Though these cloud formations have been known about for some time, scientists were unclear as to why the freezing began in one area of a cloud layer and how it grew in size. Research published in Science magazine in July 2011 sought to answer these questions.
The research was performed by Andy Heymsfield and his colleagues at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. The team used a satellite called GOES to track 92 cloud holes over Texas over 4 hours in January 2007. The holes grew a considerable amount within an hour and then slowly began to shrink. Most of the holes had a diameter between 10 and 50 kilometres. Heymsfield theorised that a side effect was at play, creating the ice that caused the holes to grow.
To test this theory, Heymsfield ran a detailed computer model of the internal workings of a cloud, introducing a line of ice crystals like those produced by an aircraft. The simulation showed a hole that grew to a diameter of 4.4 kilometres in 90 minutes. If the heating effect of creating ice in the simulation was turned off, the hole grew slowly; if the effects of evaporation were also removed, the hole didn't grow at all.
The research confirmed that aircraft flying through the cloud could be what is setting off the freezing process. The air expands as it passes over the aircraft wings and over the blades of its propellers. This causes the air to cool; this cooling can be long enough to decrease the temperature enough for the droplets to start to freeze. When these droplets change into solid particles, they emit a small amount of heat, which causes the air around them to expand and rise somewhat. This rising current causes the surrounding air to sink slightly.
When the air around the frozen fallstreak sinks and begins to warm up, the droplets within begin to evaporate. This appears to be why the fallstreak of ice crystals produced by the plane flying through the cloud layer forms a circular hole that looks like it has been ‘punched’ out of the cloud layer. It does not seem to matter whether the plane is ascending or descending through the cloud layer.
Image is over Jay, Florida, USA. Courtesy Vicki Harrison / The cloud collector's handbook