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Cloud and Weather Watching by Breazy.com

Clouds play a significant role in the weather we experience, carrying moisture that will eventually fall as rain, sleet, or snow. Atmospheric conditions determine what types of clouds we see in the sky, making clouds a useful indicator of what type of weather is likely in the near future. Learning to identify different types of clouds can be a useful step toward becoming a weather-spotter, or it can just teach you about what you're seeing next time you look at the sky.

Clouds are named for their characteristics, which can include their shape, their altitude, and how heavy with moisture they are. For instance, "cirrus" comes from the Latin word for a lock of hair, which resembles their shape. "Cumulus" comes from the Latin word for "heap." And "stratus" derives from the Latin for "spread out," describing a layer of clouds spread all over the sky.

Higher-Level Clouds

These clouds' bases form more than 16,500 feet above sea level. Most of these clouds consist primarily of ice crystals.

  • Cirrus: These are thin clouds that spread across the sky when there are high winds. A few of these clouds indicates fair weather, but a large number may indicate a change in the weather in the next 24 hours.
  • Cirrocumulus: Cirrocumulus clouds look like fish scales. They usually indicate fair weather, but when they're found in hurricane zones, a storm may be approaching.
  • Cirrostratus: These clouds are like thin sheets, and their appearance is pale white. They appear between 12 and 24 hours before rain or snow arrives.

Mid-Level Clouds

Mid-level clouds' bases can form between 6,500 and 23,000 feet above sea level. They are mostly made up of water droplets but can also contain ice crystals. They often appear as sheets.

  • Altocumulus: These clouds look like rippled, fluffy layers and are made of water droplets. They don't usually produce rain.
  • Altostratus: Altostratus clouds look like a haze in the sky, and they consist of both ice and liquid water. When you see them, rain or snow is soon to follow.

Lower-Level Clouds

The bases of lower-level clouds form at less than 6,500 above sea level. Most are made of droplets of liquid water.

  • Cumulus: These fluffy clouds look like cotton balls, and they're fun to watch, as they come in many different shapes. The weather forecast will be fair and dry when you see these.
  • Cumulonimbus: The bases of these clouds are dark, and they can be shaped like towers or mountains. When you see cumulonimbus clouds, stormy weather is on the way: They can precede extreme weather such as heavy rain, snow, hail, thunderstorms, hurricanes, and tornadoes.
  • Stratus: These clouds are dull gray and spread across the sky. They don't usually make much rain or snow, and they can sometimes look like fog at higher altitudes.
  • Stratocumulus: Stratocumulus clouds look much like cumulus ones, but they're darker, flatter, and closer together. They appear in dry weather, but it probably won't last: A storm is likely to be on the way.
  • Nimbostratus: These clouds are thick and gray, forming a blanket that can block the sun. Nimbostratus clouds usually produce rain or snow.

Cloud Streets

When you see cumulus clouds that have formed in a row or a series of rows, these are known as "cloud streets." Cloud streets form parallel to the direction that the wind is blowing. If they form in curved lines, this indicates a change in wind direction.

How Can You Become a Weather-Spotter?

Learning to identify the different types of clouds and what they mean can help you become a volunteer weather-spotter. Weather-spotters provide reports to the National Weather Service to help warn the public about dangerous weather.

If you're interested in doing this, you can sign up with the NWS Skywarn program. Anyone can sign up, and the NWS provides free training to help you learn what you need to know. You'll learn about how to spot severe storms as well as how to collect data on them and report it to the NWS. You'll also get an ID number to attach to your reports.

Additional Cloud and Weather-Watching Information

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