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‘Lenticular clouds’ over Cape Town real, but photo 5 years old

“How stunning are the Lenticular clouds over table mountain on this chilly day in the Mother City?” That was the caption above a photo of surreal, flying-saucer-shaped clouds posted to Facebook on 18 August 2020.

The photo shows strangely shaped clouds floating above Cape Town’s famous Table Mountain, with the city in the foreground. The second most populous city in South Africa is often affectionately called the “mother city” by its inhabitants.

The post was flagged as possibly false by Facebook’s fact-checking system. But are these strange and dramatic clouds real? 

Identified floating objects

The photo was taken by travel photographer Kyle Mijlof who shared it to Instagram on 8 November 2015. The image in the Facebook post appears to have been slightly edited from Mijlof’s original, with the brightness and contrast increased, perhaps to make the clouds look even more dramatic.

So “this chilly day in the Mother City” was actually a spring day nearly five years earlier. Several other Instagram posts from the same day show the clouds from different angles, and at slightly different times.

Mijlof jokingly captioned his Instagram post “UFO's over Cape Town ?”, and the flying saucer shapes of lenticular clouds have confused others before. 

Unusual cloud shape caused by air turbulence

A National Geographic article published 9 November 2015 featured Mijlof’s photo. It noted that many sightings of “unidentified flying objects”, usually assumed to be alien space ships, “have been linked to lenticular clouds, which can form in many places around the world”.

Lenticular clouds come in several varieties, and form when air blows over some obstruction, usually a mountain range, causing ripples and disturbances. As the United Kingdom’s weather monitoring organisation, the Met Office, explains, this turbulence can cause moist air to condense into unusually shaped clouds.

Flight-safety-information library Skybrary notes that lenticular clouds are associated with patterns of turbulent air called mountain waves. And the Met Office says that pilots tend to avoid lenticular clouds for this reason.

So these lenticular “UFO clouds” are real and well-understood, even if this particular photo of Table Mountain is several years old. – Keegan Leech


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