Special Report

The Rarest Types of Weather on Earth

tonisvisuals / Getty Images

Earth’s climate systems are extraordinarily complex, producing every moment of the day weather and climate conditions of all varieties. Predicting the weather even a few days into the future remains an imperfect science riddled with challenges only made larger by climate change. 

24/7 Wall St. compiled a list of 21 rare weather events. We concentrated on the most surprising and infrequently occurring weather patterns — be they unusual varieties of catastrophic storms such as cyclones in the Mediterranean Sea, or spectacular visual phenomena such as ball lightning.

Some of these unusual weather events appear to be occurring with greater frequency as shifts in the Earth’s climate continue to accelerate. Here is a list of places where the weather is getting worse because of climate change.

Last year was the second hottest recorded year on Earth and the second wettest year on record for the United States. (Here are the hottest cities in every state, and the rainiest cities in the United States). 

Unusual high pressure zones in 2013 blocked or diverted storms off the coast of California, leading to one of the worst droughts in the state’s history. Unusually destructive wildfires in subsequent years were also attributed by meteorologists to increased occurrences of atmospheric blocking.

Record high temperatures and unusual precipitation events such as these, as well as the more rare weather events such as nacreous clouds that form from methane concentrations and atmospheric blocking events in the jet stream are all becoming increasingly common as climate change progresses.

Click here to see the rarest types of weather on Earth.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

1. Ball lightning

In rare circumstances, usually during or after thunderstorms, luminescent electric blue or orange orbs can appear for a few seconds in the sky. While the weather phenomenon has been well documented since antiquity, the physics of ball lightning is not understood. The first spectrometer measurement of ball lightning was taken by accident in 2014, during field experiments in China.

According to a statistical analysis of ball lightning sightings published by the American Physical Society in 1960, just 5% of the world’s population has witnessed ball lightning.


Source: Tomwang112 / Getty Images

2. Record-high temperatures

No one would classify a heat wave as a rare weather phenomenon. In the context of meteorological records, however, the high temperatures documented in the past decade are among the most unusual climate events in recorded human history. Last year and 2018 were the second and fourth hottest years ever recorded on Earth. The 20 warmest years globally all occurred in the last 22 years.

Source: Courtesy of NOAA Weather Photo Library

3. Waterspouts

Waterspouts are rotating columns of air that normally form over water. They are usually less violent than tornadoes and form mostly in tropical and subtropical regions. They are relatively common in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida.

Source: U.S. National Weather Service under Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

4. Gustnadoes

Gustnadoes are not a type of tornado. NOAA classifies the weather phenomenon as “thunderstorm wind events.” Unlike tornadoes, the root of a gustnado is not connected to the base of a cloud, rather the vortex rises from the ground.


Source: Marieke Feenstra / Getty Images

5. Asperitas clouds

Scientists named asperitas clouds after the latin word “aspero,” which means aggravate, enrage, and roughen and was used during the classical era to describe stormy seas.

NOAA considers these clouds “other cloud phenomenon,” characterized by long rippling waves through the base of the cloud.

6. Microbursts

A microburst is a small version of a downburst, which is a column of sinking air with high-speed winds associated with thunderstorms. Similar to a tornado, microbursts can cause significant damage to buildings and landscapes and are also a threat to aircraft. Microbursts are less than 2.5 miles in scale, and extreme ones can produce wind speeds up to 150 mph. They can be either wet, dry, or a hybrid of the two.


Source: Courtesy of NOAA Weather in Focus Photo Contest 2015

7. Inversion clouds

Air temperature normally decreases as altitude increases. In the phenomenon known as thermal inversion, the air at ground level is cooler than the air above it. This can cause smog buildup because inversions trap pollutants near the ground. It can also cause thick fog or clouds that are capable of filling up the Grand Canyon for the entire day, which happened in 2013. Although smaller inversions in the Grand Canyon occur more often, larger ones only occurs about every 10 years.

Source: U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration / Wikimedia Commons

8. Hail glaciers

Hail glaciers are large accumulations of hail that can stay frozen for some time. In 2004, in Clayton, New Mexico, 15 foot deep ice “glaciers” formed along riverbanks following a summer hail storm. The ice remained for nearly a month. Such hail glaciers have been documented on a few other occasions in locations in the American Southwest, including Dalhart and Amarillo, Texas, and most recently in the Mexican city of Guadalajara in June of 2019.

9. Derechos

A derecho is a rare type of severe thunderstorm event. It is a long-lived, wide wind storm with showers or thunderstorms that typically moves in a straight line. A derecho often creates striking visual formations as ominous shelf clouds approach. By definition, derechos must include winds of at least 58 mph along most of their length and produce a swath of wind damage that is at least 240 miles long.


