I recently visited Japan, where I observed a lenticular cloud above Mount Fuji:

Mount Fuji and lenticular cloud

Curious by the cloud, I looked it up and found it it's a lenticular cloud, that forms because of rising moist air coming into contact with cooler air. However, why is it circular? If I would look at it from above would it still be circular? Since air moves in a certain direction, I would expect the cloud to be laminar and elongate towards one direction rather than circular.

What makes it circular?

  • $\begingroup$ topography induced wave motions. Clouds can form in the vertical motion of the waves above that ridge top. This looks like a isolated mountain and not sinusoidal terrain. For further details check out Cloud Dynamics by Houze. $\endgroup$ – gansub Jul 10 '16 at 10:21
  • $\begingroup$ so the scale would be mesoscale gamma to microscale. Could you remember if the wind flow at that time is from left to right in that photograph? If yes then that lenticular cloud has formed on the crest of the wave downstream of the hill $\endgroup$ – gansub Jul 10 '16 at 10:54
  • $\begingroup$ Gansub sounds to know more about it, but would think it's a typical biproduct of the necessary conditions: stable air and high moisture (otherwise the clouds would grow vertically into cumulus)... and such background conditions are heavily related to high pressure and fairly calm winds. And while there's still some winds, if the vertical motion from the mountain (locally induced effect) is of a greater scale than the background winds, it'd tend to be quite circular. $\endgroup$ – JeopardyTempest Jul 14 '16 at 8:42
  • $\begingroup$ That said, while most seem to be fairly circular, I was able to find pictures like 4.bp.blogspot.com/--IBopprRXIo/VRAL3aFxa1I/AAAAAAAAAto/… (albeit, not just one perfect peak) that suggest it is possible to have elongated clouds as you suggest more. $\endgroup$ – JeopardyTempest Jul 14 '16 at 8:42
  • $\begingroup$ @Gimelist Do you remember at what time of day did that cloud form ? I want to add another answer that talks of diurnal forcing $\endgroup$ – gansub Jul 4 at 10:45

Lenticular clouds don't form because "rising air comes in contact with cooler air" but rather from moist air cooling to its dew point as it is forced to rise over the terrain. Unlike most clouds that move with the wind, clouds like these are "anchored" to the terrain and the air moves through them. If you observe them closely you can see new cloud forming as air flows upward and into the cloud on the windward side of the slope and evaporating as it exits descending on the lee side.

As air rises, pressure decreases and the air expands (volume increases). This results in a temperature decrease in the parcel. When the rising air cools to its dew point the cloud will form. In this case air is only rising because it is forced over the mountain. Once past the peak, the air descends the lee slope and is compressed and warmed. Once it warms up and relative humidity is below 100% the cloud evaporates. If the streamlines parallel the contours of the peak, this results in a roughly circular region where the air is suitable for the cloud to form.

If the terrain was a long ridge instead of an isolated peak, the lenticular cloud will elongated as a line over the ridge tops.

You generally won't see the cloud elongated downwind, as the air is forced down the lee slope. What you might instead see are clouds at regular intervals downstream of the mountain if the mountain (and atmospheric stability) has caused a standing wave to form. In this case you might see clouds in the peaks of the wave depending the humidity of the air and the amplitude of the wave.


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