Get your head in the clouds

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.”
– Pretor-Pinney


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….!

Lots of useful links


Learn About Weather

Learn About Weather is a Future Learn course run by the University of Exeter and the Met Office.  I wasn’t sure what to expect from it but I’ve really enjoyed it, racing through the four week course in less than two days.  It’s been a real mix of things and a great introduction to the weather.

It looks at the atmosphere, how changes in the earth’s temperature create weather, why weather varies across the globe, jet streams and air pressure.  It’s all been pitched at a reasonably basic level, accessible but comprehensive.

As well as the technical side of things, we’ve looked at weather lore and whether there’s any truth in sayings and beliefs.  We also shared our own local lore and I was able to include some of the bits and pieces I’ve been collecting.

  • clear moon, frost soon
  • when the mist comes from the hill, then good weather it doth spill. when the mist comes from the sea, then good weather it will be
  • if woolly fleeces spread the heavenly way, be sure no rain disturbs the summers day
  • if the cock goes crowing to bed, he’ll certainly rise with a watery head
  • the sharper the blast, the sooner it’s past
  • rainbow in the morning gives you far warning
  • ring around the moon, rain or snow soon
  • when the sun sets black, a westerly wind will not lack
  • swifts flying low, rain is on the way

I’ve learnt a lot about how air pressure affects the weather and now I have a vague idea what a weather map is saying which is quite satisfying!  I also know where our weather comes from and how it affects the UK.

Towards the end of the course it focuses in on specific aspects of weather, for example the different types of clouds, how they’re formed and what they mean in terms of rain etc.  This is something I really want to get firmly stuck in my head.  I’ve tried learning cloud names so many times and I always forget.  But the way this course has approached them, I think I have a better understanding of what the latin names mean and thus hopefully it’ll be easier to hold onto the knowledge.  I’ve also found flicking through the Cloud Appreciation gallery and trying to guess the cloud type has helped.

Naturally, we’ve also looked at rain and other forms of precipitation and what counts as a shower and what counts as rain.  Frost, storms and climate change have also all been looked at as well as how weather affects leisure activities.

I’ve found the whole course interesting and whilst I’m not planning on looking at weather in any detail just yet, I know I’ll be returning to it as part of my nature and writing project.