Similar to finding a good book, reading the clouds is like enjoying a good story. Both have interesting characters, a developing plot, and sometimes a surprise ending. The secret to reading clouds, though, is to recognize what you’re looking at and try to predict the outcome.
Most of us can look up and see when a storm is brewing. The wind picks up around you as you see dark, billowing clouds forming in the sky. The air is charged with expectation as the storm clouds move in closer to your location. Soon, rain will usually follow as you duck for cover. Essentially, you already know some basics to reading the clouds.
Let’s take a look at different cloud formations that might give you clues to upcoming weather events. Basically, there are three types of clouds and four classifications. Height, shape, and behavior determine the “type” of cloud. On the other hand, whether the cloud bases are low, middle, high or have extensive vertical development put them into different classifications.
Low clouds are the ones that form from the surface up to 6,500 feet above the ground. This can include fog too. Typically, low clouds are those that create an overcast sky, can limit visibility, and are known to change rapidly. You can think of low clouds as moody characters that can be happy one moment, and turn on you on the next.
Middle clouds form at 6,500 feet up to 20,000 feet above the ground. Unless you’re flying somewhere, you really won’t feel the turbulence associated with this level of clouds. Consider this group of clouds as those silent characters watching events from a distance, but they’re really more concerned with their own affairs.
High clouds usually only form in stable air. You’ll find them at 20,000 feet above the ground, and are typically made of ice crystals. If we had to put this cloud group in a role, you might think of them as rich relatives who live far away.
In every good fiction book, you’ll find a villain to make the story interesting. Well, in our case, clouds with extensive vertical development take on that role. Cumulus clouds are heaped or piled clouds that look like big cotton balls in the sky. However, when they begin to build up, they can turn quickly into towering cumulus clouds. When this happens, the life cycle of a thunderstorm begins.
Thunderstorms start out as towering cumulus clouds. You’ll notice that the pretty, puffy clouds are starting to mound up higher in the sky. The base of the cumulus clouds begins in the low or middle cloud range, but they can quickly build up into the high cloud range as they develop into a thunderstorm. Because of moisture in the air and the instability of the atmosphere, a thunderstorm might start out as 3 – 5 miles high, and rise up to 5 – 10 miles high by its mature stage. Once the rain begins, the thunderstorm is considered to be in its mature phase. Even though you’ve been reading the clouds, it’s definitely time to get under cover now. Thunderstorms, by their very nature, have lightning associated with them. You might also experience hail, gusty winds, and even a tornado. These are truly villainous clouds, and not to be messed with.
Other than the cloud classifications, you can further identify specific cloud types by their appearance and behavior. For example, stratus clouds look like they’re formed in layers, while cirrus clouds appear fibrous or wispy. Lenticular clouds look like a lens, and are usually near mountain ridges. Any cloud that has rain associated with it will be labeled nimbus. Of course, cumulus clouds are the most notorious for their changing behavior.
Knowing what to look for while you’re reading the clouds will help you understand their story better. While some of the cloud types are beautiful and harmless, you can now recognize those that are considered dangerous. Of course, you can always lie down on a warm carpet of grass and pick out different shapes of clouds to tell your own story.