Vortices are beautiful and mysterious, found at every imaginable scale—from soap bubbles to black holes. They're so ubiquitous, in fact, that we tend to overlook them. But new research shows that studying the simplest vortices could glean surprising scientific insights.
Just look at the wonderful vortex shining in rainbow colors in the photo above. It was captured by a group of physicists at the University of Bordeaux, France, who heated soap bubbles from below to create large vortices like this one. The researchers discovered that these swirling vortices look like—and behave like—super storms you see in satellite weather images. They're related-and that means that simple soap vortices could help meteorologists understand the extreme weather phenomena that threaten millions of lives every year.
Scientists say that "vortices are prominent features of fluid flows and span length scales ranging from an insect's length to planetary sizes". The following images of natural or man made vortices, whirlpools, maelstroms and cyclones prove it—and we've ranked them from the absolute smallest to the (known!) largest. Enjoy.
These dipolar vortices were generated in the wake of an adult water strider.
Photo: John Bush, MIT
An incense smoke vortex.
Photo: Philippe Teuwen
In your bathtub: a plughole vortex.
Photo: Dave Stokes
A vortex forms over a drainage ditch on a street covered in floodwaters.
Photo: Julio Cortez/AP
A whirlpool at a public garden pool.
Photo: Matthew Hunt
Here's a laser light visualization of the vortical flow above a F/A-18 model.
Flow patterns of fluorescent oil on a 5.8 percent scale model of a hybrid wing body during wind tunnel tests.
Photo: NASA/Langley Research Center/Preston Martin
Water swirling in salinity tanks at Britain's first-ever mainland desalination plant, which is known as the Thames Gateway Water Treatment Works, in Beckton, England.
Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Researchers made the air vortex behind this landing plane visible using colored smoke.
HMS Dragon's Lynx helicopter fires infra red flares during an exercise over the Type 45 destroyer, leaving smoke vortices behind.
Photo: Dave Jenkins/UK Ministry of Defence
The Way of Vortex is a viewing platform installed at the bottom of the Oh-naruto Bridge in Tokushima, Japan. Tourists can admire the famous Naruto Whirlpools from here.
Image: Kounosu/Wikimedia Commons
Tens of thousands of Muslim pilgrims move around the Kaaba inside the Grand Mosque during the annual Hajj in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
Photo: Hassan Ammar/AP
A Japanese TV screen grab of a fishing boat stuck in a giant whirlpool in Ibaraki during the 2011 tsunami.
Swirls of green and red appear in the aurora over Whitehorse, Yukon.
Image: David Cartier, Sr./NASA
As air flows over and around objects in its path, spiraling eddies—known as Von Karman vortices—may form in the clouds. These vortices were created over the Aleutian Islands.
Low-level winds rushing over the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of northwestern Africa created these cloud vortex streets (aka Von Karman vortices). The Hubble Space Telescope is visible in the lower right corner.
Phytoplankton bloom in the North Atlantic. The vibrant colors are from tiny organisms—phytoplankton—that grow explosively, forming a giant arc hundreds of kilometers across, extending from west of Ireland to the Bay of Biscay.
Image: Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team/NASA
A large phytoplankton gyre—a very well-defined spiral eddy—is visible through the haze off the east coast of Japan.
Image: SeaWiFS Project/NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/ORBIMAGE
Typhoon Haiyan approaching the Philippines.
Composit image: 2013 EUMETSAT/NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
A NASA computer model of the forceful winds of Hurricane Sandy.
Image: NASA/GSFC/William Putman
Hurricane Danielle photographed by an Expedition 24 crew member on the International Space Station.
Hurricane Felix photographed from the International Space Station.
The northern ice cap of Mars.
Saturn's north polar hexagon. The image was taken with the Cassini spacecraft's wide-angle camera on November 27, 2012.
Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
The spinning vortex of Saturn's north polar storm.
This image from the Cassini orbiter shows the progress of a massive storm on Saturn.
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Hampton University
Planet Jupiter: These oval-shaped vortices are located south of the Red Spot. The east to west dimension of the leftmost oval is 9000 kilometers—for reference, the diameter of the Earth is 12,756 km.
Jupiter's Great Red Spot and small cloud vortices.
Photo: Voyager 2/NASA/JPL
Neptune's Great Dark Spots, a series of anticyclonic storms, each about the same size as Earth.
Spiral galaxy M81.
Image: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Wisconsin/D.Pooley & CfA/A.Zezas; Optical: NASA/ESA/CfA/A.Zezas; UV: NASA/JPL-Caltech/CfA/J.Huchra et al.; IR: NASA/JPL-Caltech/CfA