Week of June 9, 2024 – June 15, 2024

Elizabeth Suzedell staff member and Environmental Educator

by Elizabeth Suzedell, Environmental Educator

Do you have a favorite kind of cloud? One of my favorites is the cumulonimbus cloud- it’s huge, with dense puffs stretching from relatively low to the ground to above the troposphere. They store an enormous amount of energy, producing lightning, heavy rain, hail, and at its most severe, tornadoes. Whenever I see a cumulonimbus cloud, I am reminded by how powerful the atmosphere is.

I love looking at clouds for two reasons: firstly, they are just beautiful! Secondly, they tell us what is going on in the atmosphere, and we can use their clues to help make a weather forecast. To do that, it’s useful to know the two main types of clouds: cumuliform and stratiform.

Cumuliform clouds grow upwards with a puffy shape, like the cumulonimbus. The most basic cumuliform cloud is a cumulus, which are the cotton ball-like clouds that you see floating by on beautiful summer days. They form from hot air at the surface rising, cooling, and condensing. With more heat and humidity, they may start to grow taller and become a cumulus congestus cloud (towering cumulus), which looks like a billowy skyscraper. If you see that, then chances are a thunderstorm is on the way!

On the other hand, stratiform clouds are flat, lacking the shape of the cumuliform clouds. Instead of growing tall, they spread out like a blanket, sometimes for hundreds of miles. The first cloud to approach on the day before widespread rain is often cirrostratus, which is high above the ground, made of ice crystals, and often seen with a ring or halo around the sun. Cirrostratus makes it seem like a sunny day, until you look up to see the thin, hazy, semi-transparent cloud covering the whole sky. Another stratiform cloud we seem to get here all winter long is stratus. They can be quite gloomy and boring, but they don’t bring us severe weather!

Next time you go outside, take a look up at the sky. What are the clouds telling you?