Cloud Formations and What They Mean: Study Sheet

Different cloud shapes tell us what kind of weather is on the way. Here is a list of the shapes and where they occur in the atmosphere:

Clouds that form above 20,000 feet above earth are:

  • Cirrus – wispy, delicate looking clouds that are the sign of an approaching warm front
  • Cirrocumulus – a layer of tiny individual clouds, which look like scales on a fish, (hence the term mackerel sky) indicating unsettled weather.
  • Cirrostratus – an opaque (almost see-through) sheet or layer of clouds, usually indicating rain.

Clouds that form between 7,000 and 20,000 feet above earth are:

  • Cumulus – puffy cotton ball or cauliflower shaped clouds, indicating fair weather
  • Altocumulus – a small band of rolled patches of clouds, with a distinct shaded area, which may indicate thundershowers on a warm, humid day.
  • Altostratus – a uniformly light gray sheet of clouds, indicating continuous rain or snow.

Clouds that form closest to the Earth’s surface, below 7,000 feet include:

  • Stratus – a uniformly flat, horizontal, layered cloud, most often associated with fog.
  • Nimbostratus – a formless, uniformly dark gray layer of clouds that produce light to moderate precipitation.
  • Stratocumulus – a lumpy layer of clouds varying from light to dark gray, that typically produces drizzle or intermittent rain either when bad weather is on the way or when the weather is just about to clear.

One cloud formation that grows vertically and extends beyond the troposphere beyond 20,000 feet is:

  • Cumulonimbus – these are thunder clouds, which can form as individual clouds or as a line of towers (called a squall line), and are associated with severe weather, including hail, lightning, tornadoes, as well as rain and snow.

Follow up challenge:

  • Keep a cloud journal for 7-10 days. Look at the sky every morning, noon, and just before sunset. What do the clouds look like? What is the weather like?
  • If you kept a cloud journal in spring, keep another cloud journal in summer, autumn and winter. Do you notice seasonal patterns? What other observations can you make?

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