Sinister fast-moving tendrils of blue glowing clouds are putting the frighteners up millions of people across Europe and the northern US and even NASA is spending big money to find out what they mean.

Welcome to the latest environmental scare… noctilucent clouds or ‘night shiners’ in latin.

Waves of night shiners have been reported in recent weeks, instead of the isolated sightings that were first noted in 1885, just after Krakatoa blew up.

“Honey, what the hell was in that drink…?” is a common type of reaction from late night revellers who glance skywards at the ethereal writhing fingers of light and wonder WTF.

Are they portents of more damage to the planet from industrially forced climate change, or is something else going on?

Night shiners over Finland. Photo by Pekka Parviainen.

NASA launched its $600 million AIM satellite dedicated to studying them two months ago to find out, and made logging the extent and frequency of the night shiners a part of everyday life for the crews on the International Space Station.

Sightings began to soar in the late 90s, except in locations like Australia, which is too far north for the combination of altitude and latitude that allows clouds that are 85 kilometres high and right below the edge of space to catch enough sunlight to make a midnight appearance.

Night shiners are made up of ultra thin layers of ice crystals that require three things, water vapour, a temperature of –140 C or colder, and very fine dust. Problem.

Water vapour doesn’t rise anywhere near that high, and nor does dust off the earth’s surface, except perhaps from a major volcanic plume, and there are doubts about that from those who argue Krakatoa was just a coincidence and the early sightings were an atmospheric response to the onset of industrially driven global warming in the late nineteenth century.

Possible sources. The dust may be coming from micrometeorites and the water may be forming from the greenhouse gas methane which does make its way to such heights where sunlight breaks it down into carbon and hydrogen, with the latter then combining with oxygen to provide the ice.

So maybe if humans and animals fart less there will be less ‘sh-t’ up there to combine with space dust and cause scary night shiners, except that we at Crikey think they look pretty and would like to see more.

Get more Crikey, for less

It’s more than a newsletter. It’s where readers expect more – fearless journalism from a truly independent perspective. We don’t pander to anyone’s party biases. We question everything, explore the uncomfortable and dig deeper.

Join us this week for 50% off a year of Crikey.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
50% off