From the ABC 7 Weather team

Types of clouds: Which kind is your favorite?

July 17, 2012 - 05:00 AM
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We see new ones everyday... clouds.  Of all the different types of clouds, which ones are your favorite to see in the sky?

I don't know about you, but one of my favorite things to do is look up into the sky to see the different types of clouds.  Sometimes the clouds produce snow, rain, or storms.  Other times they are few and far between.  My personal favorite are the ones that look like fun shapes!  So of all the clouds, which ones are your favorite?

Here's a quick overview of the different types of clouds.  Keep in mind, these are just the basics.  There are even more than just the ones described below, but this will get you started.

Clouds are classified based on their height and appearance from the ground.  There are low, middle, and high level clouds. 

Low Clouds: Stratus

Stratus Clouds

Stratus clouds are usually found below 6,500 ft.  Stratus clouds are generally uniform and flat and cover the entire sky.  They are the type of clouds you see on a gray day.

Mid Level Clouds:  "Alto" Clouds - Altostratus and Altocumulus

Altostratus Clouds
Altocumulus Clouds

"Alto" is used as the prefix to clouds that are found in the mid level of the atmosphere - generally 6,500 to 20,000 ft.  They can be associated with stratus or cumulus clouds (definition farther down). 

High Clouds:  Cirrus

Cirrus Clouds

Cirrus clouds are the highest clouds in the sky.  They are near 20,000 ft in the atmosphere and look thin and whispy.  These clouds are made up mainly of ice crystals because they are so high up in the sky.  The prefix "Cirro" can be added before stratus or cumulus if they fit multiple characteristics. 

Vertically Developed Clouds: Cumulus

Cumulus Clouds

Cumulus clouds are thick, puffy clouds that sometimes resemble cotton balls.  With the right imagination, they can take on many different shapes and figures.  Cumulus clouds can range from near the ground to above 50,000 ft.  You may hear forecasters refer to fair-weather cumulus clouds that are associated with dry weather, but these clouds can also lead to thunderstorms.

So where do the rain clouds come into play?  Well, if you add the prefix "nimbo" or suffix "nimbus" to one of these cloud types it then is referred to as a rain cloud.  For example, if a cumulus cloud produces a thunderstorm, the cloud would then be a cumulonimbus.  Remember those low lying stratus clouds?  If it starts to rain from them, it is now a nimbostratus cloud. 

Cumulonimbus Cloud

Wondering where the names of clouds came from?  We have Englishman Luke Howard (1773-1864) to thank for our cloud classification.  Before 1800, clouds were referred to as "essences" floating in the air.  Howard went on to published a book titled "On The Modification Of Clouds" around 1802 or 1803.  The names of the clouds are based off Latin terms.  Cumulus comes from the word "heap", stratus - from the Latin word "layers", and cirrus - meaning "curl" in Latin. 

Here's a great link from The National Weather service on cloud classification and characteristics

Take a look at this timelapse from a summer thunderstorm in Arlington, VA courtesy of our WeatherBug camera at Washington Lee High School.  Can you name some of the clouds seen in here?  Have fun with it!

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