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Noctilucent Clouds: Illuminating the Night Sky

Updated on October 1, 2014
Noctilucent clouds over Lake Saimaa
Noctilucent clouds over Lake Saimaa | Source

So what are Noctilucent Clouds?

Night Shining, or Noctilucent clouds, are so beautiful, shining with a luminescent glow in the twilight sky at the very edge of space. These clouds are also known as polar mesopheric clouds or by their abbreviation NLC.

Despite their ethereal beauty, night shining noctilucent clouds have darker connotations of evidence of damage to our ozone layer and global warming effects. Scientists cannot absolutely prove why or how they appear.

Read on to see where and when you are most likely to see the noctilucent cloud and the research by scientists to understand what these clouds mean for our environment.

Atmospheric Layers
Atmospheric Layers | Source

The what, why and where about Night Shining Clouds

  • Noctilucent clouds are formed at the top of the mesosphere, which is 10 times higher than where the highest weather clouds (cirrus) form in the troposphere. The mesosphere is about 80km (50 miles) from Earth and the temperature is -150C - the coldest place in our atmosphere.

  • Noctilucent means "night shining" in Latin. They are most commonly seen in deep twilight or just before dawn, but there have been sightings of them throughout the night hours. The suns rays are angled at just the right position to illuminate these clouds when the sun is 6 to 16 degrees below the horizon. You can't see the clouds during the day as the particles are so small and transparent and the sun is too high.

  • Noctilucent clouds do not produce any weather and are made up of ice crystals that are thought to be as tiny as cigarette smoke particles.

  • You can see noctilucent clouds in the northern hemisphere between mid May and mid August and in the Southern hemisphere in mid November to mid February.You can only see them from a certain latitude of 50 to 65°, but recently noctilucent clouds have been spotted at lower latitudes of 40° - scientists are still trying fathom why this is so.

  • Night shining clouds can be classified into 4 main groups: veils (type 1), bands (type 2), billows (type 3) and whirls (type 4), there is also a 5 point scale of brightness. To read more about each group and the sub groups, a very good resource is here: Observing Noctilucent Clouds.

  • Night shining clouds look similar to cirrus clouds in shape and are an electric silvery blue in colour. Other colours have been seen too, gold, red and white can also be seen depending on the angle of the sun.

Noctilucent Clouds moving across the night sky

The history of Night Shining Clouds

Noctilucent clouds were first thought to be reported between 1849 - 1852 by Thomas Romney Robinson, a director at the Armagh Observatory, N. Ireland at that time.

Robinson reported seeing "luminous clouds, not auoral" in May 1850, but scientists today cannot determine for sure that these were Noctilucent clouds because Robinson had died by the time the next report of Noctilucent clouds was made. May is also just outside of the NLC season.

The next reports were made 3 years after the massive Krakatoa volcano explosion, and Robinson was dead, so the reports cannot be compared accurately.

1883 eruption of Krakatoa.
1883 eruption of Krakatoa. | Source

The enormous Krakatoa eruption of 1883 destroyed the Indonesian Island and the effects were felt and seen worldwide, with violent tsunamis, earthquakes and tidal patterns.

The weather patterns were chaotic for years afterwards, darkening the sky worldwide and causing beautiful optical effects, blue moons and blood red sunsets.

Noctilucent clouds were reported in 1885 and at first it was thought that the volcanic ash from Krakatoa created these clouds for the first time. We know now that this isn't the case, as you will see if you read on!

Noctilucent clouds
Noctilucent clouds | Source

Did Lewis Carroll spot a Night Shining Cloud?

The mystery of Noctilucent Clouds

For clouds to form, they need water vapour and a nuclei, like dust particles, to collect or seed onto. The big mystery with Noctilucent Clouds is that they form in the mesosphere, which is a hundred times drier than deserts on Earth. So why is there water (in the form of ice crystals) in the mesosphere? And what is the dust that the ice crystals are collecting on?

The two most common theories are that:

1. The ice particles and dust come from rockets as they pass through the world's atmosphere. However, rockets have only been launched since the 1950s and Noctilucent Clouds have been seen since the mid to late 1800's. A good article from NASA about this theory can be read here: Study Finds Space Shuttle Exhaust Creates Night-Shining Clouds

2. The ice particles could possibly come from an increase in methane from industrial farming or from an increase of carbon dioxide with the rise of the industrial age since the Victorian era. It isn't clear yet if the dust particles, which act as seeds for the ice particles, come from the Earth or is being blown into our atmosphere from outer space. This great article from the New Scientist elaborates more on this theory: Mysterious glowing clouds targeted by NASA

Polar Mesospheric Clouds, Northern Hemisphere
Polar Mesospheric Clouds, Northern Hemisphere | Source

Measuring Noctilucent Clouds

Until recently it has been difficult for scientists to measure and monitor noctilucent clouds, weather balloons don't reach as high as the mesosphere and satellites were too high. In 2007 NASA launched a satellite called AIM, which stands for Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere. This satellite is now monitoring the mesosphere and noctilucent clouds to determine exactly why they occur and why we are seeing more of them. Find out what the AIM satellite has been discovering here: NASA's AIM Satellite and Models are Unlocking the Secrets of Mysterious "Night-Shining" Clouds

So are the increased sightings of noctilucent clouds due to a steady increase of pollution? Are these beautiful clouds something not to admire, but to be worried about? Another theory is that these clouds actually may help against global warming; if they continue to grow they would form a protective barrier - like a band aid over the world! Who knows...?

