Virga is rain that doesn’t reach the ground

Rain that doesn’t reach the ground

Have you seen clouds that are pouring rain … but the rain never reaches the ground? Meteorologists call this rain by the name virga. You see virga in places where the air is dry, and often warm. The rain evaporates as it falls, before hitting Earth. So you might see virga in a desert, or at high altitudes, for example, in the western U.S. and Canadian prairies, the Middle East, Australia and North Africa. Virga isn’t rare. But it’s delicate and very beautiful. Maybe you’ve seen it lots of times, but never knew it had a name?

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Black and orange clouds with curving orangish and redish mist below them.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Helio C. Vital from Saquarema, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, took this photo on December 17, 2023, and wrote: “The photo shows precipitation that is seen pending from a cloud and evaporating before reaching the ground (virga). The virga was backlit by the setting sun, that caused its strong reddish color.” Thank you, Helio!

Virga on radar

Sometimes, when you’re looking at your weather app, you might see what looks like rain or snow on the radar, but nothing is falling outside. Instead, look up at the clouds and see if you can spot virga. The radar is picking up precipitation in the air which is just not reaching the ground. As says:

The radar isn’t lying, rather, the the rain or snow is not hitting the ground. If you have a dry air mass in place in the low levels, sometimes rain cannot completely penetrate that dry layer before it evaporates.

Cartoon showing a weatherman and clouds raining into a layer of warm air, where the rainfall evaporates.
This graphic gives you a better idea of how virga forms. The rainclouds higher up in the atmosphere are dropping rain, but as that moisture hits drier air below, it evaporates. So you might see radar indicating rain or snow, but nothing is reaching the ground. Image via (public domain).

Do you want to learn to identify virga when you see it? Check out the photos on this page from our global EarthSky community. Once you acquaint yourself with the variations of virga, you’ll be able to spot it in your own sky. If you capture a photo of virga, submit it to us!

Photos of virga from EarthSky’s community

Virga: Snowy ground with orange sunset clouds on the horizon and wispy streaks stretching downward from the clouds.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Nanci McCraine captured this photo on December 13, 2023, overlooking the Ithaca and Cayuga Lake region of New York. Nanci wrote: “Evening sky lit up with an orange sunset including strange-looking clouds.” That’s virga! The precipitation falling from the clouds doesn’t reach the ground. Thanks for sharing, Nanci.
Distant, dark mountains with a sunset and dark clouds with slight wisps pulling downward from their undersides.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Jennifer Browne captured this scene of virga and New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains on October 23, 2023. Jennifer wrote: “Looking west from my home. The magic of Santa Fe sunsets.” Thank you, Jennifer! Look closely, and you’ll see the wispy undersides of the clouds. That’s virga.
Rain falling from gray clouds in sweeping curtains not reaching the ground.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Sandi Hryhor in Blairstown, New Jersey, caught this image of virga on March 26, 2022. Sandi wrote: “Taken at the Blairstown airport. It was completely overcast when we left our house 10 miles away, then some sun, then it hailed, and this sky greeted us when we arrived.” Thank you for sharing!
Thin crescent moon, Venus, virga coming from a single stripe of cloud against dawn sky, over dark mountains.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Mike Lewinski captured this view near Tres Piedras, New Mexico. Mike wrote: “Venus and the waning crescent moon at dawn on June 1, 2019, over the Sangre de Cristo mountains near Taos. There is virga near the horizon, extending downward from the clouds.” Thanks, Mike!

More photos

Grey clouds over reddish mountains and mist that doesn't reach the mountains.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Wells Shoemaker from Burr Point, Utah, took this photo on April 22, 2019, and wrote: “Late sun slashed through a crease in the clouds to illuminate the Wingate and Navajo cliffs above the Dirty Devil River … through a lace of virga.” Thank you, Wells!
Patchy gray and white clouds against blue sky, with virga below the lowest, and a red mountain on horizon.
Virga over West Texas. Image via EarthSky founder, Deborah Byrd.
Spectacular orange sunset clouds, with glowing orange rain not reaching the ground, above a dark mountain.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Peter Lowenstein captured this scene from Mutare, Zimbabwe, on March 5, 2019. He wrote: “Some lingering clouds and a strange curtain of virga left over after a late afternoon shower produced a spectacular display just after the sun had set below the horizon.” Thank you, Peter!
Wide, bright, irregular rainbow touching horizon, with melon-colored rain not reaching the ground to one side.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Here’s a tricky one: a virga rainbow. Hazel Holby in Willows, California, captured this image on September 29, 2021. She wrote: “Can you tell me how this rainbow managed to form? Thank you and love your site!” Thank you, Hazel! Les Cowley of the website Atmospheric Optics said: “This is a broad bow and also of variable width. These suggest that it was made by virga or other small water droplets. The smaller the water drops, the broader the bow. When the drops get down to mist size, then we have a fogbow.” Thank you, Les!

Bottom line: Learn what virga is and how it forms, and see great photos to help you learn how to identify it yourself!

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December 17, 2023

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