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Painting the Polar Skies

Polar Stratospheric Clouds (PSCs) are a glorious and mysterious atmospheric phenomenon that occurs in the Earth's polar regions. These clouds are often referred to as "nacreous" or "mother-of-pearl" clouds due to their iridescent colors, their stunning appearance is a treat for sky watchers in the Nordic countries!

Due to their high altitude, these clouds receive sunlight well before dusk or dawn, shining brightly before the sun is visible at all! A pearly-white appearance is produced by forward scattering of sunlight within the clouds. Colored interference fringes, caused by diffraction from particles within optically thin clouds, can enhance the visibility of colors with a polarizing filter.

Different types of Polar Stratospheric Clouds are classified in two main categories. Their formation requires different conditions and chemicals to be present in the polar stratosphere for them to form.

Type I - Nitric Acid Trihydrate clouds:

These clouds form at lower temperatures (below -78 degrees Celsius) and consist of a mix of water and nitric acid. They are less common than other types of PSC’s, these clouds can be iridescent under certain conditions, just as any other cloud.

Type II - Water Ice clouds:
Occurring at slightly higher temperatures than Type I, Type II PSCs consist primarily of water ice crystals. They are responsible for the vibrant iridescence observed in polar stratospheric clouds. This type of clouds can cause widespread displays of colourful clouds to a delight of sky watchers.

Observing PSCs:

Polar Stratospheric Clouds are best observed during the polar winter, when temperatures in the stratosphere reach their lowest points. They can be visible even during the day but the best time to look for them is during twilight when sun is 1 – 6 degrees below horizon. The vivid colors, ranging from soft pinks and oranges to intense purples and blues, result from the diffraction and interference of sunlight by the ice crystals in the clouds. While observers in polar regions have the prime vantage points, the reach of these celestial displays extends to countries such as Finland, Norway, and Sweden, offering a glimpse of nature's artistic prowess to a broader audience.


Polar Stratospheric Clouds stand as enigmatic spectacles of the high atmosphere, captivating both scientific curiosity and the imaginations of sky watchers. Their formation at extreme altitudes in the polar stratosphere, where temperatures plummet to astonishing lows, creates the ideal conditions for the crystallization of ice particles, giving rise to these stunning displays of natural beauty.

These atmospheric marvels not only contribute to scientific understanding but also serve as a reminder of the delicate balance and beauty inherent in the Earth's intricate atmospheric processes. In their iridescence they invite us to look upward, fostering a deeper appreciation for the intricate dance of light, ice, and atmosphere that unfolds in the heavens above.