Fact Check

Mount St. Helens

Does a photograph show a sunrise shot of Mount St. Helens?

Published May 2, 2005


Claim:   Photograph shows a sunrise shot of Mount St. Helens.


Example:   [Collected via e-mail, January 2012]

Mt. St. Helens, which sits about 30 miles from our house as the crow flies, continues to spew ash, while it is forming a lava dome in the crater and still having minor tremors. Here, in this sunrise shot, she appears to be blowing smoke rings (and anything so benign is welcomed, given recent history.)

Picture by Brent and Jan LeBaron

What forms the "smoke rings" is the air flowing over the mountain getting pushed up higher as it goes up and over the top. The moisture content and initial temperature are just right so that the moisture condenses from a vapor to small particles at the higher altitude. When the moving air moves past the peak and comes down again, the particles evaporate back to an invisible vapor. The two "pancakes" describe that there are two layers of air for which this is happening, thus making this awesome picture possible.

Click to enlarge


Origins:   This image is a genuine photograph of a real natural phenomenon, but some of the details described in the accompanying text are inaccurate:

  • The mention of "smoke rings" is wrong: The rings visible in the picture are not produced by smoke or ash or other results of volcanic activity; they are lenticular clouds typically formed in the vicinity of high mountains.
  • The credited photographers (Brent and Jan LeBaron) say they did not take the picture; their names became attached to it when they received it in e-mail and forwarded it along to others.
  • The mountain pictured here is actually Washington's Mt. Rainier and not Mt. St. Helens, as demonstrated by a very similar photograph snapped in November 2004.

Last updated:   23 September 2013

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.