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A crash course in cloudspotting

Children Looking Through Binoculars


Anna O'Neil - published on 09/28/17

Which clouds are made of ice and which ones mean you should run inside?

Studies have shown that when you know something’s name, it stands out sharper in your consciousness. Over the summer, I realized that for all the time I spent outside, I was totally ignoring the sky, more than half of my field of vision! Learn the names of the clouds, though, and you’ll hardly be able to look away. It’s like having your own personal flower garden in the sky, that you never have to weed. If you don’t have time to pick up a field guide, here’s a breakdown of some of the more common types, and why they’re amazing …


What does it look like? When you’re seeing shapes in the clouds, you’re probably looking at a cumulus. These are the enormous, impossibly soft ones, with fluffy tops and flat undersides.

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What’s amazing about it? These babies are gigantic. The droplets of water that make them up are minuscule, but there are a whole lot of droplets. A medium sized cumulus can easily weigh over 200 tons. Big as it is, one of these clouds forms, grows, and dissipates in the space of only 10 minutes. If you don’t believe me, try it. It’s true! And it’s very meditative.

What does it mean for the weather? Have a picnic, and spend the whole time lying on your back in the grass, telling yourself stories about the shapes you see. Cumulus clouds almost always form on beautiful warm days, which we still have plenty left of this year!


What does it look like? Well, if you’re very far away, it looks like a huge gray anvil. If you’re unlucky enough to be underneath it, you should go inside as fast as you can, or you’ll probably be struck by lightning.

What’s amazing about it? Ask William Rankin, who fell through one. Rankin was a pilot who was flying over the top of a cumulonimbus when his engine failed. At 47,000 feet. It should have taken him 10 minutes to fall to the earth, but it took him 40. It’s very windy in a cumulonimbus. He was beaten by hailstones, frostbitten, suffered decompression, and was almost struck by lightning, but lived. You can read about it here, though it’s not for the faint of heart.

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What does it mean for the weather? Besides the obvious (seriously, go inside!) it means that you’ll probably get cooler, quieter weather soon. And the air will be a lot cleaner afterword. One good rainfall clears most of the pollution out of the air.


What does it look like? Don’t tell it I said so, but it’s kind of boring. If the sky is just kind of gray in every direction, it’s a stratus — or possibly it’s higher-up brother, the altostratus. If it’s on the ground all around you, it’s fog. If it’s drizzling on you, call it a nimbostratus.

What’s amazing about it? It tends to make awesome sunsets, because as the sun sinks under the shelf of cloud, it illuminates huge portions of the cloud all at once. Other than that, not much. I like knowing its name, so when I get caught in a cold drizzle, at least I know who to shake my fist at.

What does it mean for the weather? You get stratus when a huge mass of warm air hits an equally big chunk of cold air. The warm air is lighter, so it’s forced up, till its cold enough for all the water in the air to condense. You might get rain, but nothing dramatic.


What does it look like? If it’s wispy, feathery, and streaky, you’re probably looking at a cirrus cloud.

What’s amazing about it? Cirrus clouds are very high up, and very cold. They’re made out of ice crystals, and they’re actually always snowing, except the snow doesn’t reach the ground. You know how airplanes that are really far away look like they’re moving pretty slowly? Cirrus clouds don’t look like they’re moving at all, but they’re actually whipping around in winds of up to 150 mph. That’s what accounts for their wispy shapes. The crystals fall through winds of different speeds and directions, and get thrown this way and that. A cirrus cloud shows you exactly what the invisible wind is doing, miles away.


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What do they mean for the weather? If you’re seeing a lot of them, especially if their shapes are especially curvy and dramatic, that means it’s crazy windy up there. Usually it means rain, but not for a few days.

Cloudspotting seems like a small thing to learn, but it’s actually gone a long way in helping me to calm my busy mind. If you want to know more, I loved The Cloudspotter’s Guide by Gavin Pretor-Pinney, but whether or not you’re interested in the science, do at least take the time to look up every now and again.

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