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different types of clouds
There are many different types of Cloud which can be identified visually in the atmosphere. These were first classified by Lamarck in 1802, and Howard in 1803 published a classification scheme which became the basis for modern cloud classification. The modern classification scheme used by the UK Met Office, with similar schemes used elsewhere, classifies clouds according to the altitude of cloud base, there being three altitude classes: low; mid level and high.
Within each altitude class additional classifications are defined based on four basic types and combinations thereof. These types are Cirrus (meaning hair like), Stratus (meaning layer), Cumulus (meaning pile) and Nimbus (meaning rain producing). Each main classification may be further subdivided to provide a means of identifying the many variations which are observed in the atmosphere. The table below lists the standard classifications used by the UK Met Office and gives example images of each along with brief descriptions. Additional to these main types there are a few other types of cloud including noctilucent, polar stratospheric and orographic clouds.
Like their name suggests (which is Latin for “curl of hair”), cirrus are thin, white, wispy strands of clouds that streak across the sky. Because cirrus clouds appear above 20,000 feet (6,096 m)—an altitude where low temperatures and low water vapor exist—they are made up of tiny ice crystals rather than water droplets.
Cirrus typically occur in fair weather. They can also form out ahead of warm fronts and large-scale storms like nor’easters and tropical cyclones, so seeing them can also indicate storms may be coming.
NASA’s Earthdata site quotes a proverb that sailors learned to warn them of coming rainy weather, “Mares’ tails (cirrus) and mackerel scales (altocumulus) make lofty ships to carry low sails.”
- Height: High
- Color: White or gray
- Shape: Rows of small patchy clouds
- Weather: Typically sunny and cold
Cirrocumulus clouds are much smaller than most other types of clouds, and they are sometimes called cloudlets. They are found at high altitudes and are made of ice crystals. They often are arranged in parallel rows. And one of the rarer types of clouds and usually don’t last long.
Cirrostratus clouds have a sheet-like appearance that can look like a curly blanket covering the sky. They’re quite translucent which makes it easy for the sun or the moon to peer through. Their color varies from light gray to white and the fibrous bands can vary widely in thickness. moreover,Purely white cirrostratus clouds signify these have stored misture, indicating the presence of a warm frontal system.
Some of the best cloud pictures involve cirrostratus clouds because the ice crystals beautifully refract light from the sun or moon producing a dazzling halo effect. Cirrostratus clouds can turn into altostratus clouds if these descend to a lower altitude.
As a nice piece of trivia, cirrostratus clouds almost always move in a westerly direction. The sight of them usually means rainfall is imminent in the next 24 hours.
Middle- to Low-Level Clouds
- Height: Mid
- Color: White
- Shape: Heap-like and often grouped together
- Weather: Varies
White and/or gray patch, sheet or layered clouds, generally composed of laminae (plates), rounded masses or rolls. They may be partly fibrous or diffuse and may or may not be merged.
Most of these regularly arranged small elements have an apparent width of one to five degrees (larger than the little finger and smaller than three fingers – at arm’s length).
When the edge or a thin semitransparent patch of altocumulus passes in front of the sun or moon, a corona appears. This colored ring has red on the outside and blue inside and occurs within a few degrees of the sun or moon.
The most common mid cloud, more than one layer of Altocumulus often appears at different levels at the same time. Many times Altocumulus will appear with other cloud types.
Altostratus often spread over thousands of square miles and are strongly linked to light rain or snow. Though they’re not capable of yielding heavy rain it’s common for altostratus clouds to morph into nimbostratus clouds which are packed with moisture and can deliver a pounding.
They’re uniformly gray, smooth, and mostly featureless which is why they’re sometimes called ‘boring clouds’. You’ll commonly see this types of clouds in an advancing warm frontal system, preceding nimbostratus clouds.
Nimbostratus clouds are associated with rainy, dreary days. They’re also responsible for snowy weather. Either way, these clouds are best known precipitation (and might be the cause for your outdoor activities to be postponed).
