Where on Earth: Ship Tracks over the Atlantic

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What caused the crisscrossing cloud pattern in this satellite image?

Produced by the Space Telescope Science Institute’s Office of Public Outreach in collaboration with the NASA Earth Observatory (https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/).

Story adapted from Image of the Day post by Adam Voiland: https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/91608/signs-of-ships-in-the-clouds

  • Image of Ship tracks in clouds from Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), Aqua satellite
  • Written by Katherine Porter
  • Designed by Dani Player
  • Music from Yesh Music (ASCAP)

Collage of distinct satellite images of natural phenomena.
Text, where on earth? Image, a swath of clouds with crisscross patterns by a landmass.
Text, what caused the crisscrossing cloud pattern in this satellite image? A, airplane flights over Russia, B, tornadoes in the United States, C, migration of birds toward the Arctic, D, shipping off the coast of Portugal.
D is highlighted, shipping off the coast of Portugal.
Ship tracks over the Atlantic ocean. Ships churning through the Atlantic Ocean produced this patchwork of bright crisscrossing cloud trails off the coast of Portugal and Spain.
The narrow clouds, known as ship tracks, form when water vapor condenses around tiny particles of pollution in the ship's exhaust.
Ship tracks typically form in area where low lying stratus and cumulus clouds are present.
Clouds infused with ship exhaust have more and smaller droplets than unpolluted clouds.
The light hitting the polluted clouds scatters in many directions, making them stand out from the naturally formed clouds.
The map recedes until we have the whole Earth before us.
Text, where on earth?