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Photo: Strange Storm Socks New York City

Strange storm socks New York
Former NFL player Dhani Jones posted this image of a rain shaft over Queens to his twitter account (@dhanijones) from Instagram (@d0057) on July 18, 2012. (Image credit: Dhani Jones. Twitter: @dhanijones)

Former NFL player Dhani Jones posted this photo of a ghostly column of rain over Queens, N.Y., yesterday to his Twitter account (@dhanijones), which he says he took from a Delta flight at 10,000 feet.

Jones posted the astounding photo from his Instagram account shortly before a larger system of storms hit, which dropped nearly 2 inches (5 centimeters) of rain in many parts of the city.

But what's going on in this photo?

Meteorologist George Wright said it looks like a rain shaft, a term meteorologists use to refer to a heavy downpour coming from a single thunderstorm. Although thunderstorms can be large and stretch for many miles, they can also be relatively small, dropping narrow bands of rain like this, he said.

It also resembles a wet microburst, where strong winds descend from towering clouds, usually gusting above 80 mph (130 kph) and often causing wind damage. That doesn't appear to be the cause here, though, due to a lack of reports of significant wind damage in Queens, said Wright, head of Wright Weather Consulting in New York City.

But Queens did get a lot of rain, with one weather station measuring 2.83 inches (7 cm), which would be consistent with the rain shaft diagnosis, Wright said. Many areas of the city got nearly 2 inches or more, and Rockefeller Center saw nickel-size hail, he said.

Storms of the size and strength that struck New York City yesterday would be expected about two to three times per year, Wright said. The long line of thunderstorms was caused by warm, hot air running into a cold front heading south.  The cold front acted like a wedge, Wright said, forcing the hot, moist air upward. This caused water to condense into clouds, which led to rain and thunderstorms.

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Douglas Main loves the weird and wonderful world of science, digging into amazing Planet Earth discoveries and wacky animal findings (from marsupials mating themselves to death to zombie worms to tear-drinking butterflies) for Live Science. Follow Doug on Google+.