What I Really Want To Know September

WHAT I REALLY WANT TO KNOW IS... How often do noctilucent clouds appear?

Having made it to the final of a BBC Radio 4 competition looking for the best amateur scientist, John Rowlands discusses his experiment to analyse noctilucent clouds


On 15 September I'll find out if my experiment to investigate the brightness and regularity of noctilucent clouds (NLCs) has won a national competition set up by Material World, Radio 4s weekly science show. There were more than 1,300 ideas for experiments sent Lo 'So You Want To Be A Scientist?', a search for the year's best amateur scientist. By the time it closed back in February, everything from seeing if music could increase bees' honey production to whether people are happier driving north or south on the Ml had been submitted. There are now just four finalists, and we'll meet at the Birmingham Science Festival to present our experiments, before a panel of experts selects a winner.

After my idea made the finals, the team producing the show pul me in touch with Prof Nick Mitchell, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Bath. We developed the idea into an experiment that would try and match ground-based observations, carried out by me, with radar data on the layer of the atmosphere where NLCs form, high in the mesosphere about 80km up.

High in the sky

These wispy, glowing clouds are much higher than normal clouds like cirrus, which can be up to about 1.5km high at the UK's latitude, and there's a season for seeing them that runs from mid-May to the end of July. During that time 1 went out nightly observing NLCs from the coast here in northern Anglesey, losing about 120 hours of sleep!

When the cloud cover lilted enough for me Lo see them, I measured each NLC display's extenL on the sky. It's fortunate that there's an effective network of NLC observers across the country. If the weather was poor here, there would be someone up in Scotland or down south who would make an

Noctilucent clouds are a beautiful sight, but how they form is still a mystery

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