June 15, 2021

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What are the Secrets to Identifying Clouds? Part I

2 min read

I often get emails and questions about clouds.  People are particularly interested in learning how to identify clouds and to understand what they imply about upcoming weather.  What is meant by the arcane compound names, such as altostratus, cirrostratus, or the intriguing altocumulus lenticularis?

Your final exam

To address these questions, I am going to write series of blogs, with this being the first, the reveals the intricacies and power of cloud identification.   Knowing about cloud identification will change your life…in a positive way.

Modern cloud identification goes back approximately 220 years to the work of Jean Baptiste de Monet Lamarck in France and Luke Howard in England in 1802-1803.

Their essential approach was to divide clouds into four types depending on how they look and three classifications based on their heights.  First, the four types based on appearance:

  • Stratus or strato-form  layered or sheet-like clouds
  • Cirrus or cirro-form:  thin, wispy clouds
  • Cumulus or cumulo-form:  puffy cotton-ball like clouds that can sometimes have great vertical development
  • Nimbus:  precipitating clouds

Let me show you some examples of each!

Here is an example of a stratus type cloud;  you see how layered it is?

A cirrus type cloud is shown below…. delicate and wispy.

A cumulus cloud has a characteristic cotton ball appearance, although some folks think they look like cauliflowers.

And then there are nimbus-type clouds, from which precipitation is falling:

Once we determine which of the four main cloud types is applicable, we then estimate the height of the clouds, dividing them into three main layers:  low, medium and high.

  • Low:  less than 2 kilometers above the surface, sometimes given the prefix strato
  • Middle: 2-7 km above the surface, often using the prefix “alto”
  • High:  more than 7 km above the surface, often using the prefix “cirro”

Low clouds are usually made of water droplets, high clouds mainly ice crystals, and the middle clouds can be both.

OK, now you are ready to put it all together.  Most cloud names combine a prefix and a suffix, the prefix denoting the height of the cloud and the suffix providing the cloud form.

For example, cirrostratus is a high ice cloud in a layer 

Altocumulus is middle-level cloud that is divided into cumulus-type elements:

And cumulonimbus is a cumulus-type cloud that is precipitating:

Well, there is a lot more to learn about cloud identification, which will have to wait until my next blog on the topic.  But you now have the essentials

But in the meantime,  you might refer to a good cloud chart, such as the online one provided by the National Weather Service (found here).

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