I am reading the amazing and comprehensive The Cloudspotter’s Guide by Gavin Pretor-Pinney. I had hoped to be able to take you on a tour of the ten main types of clouds but the hospital stay means I’m a bit behind in my reading and my learning so I’ll be focusing on the lower clouds. That is the cumulus, cumulonimbus, status and stratocumulus. If you’re interested in clouds and want to know about the rest of them then do buy his book and check out the Cloud Appreciation Society website. My writings here are informed by other sources including the Future Learn Learn About Weather course which was run alongside the met office.
“Nothing in nature rivals [clouds] variety and drama; nothing matches their sublime, ephemeral beauty.”
Flying through the clouds
Clouds and the sky are scattered through our language. We talk of there being not a cloud in the sky, of having a grey cloud above us, of silver linings and blue sky thinking. We create image after image of gods and goddesses sitting on the clouds. But how often do most of us actually look up and see them? We should. Pretor-Pinney describes clouds as “nature’s poetry”, as “expressions of the atmosphere’s moods” and from a practical point, learning about clouds helps you know what the weather might do next.
One of the wonderful things about clouds is their impermanence. They are almost always changing, transforming, becoming what they want or racing over the sky towards their next adventure.
A little latin comes in handy here, cumulus is the word for heap and this is a good description of a cumulus cloud. These are like the clouds that children draw, like heaps of cotton wool scattered across the sky.
Cumulus clouds, in Hinduism and Buddhism, are the spiritual cousins of elephants. And elephants are said to have the power to bring rain so are, or were, worshipped and prayed to in order to bring the monsoon rains.
Interesting fact: a medium sized cumulus cloud ways about the same as 80 elephants.
It’s easy to forget that clouds are made up of water droplets, until it rains that is. But we don’t need to worry here, cumulus clouds are generally associated with good weather. It’s the cumulonimbus you need to be aware of…
Extreme. Destructive. Stormy. Violent. That is the cumulonimbus.
It is these clouds which bring rain, hail, snow, lightening, gales, tornadoes and devastation. They can injure and they can kill.
They can be taller than Mount Everest and can contain energy equivalent to ten Hiroshima sized bombs.
This is undoubtably the Kind of the Clouds.
This is the playground bully who didn’t need or want any friends.
Aside from the cues from the weather, you can tell a cumulonimbus by it’s size and the classic formation has a top which spreads out and looks like a blacksmith’s anvil. Because this cloud needed more weaponry…
Interesting fact: This is the cloud that you’d be on if you were on cloud nine. When The International Cloud Atlas was published in 1896 it was ninth on the list. And whilst it doesn’t sound like a cloud you’d want to be anywhere near, the saying has probably come about because it is the tallest of clouds.
If you want to know what it’s like to be in one of these nasty beasts, read about William Rankin who had to eject from his plane above one of them.
Stratus clouds seem a bit like the relation that no one really likes… They are the flat, slow moving clouds which blanket the sky and don’t give you much to look up for. They epitomise the overcast, dreary day. To give you a feel for them, when they form at ground level they are called fog or mist.
These are low patchy clouds with well defined bases, looking a bit like candyfloss. They might appear as clumps and their colour varies from bright white to dark grey. Occasionally they will bring light rain or snow.
An extreme example is the Morning Glory, a cloud which forms in Australia and which extreme cloud watchers, but more often gliders, travel great distances to see. This cloud can be as big as Britain….!