Skip to main content

Earth from Orbit: von Kármán Vortices

May 13, 2021

On May 8, 2021, NOAA satellites captured von Kármán vortices streaming around Guadalupe Island, off the west coast of Mexico’s Baja California.

Named after Theodore von Kármán, a co-founder of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and one of the first scientists to describe this type of atmospheric phenomenon, these beautiful cloud formations typically occur when the prevailing wind is diverted by elevated land features such as islands, mountaintops, or volcanoes. These geological features can disrupt the flow of wind, causing the air, and its subsequent clouds, to rotate into a spiral shape. This is similar to the way large boulders create downstream eddies in rivers.

The pattern of the cloud swirls depends on the wind intensity. The vortices are driven by the prevailing winds, which can change seasonally and cause differences in the direction and structure of the vortices.

NOAA’s GOES-16 (GOES East), GOES-17 (GOES West), NOAA-20, and NOAA/NASA Suomi-NPP, along with NASA/USGS Landsat-8 , EUMETSAT Meteosat-11 and JMA Himawari-8 satellites have captured these stratocumulus cloud formations all over the world. In addition to Guadalupe Island, the Cape Verde Islands and the Canary Islands off the coast of West Africa are common spots for von Kármán vortices to form. Satellites have also spied this atmospheric phenomenon over the Juan Fernandez Islands located off the coast of Chile, Tristan da Cunha, a remote volcanic island in the South Atlantic, Jeju Island, the largest island in South Korea, and the Kuril Islands, a volcanic archipelago in the Pacific Ocean that stretches approximately 810 miles from Japan to Russia.

NOAA’s geostationary satellites, GOES-16 and GOES-17, orbit 22,236 miles above Earth’s equator at the same speed Earth rotates. This means the satellites have a constant view of the same area and are able to monitor cloud formation and track clouds in motion.

NOAA’s polar-orbiting satellites, Suomi-NPP and NOAA-20, orbit from pole to pole, imaging the entire Earth at least twice daily.They are positioned just 512 miles above Earth’s surface, allowing them to capture ultra-high resolution views of von Kármán vortices.

When von Kármán vortices form, satellites capture them in stunning detail.