These intricate phenomena are popularly known as “spiral eddies,” and can occasionally be observed by astronauts or in satellite images.
The image to the right was taken by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer, orbiting on NASA’s Terra satellite on May 22, 2013.
When the satellite passed over the remote Mexican island of Socorro, located well to the southwest of Baja California, winds at midday were blowing strongly from the north-northwest over the island’s rough terrain.
The cloud eddies clearly seen in the marine stratocumulus clouds to the south-southeast were caused by that wind-terrain interaction.
The patterns can form nearly anywhere that fluid flow is disturbed by an object.
Since the atmosphere behaves like a fluid, the wing of an airplane, a bridge or even an island can trigger the distinctive phenomenon.
The technical name for the turbulence patterns are Karman vortices.
Fluid dynamicist Theodore von Karman was the first to figure out the conditions under which these turbulence patterns occur.
Von Karman was a professor of aeronautics at the California Institute of Technology and one of the principal founders of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Full story and image: NASA