So you're on Facebook or checking your email, when suddenly you see a photo of this monstrous storm. It looks awesome, and it's purported to be a picture of a recent (or at least famous) weather event, like the April 27th tornadoes or Hurricane Katrina.
Pictures like these get passed around in chain emails and social media every day. Usually they're harmless, but they annoy the living hell out of weather geeks, so I want to help you spot out the fake ones.
This applies to almost everything, but it requires a little extra knowledge when it comes to meteorology. Take this photo, for instance:
It's a shelf cloud. I talked about shelf clouds a few months ago after the DC Derecho, but the short version is that they form along the leading edge of winds that are produced by strong storms. The cloud takes on a wedge/shelf appearance as the warmer, moister air ascends over the colder, denser air from the storm, and it condenses once it reaches a certain level.
Besides, the storms around the eye of a hurricane (known as the "eyewall") have the most intense winds of the storm. Use your common sense. Do you really think that...
-The skies would be blue as the eye approaches you;
-The seas would be glassy and calm;
-A ship would survive a Category 3/4 hurricane long enough to see the eye;
-The clouds would approach you like a wall instead of surround you horizon-to-horizon
...if this were in Hurricane Katrina? Nope. It looks fascinating, and it's a real picture, but the caption is misleading.
This one is being passed around Facebook as I type this, and a few of my friends have tagged me in the picture. It looks amazing, and it's an excellent Photoshop job, but it's partially fake:
The tornado and lightning picture was taken by Fred Smith on June 15, 1991 over Lake Okeechobee in Florida. The oil rig is, well, an oil rig. But the rig is 'shopped in there.
If you have a good sense of depth perception (mine is screwy sometimes), just look at the trees in relation to the twister and rig. If the dimensions in the photo are to be believed, the rig is about 1000 feet taller than the tallest tree, and the tornado looks like it's two miles tall. Tornadoes need low cloud bases to form, so that's instantly suspicious. Also note that the lightning isn't reflecting off of anything on/around the rig itself.
Usually when you see something along the lines of an "amazing chance capture!" it's wrong. I thoroughly enjoy taking lightning pictures during nighttime thunderstorms, and trust me, pictures like THAT aren't a chance capture. It takes tons of tries just to get two or three bolts of lightning on film, especially if you're not a professional photographer or storm chaser. I usually take 200-250 photos in one sitting when I try to get lightning pictures, and most of the time it pays off nicely:
Sometimes it is, but most of the time it isn't. Let's take a look at another one of my favorites...
The photo is real, and it was taken in Orchard, Iowa in June of 2008. The picture isn't of a tornado, but of a wall cloud attached to a supercell. What makes a supercell thunderstorm unique in the thunderstorm world is that it rotates vertically, and this broad vertical rotation is called a "mesocyclone." Clouds tend to form and rotate within this mesocyclone, and they can take on some pretty freaky shapes. One of the more common clouds associated with a mesocyclone is a wall cloud, which is what is depicted in the photo.
The wall cloud is the white "wall" over on the right side of the storm, with the clouds higher up taking on a more layered/disk shape. These types of storms are sometimes called "motherships" because of how they look like gigantic UFOs sitting over the landscape.
Here's what one of these "mothership" supercell thunderstorms looks like from the side, taken in western Texas on May 21, 2012. The fuzzy white column extending from the cloud to the ground looks like it's a mixture of rain and hail.
I have a huge problem with conspiracy theorists, especially folks who peddle conspiracy theories about the weather. One of the most popular ones out there involve "HAARP," "chemtrails," and weather radar controlling the weather.
HAARP is a real array of high-powered antennas in Alaska designed to study the electrical properties of the upper atmosphere. It cannot and does not control the weather. People who fall for that deserve to be slapped.
"Chemtrails" do not exist. CONtrails exist. Contrail is short for Condensation Trail, or the white cloud that forms behind high-flying airplanes. The warm, moist exhaust from the planes interacts with the extremely cold upper-atmospheric air and almost instantly condenses it. This leaves a long, white trail of cirrus clouds behind the aircraft. Conspiracy theorists latched onto this as some sort of chemical spraying mechanism designed to either control the weather or make humans sick. It's all bull.
Weather radars detect the weather, they don't create it. I covered this in some degree of detail earlier this year.
UFO clouds. These are real, but they have an actual name: lenticular clouds. The name comes from the fact that they look like lenses. They form when moist winds ascend the side of a mountain or hill, and as the moisture condenses towards the top of the terrain, it forms a cloud above the ridge. As the air descends on the other side of the mountain, it dries out and stops forming a cloud.
This process creates the lenticular cloud, and they can be pretty spectacular if you're in the right place at the right time.
This whole thing was an unnecessarily long way of saying to use your intuition before believing something you read or see on the internet, especially when it comes to weather photos. If you become suspicious of something, download the image to your computer and upload it to Google Images as a visual search. Their search usually does a pretty good job at searching images online, and it might point you to what the picture really shows.
Or just ask me, because I've seen them all already. ;P