Many people look up at the clouds and see bunny rabbits, dragons, or whatever creatures or things that playful mind comes up with. Aside from furthering creativity and imagination though, looking at the clouds also has a practical application which can be very helpful especially for those who love spending time in the outdoors or out in the open sea. If you’re an avid hiker, backpacker, or sailor or kayaker, learning how to predict the weather by simply looking at the clouds is a skill that you’ll want to learn and develop. Predicting weather with clouds isn’t really new and understanding clouds, their features and characteristics can go a long way in helping you plan your hiking, camping or boating trip much better.
Clouds by Categories
Most of us learned in grade school about the different types of clouds like cirrus clouds, nimbus clouds, and others. In addition to that though, clouds are also categorized according to altitude or how high they are in the sky.
- High Clouds. High clouds can be found anywhere between 16,000 feet and 43,000 feet. These clouds are mainly made up of ice crystals given the extreme conditions at which they form. Cirrus clouds, cirrostratus clouds, and cirrocumulus clouds all belong to this category.
- Middle clouds. Middle clouds like altostratus clouds and altocumulus clouds form between 6,500 feet and 23,000 feet. They are primarily comprised of water or ice depending on how cold it is up there.
- Low clouds. Low clouds are those that form below 6,500 feet. The clouds you see near or surrounding the tops of skyscrapers and other tall buildings. Like middle clouds, low clouds are mainly composed of water, but they can also turn to snow if the weather turns cold. Stratus clouds, stratocumulus clouds, and nimbostratus clouds belong to this category.
- Vertical Growth Clouds. Clouds with vertical growth have a base at around 5,000 feet and the top which can go as high as 50,000 feet. Clouds like the cumulus clouds and cumulonimbus clouds are under this category.
As can be seen above, clouds are not only classified according to their altitude but also according to their shape. Below are the said classifications, their characteristics, and what they mean with regard to the weather.
Cumulus clouds are fluffy with rounded tops with dark flat bottoms. They typically form during sunny days when the air is warm. As the warm air rises and combines with the cold air above, water vapor cools and condenses thereby resulting to the formation of this type of clouds. The presence of cumulus clouds in the sky means that the weather will generally be fair. If you peek outside your window and see these clouds, then it’s time to bring out those hiking boots and go for a walk in the nearest trail.
However, be on the lookout for any changes in these cloud formations. If you see cumulus clouds growing vertically, this means that they are turning into cumulonimbus clouds, which then means that the weather has turned and you should rush back into the house before heavy rains start to fall.
Cirrus clouds are high clouds and have a thin and wispy appearance. These clouds are primarily composed of ice crystals that resulted from the water droplets being frozen.
The presence of cirrus clouds can both indicate fair weather or otherwise. A single cirrus cloud in the sky means that you should enjoy fair weather during your trip. However, if you’re out backpacking and see several of these clouds hovering above you’ll want to bring out your waterproof jacket and backpack rain covers because the weather will soon deteriorate.
Aside from the weather, cirrus clouds are also an indication of the direction that the wind is blowing. This is because the cloud wisps always point to the direction of the wind’s movement.
Altocumulus clouds are small patches of clouds or cloudlets and exist in the shape of rounded clumps. However, altocumulus clouds also come in other shapes. For instance, the altocumulus lenticularis (also called lenticular clouds) sport a lens-like shape. Some even describe them as looking like spaceships. Then there’s the altocumulus catellanus which look like towers and are taller than they are wide.
Because of their varied shapes, altocumulus clouds can also indicate different types of weather. The altocumulus catellanus for instance can lead to the formation of cumulonimbus clouds which then means a potential thunderstorm, whereas the altocumulus stratiformis, the most common type of altocumulus clouds, sometimes signal the onset of cooler temperatures.
Cirrostratus clouds form high up in the sky and have a thin sheet-like or wispy appearance. In general, these clouds can cover the entire sky. An interesting feature of these particular cloud type is that the sun or the moon can shine through them, primarily because of their thinness. When this happens, a halo appears around the sun or the moon which is caused by the light hitting the ice crystals in the clouds.
Cirrostratus clouds means that there is a large amount of moisture in the upper atmosphere. Because of this, cirrostratus clouds may signal the onset of rain in the next hours.
Altostratus clouds are flat and have a gray or blue-gray color. Like cirrostratus clouds, altostratus clouds also cover the whole sky. They are also thin enough to let the sun or the moon shine through, but will make them appear fuzzy.
The presence of altostratus clouds often indicate the coming of continuous rains or snow. They form ahead of a warm front, or appear together with cumulus clouds during a cold front.
Stratus clouds are belong to the low clouds category. They are typically uniform in shape and have a gray color. Stratus clouds form as cold air passes over warm air which often happens during the colder months of the year.
With regard to weather, stratus clouds often means an impending light rains or drizzle. Also, you can expect the temperature to drop.
Cumulonimbus clouds are large clouds with vertical growth that can go up to eleven miles high. These dense clouds have a dark bottom and a flat top like a table or an anvil.
Cumulonimbus clouds indicate the onset of bad weather, which is one reason why they are also called thunderstorm clouds. Along with rumbling thunder you can expect heavy rains to start falling. Aside from that, cumulonimbus clouds can also signal the coming of different kinds of different bad weather like hail storms or snow showers. So if you see these clouds overhead while you’re out camping, it’s time to start packing up your camping tent and head home.
Nimbostratus clouds dark featureless layer of clouds that can cover the entire sky. They are also pretty dense, so much so that they can completely block out the sun. If you’ve been planning a backpacking trip and see these clouds in the sky, you’ll want to empty your backpacking backpack and stay at home instead because it’s going to be a gloomy and wet day.
Nimbostratus clouds are often associated with frontal systems, so expect persistent heavy rain or snow for the next few days. Once they clouds start to break up, that is a sign that the cold front is passing and you can soon expect fair weather.
Putting It All Together
So there you have the different types of clouds. Although there are several other classifications out there these are the ones that you will commonly see and should be familiar with as an outdoorsy person. So now let’s try to put all these knowledge we’ve just gained into practical use.
First, whether you are still planning to go out for the day (maybe go for a hike or a stroll) or are already outside and wondering if you should head home, look at the sky and check for clouds. If there are no clouds, then you can expect the weather to be fair.
Second, if there are clouds in the sky, then the next step would be to identify what type of clouds they are.
If you can see the sun or the moon through them, then you’re probably looking at high altitude clouds. If they are dense, then you can expect bad weather coming in a day or two. Look at the clouds’ movement as well. If they are moving slowly, then you have a slow moving front and possibly won’t arrive in a day. If it appears to move fast, then expect the weather to turn really quick.
If you can’t see through the clouds, then you’re probably looking at middle altitude or low altitude clouds. If you’re looking at middle altitude clouds, prepare for rain within the day.
On the other hand, if you’re looking at low altitude clouds, determine what type of clouds are present. If you see white and fluffy clouds, then you can expect the weather to be fair. If they look like rows of dark, lumpy clouds then you’ll want to keep an eye out because the weather may turn bad really quick.
Globo Surf Overview
The art of predicting weather with clouds is an ancient practice but one that still works up to now, although not so many people know how to do so these days. However, if you’re an avid sailor, a camper, or simply an outdoorsy person overall, identifying the different kinds of clouds and what type of weather they bring is a skill worth learning. Even if you already have a weather app in your phone, understanding clouds, their features and characteristics is still an essential skill for anyone who loves spending time outdoors.
- Observing Clouds and Weather, Science Learn