Perhaps one of the most underrated features of our planet is the ever-changing presence of clouds. They’re such a part of our daily lives that we seldom give clouds a second look. If we do notice them it’s usually because they have taken a familiar shape, or because they’re noticeably dark.
Being able to predict the weather based on observing clouds is almost obsolete these days. With quick, easy access to smart technology, weather apps, and television channels, it’s so easy to get an idea of the weather forecast for the immediate future without too much effort. If you’re ever without such resources, though, would you be able to predict the weather for the next 12-24 hours? We’re here to tell you it’s easier than you may think, just by looking at the clouds.
By observing and understanding a cloud’s altitude, shape, and color, you’ll be more prepared for sudden fronts moving in while impressing friends with your knowledge of how clouds influence our climate.
Categories of Clouds
Clouds are classified by the amount of moisture they carry, their appearance, and their altitude. If there are clouds in the sky, you can first identify them by determining the altitude of the clouds. Altitude plays a significant role in the amount of both sunlight and moisture that will reach your home.
Clouds are placed into four categories: high clouds, which are clouds anywhere from 16,000 feet to 43,000 feet, middle clouds, which include clouds from 6,500 feet to 16,000 feet, low clouds, which consist of clouds under 6,500 feet, and finally, clouds that rise vertically, which start at lower altitudes and build vertically through higher altitudes.
High clouds are given the Latin name “cirro” meaning curl, as high altitude clouds tend to have more “swirl” in them due to the atmospheric pressure that high. High clouds do not block the sun’s rays from reaching your home.
At these extreme conditions, high clouds are mostly made up of ice crystals. Even though these clouds are formed by high moisture levels in the atmosphere, there’s generally not much moisture or precipitation in high clouds, or at least any that reaches the ground.
In classifying high clouds, there are three categories, or genera: cirrus clouds, cirrostratus clouds, and cirrocumulus clouds.
The highest of all clouds, cirrus clouds are precipitating clouds that immediately freeze and then evaporate at high altitudes. Have you ever seen videos of people throwing boiling hot water in the cold, freezing air and watching the water immediately freeze and create wisps of clouds? Imagine that with cirrus clouds, but at very high altitudes.
With cirrus clouds, the ice crystals get twirled around in the high, tropospheric winds, creating curly streaks of clouds that stretch across the sky. Cirrus clouds typically mean there will be fair weather in the immediate future, but keep your eye on them as they sometimes indicate that a change in weather patterns and pressure will be happening sometime in the next day or so.
Pay extra attention to the direction in which the cirrus cloud “tails” are pointed, as that usually is the same direction in which the next weather front is moving.
Cirrostratus clouds are transparent, delicate streaks of clouds at high altitudes. Much like cirrus clouds, they’re composed of ice crystals and carry no precipitation that reaches the ground.
Although they don’t block out the sun, they produce some cool optical effects, like rainbows or halos around the sun. When you see that, it usually indicates that moisture is coming within the next 24 hours.
Cirrocumulus clouds are typically a transitional phase of clouds, between cirrus and cirrostratus ones. They tend to be a large group of white, neatly-aligned, rippled pieces of clouds created by choppy winds and ice crystals at high altitudes.
Most of the time their presence means fair weather in the near future, but cirrocumulus clouds usually turn into cirrostratus, and that can indicate a cold front and/or poorer weather is on its way within the next day.
Middle clouds are given the Latin name “alto”, meaning “high”, but are lower in altitude than high clouds. They’re still relatively high, though, forming anywhere from 6,500 feet to 16,000 feet. Clouds at these altitudes make for amazing sunsets, especially in sunshine states like Colorado, Arizona, Texas, and California.
These types of clouds are typically comprised of more water, and, given the temperature, ice. They usually mean precipitation is coming in the very near future. They also tend to form broad sheets and cover more of the sky, blocking more of the sun than high clouds do. When you think of middle clouds, think of overcast (usually).
In classifying middle clouds, there are two main categories, or genera: altostratus clouds and altocumulus clouds.
Altostratus clouds aren’t much to look at until the sun hits them, but they make for lovely sunsets. They blanket the sky in broad sheets, and have a greyish blue tint in them. They’re formed by quite a bit of moisture and ice, and can mean bad news for airplanes, as ice can accumulate on the wings within these clouds.
