Most of us have fantasized while admiring clouds; but have you ever wondered why clouds float? As long as the cloud is warmer than the outside air around it, it will float.
The height of the cloud in the atmosphere depends on the temperature and amount of water vapor of the rising air. For example, drier air has to rise higher to cool enough to start condensation.
Cumulus clouds can grow into cumulonimbus clouds which are larger and often spread out in the shape of an anvil or plume. Cumulonimbus may produce heavy rain, lightning, severe and strong winds, hail, microbursts, and even tornadoes.
Clouds are grouped by their shape and by their height in the atmosphere.
The characteristics of clouds are established by the elements available, including amount of water vapor, temperatures at the height, wind, mountains and other air masses.
The names of clouds come from Latin words that describe their characteristics. The main types of clouds are:
- Cirrus means “curl” or “fringe”,
- Nimbus means “rain-bearing”,
- Stratus means “layer”,
- Cumulus means “heap” or “pile”
Cumulus clouds are probably the most recognized clouds. These clouds form below 6,000 feet but in some extreme cases they can be in altitudes as high as 39,000 feet! They look like white, fluffy cotton balls. The reason cumulus appear fluffy is because bubbles of air, called thermals, linger in the cloud.
In mountainous areas, clouds may form lines at an angle to the wind. Wave clouds do not move downwind as clouds usually do, but remain fixed in position relative to the obstruction that forms them, for example: mountains.
Lenticular clouds form on the downwind side of mountains and are lens-shaped. Wind blows most types of clouds across the sky, but lenticular clouds seem to stay in one place.
Strato-cumulus clouds form in altitudes below 6,000 feet. Below photo shows a low layer of strato-cumulus clouds spreading the remains of larger cumulus clouds.
Alto-cumulus clouds differ from Strato-cumulus because they are slightly smaller. One easy way to determine if the cloud is alto-cumulus or strato-cumulus is to hold your hand up to the sky, alto-cumulus clouds are about the size of a human thumb nail while strato-cumulus clouds are the size of a fist.
Stratus clouds belong to the low cloud (surface-2000m, below 6,000 ft) group. They are uniformed layered, gray in color and can cover most or all of the sky.
Stratus clouds can look like a fog and are associated with overcast weather. Only drizzle comes from stratus clouds, if heavier rain falls then their title is changed to nimbostratus.
The most common of the high clouds is Cirrus. These clouds are composed of ice and are thin, curly, wispy, feathery clouds.
Cirrus clouds are usually white and predict fair weather even though they are so cold and composed entirely of ice. They are the fastest moving cloud because the wind current is very strong at that high altitude.
Cumulonimbus clouds belong to the thunderstorm clouds or clouds with vertical growth group. Reaching heights to 10km, high winds will flatten the top of a cumulonimbus cloud out into an anvil-like shape.
Cumulonimbus clouds, also called Storm Clouds, cause heavy rain, lightning, hail, snow and tornadoes.
Cumulus clouds, which indicate low-level atmospheric moisture often precede storms. In this picture of a Cumulonimbus cloud or thunderstorm cloud, much lightning was occurring with the winds increasing rapidly.
Mammatus clouds are pouches of clouds that hang underneath the base of a cloud. They are usually seen with cumulonimbus clouds that produce very strong storms.
Mammatus clouds look like a field of tennis balls, melons, or like female breasts. That is where the name comes from.
Cirrostratus clouds form in the 18,000 feet and above. The refraction of light by the ice crystals in the Cirrostratus clouds cause a halo around the sun or moon.
You can not see the halo when this happens but the sun or moon will be less visible because the Cirrostratus clouds condense too much for clear visibility. Clouds are usually white and predict fair weather. These clouds often follow Cirrus clouds therefore Cirrostratus clouds are indicators of good weather.