When many of us are wee nippers, we stare up at the clouds in fascination at the various and multifarious fantastic forms simple water droplets are capable of creating in our atmosphere. As Joni Mitchell once sang it, “rows and flows of angel hair/ and ice cream castles in the air/and feather canyons everywhere”.
Then, when we start flying in jet airliners, we finally get to see the other side of these great puffy, wispy wonders. But beyond simply marvelling (at least at first, before it becomes ho-hum) at the sight of those great cottony expanses spreading out around you, do you ever wonder at the shapes you see out your airplane window?
If you’re like me, way back in school you spent a class or two learning about the meterology and the atmosphere, including cloud types. But unless you’re a true weather geek, or member of something like the Cloud Appreciation Society (“we believe that clouds are…nature’s poetry…unjustly maligned and that life would be immeasurably poorer without them”), you’ve probably gotten a little hazy (heh, a lil’ meteorology joke there) on the specifics. So here’s a very “quick ‘n’ dirty” little refresher on some of the more common types of what you’re seeing out there:
Cumulus-type clouds tend to be vertical and multi-level, with flat bases and puffy, domed tops, formed by rising thermals. Cumulonimbus clouds can produce thunderstorms.
Cirrus types are generally fairly high and characterised by thin, wispy strands, generally white or light gray in colour. They can herald storm fronts.
Stratus clouds are low-level, essentially flat, hazy, and featureless, varying in color from dark gray to nearly white.
Then of course there are myriad gradations and combinations of the above, such as stratocumulus, cumulonimbus, and nimbostratus (check out also the graphic above right).
Intrigued to learn even more? There’s a cloudspotting app out, but of course. But if you’re just out for a little something extra, have a go at the cloudspotting video below: