By Chris Spears

DENVER (CBS4) – Did you see the really cool, spiral-shaped cloud hovering along the Front Range early Wednesday afternoon? It was quite the talker on social media and while it’s hard to say what caused this cool cloud I do have two theories.

Theory #1

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There’s a good chance that it was originally a jet contrail that became twisted and reshaped by atmospheric wind. When I posed this theory to several who live in the area they said they were confident there was no jet traffic overhead at the time.

But keep in mind a contrail at this altitude would not have been created by a plane flying into or out of Denver. It would’ve been created by a flight at cruising altitude passing high over the Front Range.

Helix Cloud

(credit: John Mele)

Also, if this cloud was the result of a contrail, it wouldn’t have necessarily formed directly overhead. It could have been from a plane that was several miles away and it drifted into the region, constantly being twisted and reshaped by wind at that altitude.

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Theory #2

If it wasn’t an old jet contrail being reshaped by the wind then my next best guess is something along the lines of a lenticular cloud mixed with the conditions that create a Kelvin–Helmholtz wave cloud. Essentially there was enough moisture at that altitude to create a cloud, but the stability of the atmosphere was such that it could only grow to a shallow depth.

Helix Cloud

(credit: Mike Van Portfliet)

Add in a lot of wind shear between the bottom and the top of the cloud, which is a change of speed or direction with height, and the air was essentially rotating on a horizontal axis, making the cloud have a cool spiral, or helix shape.

While it’s nearly impossible to say for sure, it’s fun to think of possible causes. We are so lucky to live in such a beautiful state and in the shadow of mountains that interact with our atmosphere, giving us so many cool things to see in the sky.

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Cool, spiral-shaped cloud over the Flat Irons on Wednesday. (credit: Mike McNaughton)

Chris Spears