SOME describe them as “ripples in the atmosphere”, to others its gigantic size makes it “the most spectacular thing you can see in the sky” or, simply, “awesome”.
And yet, despite one of the world’s rarest and most unique meteorological phenomenon happening right here in Australia, few people even known it exists.
No wonder, for you can only see this weather event just after dawn, for two months a year, in one place and only then if the conditions are just right.
But this weird — and eerie — weather occurrence, almost unique to Australia, has a very Australian way of heralding its arrival. It lets the local pub know it’s coming.
Right now, people are gathering at that pub, in the remote north Queensland settlement of Burketown, waiting for the call of the Morning Glory. And it’s way bigger, and rarer, than that other morning glory you were thinking of.
“There are fewer people who have flown on the Morning Glory than have climbed Mount Everest,” Garrett Russell of the Caboolture Gliding Club, in south east Queensland, tells news.com.au.
When you head towards one, he says, you feel so small and insignificant “It’s like you’re a shrimp heading towards the mouth of a great whale”.
The Morning Glory is a cloud unlike any other. Perfectly formed, it can be 100m wide but can stretch — sometimes almost perfectly straight — for a thousand kilometres from one side of the Gulf of Carpentaria to the other.
Like a giant rolling pin it churns and bubbles and tumbles across the sky as fast as a car. Sometimes rows of the clouds line up, like giant speed stripes stretched or a freshly ploughed fields in the sky.
“Imagine a huge roll of cotton wool that stretches from one horizon to the other and is moving across the landscape at something like 40km/hour,” says Mr Russell.
Twice now, he has made the journey, glider in tow, from the state’s populated south to its desolate north, the only place in the world where you can guarantee that the Morning Glory cloud will — at some point — make an appearance.
He says riding the cloud, high above the sea, is the closest you can get to surfing in the sky.
“There’s people that say they can sniff the air when one is coming,” says Mr Russell. But it’s a change in humidity that is the real harbinger of the phenomenon.
“All the pilots gather at the Burketown pub and we look at how much condensation there is on the beer fridge or our pints.
“If they are really obscured by condensation, the humidity is high and the pilots will finish their beer and go home for an early night, ready to get up before dawn to ride the cloud.”
Ian Fresser is the publican at the Burketown pub and he tells news.com.au he never tires of the spectacular.
“I was fortunate enough to be on top of a building and five in a row came rolling across and they were spectacular.”
Local Aboriginal people call it the kangólgi and the cloud’s arrival is a good omen that bird numbers will soon boom.
Tex Battle runs the Sweers Island fishing resort, just off the coast, and says after 30 years he can tell when one is on its way — and it’s an eerie experience.
“Early in the morning the sky is perfectly clear except for a low bank of what looks like fog on the horizon. Within 15 minutes, it’s got bigger and there’s a gap underneath and within half-hour it’s so close it’s like a huge cloud topping out at about 3000 feet.
“It’s dead still, then the winds come up and air moves up and it gives it the appearance of a rolling cloud, of ripples in the atmosphere,” says Mr Bennett.
“It looks like the sky is torn. It obliterates the sun and that continues until it rolls over and then everything returns to normal.”
Bureau of Meteorology forecaster, Andrew Bufalino, said the Morning Glory, also known as a roll cloud, forms consistently but only in early to mid-spring when two sea breezes meet.
“They are usually about 1-2km in height and can span up to 1000km in length.
“The frequency of the Morning Glory clouds is higher than anywhere else in the world due to the geography of the Gulf.”
Two fronts meet over Cape York and head west across the Gulf of Carpentaria. At night, air over the Cape cools and slips under a layer of warm air to form “turbulent cylinder like waves”, he says, that roll across the waters and then dissipate over land.
These invisible waves in the sky occur elsewhere, but it’s the cloud accompanying it which is so rare. Their distinctive fat sausage shape is due to water vapour rising to form the cloud then evaporating back again to the ground.
Mr Russell says the water vapour resembles bushfire smoke and is sucked up in perfect lines from the earth to the cloud.
But his usual view is from high, chasing the cloud, riding the wave, and then dipping down in the “sink” between them. He once flew up and down for two hours or more as seven of the silent giants rolled their way across the hazardous waters thousands of feet below.
“You’re flying over a very hostile environment because the Gulf is known for sharks and crocodiles so it’s a pretty big moment when you turn your engine off and fly parallel to the leading edge of the cloud.
“They’re as smooth as silk,” he says. “I surfed in my younger days. If you’re flying at full speed, with a cloud off to your side, sometimes you might have a wing dipped into the cloud and it reminds me of when you see a surfer put his hand out and cut through the wave.
“You’re riding that energy.”
But Mr Russell doesn’t advise flying through the Glory’s fluid like rolling mass.
“I don’t know anyone who has been foolhardy enough to ride into the cloud because it would be very turbulent,” he says, like a horizontal tornado.
Back on solid earth, Mr Bennett wonders why more isn’t done to tell people about the phenomenon.
“The Lonely Planet described it as the most spectacular thing you can see in the sky aside from a total eclipse and most Australians have never heard of it. If it was properly promoted it would bring a lot of tourism to the area.”
Meanwhile, at the pub, a smattering of pilots nurse beers, studying the condensation closely, wondering if it heralds the coming of the world’s most bizarre cloud.