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Extremely rare glow-in-the-dark clouds spotted in night sky over the UK

Metro logo Metro 7/5/2022 Katherine Hignett
Oliver Schwenn captured this image of noctilucent clouds on Thursday in Denmark. (Credit: Facebook) © Provided by Metro Oliver Schwenn captured this image of noctilucent clouds on Thursday in Denmark. (Credit: Facebook)

If you’ve looked up at the sky just after sunset over the last few days, you may have spotted a stunning display of unusual glow-in-the-dark clouds.

These extremely rare ‘noctilucent clouds’ are currently appearing over much of the northern hemisphere.

In fact, they’ve put on their most intense display for 15 years, according to data from Nasa.

Skywatchers across the UK have been seeing them everywhere from Yorkshire to Wales to Dundee.

And they’ve been flooding social media with pictures of the beautiful bluish and silvery streaks in the sky.

In the early hours of Tuesday morning, Queen legend and astronomer Brian May shared his own video of the clouds on Twitter and Instagram.

Where can I see them?

Noctilucent clouds, which tend to appear in clear summer skies, are only visible from countries that sit within between 45 and 80 degrees north latitude, according to the Met Office.

Some of the glowing clouds spotted above Seattle in Washington, USA. (Credit: Facebook/NWSSeattle) © Provided by Metro Some of the glowing clouds spotted above Seattle in Washington, USA. (Credit: Facebook/NWSSeattle)

They form at equivalent latitudes in the southern hemisphere as well, but there’s hardly any land to watch them from in this region. Down south, you can only see them at the southern tip of Argentina and Chile, as well as the Antarctic.

But in the northern hemisphere, they’ve been spotted everywhere from Seattle in the US to Szubin in Poland over the last couple of days.

What are noctilucent clouds?

Noctilucent clouds are collections of ice crystals that linger high up in the mesosphere: a section of the atmosphere sometimes referred to as ‘the edge of space’.

Because they’re so high, they can still reflect sunlight after sunset and before sunrise. This means they can glow brightly against they dark evening sky.

Noctilucent clouds over London. (Credit: Twitter/Skydivephil) © Provided by Metro Noctilucent clouds over London. (Credit: Twitter/Skydivephil)

They form when water vapour and dust gather in the very cold mesosphere. They’re so rare because this material is in short supply in this region of the sky.

Some of the dust that collects so high up may come from tiny meteors, the Met Office states. But it’s likely much of it has less exotic origins, like volcanoes and even man-made pollutants.

Water vapour high up in the atmosphere may also be the result of chemical reactions from gases like methane.

Noctilucent clouds above Edmonton, in Canada. (Credit: Twitter/Hugo Sanchez) © Provided by Metro Noctilucent clouds above Edmonton, in Canada. (Credit: Twitter/Hugo Sanchez)

Why are noctilucent clouds so bright?

The rare phenomenon has been sighted more and more in recent years, which may be a result of rising greenhouse gases, according to the New Scientist.

NASA’s AIM satellite is studying the clouds to find out more about how they form and whether they’re linked to climate change.

As you can see from the chart below, AIM data shows this most recent display has been particularly intense.

Atmospheric physicist Cora Randall from the University of Colorado Boulder, who works with AIM data, says this particular spike might be linked not to climate change, but to space rockets.

She told Spaceweather.com: ‘We’re speculating that the spike might be due to extra water vapor transported to higher latitudes from rocket launches. But much more quantitative analysis would be required to confirm that or not.’

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