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.
Photo: John Bush, MIT
Photo: Philippe Teuwen
Photo: Dave Stokes
Photo: Julio Cortez/AP
Photo: Matthew Hunt
Flow patterns of fluorescent oil on a 5.8 percent scale model of a hybrid wing body during wind tunnel tests.
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
HMS Dragon's Lynx helicopter fires infra red flares during an exercise over the Type 45 destroyer, leaving smoke vortices behind.
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.
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.
A large phytoplankton gyre—a very well-defined spiral eddy—is visible through the haze off the east coast of Japan.
Composit image: 2013 EUMETSAT/NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
Image: NASA/GSFC/William Putman
Saturn's north polar hexagon. The image was taken with the Cassini spacecraft's wide-angle camera on November 27, 2012.
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.
Photo: Voyager 2/NASA/JPL