Von Karman Vortex

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Von Karman Vortex

Von Karman Vortex, San Clemente Island, 2018


February 5, 2018 [Weather Channel]: “Cloud Swirl Resembles a Hurricane Off Southern California's Coast. A swirl of low-level clouds over the Pacific waters of Southern California resembled a hurricane with a well-defined eye late last week. But this wasn't a hurricane. In fact, hurricanes as far north as Southern California are exceedingly rare. Known as a von Karman vortex, the low-cloud swirl is harmless. Satellite imagery showed the vortex of swirling air and low clouds between San Clemente Island and San Diego on Thursday. What you are seeing in the series of images above is called a von Karman vortex, named for Theodore von Kármán, who was the first to describe them. These vortices are common off the coast of Southern California, but this one was especially vivid due to its symmetrical formation with clear skies surrounding it, as the National Weather Service in San Diego remarked. Islands with significant elevation rises are the disturbance that triggers the formation of the vortices. Simply put, clouds are forced to go around the islands by the prevailing winds. The air in the lower atmosphere diverges as it goes around the island and then converges on the opposite side, forming the spinning vortices downwind of the islands. They can occur in various locations around the world, not just near the Southern California coastline.”


February 5, 2018 [Washington Post]: “Stop me if this isn’t as cool as I think it is (sometimes I have a hard time distinguishing between “legitimately awesome” and “weather-nerd neat”), but I had to share. What you’re seeing on the satellite image above is not a hurricane — it’s a von Karman Vortex. Von Karman vorticies are a pattern of swirls in a fluid, named after the scientist that discovered them. Physically, it’s the same principle as setting a rock in a stream of water; the rock disrupts the uniform flow, and swirls form in the wake of the rock. In this case, the rock is San Clemente Island, and the fluid is the atmosphere. These vortices can happen a lot, but unless clouds are in the air, we would be able to see them. Often there’s more than one vortex (like what’s in this satellite image) but in this case, it’s just a lone circulation that looks an awful lot like a hurricane with an eye, if you didn’t know better. What’s even more awesome about this lonely von Karman vortex is that a marine just so happened to get a photo of it from his F-18 as he was flying off the coast of Southern California on Friday. I think it looks even more impressive from this vantage.”