Source: SWCargill / Getty Images

10. Mammatus clouds

Mammatus clouds occur when a large base cloud develops a series of smaller, round protuberances on the underside. While they can occur in different types of clouds, they are most often seen on cumulonimbus clouds — towering cloud formations with flat bases. They occur when ice crystals fall out of the cloud and turn to water vapor, cooling the air around them, creating the sunken pockets indicative of mammatus formations.

Source: Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA under Public Domain Dedication / GSFC / Wikimedia Commons

11. South Atlantic hurricanes

Tropical storms are incredibly rare below the equator in the South Atlantic. Only one South Atlantic hurricane has ever been recorded: Hurricane Catarina, which hit Brazil in 2004. The infrequency of storms in the South Atlantic can be attributed to both cool ocean surface temperatures and strong wind shears.


Source: Richard Heath / Getty Images

12. Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds

Resembling a series of rolling ocean waves, Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds often form when two adjacent layers of atmospheric air are moving at different speeds. Their presence may indicate atmospheric instability and turbulence for aircraft. They may also have been the inspiration behind Van Gogh’s famous painting Starry Night.

Source: artist unknown under Public Domain Dedication / Wikimedia Commons

13. St. Elmo’s fire

Most often occurring during thunderstorms at sea, St. Elmo’s Fire is a burst of plasma, or ionized air that glows blue and can cause tall structures such as ships masts or church steeples to appear to be on fire. It occurs when an imbalance in electrical charge causes molecules to rip apart.

Source: panaramka / Getty Images

14. Thundersleet

Thundersleet happens when a thunderstorm occurs simultaneously with a sleet storm. Like thundersnow, this phenomenon is extremely rare and occurs when the friction created by strong up and downdrafts causes charged particles to collide within a cloud.


Source: pr2is / Getty Images

15. Fallstreak holes

These picturesque elliptical holes that can appear in cirrocumulus or altocumulus clouds are caused by tiny water droplets within the cloud that are colder than freezing but have yet to turn to ice. Once a triggering event such as a plane flying through the clouds causes the supercooled droplets to start freezing, they rapidly crystalize and fall, leaving a hole in the cloud layer.

16. Atmospheric blocking

Global weather patterns are closely connected to four powerful bands of winds known as jet streams that flow in a wave pattern around the Earth. When jet streams are congested or split, atmospheric blocking is said to have occurred. These events can lead to prolonged periods of weather extremes. Scientists associated atmospheric blocking to observations in 2014 of heavier than normal snow in the Midwest and Northeast as well as severe drought conditions in the West. The historic droughts in California were linked to an atmospheric block nicknamed “the ridiculously resilient ridge.”


Source: Courtesy of NOAA Weather in Focus Photo Contest 2015 / photolib.noaa.gov

17. Twin tornadoes

With about 1,200 occurrences every year, tornadoes are relatively common weather events in the United States. While it is also normal for clusters of tornadoes to form at a time, multiple smaller vortexes almost always combine or orbit a single parent tornado. For more than one tornado of a sizable magnitude to coexist, conditions have to be unusually balanced. This dangerous and rare phenomena occurs on average once every 10 to 15 years.

Source: Mick Petroff / Wikimedia Commons

18. Morning glory

Morning glories resemble elongated roll clouds, and often occur in a series or wave succession. Formations are typically spotted during the morning, when atmospheric conditions are relatively stable. Morning glory clouds form in the Gulf of Carpentaria region of northeastern Australia.

Source: NOAA / Wikimedia Commons

19. Medicanes

A portmanteau of Mediterranean hurricanes, medicanes are among the rarest weather phenomenon. These rare cyclones form when a non-tropical storm comes into contact with the warmer temperatures over the Mediterranean.

Fewer than 100 tropical cyclones were discovered in the Mediterranean Sea between 1948 and 2011 and no definitive trend in activity has been detected in that period.


Source: golfer2015 / Getty Images

20. Nacreous clouds

Rare but made more common by climate change, nacreous or noctilucent clouds form from ice crystals and methane at high altitudes. Nick-named “mother of pearl” clouds, they appear in temperatures of approximately negative 110 F. The ice crystals refract light, producing a glimmery, iridescent look. According to NOAA, it is likely that these weather phenomena did not exist before 1885.

Source: Eazydp under Public Domain Dedication / Wikimedia Commons

21. Tubular clouds

Tubular clouds, a type of arcus cloud also known as roll cloud, form low and horizontally in the sky. They tend to form along the edges or in the downdrafts of thunderstorms. While relatively rare and ominous-looking, these clouds are not usually a sign of dangerous weather.

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