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The world's weirdest weather phenomena

Frost quakes, waterspouts and so much more

The world's weirdest weather phenomena
01 January 2018

We’re always complaining that the weather is too hot/cold/windy/unsettled ‘for this time of year’, with the British taking the opportunity to moan any time the temperature is one degree either side of where it ‘normally’ is.

But, most of the time, we should count ourselves lucky, as mother nature has a lot of real rarities in her locker.

We take a look at some of the world’s weirdest weather events - run for cover and get yourselves a big brolly.

Frost Quakes

Our first extremely cool (literally) phenomenon is that of frost quakes. At the start of 2014, before the much-reported US polar vortex kicked in properly, Canada was already experiencing sub-zero temperatures, with some residents of Ontario being woken by booming noises which sounded like explosions. However, the noise was actually coming from frost quakes, or cryoseisms. The process of water freezing into ice causes expansion - a process seen frequently in freeze-thaw weathering (remember those GCSE Geography lessons kids). But when the change from liquid to solid is rapid (during a sharp temperature drop) and the ground is saturated, it can cause explosions as tension in the ground builds, until it cannot be sustained. Luckily, they are likely to be harmless, though you try telling that to your terrified cat.


There's no doubt about it - waterspouts are awesome. Also known as water devils (extreme weather events really do get all the best names), in their most common form, they are non-supercell tornadoes over water, which are usually formed by developing rain clouds. They're usually weaker than land-based tornadoes and, contrary to popular belief, they don't suck up water from the ground - the plume of water seen is formed of droplets created by condensation. Multiple waterspouts can occur; indeed, as many as nine have been reported to have formed on Lake Michigan at once. Other versions include tornadic waterspouts - essentially 'normal' tornadoes which move from land to sea and the very rare snowspout. Naturally, that one is brilliantly called an ice devil. They really should form their own superhero gang.

Volcanic Lightning

Also known as a dirty thunderstorm (stop sniggering at the back), this phenomenon occurs when lightning is produced in a volcanic plume. In a normal thunderstorm, ice particles collide and produce electrical charges; in a volcanic environment, rock fragments, ash and ice also collide to provide static charges which then create the conditions for lightning to occur. The exact process is not well understood, but what is understood is that it must be absolutely terrifying to be anywhere near. Stay away from volcanoes kids.

Super-Rapid Temperature Change

Many places undergo extreme changes in temperature from day to night; in particular in desert regions, it's not uncommon for the temperature to drop from the mid-30s (°C) during the day, to just above freezing at night. But very occasionally, there will be incredibly fast changes of huge proportions. The record event occurred at Spearfish in South Dakota, in 1943. At 7:30am, the temperature rose a staggering 27°C - from -20°C to 7°C in just two minutes. By 9am, it was up to 12°C, then 27 minutes later, it was back to -20°C. The swing was attributed to a foehn wind: a type of wind which occurs near a mountain range, and analagous to the movement of hot water dumped in one end of a bowl of cold water - it would sway from one side to the other retaining its temperature before eventually settling down, mingling with the cold water and reaching an average. To be fair, rapidly changing environment from freezing cold to a raging furnace in a matter of minutes is pretty similar to getting on the tube on a winter's day, so perhaps it's not that weird really.

Roll Clouds

Clouds can take on many strange and unusual shapes, but perhaps the weirdest is the roll cloud: a low, tube-shaped cloud which appears to slowly roll about a horizontal axis. A particular subgroup of these is known as the Morning Glory cloud and is incredibly rare. These can rack up some astonishing statistics: up to 1,000km long, 2km high, moving at speeds of up to 60km/hr and yet be just 100-200m above the ground. Only one place on the planet sees these form on a regular basis: the southern part of the Gulf of Carpentaria in Northern Australia. They must just be on a roll we guess.

Giant Hailstones

We all know getting hit on the head by an unexpected hailstorm can hurt a bit, so thank your lucky stars that a giant one didn't land upon you. Under certain weather conditions, huge hailstones can form: the largest to ever fall in the US was found in Vivian, South Dakota (what is it about that state?) in 2010, was 8 inches in diameter and weighed 1lb 15oz. Another phenomenon are megacryometeors (yes, another amazing name), which are very large chunks of ice; the process behind their formation is very poorly understood, but one incredible episode saw megacryometeors rain over Spain in 2000 out of cloudless skies for ten days. That's just ridiculous isn't it?

Sun Dogs

Amongst this list, this is a fairly common phenomenon, but pretty weird nonetheless. Under certain conditions - namely, the Sun being close to the horizon, and cirrus clouds sitting high in the sky, the Sun's rays will be refracted by miniscule ice crystals in the clouds: when these are randomly oriented, a halo will be seen, but when vertically aligned, they create sundogs - bright spots of light on either side of the sun. Most awesomely, it seems that sundogs would also occur on other planets and moons: on Mars, courtesy of sunlight refracting through ice and solid carbon dioxide particles; and on the gas giants, clouds of ammonia, methane and other substances may create halos with four or more sundogs. Since everything else on this list has a brilliant name, we will hereby name them helioquadradogs.

Ball Lightning

Forget your normal lightning - that's so old hat - this is lightning in the form of BALLS OF FIRE. As Jerry Lee Lewis might say, "good gracious". In common with much strange weather, this is an as-yet-unexplained phenomenon, which consists of luminous, usually spherically-shaped, objects falling slowly through the sky, hanging around for multiple seconds, rather than the fractions associated with 'standard' lightning. There has been little research conducted, due to their rarity, with much information coming from casual observation, tales and legends, and there are a raft of unproven hypotheses on the science behind it. Yet again, a lot of these bear repeating due to their amazing names: Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation; Spinning Plasma Toroid; Microwave Cavity Hypothesis, Black Hole Hypothesis and - our personal favourite - Hydrodynamic Vortex Ring Antisymmetry. Science is fantastic, isn't it?

Raining Animals

Possibly the most tenuous weather event on this list, it is highly doubtful whether this actually occurs as, even in the internet and cameraphone age, there has yet to be a single recorded video of it happening. However, there have been multiple eyewitness accounts throughout history - and it really would be great if it did so, for that reason, it's in. Most theories for the mechanism behind it have been debunked: the most popular, that of tornadic waterspouts picking up the animals is not true; as we have seen, they do not actually pick water up from the surface so would be incapable of picking up any stray critters. Very strong winds seem the most likely candidate, but even that theory is on shaky ground (not literally, obviously). Nonetheless, recent reports have it precipitating fish in the Philippines in 2012, frogs in Hungary in June, worms in the US in 2007 and spiders in Brazil in 2013. Actually, considering that last one, we're now thinking it wouldn't be so great if this were true. Not great at all.


These phenomena are not so much rare - since they were first photographed in 1989 they have been observed many thousands of times - but they are still breathtakingly weird. Sprites are large-scale electrical discharges, occurring high above thunderclouds; however, they are not simply high altitude, bigger versions of traditional lightning, as they are a cold plasma phenomenon, rather than occurring under the higher temperatures of standard lightning. Sprites come in three flavours, with the largest (and best-named) being jellyfish sprites, which can be up to 30 miles wide and high. And to think we were scared of the little ones in the sea.

(Images: Rex/University of Alaska Fairbanks)