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Reading the clouds: the observation challenge

Types of clouds

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Reading the clouds: the observation challenge

How nice would it be if you could actually look up at the skies and tell the weather. Typically, we try to guess by the way they look – nice and blue means it’s going to be a sunny day, and grey and angry means rain storms ahead. There’s actually scientific backing to reading the clouds by the way they look.

Ignitia’s Meteorologist, Daniel Pinto, shares some of his insight on what clouds are and how to read them.

Types of clouds and their meaning

First, what are Clouds?

They are water droplets or ice crystals (depending on the altitude, as temperature decreases with height in the troposphere). They form in regions where there is enough humidity in the atmosphere. There are over 100 types of clouds according to the World Meteorological Organization’s International Cloud Atlas. Cloud nomenclature typically comes from the Latin. Some types of clouds provide the precipitation (rain, snow, hail) that is so important for the planet and for the people, animals and vegetation that call the Earth their “home”.

There are different types of clouds, that can be differentiated by their altitude, shape and the ability to provide precipitation.

Cirrus Clouds

They are found really high in the atmosphere. They are thin and can have different shapes and scientific names. Cirrus clouds are associated with fair weather and calm winds and most often made up of ice crystals because of the altitude where they are found. Thus, they are usually white and bright. These clouds form large patches with “blue sky” in between. This often misleads people to thing that when they are present, the weather is calm but rather, these clouds are usually a signal that the weather might change soon.

Cirrus clouds on the coast of Ghana. Photo Credit: Andreas Vallgren

Cumulus Clouds

These clouds look like puffs of cotton and as the opposite of the Cirrus, they grow vertically and are found much lower in atmosphere. An easy way to remember this is to think of its rhyming word – accumulate which means to “gather or increase”. They usually have flat bases and are more “rounded”. They symbolize of good weather in higher latitudes and or earlier morning in the tropics.

Photo Credit: Andreas Vallgren

Stratus clouds

They are thick and grey clouds, just like fog few hundreds of meters above the ground. As they are just like fog, they are really low level clouds, usually associated with persistent rain or drizzle, or even snow. There are different kinds of Stratus clouds, including Stratuscumulus. Because of how they look, it is often assumed that they come with rain but in reality, you’ll be lucky to get a slight drizzle out of them.

Photo Credit: Andreas Vallgren

Nimbus clouds

Nimbus” in Latin means Rain, so these clouds can produce rain. We can say that the prefix “nimbo” and suffix “nimbus” are both types of cloud able to produce rain. A very common type of cloud in tropics and in particular West Africa, very commonly found in the afternoons is the cumulonimbus cloud (see picture below). These are very special type of cloud because they are able to produce huge amounts of rain (or even hail) in short periods of time, causing many flash floods and heavy thunderstorms, and even tornadoes. They have a huge vertical extension, with base starting few hundreds of meter above the ground and can reach up to the top of troposphere (around 12000 m) of altitude. When they are grown and mature, they look like an anvils.

Photo Credit: Daniel Pinto

Want to know more? Check out this Cloud Gallery.

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