Week of August 7, 2022 – August 13, 2022

Elizabeth Suzedell staff member and Environmental Educator

by Elizabeth Suzedell, Environmental Educator

If you take a look up at the sky on a few different days, chances are you will see a wide variety of cloud types. Observing the beauty and unique shapes of several clouds can be an enjoyable activity, as well as informative; the types of clouds you see can give hints to what the weather may be.

Cumulus clouds [1st photo below] are seen often during the summertime. They are puffy, cotton ball-like clouds which float through the lower part of the earth’s troposphere. They form as the sun warms air near the surface. That warm air rises, and as it cools, water vapor condenses and forms the cloud. It’s easy to find different shapes in cumulus clouds, like a heart, a rabbit, or a bird. If conditions are more unstable, they can develop into towering cumulus clouds [2nd photo], looking like tall castles. This is a sign that cumulonimbus clouds, or thunderstorm clouds, may be on the way.

A favorite cloud type of many meteorologists and photographers are mammatus clouds [3rd photo]. They form under the base of a cumulonimbus cloud, and look like protruding bumps or pouches. Mammatus clouds grow downward, which is backwards from the typical upward growth of clouds. They are quite ominous, especially when the sunlight strikes them during sunrise or sunset. They are a sign that stormy conditions are near.

Sometimes, an interesting wavy pattern can be seen in altocumulus clouds [4th photo]. These are a type of cumulus clouds that develop in the middle level of the troposphere. As air rises upwards, it will cool and water vapor will condense, forming the cloud. Once the air cools, it will sink, since cool air is denser than warm air. As it sinks, it will warm up and the liquid water will evaporate, forming a gap in the clouds. The process repeats itself over and over, forming this wavy pattern of a line of clouds with spaces in between. The waves can appear to be so defined and distinct that it seems like there must be some sort of bad weather on its way. However, this is a sign that the atmosphere is very stable. If the atmosphere were unstable, the clouds would continue to develop upwards instead of developing into this wave pattern.

This is just an introduction to the dozens of kinds of clouds that occur in our atmosphere. Next time you go outside, take a minute to look at the sky above you. See how many different patterns and shapes you can find!