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Unusual image seen in the sky this week: Is it aliens?

A look at a unique cloud seen in the sky over Western New York this week.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Sometimes we see some things in the sky that look a bit out of the ordinary. Our mind might drift to something fantastic or paranormal. But typically there is a clear explanation to what's going on. 

A few people in Western New York shared some of these images this week with me of an oddly shaped cloud formation south of Buffalo, New York. It basically is a random circular hole in the clouds with what looks like a tube floating down in the middle of it. 

This image is interesting to say the least, but no, it’s not aliens. But it's not natural either. This phenomenon is actually known as a "cloud punch" or a "fall streak." It occurred when an aircraft flew through that cloud.

Credit: Stephanie Smithmeyer Frank

Aircraft fly through clouds every day, yet we don't see this every day, which is true, and is the reason why a few factors need to line up first. 

First, you need to know that quite often mid- to upper-level clouds have water droplets that are below freezing in the cloud, yet freezing has not taken place in them. This is what we call “super cooled droplets." It’s the same type of phenomenon we see when water droplets freeze on contact with the surface during an ice storm.

So if we have these super cooled water droplets in the cloud, they will stay there just below freezing and really won’t freeze until they are given a reason to freeze. When an aircraft flies through a cloud like this, it introduces ice crystals, which can cause super cooled droplets to freeze and fall to the ground in the form of snow and create a hole. 

Due to the physics of this process and the introduction of ice crystals in the atmosphere it becomes a feed-back loop with the hole in the cloud slowly expanding out to a size much larger than an airplane, leaving behind a tube of falling snow in the middle of the large hole in the clouds.

This leaves behind a rather unusual and unique image. As we head into the winter months in Jacksonville and with the high amount of air traffic we have over the city, don't be surprised if you see something odd like this in the skies over your home. 

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