A hole punch cloud is a non-technical name given to a cloud formed from an aircraft dissipation hole or trail. It is also called a punch hole cloud. Rather than extending as a line, hole punch clouds appear as a circular or oval hole in a layer of supercooled water clouds. They are not uncommon where jet flight paths intersect altocumulus layers. What is uncommon is when they form in a perfect circle that persists for a long time. On December 11, 2003 that’s exactly what happened along the northcentral coast of the Gulf of Mexico. A remarkably circular and persistent hole punch cloud formed over Mobile, Alabama at lunchtime. Numerous curious people photographed it. The event was so much a topic of conversation that it was the top local news story of the day. Hole punch clouds are not new. Find more pictures from NASA.

hole in a cloud

Now, here's the "Hole Story"

Alan Sealls

December 11, 2003. It's a crisp fall day in southern Alabama. Clear sapphire skies and light wind create a carpet of dew by sunrise. I wait until mid morning to tackle my task of cutting down a small tree in my front yard. The day is perfect. Temperatures top 50 degrees by eleven a.m., and my wife is not home to protest the demise of the tree. It really was dead anyway.Knowing the fickle nature of falling trees I secure a guide rope, and the aid of my neighbor, Bob. I figure that if Bob could take down a full-sized tree that was ten feet from his house, my tree would be no problem. As we sling the rope up and around the treetop, I glance south toward the Gulf of Mexico. Cirrus and altocumulus clouds are appearing in the southern sky, along with a distinct contrail. This pattern is common in the winter when there’s surface high pressure centered to our north, and a westerly upper air flow along the Gulf Coast. With added vapor and condensation nuclei from a few high-flying jets, contrails seem to appear as frequently as natural clouds. I crank the gas chainsaw. The wail of the engine summons my neighbor Ed to lend a hand. There’s something about chainsaws and men… The sawdust flies, mimicking a mini snow squall. It settles around the trunk like a dusting of flurries. With the usual notching, cutting, and tugging, the tree responds; first a crackle of splintering wood, then the thud of thunder. The tree meets the lawn. Thanks Bob. Thanks Ed.

Now it’s noon. I look up again to the south. Perfectly framed between two stands of tall trees is a circle in the clouds. A hole! I had seen a few of these dissipation holes before but never one so perfect or large. Without hesitation I dash into the house and return with my SLR camera and video camera. I rush to get the video camera on the tripod and hit record. Once that’s set I attempt to take still photographs. One problem; my SLR battery is dead and I don’t have a spare. Again, I run into the house and return now with a plastic point-and-shoot 35mm camera. I manage to capture a few good shots on color negative as I lament not having my other camera with fine grain film and a full suite of lenses. hole punch cloud.

For the next 20 minutes the hole grows and drifts eastward. I watch and surmise that a jet flew through the altocumulus deck at a steep angle, delivering condensation nuclei and water vapor.These holes are not too unusual when supercooled water droplets form into ice crystals and then fall as Virga. Ice crystals rob neighboring supercooled water droplets of vapor to further their own growth, working outward in a circle. The end result is a feathery cirrus precipitation in the middle of a Altocumulus or Cirrocumulus layer. Dissipation holes are nicknamed “hole punch clouds.” Similar ones have been photographed around the world but this one is unique for its size and symmetry. The combination of the size of the hole, longevity, and the fact that it happened at lunchtime make it the top local news story of the day. I know. I am the Chief Meteorologist at one of the television stations in Mobile. By the time I arrive at work two hours later there are numerous emailed digital pictures from our viewers. Public interest in the strange cloud is so great that we post a special page on our website with viewer photos of it. Some people think it looks like an angel, while others joke about a similarity with a scene in the movie Independence Day.

To confirm my suspicions of the cause of the cloud, I go to the University of Wisconsin at Madison website for high resolution images from NASA’s AQUA satellite. I find a beautiful illustrative image that I share with my viewers. Taken around 12:30 p.m. local time, the picture clearly shows the patch of cirrus clouds centered in the hole over southern Mobile County. Not only are there several well-defined contrails to the west, but what is even more interesting is a long dissipation trail in southern Mississippi, along with other holes in the clouds there. A dissipation trail is the cousin of a condensation trail. This type of clearing line is often caused from a jet flying in the altocumulus or cirrocumulus layer. The vapor trail causes supercooled water droplets to freeze into ice crystals and fall as Cirrus streaks, eating away the cloud deck in a straight line! What I learned: A little hole can become a big deal. Look up, and make sure you have good batteries in your camera! …and that’s the hole story.