Noctilucent clouds, Kuresoo bog, Soomaa National Park, Estonia.
Noctilucent clouds, Kuresoo bog, Soomaa National Park, Estonia. | Source

Have You Ever Seen Noctilucent Clouds?

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    • Pat Goltz profile image

      Pat Goltz 

      8 years ago

      I live at 33 degrees latitude, but I sure see clouds that fit this description occasionally. They are white, well after the sun has set. Sometimes dull white, but occasionally bright. They seem to be at a lower altitude. I did see a trail from a missile launch awhile before sunrise as well.

    • profile image


      9 years ago


    • KathyMcGraw2 profile image

      Kathy McGraw 

      9 years ago from California

      Beautiful....learned something and enjoyed the pictures :)

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      I might have seen it, but I sure didn't know that it's a Noctilucent cloud. :)

    • profile image

      Mamaboo LM 

      9 years ago

      Thanks for sharing your knowledge and pictures. My children are homeschooled and are extremely fascinated with clouds right now ...Be blessed and keep up the good work.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      "High Five" for the great pics and explanations!

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      The marvels we are offered to enjoy as our inheritance upon this Earth!!!! I's certainly gobs of fun to discover such eclectic wonders as this. Thank you so much!

    • kindoak profile image


      9 years ago

      Nice topic and info. Up where I live the solar wind tends to light up the sly too sometimes.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Fascinating. I had never heard of these.

    • LisaDH profile image


      9 years ago

      Fascinating! I'm not sure if I've ever seen a noctilucent cloud, but I'm sure going to be on the lookout for them now.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      I learned a new word. Noctilucent it's a great word. I'll have to start looking for "night shining" clouds next month. :)

    • BLemley profile image

      Beverly Lemley 

      9 years ago from Raleigh, NC

      Very informative ~ and interesting! I loved the video, eerie and beautiful. I will have to check out the link for more info! B : )

    • KamalaEmbroidery profile image


      9 years ago

      Wish I could see them. I'd never heard of it before. Thanks for the information.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Very informative. Thanks for sharing!

    • Blackspaniel1 profile image


      9 years ago

      Excellent and current. Pleased to see the old volcanic theory was reported as inaccurate. Well done.

    • SayGuddaycom profile image


      9 years ago


    • LeslieMirror profile image


      9 years ago

      Sometimes I wonder, how amazing the nature can be. Thanks for this research

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      It semms you know much about Noctilucent Clouds

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      I just want to see the actual Noctilucent Clouds. thanks for posting informative lens about this clouds. I love it!.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      I'm not sure if I've ever seen this type of cloud before! Now I hope I do. This is a great lens!

    • profile image

      HaleySchaeffer LM 

      9 years ago

      I had never heard of Noctilucent Clouds. Very interesting stuff, and the photos you used are breathtaking! Beautiful lens.

    • profile image

      neuromancer lm 

      9 years ago

      Yeah I have also see them, but they were not so beautiful as these clouds here.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Don't think i have ever seen this type of cloud! The pictures look great :)

    • flycatcherrr profile image


      9 years ago

      I've seen these clouds, but never knew the proper name. Lovely photos!

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Beautiful!! Great info!

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      The pictures look stunning. I love it!

    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 

      9 years ago from Colorado

      Very interesting. Thank you for introducing me to this phenomenon. Spectacular imagery.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Thank you for publishing this science lesson. The clouds are beautiful. Now, I wonder if it's possible to see them in LA.

    • profile image

      andreaberrios lm 

      9 years ago

      Very very interesting, I love all this kind of stuff! Blessed*

    • Fcuk Hub profile image

      Fcuk Hub 

      9 years ago

      Cool pictures.

    • profile image

      coldsore lm 

      9 years ago

      What drew me to this lens is the word noctilucent. It's fantastic and I had to find out what it means. Everyone one should know it, just for the way it sounds. However, it relates to something that fascinates me, which makes it even better. Sunsets, twilight, dusk, dawn, the firmament swaddled in an orchestra of empyrean colour. I'd love to see it first hand.

    • David Dove profile image

      David Dove 

      10 years ago

      Never cease to wonedr at nayure, thank you for bringing it to us all

    • pheonix76 profile image


      10 years ago from WNY

      Beautiful lens and so informative. Fascinating!!

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      How sad that such beauty has dark connotations. I have been riveted just watching them many time and now I know what they are. Very nicely done!

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      Awesome lens! The photos are rally amazing. Too bad I live in the southern latitudes and never seen these clouds. I have freinds in FInland who have spotted them before, but i wasn't lucky enough to see them when I traveled.

    • justholidays profile image


      11 years ago

      The beauty of your pages, Lucy is that you don't just create stunning lenses but you educate people who visit them. Another fantastic cloud related page!

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      These clouds aer beautiful..I am learning so much about clouds through your articles Lucy!


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