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The Science Behind Shelf Clouds

Jake Spencer sent us this photo of an amazing looking cloud structure as storms rolled through mid-Missouri this morning. This was taken near a Rolla Walmart in Phelps county.

The clouds were a part of a mesoscale convective system that brought the morning storms. That type of cloud in particular is referred to as a shelf cloud.

He wanted to know the science behind how this clouds form... Here's an explanation. Thunderstorms form in warm & humid airmasses. When they begin to produce a lot of rain, the air around the thunderstorm becomes cooler due to all the water droplets.

Colder air is more dense than warm air and will tend to rush down, and out of the storm. Due to the density difference of the two air masses, the warm, moist air will lift up into the thunderstorm.

For an analogy, this is almost like shoveling snow in your driveway.

Imagine the rain-cooled air to be like a snow shovel blade, and the warm moist air is the snow. As the cooler air pushes in, it "shovels" up the warm air up into the air, allowing it to cool and condense into clouds.

This process of warm air being lifted into clouds continues until the thunderstorm weakens, and the temperature difference gets closer together.

If you have any weather phenomenon you'd like explained, send us a picture or ask us a question! We'll try to answer it for you!

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Luke Victor

Luke Victor gives forecasts on ABC 17 News broadcasts and reports on weather stories on air and online, giving viewers and readers a deeper look at what causes different types of weather.


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