Altostratus clouds cover most of, if not the entire sky and usually block the sun from hitting your home. When you see these clouds, it usually means there is some moisture in the form of either rain or snow in the very near forecast, like within the next six hours.
Forming shapes like bread rolls or focaccia, altocumulus clouds also cover the entire sky, but in smaller puff-like formations. There is usually a huge contrast between light and dark with these clouds, as sunlight does not usually pass through them. “Cumulo” in Latin means “heap” or “collection”, so think of a collection of cotton balls or bread rolls squished together at middle altitudes.
If you see altocumulus clouds forming, especially in the early part of the day, prepare for a storm of some sort by late afternoon.
Low clouds form below 6,500 feet and are usually covering mountain tops, skyscrapers, or even light posts if they’re low enough. Low clouds mostly block the sun’s rays from reaching your home. They also block visibility and usually mean that there’s currently precipitation in the air.
At these low altitudes, the air is warmer and the heavy amount of moisture that makes up these clouds is dense and ready to fall at any moment. They are also known for causing wind at times.
In classifying low clouds, there are three categories, or genuses: stratus clouds, stratocumulus clouds, and nimbostratus clouds.
These types of clouds are common around coastlines and areas with mountains, where they get stuck and don’t move much. They’re formed when warm air is cooled as it rises, forming fog and mist.
They’re typically white or grey clouds, depending on how much moisture is in them, but it’s usually only light drizzle or light snow showers that come out of them. Their presence means it’s currently precipitating in that location.
Stratocumulus clouds are textured and bumpy, and have some depth to them. They often come in rows and patches, looking like those cotton spider webs you buy for Halloween, when you pull them out of the bag.
They usually form after stratus clouds have formed and continue to rise in the Earth’s atmosphere, and come after precipitation. They don’t necessarily mean more precipitation is on its way.
This is your typical rain cloud – a large, grey, flat sheet of cloud that covers the entire sky when it’s raining. Associate the name “nimbus” with rain or precipitation, as far as clouds go.
If you see nimbostratus clouds, chances are you’ll be experiencing rain or snow for the next few hours, maybe even up to a day or more. As soon as there’s a break in the sky, you can expect the weather to change within the next few hours.
Clouds That Rise Vertically
When we’re talking about clouds with vertical mobility, we’re talking about clouds that form in one altitude and rise vertically through other altitudes. For instance, a cloud’s base can form under 6,500 feet and be considered a low cloud, but climb to an altitude of over 50,000 feet or more!
These clouds are most popular when we think of fair-weather clouds and scary thunderstorms or tornadoes. In classifying these types of clouds, there are two main categories, or genera: cumulus clouds and cumulonimbus clouds.
This is your typical “Simpsons” cloud, or cartoony cloud. It’s the fluffy pillow clouds we all draw or envision, which are typically white in color. They don’t rise as high as cumulonimbus clouds, starting at around 2,000 feet or so, and only rising about 1,000 feet.
They typically mean fair weather for the next day or so, and are common on sunny days, when the sun is heating the land (and your home). They don’t usually block the sun, but if they do it’s a quick shadow before the sun is back and shining through your windows.
These are the intimidating, scary, powerful-looking clouds that form in the distance and build upwards. They have an anvil-like shape, as the base is flat and the tops are more fluffy (cumulo). Their bases are usually darker colored and the color gets lighter as they grow in altitude. They tower over the horizon, and they carry the most amount of moisture.
They mean dangerous weather is approaching, in the form of rain, lightning/thunderstorms, hail, or tornadoes. The points at the top of the clouds usually indicate the direction in which the storm is moving. Take caution when you see these clouds, but also take some time to admire their dark beauty.
Now you’re well versed on clouds and the impact they have on the weather (at least enough to keep you dry and impress your friends)!
Consider looking up at the sky more in the morning and at night, to get a better idea as to what the weather might look like, and compare your observations with your weather app on your smartphone. You might just impress yourself with your knowledge and understanding of weather patterns.
Also keep in mind that no matter the weather, if you have Eos Smart Home Window Awnings, they’ll automatically extend or retract, depending on the level of sunlight, wind, or temperature you’re getting.