In reality, the cloud’s formation isn’t miraculous — it’s a byproduct of the Levant wind and extreme landscape.
Moist surface air is pushed up by the sudden peak in the topography and rises to an altitude where the temperature is cooler than the dew point of the surface air. That means the air reaches saturation and the moisture in it condenses and forms a cloud.
In front of the place where the Levanter regularly forms is Gibraltar International Airport, where passenger planes land and helicopters are treated to a rare and breathtaking view, even on cloudy days.
Some on the island have started seeing the animal shapes in the unusual cloud, which can only form when the Levant winds blow. According to the Royal Meteorological Society of the United Kingdom, winds can blow at any time of the year, but are most common from June to October.
The Levanter cloud is a special subset of a more general type of cloud – orographic clouds, that is, clouds formed by the topography of the Earth. Within the genre of orographic clouds, there are different types of clouds, namely banner clouds and lenticular clouds.
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The Levanter is best classified as a type of banner cloud, a cloud that forms from the top of isolated, jagged mountain peaks in strong winds. The Rock of Gibraltar is a perfect place to form these, but such clouds can also be observed on peaks such as Mount Everest in the Himalayas and the Matterhorn in the Alps.
Lenticular clouds are among nature’s strangest. In the form of a lens – or a flying saucer – these rare clouds can be observed near or on the mountains themselves, in which case it is known as a “hood” cloud.
Lenticular clouds form when moist air is forced up a mountaintop and cools to the point of saturation, after which it condenses into a cloud. Unlike banner clouds that flow through the air, a lenticular cloud takes on its unique shape when the moist air settles after climbing the mountain and dries, leaving a smaller, saucer-shaped cloud.
Orographic lift can also create unique climates on and around mountains. On the windward side of large mountains, where rising moist air condenses into dense clouds, a lot of rain and snow can fall, keeping the windward side lush and green. However, the remaining air coming over the mountain to the leeward side is then without most of its moisture, leaving the leeward side of the mountains high and extremely dry.
Dry climates tend to form on the leeward side of mountains, which are home to famously arid sites such as California’s Death Valley and Chile’s Atacama Desert.
Matthew Cappucci contributed to this report.