From time to time a combination of wind, cloud cover, and tall islands conspire to create stunning scenery when viewed from space. On May 3, 2021, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on board NASA’s Aqua satellite acquired a true-color image of such a moment when wind blowing past Guadalupe Island resulted in snake-like swirls in the cloud cover. Guadalupe island is a tall volcanic island that rises sharply from the Pacific Ocean not far from the coast of Baja California, Mexico.
These dramatic patterns were first described in 1912, when physicist Theodore von Kármán detailed a process that makes long, spiraling cloud patterns in the sky. These so-called “von Kármán vortices” arise when winds are diverted around a blunt, high-profile area, often an island rising from the ocean. The alternating direction of rotation in the air forms swirls in the clouds. Formation and pattern of the vortices are driven by the direction of the prevailing winds, which can change seasonally, leading to differences in the direction and structure of the vortices. These patterns frequently form behind Guadalupe Island.