Though it’s difficult to tell visually, these clouds can be put into the category of multilevel clouds, meaning the base of a nimbostratus cloud can be found relatively close to the ground, but the tops of them can extend upwards into the middle cloud level. The thickness of a nimbostratus cloud helps give it a darker appearance than most.
Of the ten main cloud types, only two are consistent precipitation producers: nimbostratus and cumulonimbus. Nimbostratus are responsible for continuous precipitation where cumulonimbus are more likely associated with more dramatic weather, including quick-hitting extreme downpours. So if it’s raining, and has been raining all day, you’re witnessing a nimbostratus cloud.
Stratus clouds are known for looking like a flat parcel that covers the sky. These clouds tend to form light horizontal layers that may get dark gray depending on the weather. They don’t have many features or associated clouds, so stratus clouds tend to look the same most times.
If you took an imaginary knife and spread cumulus clouds together across the sky but not into a smooth layer (like stratus), you’d get stratocumulus—these are low, puffy, grayish or whitish clouds that occur in patches with blue sky visible in between. When viewed from underneath, stratocumulus have a dark, honeycomb appearance.
You’re likely to see stratocumulus on mostly cloudy days. They form when there’s weak convection in the atmosphere.
Low Clouds With Vertical Development
Cumulus clouds are the clouds you learned to draw at an early age and that serve as the symbol of all clouds (much like the snowflake symbolizes winter). Their tops are rounded, puffy, and a brilliant white when sunlit, while their bottoms are flat and relatively dark.
Cumulus clouds develop on clear, sunny days when the sun heats the ground directly below (diurnal convection). This is where they get their nickname of “fair weather” clouds. They appear in the late morning, grow, and then disappear toward evening.
Large, dark, vertical clouds with bulging top that can grow to towering heights on hot, humid days. Weather prediction: bring showers, thunder, and lightning.
Supplementary Features Clouds
Clouds can be associated with supplementary features and accessory clouds. Those are not specific parts of the cloud’s main body, but attachments from other clouds that make them different and cause considerable changes. Some of those features appear depending on the weather conditions.
Supplementary features are also an interesting subject to study. Some of them are often to appear. Recognizing them is not that difficult, since they tend to look the same all the time. Some supplementary features are:
- Virga: It shows that precipitation is evaporating. This feature is wispy and goes to the bottom of clouds.
- Pannus: This feature looks ragged. Some say that it looks like a cloud in precipitation periods.
- Tube: The tube feature has the shape of a cone. This one is common in cumulonimbus clouds.
- Incus: Incus is also associated with cumulonimbus, so it tends to be confused with tube features. Yet, it’s not difficult to differentiate one from another.
- Arcus: This is often called a shelf cloud. The arcus feature is large arc-shaped, so they are one of the easiest to notice.
- Pileus: Pileus are also called cap clouds because they get to the top of cumulonimbus or cumulus clouds.
- Velum: As their name suggests, these clouds look like a veil when they attach to the main cloud. They are also large and think.
- Mamma: This one is related to udder-shaped forms that stand out in clouds.
Names for clouds
Most of our names for clouds come from Latin and are usually a combination of the following prefixes and suffixes:
- Stratus/strato: flat/layered and smooth
- Cumulus/cumulo: heaped up/puffy, like cauliflower
- Cirrus/cirro: high up/wispy
- Alto: medium level
- Nimbus/Nimbo: rain-bearing cloud
Where these names are combined, we can often build up an idea of that cloud’s character. For example, if we combine nimbus and stratus we get ‘nimbostratus’ – a cloud which is flat and layered and has the potential for rain.
How do clouds float?
Interesting Facts about Clouds
- A cloud that forms on the ground is called fog. Some clouds you see in the sky might be from airplanes. These are called contrails.
- High level cirrus clouds may travel at speeds up to 100 mph.
- Even though clouds float in the air, a single cumulus cloud can weigh hundreds of tons.
- Other planets with atmospheres have clouds including Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn.