Category: Cloud of the Month

Every month, we choose one of our favourite photographs from the Cloud Gallery to become our Cloud of the Month.

Virga (October ’05)

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(Click image to enlarge) (Image © Mike Rubin)

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Those unfamiliar with the habits of our fluffy friends will claim that it never snows on warm, clear, sunny days. Of course, a cloudspotter knows that they are talking complete and utter nonsense.

In fact, high clouds often produce snowfalls, which evaporate in the warmer, drier air below, well before reaching the ground. When this is the case, they exhibit supplementary features, known as ‘virga’. These dangling tendrils of ice crystals (or droplets) often have a wavy appearance as they fall through the varying wind currents.

Sometimes virga, like the handsome specimen shown above, can hang in the air after the clouds that created them have given up the ghost. Other times, they can dangle below their cloud bodies like a school of quivering jellyfish (see the cloud gallery image). Luckily for glider pilots, hang gliders and little birds, virga do not sting.

Cirrocumulus (September ’05)

sept_cc_high.jpg(Click image to enlarge) (Image © Chris Dolley)

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Wizened mariners pay careful heed to dramatic displays of the cirrocumulus cloud, which they refered to as a mackerel sky. It can be a precursor of storms at sea, warning them to batten the hatches and stow the mainsal.

More often than not, however, this high cloud appears in less extensive patches – usually in the company of its relatives the cirrus and cirrostratus.

The term mackerel sky is often erroneously used to refer to this cloud’s lower cousin, the altocumulus, whose elements, or ‘cloudlets’, are larger. Cloudspotters can distinguish the two by a simple rule of thumb. If the cloudlets directly above appear smaller than the width of a finger held at arm’s length then they can be confident they are looking at a cirrocumulus.

Care should be taken with the use of this rule, however, for the cirrocumulus is a beautiful and uncommon cloud, to which cloudspotters wouldn’t want to give the impression that they are making a rude gesture.

Cumulus (July ’05)

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(Click image to enlarge) (Image © Laura Billings)

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If the average person were to close their eyes and think of a cloud, chances are they would picture this little fellow, for the cumulus feels like the most generic of all the cloud types. It is a fair-weather specimen, born on the invisible thermals of air that rise from the ground on a sunny day.

As any six-year-old child will tell you, cumulus are the most comfortable of all the clouds to sit on. They are like gentle tufts of cotton wool on which dreamers can kick back and shoot the breeze. This fact was not missed by the Italian painters of the Baroque period who rarely depicted a saint or an angel without a comfy cumulus cloud for them to recline on.

Whilst there are many rare and fancy cloud types vying for our attention, cloudspotters should never forget to appreciate the light-hearted cumulus. He may be common, but how many other clouds can claim to be the sofas of the saints?

Mamma (June ’05)

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(Click image to enlarge) (Image © Bill Lowe)

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With her pendulous udders, this mother’s cooking up a storm. She’s known as the mammatus cloud (mamma is the Latin for ‘breast’) and you can find her hanging out in the company of any one of a number of clouds. She is at her most impressive, however, when she is wed to the mighty cumulonimbus thundercloud.

Mammatus can form on the underside of the enormous anvil that often spreads out at the top of a cumulonimbus. They appear when the top of the anvil cools by losing some of its heat into the atmosphere above. Parts of it sink into warmer, moister air below, which forms the cloud droplets that make up the mammatus.

When they are plump and full, like the buxom lass above, mammatus tell you that there is a major thunderstorm nearby – one that is big enough to send most people running for mummy.

Pileus (May ’05)

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(Click image to enlarge) (Image © Justin Moore)

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Enlightened meteorologists will tell you that the ‘pileus’ is not so much a cloud as it is a cloud haircut. It is a supercooled-droplet bouffant, worn exclusively by the fashionable cumulus family. If you keep your eyes to the sky, every once in a while you’ll notice a proud cumulonimbus thunder cloud or his younger brother, the cumulus congestus, wearing this dashing haircut.

