:35UT (solar depression angles of 3 degrees and 8 degrees, respectively.) The early photographs show what appeared to be a widespread layer of dust, initially interpreted as being at stratospheric height, extending across at least half the sky hemisphere. Looking to the south and east, a high-elevation moon and stars were not seen to be visibly attenuated by any cirrus or the putative dust layer.

First image at 2013 02 19d 17h 56mUT

The first image at 17:56UT clearly shows extensive gravity wave structure with fairly short wavelengths. In addition, a more extensive gravity wave structure is present, and becomes more prominent with time. As early as 17:58UT, looking to the north west, the layer was suspected as being NLC-like in appearance. By 18:02UT, the layer was continuing to appear increasingly like a NLC event.

2013 02 19d 18h 02mUT At 18:10UT, a commercial airliner at an unknown cruising height, assumed to be in the normal range of 9-10km, passes into the photographic scene. Its exhaust condensation trail is seen to be in silhouette against the layer of interest, which is seen to be strongly sunlit, confirming its greater height.

Aircraft condensation trail silhouetted against lit background layer at 2013 02 19d 18h 10mUT

By about 18:15UT (solar depression angle of 6 degrees), the layer continues to more resemble an NLC event, and a red colouration to its upper edge is becoming apparent. This is reminiscent of the upper red edge seen in many mesospheric NLC events, caused by tropospheric refraction and absorption of sunlight (Avaste, Gadsden and Grechko, 1988). This upper red edge becomes increasingly prominent with time and is strongly noticeable between 18:19UT and 18:35UT.

Deepening twilight appears to reveal NLC-like luminosity at 2013 02 19d 18h 16mUT

Large-scale, short wavelength gravity wave at 2013 02 19d 18h 15mUT; this was evident but less obvious from the first sighting. Such features were previously seen in dust layers from Sarychev volcano in 2009.

Telephoto (262mm at 35mm film equivalent) detail towards the horizon at 2013 02 19d 18h 19mUT

The display towards its end as seen from Anglesey at 2013 February 19d 18h 35mUT.

Luminous, NLC-like cloud exhibiting extensive gravity wave perturbations following morning of 2013 February 20, 06h 50mUT. Very sadly, the author got up too late to witness any earlier effects!

Reports of out-of-season NLC are not new, but they are rare. Butler (1987) gives 10 reports of 'luminous clouds' between 1849 and 1852 in his examination of records made by Thomas Romney Robinson at Armagh Observatory during the months November - March. The now defunct description of these clouds initially appears rather quaint but may be a much superior term to NLC in that it is not linked to any particular atmospheric height or layer as the latter term now is; they were observations of clouds that were lit, nothing else. Butler proposes in his paper that these winter observations might be explained by nacreous clouds, also known as polar stratospheric clouds (PSC). These are quite rare over the UK, and the present author has never observed them in a lifetime of sky watching. The February 2013 event did not, either in the evening of 20/2 or the morning of the 21/2, have evidence of any iridescence, a notable characteristic of PSC. A temperature profile obtained by the kind cooperation and enthusiasm of the Australian Antarctic Division shows that temperatures were not sufficiently cold for the formation of NLC at or near the mesopause, and similar profiles for stratospheric heights at ca. 20km also reveal temperatures too warm for PSC formation. However, this does not take into account water saturation as a result of a large input arising from the Chelyabinsk event.

The above figure shows modelled flows, assuming 14.7km, 19.7km and 24.7km transport heights for material entering as a result of the Chelyabinsk event (black star). An unconfirmed NLC-like observation from Alaska on 2013 February 17 does not match any of the heights at which material

may have been transported according to this model, and it would be perhaps two or more days away to the west of the UK on the date of the Anglesey observation. This provides evidence that the material was not being transported at these heights and instead suggests it was being transported westwards at higher levels. The author suggests a refocusing on the mesosphere is therefore justified.

Longitude-resolved temperature map at 30hPA level on 2013 February 19d 12hUT, courtesy of Dr. David Hooper, NERC. An extension of air at a temperature slightly below that favourable for type I PSCs is seen over the northern North Sea. Type I PSC require -78 degrees Celsius to form, whereasTemp_min is indicated as -72 degrees Celsius 75N 2.5E.

What can explain the appearance of out of season NLC? It is possible and has been suggested in earlier work that strong negative fluctuations in temperature in the mesosphere bring about these anomalous events. It is suggested that these events may occur rarely, about once in every hundred days. This means anomalous cooling might occur as often as three days a year, which might be expected to yield more frequent reports of out-of-season NLC. Another explanation is that the layer was luminous, but not mesospheric in altitude. Further images are being analysed to determine actual height and will be presented at a later stage.

Yet another and, I suggest, increasingly likely explanation is that the Chelyabinsk meteoroid, with an estimated mass of between 7,000 and 10,000 tonnes, injected large volumes of water into the atmosphere, this being transported to various heights by the 'suction' arising from low pressure behind the very fast-moving projectile (currently estimated to be 13-19kms-1 relative to the Earth) As a result of the sheer likely volume of water brought in, the mesosphere is now suggested to have reached saturation, even at the very warm temperatures of the winter mesosphere (190-200K.) It is possible the luminous cloud was a result of high altitude ash produced during volcanic eruptions. Those eruptions known immediately prior to this sighting include Manam, Papua New Guinea (to 33,000 feet) on 2013 02 12d, which would seem to require very many more days to arrive in the UK; Barren Island, India (to 20,000 feet) on 2013 02 13d; Etna in Sicily produced a large eruption 2013 02 19, but too close in time to account for the event seen over Wales. Further images appearing on the internet tend to lend support to true mesospheric noctilcuent clouds being formed in the aftermath of the Chelyabinsk event. In Fairbanks, Alaska, pressure waves arising from the meteoroid was detected on two journeys around the globe, and reported to be more intense than local mining explosions. As a result, strong gravity waves are expected to have been generated, and these are indeed evident in photographs both of the evening of 2013 February 19 and the morning of 2013 February 20. The author apologises that, in the interests of stimulating early discussion and debate, this can only be considered a very unscientific document that expresses a train of thought, with some evidence and the thoughts of others.