The pileus can form when a towering cumulus, like the suave model shown above, is pushing a moist layer of air upwards as he grows. If conditions are right, this elevation can be enough for the moist layer to cool and form into droplets, appearing as a smooth cloud over the cumulus congestus’ puffy summit.

But cloud fashion is more transient than most and, as the cumulus cloud continues to grow, his head soon pokes through the top of the pileus cloud. Within a few short minutes, it has slipped to his shoulders, leaving the poor fellow with all the indignity of a lopsided wig.

Lenticularis (April ’05)

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(Click image to enlarge) (Image © John Lamb)

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The Altocumulus lenticularis is known affectionately by glider pilots as a ‘lennie’. It is an orographic cloud formation, which appears in mountainous regions as air, forced upwards over the range, cools and sheds its moisture. If it so happens that the wind takes on a wave-like oscillation in the lee of the mountain, this handsome formation can form at the crest of each wave, resulting in a line of huge shimmering white discs.

Lennies look like enormous flying saucers. Have aliens parked beside New Zealand’s Mount Cook for a cup of hot chocolate before the long ride home through the Milky Way? No, they’ve just come to remind us how clouds can be vehicles of the imagination, hovering silently in the rarefied air between crest and crag.

Stratus (March ’05)

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(Click image to enlarge) (Image © David Fuller)

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After the cold, grey months of January and February, many in Britain will feel that they have seen quite enough of the overcast skies of the stratus. But they should not be too hasty in complaining about this layer cloud.

Remember that the stratus is unique amongst the cloud family: she is the only one to come knocking at our door in the form of swirling fogs and mists. Who can turn away such a mysterious, silent seductress? The expanse of the heavens feels all the more satisfying when it is revealed, little-by-little, as she teasingly removes her veils.

Cumulonimbus (February ’05)

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(Click image to enlarge) (Image © Wendy Rogers)

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This proud cumulonimbus is the King of Clouds. Stretching around ten kilometres into the sky, he harnesses the power of ten Hiroshima-sized bombs. It is he – the tallest of all clouds – that we ultimately thank for the phrase ‘to be on cloud nine’, for he was originally classified as number nine in the list of cloud types published in the International Cloud Atlas of 1896. This proud fellow has taken on a beautiful anvil shape (known as cumulonimbus incus), as the ice crystals of his upper reaches spread out at the tropopause – the thermal lid to the region of atmosphere in which clouds mostly form. But don’t let his handsome chiselled features deceive you. He is a ferocious beast who’ll terrify young ladies with his thunder, lightning and hailstones.

Contrails (January ’05)

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A couple of contrails* blowing an air kiss to their friends in the Cloud Appreciation Society. Born at 40,000ft, these cheeky clouds aren’t in a hurry to go anywhere while they spread into gentle feathered cirrus layers called cirrostratus. If you watch their locks grow long in the wind, you can be sure these lovely ladies share a little secret – that rain will probably come in a day or two.

(* Contrails are the long straight man-made clouds that form behind high-altitude aircraft)

Altostratus (August ’05)

Every Cloud Has its Day

Cloudspotters tend to think of the altostratus as a boring cloud. Indeed, it is a featureless, mid-level layer, which tends to give the sky a washed-out, overcast appearance. When it is thick, it is little more than a grey blanket that leads to prolonged light rain or snow. Much of the time, there seems little to recommend the altostratus.

But every cloud has its day – or rather, its time of day – and for this cloud, it is at sunrise and sunset. As you can see from the beautiful example above, that is when the altostratus dons her fancy clothes to paint the sky red. Her gentle undulations become visible for all to admire, her delicate surface awash with ruby hues.

She may be plain by day but, for fleeting moments at dawn and day’s end, the altostratus has a beauty to match any one of her more flamboyant cloud cousins.

Image © Irene, East Queensland, Australia